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After the Allied victory in 1945, books by and about the major statesmen, generals, and heroes of World War II appeared regularly. Yet millions of ...
After the Allied victory in 1945, books by and about the major statesmen, generals, and heroes of World War II appeared regularly. Yet millions of American soldiers who helped achieve and secure victory slipped silently into civilian life, trying to forget the war and what they had done. Most remain unsung, for virtually none thought of themselves as exceptional. During the war ordinary soldiers had only done what they believed their country expected.
This veteran’s memoir reveals all aspects of military life and sings of those valorous but ordinary soldiers who achieved the victory.
Little Rock Arkansas
September 1942—August 1943
In September 1942, nine months after Congress declared war on Japan and Germany, I was an eighteen-year-old freshman at Little Rock Junior College. Half the students enrolled were teenage boys nervously expecting the minimum draft age to be lowered and complaining about the possibility of fighting before being eligible to vote. But our peevish suspense was short-lived. In November, the war was going so badly for the Allies that Congress amended the Selective Service Act of 1940, lowering the draft age to eighteen to meet the military services' manpower needs.
This sudden turn of an expected event would abort college for me, betokening the dreadful possibility of serving in a combat unit. Was I, twenty-five years after the Great War, to repeat Paul Baumer's life in All Quiet on the Western Front, only on the American side? I deplored the prospect of learning to kill and facing death in combat.
Less than one month later, on a bleak mid-December morning, I reported to the Boyle Building on Capitol Avenue and Main Street and registered with Pulaski County Draft Board B. I passed a jittery month before receiving a penny postcard from the board notifying me of my first physical examination, calling it a mere preliminary for "disclosing only obvious physical defects," which would not determine my "acceptance or rejection by the armed forces." The exam, on the evening of January 19, 1943, at the Arkansas Medical School acrossfrom the City Park, was superficial as promised. Breathing, possessing the essential human parts, and showing no obvious defects, I passed!
Still this token look-see frightened my feisty mother into thinking the Army was calling me instantly. My brother had already served in the Army Air Force for a year, and Mother didn't intend to let them take her "little boy" if she could stop it. Hoping to forestall that possibility, she phoned her first cousin H. T. "Will" Terry who just happened to be the chairman of Draft Board B. He assured Mother that her Cleveland would be treated like all the other registrants of his age who were in college; I should complete the spring term before receiving my next notice. His statement of the board's fair policy was not the exemption Mother wanted and I secretly hoped for. "Uncle" Billy had listened sympathetically because his only son Seymour was an infantry lieutenant fighting in the Pacific. (Seymour would later be killed, on May 11, 1945, and awarded the Medal of Honor on Okinawa.)
My preliminary physical was behind me, but the hot breath of change was on my neck, so I threw myself frenetically into college and fraternity doings, trying to distract myself from my growing uncertainty and anxiety. But the war couldn't be held at arm's length, moving every day inexorably closer to all able-bodied eighteen-year-olds. My boyhood friends and classmates R. J. Prickett and George Calder, eager to strike immediate blows against our enemies, quit college at mid-term to volunteer for the Merchant Marines and the Navy. Although I didn't share their patriotic fervor and wish to fight, the contradiction left me ashamed. When the vice president of our freshmen class resigned to enlist, classmates chose me to fill the vacancy, assuming, I'm sure, that I wasn't likely to volunteer and leave the office open again.
I was in a constant tussle with my mixed emotions and conflicting anxieties. I loved my country and knew we had to fight, but I had never chosen to fight physically about anything. The United States couldn't avoid engaging Japan and Germany, but I was totally convinced that all wars are madness. Emotionally and intellectually, I knew I had to serve, but I was certain I wouldn't make a good soldier or sailor.
In February 1943, a War Department notice appeared on the dean's bulletin board announcing an Army-Navy preinduction qualifying exam for seventeen- and eighteen-year-old males to be given at the senior high school. The dean predicted the test would concentrate on math and science, and I assumed he was right. I believed I couldn't pass such a test because I had only courses in biology, college algebra, and plane and solid geometry in the college preparatory program. My talents and interests in language arts focused on speech, English literature, history, and dramatics.
But the real reason for skipping the test was my inexplicably contradictory and passive reaction to the draft. My close friends Boykin Pyles, Herbie Cunningham, and Ed Rowland, who early on accepted the inevitability of the draft, were aggressively planning for military service, assuming that they should pursue any chances they might have for preferential slots.
