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FROM COLLEGE FRESHMAN TO ARMY DRAFTEE
June 12, 1942, through July 2, 1943
Like my boyhood friend Horace Jeffrey-we called him Jeff-I had a passion for airplanes. But unlike him, I had never made plans to go to college. To my father's dismay, I had not taken one of the high school math courses needed to enter college as an engineering student. I felt my talents were limited to drawing, commercial art, and playing the clarinet. In high school my plans for a career were to become either a commercial artist, or maybe a cartoonist, or maybe a jazz clarinetist, or possibly even an airline pilot.
It was on a June day that summer of 1942, just after I graduated from high school, that Dad invited me to join him downtown for lunch. He asked me if I would consider getting a college engineering degree-perhaps at his alma mater, Iowa State
College-and someday take over his small business. I painfully declined, suggesting that either of my two younger brothers would be a better choice when the time came. "Dad," I said, "you have many years before you may want to retire. And to be honest, if I went to college I would only be interested in aeronautical engineering, not mechanical. I'm not cut out to follow in your footsteps as a power plant sales engineer."
He understood, and from that point on it was tacitly understood that my brother Stanley would one day take over the business. But I was faced with a dilemma. On July 21, my eighteenth birthday, I would be eligible for the draft, and unless in college I was almost certain to be called up before the end of the year and sent to the dreaded infantry-in my mind the dirtiest, least glamorous military service imaginable. I gave no thought to joining the navy; I was a poor swimmer. Like thousands of other draft-age American boys, I dreamed of flying P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft with the U.S. Army Air Corps.
At Jeff's suggestion, I went with him on a trip to the registrar's office at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and was told that I would be accepted as an engineering freshman that fall if I passed a summer night class in solid geometry. I had found a summer job running an ancient knitting machine at Gates Rubber Company, making radiator hose for tank engines. My pay was all of forty-four cents per hour, and I spent most of it taking flying lessons and attending a night school class in solid geometry. By summer's end I had accumulated just five hours in a little Piper Cub when my flight instructor was called off to join the Civil Air Patrol. I was almost broke, and that ended my first shot at getting a pilot's license. It wasn't until 1948, courtesy of the GI Bill, that I earned that coveted license.
Dad and Mother had been carefully saving enough money to send all four of us children to college. My piano-playing sister was well on her way to a degree in music at Colorado College. And now, in August 1942, Dad agreed to pay for my college education in aeronautical engineering at the University of Colorado. And so it was that in mid-September Jeff and I became roommates in an old widow's rooming house within walking distance of the CU campus in Boulder. The main attraction of the newly formed School of Aeronautical Engineering was an expert who had been hired away from Purdue University to head it. His name was Professor Karl D. Wood, better known to us all as K. D.-
author of Technical Aerodynamics, probably the best textbook in the field at that time.
On the war fronts, while Jeff and I struggled through our first months as freshman engineering students, Russia was holding off the German armies in front of Moscow, the British had stopped Rommel at El Alamein in Egypt, and the hated Japanese in the Pacific were licking their wounds after their disastrous defeat at Midway. Our navy was building up its strength with new, fast carriers, battleships, cruisers, and destroyers now coming off the ways at record rates. And General Douglas MacArthur was getting ready to take the offensive from bases in Australia.
The name Dwight Eisenhower was not yet on the front pages, although he had just been given two stars and would become famous as commander of the forthcoming invasion of North Africa. Nor was George Patton yet famous, although-like MacArthur-he was a prima donna with an insatiable love of personal publicity. But in my opinion the similarities between these two egotists ended there. Patton was perhaps a bit crazy, but he was a tactical genius who loved to fight and whose troops both feared and respected him. On the other hand, MacArthur was a much-ridiculed tin god and obnoxious snob who thought of himself as the world's best global strategist. I believed then, and still believe today, that he fancied himself a president-perhaps even king.
At Christmastime in 1942 I came home for a welcome respite from the spartan life and colder climate of Boulder, where I could never seem to stay warm. My mother invited a couple of GIs for Christmas dinner, responding to a call from Central Presbyterian Church, and it was of considerable interest to me to hear them talk about army life. I could not know it, of course, but that winter holiday of 1942 was to be the last I would spend at home until four years later, when I returned from the war as a twenty-two-year-old veteran wearing the coveted Combat Infantryman's Badge and platoon sergeant's stripes.
During the Easter break in the spring of 1943 I rode the train to Denver and joined our family at the Easter sunrise services up in the huge amphitheater of Red Rocks Park. From every seat of that amphitheater one could watch the sun rise over Denver as the city lights blinked out. I remember wondering, as I looked over the Plains toward Nebraska, if my fate would take me across the Atlantic to Europe, or west to the Pacific, when my number was called.
Before returning to Boulder, I rode with Dad on a business trip to Colorado Springs. We talked about the war and my hope to join the Army Air Corps. En route we passed close to Camp Carson and spotted several hundred khaki-clad infantrymen hiking toward Pike's Peak, leading long strings of heavily laden mules. I could not know that this was the same outfit with which I would serve in combat only ten months later. Those slogging GIs belonged to the 5th Infantry Regiment, part of the newly organized 71st Light Infantry Division.
In June 1943 I completed my freshman year in engineering at CU with a B average. The big question was whether I would be drafted before completing a second year. Desperate to know where I stood, I borrowed my mother's car, drove down to the Denver draft board, and put the question to an old gentleman. He looked at a file and informed me that, as I would turn nineteen in July, my number would almost surely be called by November, even if I had started my sophomore year.
Disappointed, I asked, "How do I go about volunteering for the Army Air Corps? I would like to fly, but I would be happy as a crewman, or even as an aircraft engine mechanic. Anything rather than being sent to the infantry."
