Basic training 1966
by David Crocker
BASIC Training 1966
October 11, 1966
The day had finally come that I would have to report for Induction into the United States Army.
This wasn’t something I had planned on. I had no intentions of going into the service as I was married, gainfully employed with a good paying job and almost twenty four years old which was three to four years older than the average draftee.
Oh I could have ran to Canada, like so many others, or taken my friend up an offer to try and secure a deferment but those options were entirely out of the question for me. I was drafted and I was determined to make the best of it and make my family and friends proud.
After receiving the Report for Induction, (Draft Paper) I took what proved to be some of the best advice that I ever received from the late Mr. Robert (Bob) Lowrie Sr, a dear friend and my second job employer.
Bob had observed some things with my marriage that were troubling to him, which he didn’t reveal at the time, and said that if I thought there was a chance that things were not going to work out while I was in the service that it would be to my advantage to sell everything before I went into the service. He said to tell my wife that if I were to get stationed state side that there would be nothing holding her back from joining me.
That made sense to me so that is what we did.
We then took my cousin up on their offer to move in with them temporarily.
With the humiliating nude group physical at the Fort Wayne Induction Center, the Letter of Acceptability and the Report for Induction notice’s as well as all my personal arrangements behind me it was time to report to the Federal Building on Water St in Port Huron Michigan, my home town.
It was a cool brisk morning, a see your breath morning on Customs Alley.
My Mom and Dad, my wife and a dear friend Howard Courtney were there to share the mental chill as well as the physical chill of the morning and to see everybody off.
A full Greyhound bus load, which included Andy Cutcher, Bill Dickinson, Dennis Furtah, Alan Hackett, Robert McLarty, Robert Pung, Robert Sharrow, James Sheehan, Ken Simmons Jr, David Vernocke, Lynne Wattle, Ron Wilcox and many others.
Howard presented me with a new Zippo lighter as a going away gift. I treasured that lighter which would be lost or stolen within the next four months.
I don’t remember a single thing about that bus ride to Detroit as my mind was in a continuous spin. It would be my first time away from home for an extended period of time except for summer church camp as a child or a few weeks occasionally spent each summer with the Dr Bovee family. To say I was homesick already would be an understatement.
I was offered a job as his 1St Mate on a Great Lakes Freighter by Capt. C.A. McTevia after I had installed a radio tower at his residence in Marine City, MI but when he said the downside would be that I’d be away from home at least eight to nine months a year I said “noooo thanks”. He thought I was making a big mistake. Actually at the time I didn’t know what a 1st mate was or what his responsibilities were, only that the pay was three to four times what I was making at Mueller Brass Co, Main TV and my spare jobs doing installations all combined.
Now I am going to be gone for at least two years. I kept thinking, Gee, if I’d taken Capt. McTevia up on his offer I would have been gone for only eight or nine months.
I just barely remember taking the oath as my mind wasn’t into this whole new life yet.
We were giving orders as to what we could do and what we couldn’t do as well as what we could take aboard the luxurious Pullman train which would take us from Detroit to Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Some of the guys didn’t hear or didn’t care what we were told because the ride to Kentucky was anything but orderly. Some drastic adjustments were in store for many.
When the sleepers were pulled down and everyone was told lights out the noise seemed to get louder as the men ran up and down the train corridors, hooping and hollering all the way to Kentucky.
I laid down but my mind was so messed up I couldn’t get to sleep. The rickety rack of the train tracks under normal circumstances would have been unnoticeable and possibly soothing, but not this night.
By the time I finally fell asleep the Porter was banging on the door trying to wake us up. After about his third pass he opened the door and demanded that we wake up and return the bed to the seating position and freshen up.
As soon as we arrived in Louisville, Kentucky there were buses waiting that would take us to Fort Knox, Kentucky. At Fort Knox there were several DI’s waiting for us and it was then that we realized that this was the real thing.
The DI’s started yelling at us to get off the buses and line up as if we were supposed to have already done it the day before. Those that were too slow received their first of many push-up orders. Push-ups were a tool that effectively taught people to pay attention. Initially it was five and gradually increased substantially over the next two months.