Boykin lured me to the exam, saying, "If you pass, it may keep you out of a combat unit. Besides it's a good way to get excused from classes for a day."
I took the prequalifying examination on April 2, 1943, when it was given nationwide, but my sparse scientific knowledge and poor math skills weren't tested. Instead, the questions related to opposites and similars, figures and verbal analogies, number series, and arithmetic. Even so, I finished the exam convinced of my failure.
I thought, "Maybe, if I don't pass the mental test, they won't draft me!"
Only God knows why I foolishly clung to such a silly hope. And I certainly could not claim to be a conscientious objector, either on religious grounds or as a pacifist, believing as I did that all wars are morally wrong but this one was justifiable. In the end, my conscience hurt for even considering I was above other boys my age and could avoid the draft to live a placid life removed from the fray engulfing our country and the world.
My attitude toward the physical exam was equally contrary: I didn't want to go, but I wanted to be physically qualified. I was so lean at five feet eleven inches and 135 pounds that friends teasingly called me "Muscles." I didn't go out for varsity sports in public school because I didn't think of myself as athletic. Yet I had only to recall how physically active I was in neighborhood softball and football and athletic games in the Boy Scouts to recognize the sources of my excellent coordination, strength, and endurance. Also, without a car to drive, I had continued roller-skating and bicycling long after many other adolescents quit, going from our home downtown to the distant residential areas of my friends, traveling hundreds of miles in and around Little Rock.
Embarrassment about my poor muscular definition and inability to gain weight resulted in a negative image about my whole physique. Feeling scrawny and convinced that other boys were nearer to being amateur versions of the bodybuilder Charles Atlas, I dreaded lining up naked at the physical exam. My father laughed, pooh-poohing my concern, but his insistence didn't relieve my adolescent anxiety.
In early May, a letter from the War Department that surely contained my score on the Army-Navy exam arrived. I put off opening it all day, not wanting to see the confirmation of my failure.
As it turned out, I had passed. I mused, "Maybe my preparation for military service isn't so bad after all. If I can't avoid the draft, maybe staying in military college will keep me out of combat."
The letter required that I choose either the Army's or the Navy's college program. I should have discussed the decision with my parents and friends, but I didn't. I had barely passed swimming tests in the Boy Scouts when advancing to the rank of Life Scout and assumed I would be safer on terra firma than on a ship at sea. For that reason, I chose the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). If I had based my decision on the uniform, the Navy would have won hands-down. Whether this sartorial criteria affected my friends who had already chosen the Navy I wasn't sure.
No further word came from either the draft board or the ASTP, which left me vacillating between thinking it was a good sign and thinking it was a bad one. Meanwhile, my pals received orders from the Navy to report to the University of Oklahoma at Norman at the end of the spring term. Their college assignments so near home made me regret choosing the Army. When I later learned that they remained in college until the war's end, I wasn't bitter about their good fortune, only disgusted with my poor judgment.
Unstrung by waiting, I spent more thought and time on theater and fraternity than on my course work, tending to all my class assignments lackadaisically. To my surprised relief at the end of term, my name appeared on the honor roll, reflecting badly on either classmates or professors, or both. The undeserved recognition curbed somewhat my sense of shame for less-than-serious academic efforts. Properly compunctious, I wrote to thank my scholarship donors for their support, and warned, without wholly believing, that I might be drafted before the second year of their award.
But my chief distraction from academics was the first and only serious romance of my life. For months, I'd been going steady with Marian Gammill, nicknamed "Tumpy" from childhood. We had been classmates since the tenth grade but never dated before enrolling at junior college. I had been infatuated with many girls, but I had never developed strong romantic notions toward anyone until I dated Tumpy.
In the throes of my first true love and under the literary influence of the Cavalier poets being studied in my English literature class, I dedicated a poem to my sweetheart in what I thought was the style of the seventeenth century:
If thou were but a fragile rose
I from a thorny bush had chose,
I'd press thy petal lips to mine
To taste their nectar—sweet, divine.
If thou were but a weeping willow,
Whose limp limbs sway in the swift billow,
I'd bury my face in thy leafy hair
To breathe thy dewy fragrance there.
Ah, but where's the need for fairy dreams
That clearly cannot be?
For all of Nature's gentle schemes
Are satisfied in thee!
Neither Tumpy nor I was probably emotionally mature enough to know, but we were convinced of the depth and eternity of our love. For me, at least, the thought of leaving and being separated, which recurred daily while awaiting the draft notice, was especially painful.