"That's easy," the old gentleman said. "Volunteer for early induction today and you can choose your branch. But if you wait until November there's no such guarantee. I can set your physical up for this week, and if you pass you'll be called in July."
I said I'd take a walk and think it over. I walked around the block, agonizing whether to go to my father's office for his advice. Then I thought: No, this decision is mine alone. Half an hour later I had made up my mind. I returned to the draft board and signed the papers. It was a month before my nineteenth birthday. That night my parents tried to hide their pain when I told them I had volunteered to be drafted five months early to avoid being sent straight to the dreaded infantry.
Two days later I drove downtown to take the physical, which I nearly flunked. First, a little hammertoe on my left foot attracted a team of three doctors, who had me walk naked, back and forth, with and without shoes. My heart fell as they deliberated. "Oh, no sir," I assured the senior doctor. "It doesn't bother me! I walk without a limp. See? I was a Boy Scout, I play tennis, I'm a fast runner, and I climb mountains with the Colorado Mountain Climbing Club." It was all true. So they smiled and passed me.
The second problem was an unsuspected polyp in one of my nostrils, discovered by an ear, nose, and throat specialist in the line of examiners. "That's bad," he said. My heart fell again as the specialist wrote something on the form. But the last doctor in the line looked over the form, signed it, and said, "Passed with flying colors. Get dressed, take this form to the next room, and wait for the next swearing-in."
What a relief! Army Air Corps, here I come, I said to myself. The thought of being classified 4-F (physically unfit for military service) and seeing the unspoken question "Young man, why aren't you in the service like my son?" on countless faces I would pass on the street was almost as horrible as the thought of serving in the infantry.
Little did I know that before the war ended my questionable feet would carry me many hundreds of miles across Europe as a lowly infantryman.
My orders were to report at the induction center on July 2, 1943. That morning I brought my single suitcase down the stairs, hugged my brothers and kissed my sister good-bye with studied nonchalance, then went out on the front porch with my mother as Dad pulled the car around to the front of the house. Wonder of wonders, Mother smiled bravely and shed not one tear that I could see. Our embrace was quick, I strode thankfully to the car, turned just once to wave, and then off we drove. I have no doubt that she cried after we were gone.
Ten minutes later we pulled up in front of the induction center in downtown Denver. What happened there at the curb was totally unexpected. Still playing the cool grown-up, I shook my father's hand and said something like, "See you, Dad. Don't worry. I'll write home often." My beloved Rock of Gibraltar father opened his mouth but could not speak as tears rolled down his cheek! I knew he was trying to say, "I love you, son," but nothing came except a sob of grief. Unwanted tears welled in my own eyes, and now it was I who couldn't speak.
I put my hand on his shoulder, turned wordlessly, got out of the car, and with suitcase in hand rushed into the building through a crowd of onlooking draftees. That was the only time I ever saw my father cry until just before he died, in June 1976, thirty-three years later.
THE U.S. ARMY AIR CORPS
July through September 1943
There must have been more than a hundred of us seated on folding chairs in a large room in the Denver induction center. A sergeant came in and bawled, "Awright, all you guys who wanna be pilots, stand up!" About half of us gullible new draftees stood up, and the others had a good laugh when the sergeant said, "Okay, each of you pilots fold up yer chair and pile it up on that stack over there, then come back and git the other chairs."
When we were done with that chore, we were all lined up alphabetically and given name tags for our suitcases. Shortly after that, several army buses drove up in front of the center and we climbed aboard. I spotted a few familiar faces from South High School in the crowd but recognized no one from the University of Colorado. The hackneyed phrase "You're in the army now" kept going through my mind as the convoy of buses pulled out and headed for the processing center at Fort Logan, near the suburb of Englewood, southwest of Denver.
The day had started bright and sunny, but by the time the convoy entered the Fort Logan gate, huge cumulus clouds were piling up, and the mountains to the west were obscured. We unloaded in a large parking lot and formed a ragged line under the direction of a sergeant and two corporals in sun helmets and suntan uniforms. After a long wait, an officer arrived in a jeep and the sergeant reported, "Company B present and accounted for, sir." The officer made a short speech of welcome, then left as the wind rose and the first raindrops began to fall. We recruits were soaked by the time the noncoms double-timed us down to the new white barracks, where we left our suitcases. Then we were run back up a hill to the mess hall for our first army meal.
After lunch we were issued summer Class A suntan uniforms with cap, tie, a web belt with brass buckle, green army fatigues and fatigue hat, two pairs of GI shoes, olive-drab socks, shorts, and undershirts, two barracks bags, one mattress cover, two towels, and a bar of yellow GI soap. Back at our barracks the sergeant passed out copies of The Soldier's Handbook and told us we had twenty-four hours to memorize the General Orders by heart and learn how to salute. A corporal showed us how to arrange our gear in the green footlockers, told us what civilian personal items we could keep, and gave us ten minutes to get out of our civvies into our olive-green fatigues, and repack our suitcases with stuff to be sent home. He reappeared with a pfc carrying pails, brooms, mops, and rags, and we new recruits were put to work mopping the floors and dusting shelves, windowsills, and double-tiered bunks.
Three of my friends from South High were in my barracks, all with orders assuring us that we would be sent to the Army Air Corps. These were Stan Detrick, Bill Bromm, and Gordon Bungaard. We four picked bunks close to one another and helped each other make up our bunks in army fashion, as demonstrated by a corporal-blankets tucked with "hospital" folds at the foot and stretched tight so that a dropped coin would bounce. Bungaard, who had been in high school ROTC, showed us how to salute properly, with elbow forward and forearm and hand swept up to the forehead in a straight line. By the time we marched to evening chow I had accepted the fact that I was no longer a civilian but a soldier in Uncle Sam's army.
From the Trade Paperback edition.