We handed over all our ID papers and were then loaded like cattle onto another military bus and transported over to supply. We traveled in two buses from Louisville but not this time, everybody was on one military bus. Actually it would be our last ride on a bus, the rest of the time would be either a ride in a deuce and a half (truck) to the rifle ranges or we’d march to all classes in the field.
We were then sized (some wrong) and outfitted with our complete military issue of shoes, boots, clothing and utensils and then loaded back onto the same bus that was already crammed and overloaded without the addition of every man carrying a duffle bag full of all his equipment. “Being smothered” was yelled more than once. “Push em back, push em back, you will make room for all these people” could be heard coming from the DI’s. “This vehicle is not moving till everyone is on so push em back”. Sardines comes to mind.
When packed in like this it was easy to tell who would be the first to get a lesson on personal hygiene.
Thank God it was somewhat of a mild day.
I immediately felt sorry for the July classes that had preceded us.
Eventually we were herded off the buses and directed to our various units, mine being D/17/5, Delta Company, 17th Battalion, 5th Training Brigade.
As we were standing in our first formation I couldn’t help but remember what my brother Vern who was serving in Air Force had told me about volunteering in Basic Training. He said
“don’t volunteer for something like truck driving or I’d end up driving a wheel barrow”.
Sure enough as all the details like KP (Kitchen Patrol) and fire watch were being given out the request for anybody who could drive a truck was shouted. I remained silent as I recalled what my brother had said about wheel barrows. Pvt Furtah as well as a couple others raised their hands and then they were singled out for further instructions.
One of the first things the DI told us was that he was now our mother and father and a lot of other things but the thing that hit us hard was when he said “you all are here because your home town people wanted you here, they don’t want you there and felt they would be better off without you and they don’t care about you”. Many, including myself, took that very personal. I guess it was meant to keep guys from going AWOL and wanting to go back home.
It wasn’t only until this past month (50 years) that I found out that the lady (Mary L Russell) who signed my Induction Notice was the mother of people that I went to school with and that she really did care.
From that formation we all were given our first lesson on marching, uniformly and in step that is, down the road to the Barber Shop where everybody got scalped. I was already a Flat Top so mine wasn’t nothing to laugh about but some of the guys had hair down to and past their shoulders with bangs down to their eyes. Some were completely unrecognizable from what they looked like when they went in.
Once the hair scalping was done we marched over to have our photos taken. The photo session was more like an assembly line as we randomly put on (house) clothes and hats, most didn’t fit.
Then it was back to the barracks where we’d get our first lesson on how to make a bunk up, Army Style. For some this became a real challenge as they never had to make their bed at home, let alone having now been told they’d better be able to bounce a quarter off of the bed once it was made up. More than one bunk was stripped and thrown on the floor.
Once we were settled in it became the same routine every day. Up early and to bed late with a lot of training and exercise in between.
One person just could not keep in step and received so many kicks in the ankles from the DI coming up behind him that I lost count. No matter what he did it was wrong and he was unable to adapt and would be discharged a short time after Thanksgiving.
AWOL was heard amongst the groaning of a few.
I laid awake more than once to make sure a couple guys I knew didn’t go AWOL.
Many years later I would be thanked for all the encouragement I gave to a young guy who was bent on leaving. After his military service he was given priority because of his military service and secured a job with the US Govt where he retired after many years of service.
That is one of the greatest feelings of my life.
Everyone was responsible for making sure the cigarette butt cans were emptied and refilled. There were water cans placed into the air ducts for humidity that had to be monitored also. Fire Watch was considered one of the most important responsibilities in the barracks. Each man was assigned one hour on the hour on a rotating schedule. If a man were to fall asleep while on Fire Watch or Guard Duty he could be Court Martialed and in time of war could be sentenced to death. It was easy to tell if a man fell asleep while on watch because he would be late in waking up the next man. It was up to the next man on the schedule to decide whether to report the individual or just chew him out. You weren’t just watching for fires, you were on Guard Duty and responsible for the safety of everyone in the barrack.