The draft board's universally familiar "greetings," threatening my future life, arrived in the mail the day after the United States celebrated on July 4 our national independence and right to personal liberty and freedom.
Two weeks later, at 7:30 A.M., on July 21, I joined a large group of potential inductees from Pulaski County at the front doors of the Boyle Building. The soldier in charge ordered the jabbering crowd to quiet down, arranged us in pairs, and led us along Capitol Avenue and down Broadway Boulevard to a sprawling one-story building at the corner of Eighth Street, apparently hastily pressed into service for Army physicals. The joke was having our human bodyworks examined in a building where mechanics repaired auto chassis before the dealership went bankrupt in the mid-1930s.
Gathered in a dusty room barren of everything including lockers for personal belongings, we stripped our clothes, stuffed them in brown paper grocery bags, and placed them on the dirty asphalt-tiled floor against a wall. Resplendent in tan, pink, and white birthday suits, we displayed a surprising variety of shapes, heights, and weights. I had to admit my dad had been right, after all.... Adonises or Atlases? Not one!
Robbed of our clothing and dignity and cautious not to be touched by anyone's naked front or rear, we joined the long lines coiling around the many temporary partitions separating the different examiners. With small cardboard name tags hanging from cords around our necks, we held our medical forms protectively in front of us like fig leaves. The meandering lines of recruits passed ever so slowly through the gauntlets of doctors who pounded, poked, and pummeled each of us in turn, measuring and recording our bodies' suitability for the Army's rigors.
The most memorable examiner, a wiry, gray-haired doctor checking our urogenital systems, cupped in his hand the scrotum of the man ahead of me and asked, "Have you been a good boy?"
What answer the urologist expected I'm not sure. My response to his question, like that of the other men within earshot, was an embarrassed silence.
Most doctors were less inquisitive, not appearing to care a whit about our personal habits, or even our physical conditions, as they insouciantly applied blood pressure cuffs, tongue depressors, and stethoscopes to different parts of our bodies before scribbling illegibly, as doctors always seem to do, on the forms we carried.
The large number of examinees and the deliberateness of the doctors slowed the exams, extending them into the afternoon, but I reached the final station shortly after one o'clock. Although I had regularly peeked at the doctors' notations on my chart, I still couldn't tell from the scrawls if I had passed. Yet watching the lines on both sides zipping toward the vigorous sound of pounding on a table ahead, I could predict the inevitable outcome.
A thin, bespectacled corporal sitting with several other noncoms behind the long table was at the head of my line. When I reached the frowning NCO, he studied my papers without looking up, then announced loudly enough for everyone to hear: "Allie C. Harrison, underweight ... with low blood pressure!"
Then, looking into my eyes, he said, with too much pleasure, "Well, Allie, the Army will add the pounds and raise your pressure!" The grinning corporal lowered his rubber stamp resoundingly: "accepted!" I was classified A-1!
The loss of my civilian freedom and lifelong identity as "Cleveland" raised my blood pressure instantly and added a lead weight to my heart.
Donning my clothes was a relief even though the air in the building was hot and still. Guided to another room, unfurnished except for the large American flag splayed across one wall, we were forced to sit on our haunches on the floor or lean against the walls while waiting for the other draftees who had also passed the exams.
About three o'clock, an officer swaggered into the room and called us to attention, climaxing the day by ordering us to get on our feet, stand up straight, raise our right hands, and swear the Army's oath of allegiance after him: "I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America; that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies whomsoever; 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 the Rules and Articles of the Government of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps of the United States." Taking the oath in chorus, perhaps before the classification stamp's red ink had dried on our medical forms, we slipped into the Army as quickly as our upraised hands dropped to our sides.
After delivering the instantaneous blow of our induction, the officer, perhaps attempting to cheer us, said, "You'll be on inactive reserve for the next three weeks to put your civilian business in order. You're to report to the Boyle Building on the morning of 11 August 1943 to begin your active duty." Then to encourage our compliance, he warned, "You're in the Army now," and cited Articles of War fifty-eight (desertion) and sixty-one (absence without leave).
I was a soldier officially, though not attitudinally, now dependent upon ASTP to keep me in college for the war's duration.
I had no job and wasn't going to summer school, so there was no serious personal business to attend to during the unexpected leave. My only task was advertising in the newspaper the balloon-tired, chrome-fendered Western Flyer bicycle I had lovingly tended since junior high school. The buyer paid the same price my parents had at the Western Auto store five years before for a Christmas gift.
