Sunday, August 30, 2015

US Army

Chapter Four

Wherein I am drafted, make the best of a bad job, learn some new skills (generally useless in polite society), help train US Special Forces in the North Carolina woods, whilst learning how to play Hearts and eventually spend my last Christmas at home for a few years.

1968 was a bad year. Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination for President and the November election. Vietnamese villagers were massacred at My Lai. Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June. Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping magnate on the private island of Skorpios – ending the Camelot myth. Mayor Richard Daley opened the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and days of rioting followed.

My job at Western Electric in Lee's Summit, Missouri was just the pause before the storm. My local draft board reassigned me 1A quite quickly. It was just a matter of time until I was drafted. I went to work. I came home.

I opened an envelope on February 14th – St Valentine's Day. It was not a card from a secret admirer.

The President of the United States

To; Malcolm Rodney Kauffman

Greeting: Your are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States and to report to . . .

My service would begin on March 8, 1968.

The OM drove me to the induction center near Union Station in Kansas City and gave me the benefit of his insight and advice. “Never volunteer for anything except get paid or go home!”

Not for the first time, I didn't completely follow his instructions.

Being inducted was an experience. Because it was you, if felt unique. Actually you shared the experience with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of your fellow citizens. The over-riding quality is one of dumb resignation. Everything was all so new and beyond everyone's experience. I had never before been away from home and family for more that a few days. Years stretched ahead. Uncertainty was the order of the day.

We had a physical examination. It was cursory. I distinctly remember a hippy type sitting on a bench in the middle of the large room. He was as naked a jay bird. He looked distinctly unhappy.

We raised our right hands. We swore the oath.

"I, Malcolm Rodney Kauffman, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

That's it. Your are in the Army. You are now subject to the UCMJ. The personal freedom you have long enjoyed is now subsumed in the greater good.

We learned the first maxim of military service. You spend most of the time standing in line waiting for something to happen. There is an over-whelming desire to get on with it. To get started. The sooner we get started the sooner we will get out! Years stretch ahead.

I think I had a chance to call home to tell them that we were being put on a train to Louisiana. Actually, It was quite a pleasant trip - considering what awaited us. We were fed in the dining car and had a sleeper to ourselves.

We arrived at the United States Army Training Center (Infantry), Fort Polk, Louisiana late the next afternoon. We learned the second rule of military service. You stand where you are told and get your hands out of your pockets!. It was raining. We got wet. It was all so odd. I'm sure not one of us had ever purposely stood in the rain for hours before. Now we did. Eventually we were shown to barracks. We made beds. Because everyone was at this stage a stranger there was little talking. We were fed. To enter the mess hall you had to shout out your Service Number. I was simply US 56429974. The first stage in making you a soldier had already happened and you hadn't really noticed. You were now just a number.

Time moved inordinately slowly. Stand around and wait was the watchword. Some things made an impression on me. Firstly, we could not wait to get out of our civilian clothes and into OD green. Without the uniform you felt an outsider and distinctly out of place. Within a few days we had our kit issued and we looked like soldiers – though we had little idea what that actually meant.

About this time, I took stock. Two things made an immediate impression on me. Firstly, at every opportunity trainees were confronted with the eventual destination of trainees at the US Army Training Center (Infantry). It was the Infantry. Walls were adorned with the unit shoulder patches of the combat infantry divisions. 82Nd Airborne, 101st Airborne, 1st Infantry Div, 4th Infantry Div, 25th Infantry Div, 1st Cavalry (Airmobile), 9th Infantry Div, 173rd Airborne Brigade, 198th Light Infantry Brigade - the wall was certainly colourful. There was little doubt where the vast majority of trainees would be ending up – in the Infantry. Secondly, I observed trainees doing Infantry AIT (Advanced Individual Training). It did not look like much fun – anything but.

From Wikipedia - “In 1962, Fort Polk began converting to an advanced infantry training (AIT) center. A small portion of Fort Polk is filled with dense, jungle-like vegetation, so this, along with Louisiana's heat, humidity and precipitation (similar to Southeast Asia) helped commanders acclimatize new infantry soldiers in preparation for combat in Vietnam. This training area became known as Tigerland. For the next 12 years, more soldiers were shipped to Vietnam from Fort Polk than from any other American training base. For many, Fort Polk was the only state-side Army post they saw before assignment overseas. Many soldiers reported to basic training at Fort Polk and stayed on post for infantry training at Tigerland before being assigned to infantry line companies in Vietnam.” Nuff said?

