The Northern California retirement community I live in has a club for just about everything, including a Veterans Club. The club puts out a monthly Bulleting that tells about the next meeting, has articles about events of previous wars and has a feature called a “Veteran’s Tale,” which is a kind of profile that includes the vet’s military service. I was dragooned into doing this last for a period of years as I’m known in the community to be a writer. I was rescued from this assignment by having surgery. Another vet took over and liked doing it so I gladly relinquished it to him. Recently, I myself was a subject of a “Veteran’s Tale” and this of course dredged up some memories of being in the military that I’d long since forgotten.
I didn’t go into the Army voluntarily. It was the Korean War (called a “police action” back then) and we still had a draft, not a volunteer Army as today. Unlike during the Vietnam War nobody I knew of tried to dodge the draft or fled to Canada. This was during the 1950’s, the rebellious 1960’s hadn’t yet happened, and if your number was called you went and, for most, I’d guess, hoped not to wind up in Korea. As for me, I hoped the war would end before I got out of college. But it didn’t. After graduating I had a summer job and waited and eventually I was called up. As I lived in the Bronx (with my parents) I took the subway down to Whitehall, where the induction center was. I pointed out to the Army doctor who supposedly gave me a medical exam that a year before I’d dislocated my knee playing handball but as I could walk I was fit to be drafted.
After induction, I rode a bus, along with my fellow recruits, to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, one of the most dismal places in the world, ironically named for the poet who wrote “Trees.” After a week or so there I was assigned to Fort Dix, also a dismal place in New Jersey, for eight weeks of basic training. I managed to survive this and, no thanks to the Army which originally wanted me to be a “field wireman”, that meant I’d probably be sent to Korea. I was assigned to clerk-typist school for another eight weeks. I had no idea what a field wireman was but imagined myself doing something on a telephone pole in Korea while bullets whizzed around my head. Being a clerk-typist, although not quite a dream assignment, sounded a little better.
After clerk-typist school I was assigned to Fort Benjamin Harris in Indianapolis, Indiana, to another school whose name I forget but which essentially taught us to be stenographers. The Army evidently thought this would take some time because, as I remember it, the school lasted four months. The thing I remember most about this school was that it was a cold winter in Indiana and when the furnace in our barracks wasn’t working, which was most of the time, we froze. After four months of schooling the big question was: where would we be assigned. Once again, Korea was a possibility, but almost everyone in our class was assigned to someplace in Europe. My assignment was to Seventh Army Headquarters in Stuttgart. Germany.
I think we were shipped over sometime in July. The food on the troopship, as might be expected, was terrible. The hammocks or bunks we slept in were in tiers of fours so that the one above you was right in front of your nose. However, the weather was good and we were able to spend most of our time on the deck playing a never-ending game of pinochle. So all in all the trip across the Atlantic wasn’t too bad. We were transported by train to our postings and I was assigned to work in the office of the Colonel of Ordnance. I suppose that I was more or less a secretary. When asked in my interview for the Veterans Bulletin what I did, I had a hard time answering. I suppose I filed things, answered the phone and did whatever else a secretary in a Colonel’s office did. I might even have taken some dictation with the shorthand I’d learned at Benjamin Harrison. I also had a lot of down time when I had nothing to do so did a lot of reading.
I don’t think I was a very good soldier. Looking back, I think it was that, to the Army, the ideal soldier was a kind of automaton. The Army didn’t like guys who were “individuals” and during basic training the sergeants continually yelled at us, “Whattaya think you are, an individual?” The trouble was, that was what I thought. One incident in basic I recall was when our platoon captain told me to do something and I answered, “Okay.” A good soldier would have said “Yes sir.” The captain ordered me to do ten, which meant ten push-ups. Fortunately, back then I was able to do them.