I visited old haunts, saying farewell to my few as-yet-undrafted buddies (who kidded that ASTP stood for "All Set To Party"), dated Tumpy every day I could, and reassured my tearful little mother, who spoke as if both my brother and I were already lost. Mother behaved as if her boys were as good as dead, as if she were sure the two silver stars on the white silken banner in the living room window signifying loved ones in uniform would soon be gold.
Unlike older married men sworn in at the same time, I had neither family nor employee obligations to fulfill. But I did share a regret similar to the one they must have felt leaving their wives; I realized more fully that, as much as I loved my parents, the most wrenching separation would be from Tumpy. With our secret plans to marry after I returned, each day we remained arm in arm as much as possible.
A week before I reported for active duty, Tumpy and I attended the biggest social event of the summer at junior college, the distribution of the annual Trojan yearbook. Girls and boys from the freshman and sophomore classes gathered in the gymnasium on a sultry, late July afternoon, without fans or air conditioning, to drink bottles of Coke cooled in washtubs of ice and sign the conventional cliches in each other's yearbooks—sweet, sentimental, or mocking. Although many boys were joining some branch of the armed services, the conversations and inscriptions hardly noted our leaving.
Only our teacher-chaperons seemed to focus on the possible finality of our goodbyes, pointedly wishing us safe returns in their farewells. Mrs. Edith Scopp, my typing teacher from New York State, whose husband was an officer at Camp Robinson, wrote next to her picture: "Cleveland, I've certainly enjoyed your characterizations—both in and out of class. Lots of luck in the Army." Neither she nor I knew how much her typing lessons would affect my life in the Army.
With the knowledge of so many leaving either for military service or other colleges, a palpable melancholy welled up in the swirl of gay laughter as we traded annuals and wrote in the margins beside our pictures. Parting from the safe havens of home and college brought an ache to my throat, and I could only guess at the source of the new emotions bubbling within me. I had never before said good-bye to others without knowing where they or I were going, without feeling that we'd surely meet again. Even the mature kids among us, of which I was not one, had remained relatively untouched by life's serious pains and losses, at least until the end of our freshman year in college that fateful summer of 1943. At the book signing, I recognized probably for the first time life's deepening sadness as one grows older.
Now, in my callow way, I was empathizing more consciously with the losses I heard about through the radio, newspapers, and newsreels. Before, I had been too protected and too insensitive to empathize with others' distress. The only deaths I knew about were those described by my parents when older relatives with whom I had no direct emotional ties passed away. But the possibility of dying in the war became more immediate and probable when young friends died—R. J. Prickett, on a merchant ship torpedoed in the Atlantic, and George Calder, aboard an aircraft carrier sunk in the Pacific.
Three weeks of inactive reserve slipped by too quickly. On the sweltering morning of August 11, I kissed my parents good-bye on the front porch, walked down the steps past the thorny black locust trees framing the yard and out the lopsided front gate at 322 Spring where our family had lived for the last ten years. At the corner of Center Street, I looked back and saw my tearful mother and stoical father still standing on the porch watching and waving. I dared not turn again to wave at them or I would cry too.
And yet ... after months of not wanting to go, I walked away from home, down Fourth Street, so fast that my parents must have thought I was happy to get away. Only the sentimental tug of old familiar buildings slowed me. I passed Harley-Davidson's motorcycle shop across from Rebsamen Ford's garage for secondhand cars ... turned at the corner onto Louisiana Street, where the Kansas City Steak House, Arkansas Power and Light, and the Union National Bank sat cattycornered from each other ... and hastened one block south to Capitol Avenue, where I skipped across the alley, beside Franke's Cafeteria, to the front of the Boyle Building. Only five minutes later, I was merely three and one-half blocks from home but already an incalculable distance away from family and civilian life.
Sleepy-eyed men and boys were standing in groups at the white ceramic-brick entry of the Boyle Building. Some stood together on the broad sidewalk, others sat on the curb or squatted by the front steps off to themselves. Groups of three or four together shouted at newcomers they knew as they arrived.
