THE JOYS OF BASIC TRAINING
January 15, 1957 was the day I began my service in the U.S. Army. At that time we had this little thing called the Draft, which required all fit males in America to serve at least two years in the military — except those, of course, who found ways out of it. Most did not, and most completed their duty. Since I qualified for a high security clearance, I choose to enlist directly into the secretive Army Security Agency (ASA) for three years instead of two years in the Infantry (or whatever). I never regretted that choice.
Until that fateful day I had an exciting job in New York that I hated to leave, but as there was no choice I returned to my parents' home in Allentown, Pennsylvania just before Christmas for a few weeks of fun before putting on the uniform.
All new recruits and draftees began their service with Basic Training. Mine was at lovely Fort Jackson, South Carolina, just outside the state capital of Columbia, and lasted until March 23, 1957 — just a bit over two months of rigorous experiences. This is how I remember it, over 50 years later:
A high-school friend named Vince was called up at the same time, and we went through Basic together. It began with a train ride from Philadelphia to Washington, which was blanketed in snow at the time. With several hours to kill, we hit the bars near Union Station before boarding the midnight train, a slow sleeper to Columbia SC.
Arriving the next morning, my first impression of this southern city was not a good one. Right at the end of the station platform were two drinking fountains; one nice and the other a primitive mess. The messy one was labeled "Colored." Remember, this was 1957, years before the civil rights movement.
A bus took us to Fort Jackson, where we pledged allegiance and then had our first taste of army chow. The mess hall was like a very basic cafeteria. Above the serving line was a large sign that ordered "Take All You Want — Eat All You Take." The food was actually not too bad, or maybe I was just super hungry. Next, we were taken to another building where we shorn of hair, stripped naked, deloused, and issued uniforms. After which we were assigned to a training unit — mine was Company B, Eighth Battalion, Second Training Regiment.
The barracks that we would call home for the next nine weeks looked like those in the photo above. These were pre-World War II wooden buildings that each housed about a hundred guys. The double-decker bunks were close together, allowing absolutely no privacy at any time. Especially in the latrine, where the toilet bowls were lined up next to each other with no separating panels at all. Well, I thought, grin and bear it, it will all be over soon enough.
One of our first lessons was familiarization with the standard infantry weapon of the time, the M-1 30-calibre rifle, often known as the Garand after its inventor. Besides learning to take care of it, and eventually to shoot it, we also had to be careful NEVER TO CALL IT A GUN. Doing so resulted in the cruelest of penalties — having to stand in front of the company and, pointing to the rife, repeating "This Is My Rife...," then pointing to your crotch and saying "...This Is My Gun," followed by "This Is For Killing," and "This Is For Fun."
Soon we went for a long hike, weighted down with a full pack and rifle. That's me on the left, marching through the sandy pine barrens of Fort Jackson on a cold winter's day back in 1957. Every once in a while we would stop for a five-minute smoke break. At that time nearly everyone smoked, and cigarettes cost only 10¢ a pack at the PX. And there were free ones in the C-Ration meal kits, except they were Lucky Strikes in the Green pack — making them of pre-World-War-II vintage.
Marching, military drill, and physical training wasn't much fun, but it was probably good for us. We did a lot of it those first few weeks. There was also the confidence course, which taught physical prowess, coordination, and endurance by climbing over obstacles and maintaining balance on narrow, elevated logs. And the hated gas drill, where we inched our way through gas-filled rooms while wearing gas masks.
For me, the best part was on the firing range. I was a photographer before being drafted, and photographers usually are good marksmen as they already know how to concentrate on a subject (target), hold a camera (rifle) steady, and gently squeeze the shutter button (trigger). The first actual firing began on the range, with relatively close targets, then progressed to greater distances and finally to simulated combat. The photo to the right shows members of our Company B in transition firing. That's me on the right, yapping away on the field telephone.
For simulated combat we used blanks instead of real bullets. These stung a bit if you got hit, but were otherwise harmless. It was loads of fun, just like being a little kid again. Until, that is, I made a bad mistake. I was to attack with a rifle grenade, which was an explosive missile stuck on the end of the rifle barrel. Shooting it required holding the rifle in a certain position so as not to get hit with the recoil. But in the heat of battle I held it up tp my eye, as with regular ammunition, and fired. The result was a badly bruised face and one black eye. This did not get me out of pressing on, however.
One fine winter day in February we went on bivouac, otherwise known as camping in the woods. Having been a Boy Scout, I was familiar with this, but here we did not have real tents. Instead, we had "shelter halves." This was just a piece of canvas which, when joined to another one, could be used as a crude, makeshift shelter (photo, left). Fortunately, my shelter mate was smart enough to dig a small ditch around our "tent," just in case it rained. It poured that night, and then the temperature fell to below freezing and the water turned to ice. But we were snug and dry inside. For breakfast that morning we had C-rations — cold canned spaghetti.
The infiltration course was the scariest and most thrilling event in the whole nine weeks. Adding to the drama was the fact that it took place on a dark and rainy night. In this course, you climb up out of a trench and crawl uphill in the mud, sometimes through barbed wire, being VERY careful not to raise your head. Why not? Because right above you is live machine-gun fire. At the top, safely beyond the machine guns, are "enemy" entrenchments, into which you toss a hand grenade, which goes boom. Lots of fun, if a bit messy.
Toward the end we were allowed a weekend pass, which meant going to nearby Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina. A friend and I took a bus there, hit the bars on the main drag, and stayed overnight at a nice hotel next to the Capitol building, I believe it was called the Wade Hampton or something like that. The only booze we could get on post was 3.2 beer, so this trip was a treat.
The only worry that I had all this time was that my security clearance would not be approved, meaning three years in the infantry instead of the Security Agency. But it came through with no problem.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. On March 23rd, 1957, we departed Fort Jackson and flew to Washington, then I continued on to Allentown PA for a short rest before driving north to Fort Devens, just outside of Boston, for further assignment within the Agency.
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