The Colonel I worked for was pretty forebearing. He didn’t mind that I read books when I had nothing else to do. That winter we had some kind of field exercise, which I’m sure wasn’t necessary. The German winter was even worse than the one back in Indiana and the only result of the exercise was that almost everyone came down with pneumonia. The Colonel had a camper which had two bunk beds and he asked me if I wanted to use the top one. I accepted his offer and so was one of the few who escaped getting sick. And when I was ready to be discharged and had to take my accumulated leave, I had about three weeks left and planned to go first to London, then to Paris, then to Rome and Florence. The only catch of course was I didn’t have the money to do this. The Colonel, perhaps seeing me as an individual, lent me the money.
As indicated above, one of the good things about being stationed in Germany, aside from it not being Korea, was that it gave you an opportunity to travel around Europe. On my first three-day pass I was going, of course, to Paris, because where else would you go, and besides I was going to meet some friends there. Unfortunately, the French chose this time for one of their periodic strikes so this was not to be. I asked around and was told that Lucerne, Switzerland would be a good place for a three-day pass. On the train there I met a young guy who happened to play the violin at the casino in Lucerne. I have no recollection of my short stay in Lucerne except that I did go to the casino and think I even won some money and had dinner with my violinist friend.
On my first extended leave, maybe a week, I’d been told that if you went to Frankfort you could hitch an airplane ride on MATS, which was the Military Air Transport Service. My friend Joe and I took the train to Frankfort, which was a nice trip along the Rhine, and found the MATS airport. The first airplane was going to Amsterdam and Joe chose to go there. The next plane was to London and there was no question that I’d wait for that one. After all, I’d studied literature in college, had read numerous English novels and felt I was already familiar with that city.
The MATS plane evidently didn’t go directly to London because I remember distinctly getting from France to England by a ferryboat. I remember distinctly because I met an American girl on the ferry. Somehow I made my way to London and stayed at a place for American soldiers. I’ve written elsewhere on what happened on my first day in London. I was looking in the window of a bookstore and suddenly there was a reflection of that American girl from the ferry. As I wrote, a Hollywood meeting. I went to London a second time and this time I stayed with the Lucerne violinist I’d kept in touch with, an improvement over that American soldier place. I brought him a couple of cartons of cigarettes for my rent.
On my last big trip I got to London again, this time being able to stay at the Strand hotel thanks to my Colonel’s loan. I also got a MATS flight to Paris and from there I traveled by train to Italy. I have no idea how I managed to keep in clean clothes during my trip but think I may have been able to wash them in a pension in Rome.
The troopship ride back to the United States wasn’t quite as good as the ride to Europe. The weather was terrible, the ocean choppy and everyone got seasick. After that it was back to Camp Kilmer, still dismal. I was offered a bonus to re-enlist in the Army but declined. I remember getting a taxi ride to the Bronx with three other soldiers, Negroes as they were called at that time, and I wondered how civilian life would be for them.
So, what did I learn from being in the Army? I learned how to shoot an M-1 rifle and even how to take it apart, clean it and put it back together, not of much use in civilian life. As a clerk-typist I may have improved my typing and I learned shorthand, which I never used afterward. In sum, I didn’t learn very much. But I did get a chance to travel. And being stationed in Stuttgart did have one important effect on my life. At Seventh Army Headquarters I met Ron F------, another soldier, who was a Cal Berkeley grad and who thought San Francisco was the greatest place in the world. When, after a couple of years in New York after my discharge, I decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a city that was dirty, noisy, crowded, expensive and in general inimical to civilized living, at Ron’s urging, I decided to try San Francisco. So that’s how I left New York for California and I’ve never regretted it. If I hadn’t been drafted into the Army; if I hadn’t been sent to Stuttgart; if I hadn’t met Ron. Well, who knows.
As a postscript, until recently I never received any benefits from having served in the military. This nation’s attitude toward the military has changed drastically in the last decade. During and after Vietnam veterans were derided and even spit upon. Now it’s obligatory for everyone to say, Thank you for your service. Princess cruises gave me a $100 shipboard credit for being a veteran. Some restaurants have given me a free meal on Veteran’s Day. It’s not much, but, after all these years, it’s something.