Clyde Brockett, Billy Sims, and Earl Nichols, standing near the alley at the fringe of the other draftees, greeted me. Their familiar faces made me feel more at ease. Pint-sized Earl, about as big as a grammar school boy, had been my friend since we first had music together in the seventh grade at East Side Junior High. In high school, he sang baritone and I tenor in glee clubs and choirs, and at college we both sang in the Delta Kappa fraternity quartet. Clyde and Billy were among my high school acquaintances and on the track and football teams. The four of us talked about what we'd done since graduation and, observing the new arrivals, noticed that older men showing up were much less convivial than those of us in our teens who had recently been in college.
While we waited at the corner of Capitol and Main, the early morning traffic built to a roar. An old, olive-drab Army bus lumbered up to the curb, and a sergeant jumped off, shouting for our attention as if we, not he, were late. He asked us to answer when he called our names and climb aboard the bus. For the first time, I heard guys answering a roll call with "yo" instead of "here" or "present." Everyone on the roster from Draft Board B answered, and the bus geared up and turned left onto Main.
As the creaky old bus ground four blocks north up Main Street, we slid the windows open to admit the early morning breeze. The bus pulling onto the Main Street Bridge passed the Ben McGee Hotel and crossed the Arkansas River. In North Little Rock, it turned down Broadway Boulevard to U.S. Highway 65 and slipped through tiny Levy before turning right onto the old Camp Pike Road that led to Camp Robinson. I had been to the camp once when Boy Scout Troop 40 attended a statewide Camporal there in 1937. As proud scouts, we had stood stiffly at attention in a straight soldierly line, dressed in our olive-drab uniforms and broad-brimmed campaign hats, as Governor Carl E. Bailey and his staff passed in review.
By the time the rumbling bus reached the old Camp Pike Road, our voices had revved up to a deafening din, trying to be heard over the vrooming motor and shifting gears. But once we were inside Camp Robinson's front gate, the talking dwindled until total silence prevailed. Beside the road, men and boys in stiff new uniforms who had taken their first steps into Army life spotted our bus and gleefully shouted, "Fresh meat!" and "You'll be saw-reee!" as we rolled slowly past them.
At the Reception Center, we all huddled beside the bus as if we didn't want to be separated and identified individually. We didn't break apart until a chiseled, loud-mouthed buck sergeant called our names off his list, and we lined up to submit to the first rites of passage into soldiery.
When we assembled in a large hall, a sergeant announced that we would stay at the Reception Center for ten days. During the first five, we would be outfitted with uniforms, equipment, and identity tags, given the Army General Classification Test (AGCT) and other examinations, and inoculated against various diseases. The last five days would be spent in another area learning the rudiments of close-order drill and military courtesy. The sergeant warned us to be prompt in meeting all formations and to use "Army time," which numbers the hours of the day separately, from one to twenty-four (0100 through 2400), to prevent errors of timing.
After dividing us into smaller groups, several sergeants led us clomping along wooden-plank sidewalks to long counters in a supply room, where we picked up sheets, pillows, pillowcases, and blankets for our beds. Piled up to our eyebrows with bedding, we thudded along warped planks behind the sergeant to a small pyramidal tent that barely had space for eight cots. The sergeant sent eight of us into the wood-framed home-away-from-home, which had wooden floors, waist-high plywood walls, and canvas side flaps and roof.
My mates in the tent's close confines—all strangers but one—turned out to be a friendly lot. Apparently, we'd been assigned alphabetically, for Bill Hulsey, whom I knew at high school, was the only other person in the original group whose last name began with an H. Jon Kennedy, on the cot next to mine, became my frequent companion at the Reception Center. Older by several years and married, he had been the political cartoonist for the Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock's oldest and best newspaper. Jon and I shared satiric attitudes toward the cadre and the Army's decivilianizing steps.
A tall but overweight staff sergeant, obviously living a soft life while hardening draftees at the Reception Center, stepped inside our tent door. Without any preface, he brusquely proclaimed, "Tench-hut! There's a right way, a wrong way, and the Army way! From now on, you're all going to do things the Army way."
He picked a cot to show us how to make a bed properly by Army standards. First, he squared the corners of the sheets and the single blanket at the foot of the cot, making what my mother called "hospital corners." At the head of the cot, he folded the blanket and top sheet back several inches making a collar. Finally, he insisted that the blanket had to be tight enough to bounce a quarter off its surface. Completing his demonstration "by the numbers"—a phrase soon to become our military mantra—the sergeant snapped his quarter like a tiddledywink, proving the blanket drumhead taut. After pausing to admire his Army-perfect handiwork, he ripped off the covers, tossed them on the cot, and ordered us to follow his example making our own. Struggling under his critical eye to square corners and bounce the quarter, we made and remade our beds several times before softening the sergeant's scowl.