The barrack is dark except for a night light and I ‘m not exaggerating when I say that in darkness you can make out a lot of things that you found out later to be nothing more than a duffle bag, clothes on a footlocker or a shadow.
Then there was CQ (Charge of Quarters). On CQ we’d go to the Orderly Room, usually accompanied by a senior NCO, (unless they disappear for several hours, probably napping somewhere) and answer any phone calls that might come in, check on the Fire Watches, clean the Orderly Room or in my case build a fire in the stove.
The only time I got a good cup of coffee while in training was when I was on CQ. It is customary to get the next day off after CQ since you were up all night, but not in my case. “Thank God for that good coffee”. The NCO asked me if I knew how to build a fire. Remembering what my brother Vern had said I almost said no but the Boy Scout in me came to life although I never told him I was a Boy Scout when I was a kid. I just said “I probably would be able to get one going”. Besides, I was trying to remove (if) from my vocabulary. It was cold and getting colder with snow falling when I started to work on getting a fire going. The NCO stepped out for a few hours (probably napping) and when he come back I had the Orderly Room doors open. “Probably huh” as he come through the doorway and saw the pot belly stove that was now cherry red. Up until then I hadn’t seen a smile on anybody’s face nor had I heard anybody who was in authority laugh.
Basic Training was beginning to look a little better!
After spending the first week taking a battery of tests my DI took me aside and told me that I tested quite well on all my tests and that I was prequalified for OCS. OC what I said? “OCS he says”. What is OCS, thinking that it was something to do with the ocean? “Officers Candidate School” he says “and they have a class starting right now”. I was feeling pretty good now since I didn’t have a High School Diploma and had not even finished the tenth grade. Up until now I was one naive individual when it came to anything military and fortunate for me I wasn’t alone. I asked him what I needed to do. “First off you will need to go over to personnel and reenlist for at least six years”. Whoa! I’m already thinking about a whole two years away from home and now he says six. “No thanks, I’ll pass on that”. Apparently several guys were offered the same thing but none from my unit that I remember took them up on the offer.
Soon we’d be marching to the various training areas by way of the most perfectly named hills in the country, Agony, Misery and Heart Break where you were sure your nose was going to touch the ground as you humped these hills. As Pvt Furtah drove past us on these hills he’d always send us a friendly birdie, reminding us that we could have been riding too and I am laughing and thinking (if), a word I was soon trying to remove from my vocabulary.
I often think of the Sunday morning when Andy Cutcher and I were returning from the Chapel and were approached by an officer. We both saluted except Andy saluted with his left hand. The officer immediately yelled “give me 50”. Afterwards I asked Andy why he saluted with his left hand. He then says “I had a cigarette in my right hand and couldn’t switch to my left hand fast enough and I didn’t want to throw it away”.
Thanksgiving come with a feast fit for a King along with our first 3 day passes. Most of the guys had family come to visit including me.
By now the rumors had started to come my way that things were not looking good for my personal life back home and at a time when I was beginning to enjoy the training. No “Dear John Letter” yet!
Nearing the end of Basic Training I was asked where I’d like to go if I had a choice. I said “Vietnam” basically a suicide mission.
At the end of Basic I received an accelerated promotion from Pvt E1 to Pvt E2.
I was reassigned to Fort Polk, Louisiana better known at the time as Tigerland USA for AIT (for most that is Advanced Individual Training but for those of us who were sent to Tigerland it was Advanced Infantry Training). It was the main Infantry Training Center for those headed to Vietnam. Except for the actual killing, Tigerland was Vietnam.
I had finished Basic Training in time to be home for Christmas with a twenty two day leave which would give me plenty of time to find out what was going on with my marriage but then tragic struck.
The day after Christmas we received word that my father- in- law, someone who I admired, had taken his own life late Christmas night or early the 26th In Towson, Maryland, over 600 miles away. Now wasn’t the time to start asking a lot of questions but a time to show sympathy.
My parents picked us up and we traveled to Maryland for the funeral and the rest of my 22 day leave was spent comforting someone who I had my doubts about.
The New Year 1967 was celebrated under a heavy cloud.