Therefore, when after only a few days in the Army I was presented with an opportunity I had to consider it. If I would care to commit to three years instead of two, I would be able to choose a much more interesting MOS (Military Occupational Speciality – essentially a job description). It was a big decision and I had to make it on my own. I couldn't call my Mom and Dad, I couldn't see the Chaplain, I had to make up my mind right now.

I decided to accept the offer of the Signal Corps, MOS 72B20 – Communication Center Specialist. After basic training I would go to the Southeastern Signal School at Ft Gordon, Georgia. From there I had orders to go to Ft Meade, Virginia, though this did not, as it happens, happen.

The group I came down with on the train from KC and was with for two or three days, left for a Basic Training Company. I was delayed by paperwork sorting out my change of status. Eventually, I was sent to Co D, Third Battalion, Second Basic Combat Training Brigade.

Things began to happen fast. First our kit bags were unceremoniously dumped on the ground and all the cigarettes and candy bars confiscated. We repacked them. Next we went to the barracks where we learned to make beds (again) and clean the latrines. (Latrines are a big shock to the civilian system. For most of our adult lives when you needed to sit down and go to the toilet it was a rather private affair. Not in the Army. There were plenty of toilets with bowls, but no partitions between them. Get used to it!)

Training began. Because most newly inducted soldiers were overweight, the diet was designed to thin them out a bit. Before you could get to the mess hall door there were over 100 monkey bars to negotiate. Fall off and you start over. I soon learned to eat everything that was offered. And, I was still hungry at all times.

On day two I was in a meeting room learning that I had been selected as a squad leader. Explanation? I had finished two years of college. That was enough to make you a leader. (The bonus was as squad leader I was exempt from KP or Guard Duty.)

A typical day began with a five mile run in formation before breakfast. After breakfast some PT (physical training). Maybe an hour in the classroom learning first aid or how to strip a M14 was followed by more PT and then lunch (after negotiating the bars again).

Afternoon – more PT, more drill, some more PT and then go to bed – if you were lucky.

We learned new skills. How to march. How to shoot. How to fight. How to kill. All the training is easily conflated into these simple area. It lasts for eight weeks.

Highlights? CBR training – you get to smell tear gas and chlorine. Pugil sticks – you get to smash other people without really injuring them. PT test – our company averaged in the 480's – 500 is perfect. A cherry pie liberated from the mess hall by someone in our barracks who shared. Firing the M14 - ours were so old I swear you could hear the bullets ricocheting down the barrel as they left. Also, we got free haircuts (very short) and we also got paid. I just checked, it was $102 a month. That's about it.

After six weeks we got a weekend pass. I went with a buddy whose family had come down to Louisiana and got to stay in a motel in Leesville. Heaven. Real food. A Coke. Air-conditioning.

Finally, it was over and we were put on a bus to who knows where. The drill sergeant said not to say goodbye, just go -so we did.

We drove to Barksdale AFB where we were put on a plane. First time for everything. Uncle Sam transported us to Georgia – free of charge. I distinctly remember watching the rain pour out of the sky to the strains of Rainy Night in Georgia by Brook Benton – quite poetic.

The United States Army Southeastern Signal School, Ft Gordon, Georgia is near Augusta, Georgia.

The Communications Center Specialist course lasted, as I recall, about 12 weeks. I managed to skip two weeks of it because I could already type 35 words per minute. We learned to operate the Army's signal equipment – ranging from the PRC -25 radio -

“The AN/PRC-25 (AKA “Prick-25″) has a long and successful history. In 1967 General Creighton Abrams, deputy commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam called the PRC-25 “The most important tactical item in Vietnam today”.

to machines which encoded messages. They were old. Enigma old, and they worked on pretty much the same principle.

Ft Gordon was unexciting. I did manage to get into Augusta and hire a motorcycle for a bit of a ride. Why I did not make it anywhere near the Augusta National Golf Course is a never-ending mystery to me. Maybe it was the heat. Georgia is hot in May, June and July. - very hot.

I did my share of KP. It was quite an interesting system. You were rostered for KP and someone came to the barracks and woke you up at about 04:30. You raced to the mess hall so as to get the best job. It was first come, first served. I liked DRO (dining room orderly) best. You made sure the silverware was clean and stocked up, same for condiments. You cleared the tables and wiped them down between meals. If I was not quick enough for DRO I would choose Back Sink. Pots and pans, really. (Here my extensive experience as a “pearl-diver” came in real handy!)