When I went to the bathroom, or toilet, which the Army calls a "latrine," I realized how modest I felt in those circumstances. Standing at the door, I saw strips of commodes and lavatories facing each other in parallel lines like soldiers on parade, with only a narrow space between them. I imagined myself on a commode cheek by jowl with others, staring at the bare or partially covered butts of soldiers shaving or washing in front of me. Hoping to relieve myself in private, I crossed to the opposite side of the center partition and found an equally long rank of urinals. Standing beside the other guys was like being in the watery dance-revue chorus of Esther Williams's recent Hollywood musical Bathing Beauty.
To tend at least part of nature's calls, the best temporary strategy was to wait until taps and lights out. At the rooming house my mother had run since I was ten, family members shared a common bathroom with roomers—but always one at a time. Any embarrassment in the latrine faded quickly without my conscious effort, though. By the time I left the Reception Center, I had grown accustomed to the place, and after a few weeks of community ablutions, I hardly noticed or cared what happened around me.
The first morning of active duty completed, we marched to the mess hall for our premier trays of Army chow. A slogan on the wall at the head of the cafeteria line admonished, "TAKE ALL YOU CAN EAT, BUT EAT ALL YOU TAKE." The sign's good sense didn't strike anyone as crucial. But when Jon Kennedy, Bill Hulsey, and I finished our meals and joined the line to clean our trays at the garbage cans, a young second lieutenant confronted us. Smiling benignly, the baby-faced mess officer warned those who left food on their trays not to be wasteful. But unlike my mother when I didn't clean my plate at home, he did not mention the "starving Armenians."
Mess hall food didn't occupy my thoughts, so I don't recall the content or quality of meals at the Reception Center. Apparently what I chose to eat was never more than my capacity because the leavings on my tray drew no reprimands at Camp Robinson, or anywhere else. With my appetite, I would never achieve the status of chow hound.
After lunch, the sergeant marched us to another supply room to pick up our first issues of uniforms and accessories. We expected the supply sergeant and his assistants to toss items at us without caring whether they fit, as the scuttlebutt (a new word in my growing military vocabulary) had predicted. But to my relief, the crew measured us individually for our uniforms and shoes, revealing the unreliability of Army rumors.
Draped like mobile clothes racks—holding our olive-drab, wool dress uniform, khaki cotton uniform, green herringbone twill fatigues, tan canvas leggings, and two pairs of brown brogans—we straggled back to the tent. We changed into the stiff new fatigues and donned our fatigue caps, then packed our civilian clothes and shoes in boxes that the Army was mailing home for us. I told the sergeant my folks could pick mine up when they came out that evening, but he insisted that everyone follow the Army's standard operational procedure (SOP).
After supper, Mother and Dad visited for a couple of hours. My mother commented repeatedly on how good she thought the uniform looked. I told her I would willingly let her wear it, and I would go home with Dad. That brought Mom's tears and my regrets.
Without pajamas, I slept in my shorts and T-shirt, as I had at Scout camp. The strange noises others made that night would have disturbed me if I hadn't spent summers in the Silver Fox cabin at Camp Quapaw, the nearby Boy Scout camp on the Saline River in Benton County. I heard muffled sobs in the tent that first night at Camp Robinson, but, although I felt like it, I didn't cry. Still too close to home to feel totally separated from my family and sweetheart, my eyes were damp and the aching lump in my throat wouldn't go away.
After breakfast the next day, the sergeant marched us under the early morning August sun along steamy asphalt walkways to a long classroom building that had open windows but no circulating fans. We sat squeezed together on benches at ordinary mess tables to take a series of tests. The "big one," the Army General Classification Test, consisted of 150 multiple-choice questions that had to be answered inside forty minutes. The three types of questions measured math, verbal skills, and spatial (nonverbal) reasoning, purportedly to detect our usable intelligence or trainability.
That afternoon, we took several other examinations measuring hearing acuity, pitch recognition, spatial perception, manual dexterity, and personal aptitudes. The excessive heat, poor ventilation, bad lighting, and continuous testing, with only ten-minute breaks every hour, turned the morning and afternoon sessions into marathons of misery, which probably weakened everyone's performance. We knew the importance of test scores in determining our Army placement and wanted conditions that helped us do best, fearing lower scores might mark us "stupid" throughout our Army careers. Even though I didn't answer all the questions on the AGCT in the time allowed (we'd been advised to move to the next one if we didn't know an answer), my score was in Class I, the top 7 percent of those tested. Equally astonishing, my special strengths were in spatial perception, manual dexterity, and clerical aptitudes.
All candidates for the Army Specialized Training Program had to submit the War Department cards sent to members of the Army V-12 program. An officer said we were excluded from Officer Candidate School and Air Force pilot training, two programs with normally higher priorities in assignment. When asked to choose between engineering and foreign languages, I picked languages because they seemed likely to take longer to master and less likely to expose me to combat. I was ashamed to tell the officer my choice since I was trying to dodge combat, but he showed no sign of detecting my guilt.
On our third day at the Reception Center, medics immunized us against several kinds of disease, creating tensions of a different sort. In single file, we walked between teams of languid medical corpsmen who fired, like incautious dart players, syringes into our left and right arms simultaneously. When the hairy, strapping target ahead of me was pierced, he sank to the floor in a dead faint. Screwing up my courage, I relaxed the muscles in my scrawny arms and accepted malaria, typhoid, and tetanus shots without flinching, then stood steady as a post for the scratches of the smallpox vaccination. An hour later, with a runny nose and fever, I was less assured.
Fainting spells weren't confined to the infirmary; after the shots many draftees passed out during drills on the treeless dusty fields. The cadre, assisted by the former ROTC members among us, attempted to teach the fundamental positions and movements of close-order drill. Under a relentless August sun, inductees who didn't faint or fall ill in the rolling dust clouds stirred by our feet grew bellicose.
Arguments between members of separate platoons broke out during ten-minute breaks for no apparent reason. If the sergeants in charge stepped away from platoons for orders or drinks, a murmuring circle of boys might spontaneously form and erupt in belligerent shouting. From the edge of a crowd, I watched two boys wrangling, with their fists flying, as noisy bands of supporters egged them on. One aggressor was Tommy Burch, a high school acquaintance known for his bad temper and pugilism. Short and wiry, he swiftly pecked at his much larger opponent like a bantam cock, then abruptly bent over, gasping for breath. He had hyperventilated, and several of his seconds scurried about like startled barnyard fowl trying to find a paper sack to cover his face so Tommy could breathe enough carbon dioxide to recover. The brawl would have been good comedy if it hadn't been so unnecessary.
The fourth day, after all our shots, we received two rectangular, stainless steel identity markers, which the Army called "dog tags." Both hung from beaded metal chains around our necks. Engraved on the lines were first name, middle initial, and last name; below that, Army identification number, year of first tetanus shot, and blood type; then name and home address of next of kin:
Allie C. Harrison
38511794 T 43 B
Floy E. Harrison
Little Rock, Ark
I didn't submit to a GI haircut because I had adopted a crew cut after admiring Tim Holt's hair in the movie Hitler's Children, which Tumpy and I had seen that summer. The longer-locked inductees had to sit in a line of chairs surrounded by rugs of fallen hair as GI barbers, with manual clippers, sheared off all their sideburns and left the maximum length of hair on the crowns of their heads at one and one-half inches.
The only nonmilitary occasions at the Reception Center were visits by families and friends each night. Mother, Dad, and Tumpy drove over from Little Rock in either Dad's old two-door Chevrolet coupe or Tumpy's black Studebaker sedan, bringing homemade chocolate muffins, tuna fish or chicken sandwiches, cold bottled Cokes, and ice water. Serious Army rations were bounteous and nutritious but not as good as snacks. We stood beside the car eating and talking about the day's activities because the few benches in the reception area were occupied by family members who had come earlier.
After visiting a while with my parents, Tumpy and I strolled along the asphalt paths between the compound buildings. Hand in hand, we wandered in and out of the mottled spills of light from windows, meeting and passing other romantic couples who seemed as reluctant to part from each other as we.
At the end of five days, our group moved to Area B of the Reception Center to complete orientation activities—a blur of fumbling assaults on close-order drill and exercises in military courtesy, the proper form of saluting, and policing the grounds.
In close-order drills, sergeants sang out orders in what sounded like a foreign language: "Paw-toon, tin-hut. Ford, harch! Hup, who, hree, foh! Too-thuh reah, harch. Rye-flang, haw. Chir-up, hup, too. Leff-oh-bligh, haw. Dee-tail-l-l-haw!'
We learned how to salute and who to salute. For our first attempts, we copied actors we'd seen in war movies, but our sappy efforts didn't meet the sergeant's standards. Our gestures were limp like those made by flippant actor-pilots in Air Force pictures. For me, the proper American salute with the right hand palm down and fingers extended and tightly closed didn't seem as theatrical as the British salute—palm out and fingertips pointing to the right eyebrow. The cadre struggled to make recruits extend the right arm straight from the shoulder and hold it, until the salute was returned, before snapping the arm straight down beside the right seam of our trousers.
One day we listened to a reading of the Articles of War, the Army's criminal code. By the time the bored, monotonous sergeant finished the articles and penalties—for being absent without leave (AWOL), desertion, fraudulent enlistment, false muster, and provoking speeches and gestures—we felt almost willing to commit the crimes. But the lesson was clear: don't say anything about anybody or do anything to anyone, for you'll risk hard labor in the stockade, or a firing squad at sunrise, if you do!
Policing for trash, we formed long skirmish lines, spreading out across the drill field. We walked side by side among the tents of Area B with our heads down, searching for odds and ends of debris. Our chief targets were discarded cigarette butts that afterwards had to be "field stripped" by tearing the paper, rolling it into a ball, and scattering the tobacco and ashes on the ground.
On my nineteenth birthday, Tuesday, August 17, 1943, Mother brought my favorite homemade dark chocolate cake thickly covered in seven-minute white icing, and Dad gave me a new fountain pen, none too subtly encouraging me to write home often. Tumpy brought muffins and a sterling silver bracelet engraved on one side with "A. Cleveland Harrison" (which I preferred over "Allie," my dad's androgynous name). The inscriptions on the back of the bracelet were my Army serial number and "Tumpy's." Although she and I had vowed to marry each other after the war, we hadn't yet told either set of parents.
The day after my birthday, I came down with a bad cold, probably from exposure to many new viruses at the camp and too many sweets. Mother and Dad came as usual but didn't stay long because a few of my college friends were visiting.
At the end of ten days at Camp Robinson, the first sergeant issued twelve-hour passes, allowing us off base from Saturday noon to midnight. Excitedly, I rode a bus to Little Rock expecting to enjoy what would be my last date with Tumpy for a long time. I divided the hours equally between Tumpy and my parents, although I really wished to spend the whole time with her. I didn't know it would be my last visit with all my loved ones for several months.
Tumpy and I were both leaving Little Rock, me to God knows where and she to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Saying goodbye, we promised to write often and to be true to each other, even though we agreed it was okay to date others, if we chose.
On August 21, the day after our farewells, a dozen of us were ordered to pack our new uniforms and equipment in our canvas duffel bags and assemble at 1500. The sergeant said we were going to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training. Our small group included only two others from Little Rock, my little friend Earl Nichols, who was joining the paratroops, and Norton Stubblefield, who was also in ASTP. My old high school friends and new pal, Jon Kennedy, were going elsewhere.
We boarded a military bus for the ride to Union Station, at the foot of Markham and Victory Streets in Little Rock, to wait for a Missouri-Pacific train to Fort Benning that evening.
I knew I'd soon find out at the Infantry School if I had what it takes to make a good soldier.
|Reluctant Draftee: Little Rock, Arkansas||1|
|Basic Trainee: Fort Benning, Georgia||21|
|University Student: Oxford, Mississippi||55|
|Rifleman-Clerk: Camp McCain, Mississippi||78|
|Army Transient: The Queen Elizabeth and Wiltshire, England||111|
|Switchboard Operator: Lorient, France||132|
|Combat Rifleman: Wehingen and Orscholz, Germany||181|
|Patient and Replacement: France and England||211|
|Clerk-Typist: Versailles, France||249|
|Mail Clerk-Draftsman: Frankfurt am Main, Germany||266|
|Message Center Chief: Berlin, Germany||286|
|Returning Veteran: Little Rock, Arkansas||331|
Posted May 10, 2009
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This book is truly inspirational. My grandfather recently passed away but prior to his passing we had spent some time together talking about his past. I am a 19 year career airman so the topic of military service came up. I had no idea about my grandfathers service during WWII. I purchased the book because after some research I found that my grandfather had served in the 94th. We spent hours on the phone talking about chapters in the book. This book gave me window into a part of his life that I almost missed sharing with him. He is gone now but I will never forget the last chance we had to bond. This book is eloquently written and shows the true spirit of the American soldier. I only hope that my service to my country lives up to a fraction to what these men did.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 26, 2011
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