Training took place Monday to Friday, so we had weekends “off”. Sort of. Saturday mornings were work details, i.e. policing the area. Litter-picking! Still we could laze about the barracks if we wished. You could also go to the movies on post. Magic. At the end of training I was promoted to PFC and given orders for Ft Bragg, North Carolina. (What happened to Ft Meade is an Army mystery) I was assigned to the 35Th Signal Company, Third Army. Fortunately I got a three week leave to visit the home folks before reporting. By late August I was at Bragg.

I confess this was my worst time in the Army. We literally had nothing to do and nothing to look forward to. Most days we went to the motor pool and messed about with the signal vans. We did extensive guard duty. Something was drastically wrong with our mess hall. We almost never had decent grub and often had no milk for days on end. (Later, I heard that the mess sergeant was selling our grub off post, but I'm not sure if it was ever proved.)

The only excitement was in September when we were assigned to help train the U.S. Special Forces. An elaborate training exercise was planned involving us as pseudo-guerillas tasked with receiving a Green Beret team and planning and executing operations in the North Carolina woods. Units of the 82nd Airborne from Bragg would try to find us and stop us from blowing up bridges, etc. (Not with real explosives I may add for the safety of the farmers of North Carolina)

We decamped to the woods, led by Sergeant Gamble – the most aptly named soldier I ever met. S/Sgt Gamble liked to play cards – particularly Hearts. So we spent the first week of the exercise messing about in the woods and playing cards. We had very old C Rations for grub. The weather was excellent and we were having a break from military discipline with only Sgt Gamble in charge. No officers at all.

Somehow we conned the Army into transporting us to the nearest town for a bit of R&R. Robins, North Carolina did, at least, have a movie theatre. Maybe a Woolworth's as well. The citizenry was ill-prepared to be “invaded” by some smelly soldiers in civilian clothes carrying M14's and bayonets. Someone told us of a party nearby and we got invited. After checking out the local talent we were brought back down to earth. Someone showed up with the news that two local lads had just been killed in a car accident. We left and returned to the woods.

It was too good to last, of course. The exercise started. We laid out a pattern of burning oil lamps in a field. We heard the drone of aircraft. We thought they had gone past the drop zone. They had but the fools jumped anyway. The Green Berets jumped and landed all over the place, in trees, in streams, in the swamp, on a road – one poor klutz broke his ankle. Anyway, we gathered them together and set off for the camp we had constructed deep in the woods.

We pretended to be interested in the military matters so beloved of the Special Forces. We mooched about in the woods for about two weeks simulating guerilla raids. We “ambushed” columns. We “blew-up” bridges. We “captured” installations. Great fun. Strangely, some Canadian Special Forces were participating in this exercise. Not a bad bunch compared to the gung-ho types in the green beanies.

We did obtain some insight into the difficulties encountered by our comrades in SE Asia. Despite having a whole division with air support, the 81nd Airborne never got close to us. We could hear and see them over the canopy of trees but they never spotted us. We were visited and congratulated for not getting caught. Our Green Beret guests were super-pleased.

Too soon it was over and it was back to reality. For entertainment at Bragg we played football in the “company street” - that portion of sandy scrub between the barracks. I got whacked from behind whilst running a side-line route and was smashed into a bit of concrete sticking out of the sand. The edge of the concrete punched a hole in my left knee. I went to the company HQ. After some wrangling and nonsense about a self-inflicted injury they agreed to transport me to the base hospital. I got the wound cleaned and some stitches. Somehow I had to find my own way back.

I was tasked with returning to the base hospital in a couple of weeks to get the stitches out.

I messed up – as you do. After about ten days I decided to take the stitches out myself. It looked all healed up, so I cut the stitches and pulled them out. Next day I was playing football again and the wound opened up. I couldn't go back to the Company HQ and explain what happened, so I decided to sew it up again myself. I went to the PX and got some cotton thread, some hydrogen peroxide and some sewing needles. Applying a liberal dose of H2O2, I threaded the needle and began to sew. It didn't hurt. I kept applying liberal doses of Hydrogen Per and in about two more weeks cut the thread and removed it. Result – though I still have the scar!

1968 moved on. It got colder - even in NC. I remember huddling in the cab of a deuce and a half trying to keep warm whist pulling guard duty at the motor pool. By wedging myself in a particular position, I could just be woken up in time by the guard Jeep’s headlights as they approached, get out of the truck and look as if I had been assiduously doing my duty.

Sometime in November I was offered a transfer to Ft Hood, Texas. I volunteered, thinking that it couldn't be worse than Bragg. In some ways I was right.

The real bonus was I got leave over Christmas and did not have to report to Hood until the beginning of January 1969. Happy days!

More in Chapter Four – Part Deux

No comments: