The older part of Fort Ord
Revile reverberated through my skull like the sound of a blacksmith pounding on an anvil. Probably worse as the loudspeaker was directly outside the open window behind my bunk. And, it didn’t help that it was scratchy and overcome by the sound from speakers further away.
Of course, our barracks sergeant arrived to admonish us that it was time to rise and shine. “Git yer lazy rear ends outta them bunks! Hit the floor! Ya got exactly fifteen minutes ta git yer stuff done and fall out in front of the barracks!”
Now, I have to admit to my readers my slight advantage over my fellow ‘Cruits. During World War Deuce, my dad had been an LA cop and mom was a Rosie The Riveter. [I still couldn’t get over the fact they weren’t my real parents and had spent 18 years lying to me.] They sent me to a boarding school called Page Military Academy. There, I learned about military life to include all the appropriate bugle calls, military protocols, how to stand and march, even the Manual of Arms for weapons. We lived in barracks-type conditions and went through the exact same things we were being called upon to do then.
One of the guys forgot he was in a top bunk and ended up flat on his face on the floor. Of course, the barracks sergeant came to assist him to his feet with a few well-chosen admonitions. That soldier earned the name of Fall on Yer Face - probably for the remainder of his basic training.
“Boy, they sure keep this place clean. Must have a heck of a janitor.”
I almost choked when I heard one of the “Cruits say that. He’d proudly told everyone he’d lived on a produce farm out in The San Fernando Valley.
I knew what to do and quickly splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth, donned my OG socks, pants and blouse - we never wore shirts. After Lights Out the night before, I’d sat on my footlocker using a small flashlight I’d bought in the Exchange store to finish polishing my brass belt buckle and brown boots. When the sergeant told us to “Fall out!” I was first out the door. I immediately saw the small white lines painted in the middle of the street and found the same spot I’d been in during our march to the barracks. I stood there At Ease while our sergeant carefully instructed the others where to stand, going a bit further to explain the proper posture - as well as “suggesting” what minor infractions in uniform wear certain members had performed.
I knew to stand At East until called to Attention. Feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind my back, upper torso slightly relaxed, able to look around and talk - UNLESS one was a ‘Cruit at which time one kept one's mouth closed.
When the vast majority of my fellow ‘Cruits had no idea what to do, we went through a fifteen minute lesson on the proper way of standing at attention.
Heels together, toes as a forty-five degree angle. Knees slightly bent. Stomach in. Chin tight. Eyes straight to the front. Hands down at your sides, thumbs on the seam of your pants. Do not - I repeat - do not look around or speak to the individual next to you.
Our barracks sergeant paid particular attention to Fall on Yer Face as well as others who could not manage to get outside in a timely manner. The rest of us were told “At ease!”
The fuzzy sound of another bugle call brought the formation to Attention, followed by the order “Pree-sent Harms!”
I saw the sergeant cringe at a goodly number of my fellow ‘Cruits who didn’t know which hand to salute with. A couple had watched too many British movies because they tried it with the palm out.
The Star Spangled Banner blurred through the air, overwhelmed by other loudspeakers far in the distance. One note sounded close, then again several blocks over and yet again further on until the last note sounded way up on the hill. And, when it was over where we were, several men in my formation dropped their salutes, the rest of us holding on until the final note sounded from the nether-lands.
“Hor-der Harms!” That was followed by a question. “Who told you to stop saluting? You do not honor our National Anthem? What is wrong with you, ‘Cruit?” That was followed with an order to “Drop and give me twenty!” The ‘Cruit dropped to his hands and feet, struggling to perform the 20 push-ups.
Knowing there was no way the platoon knew how to march in formation, the sergeant finally ordered, “Route Step, MARCH!” and told me to lead the way to the mess hall. Without expecting it, I’d become the platoon Guidon.
Having lived on a ranch, I was used to hearty breakfasts. After getting my tray and utensils, I walked down the line and watched as cooks piled on scrambled eggs, potatoes, bacon, small pancakes and toast. There were pats of butter and maple syrup along with grape jelly. A small carton of juice and a larger one of milk. There were cups and several huge urns for those who drank coffee.
I did notice the sergeants ate the same food as we, even though they sat together in a special section.
At the end of thirty minutes, the sergeant came and told the few who’d not finished to pick up their trays and follow him. There was a place to scrape the left over food from the plates, rinse them in a dirty tub of water, then drop the trays in one place, silverware in another, and our drinking vessels in another.
We spent an hour on instructions how to stand in formation, follow commands and even march. [I had to fight back snickering at the few who had two left feet.] We also heard how we were expected to have shined boots and polished brass. For those who did not understand the latter, they were detailed to polish the metal fixtures in the latrine. For those who didn’t understand polishing boots, they got to polish the floor - on their hands and knees with tooth brushes.
We were then marched to a building where we received cloth name tags. We marched back to the barracks, given five minutes to gather our blouses and jackets, then marched to another building where name tags and patches were sewn on.
With that out of the way, we returned to the barracks where the sergeant individually “instructed” us on how to arrange our footlockers and wall lockers. There was a closet with five steam irons and ironing boards and we were given the opportunity to press our uniforms - at least those who knew what an iron was.
There was no way the barracks sergeant was going to teach us what we needed to do in such a short time. His job was to give us the basics so we wouldn’t make complete fools of ourselves.
Oh yeah, the Rube who’d asked how the barracks had been so clean learned when the sergeant detailed him and others to clean the latrine and polish the floors - yes, they had one of those big floor polishers and cans of floor polish. And one did not simply drape a mop anywhere to dry - there was a very specific way of rinsing it and then placing it in its designated place to dry - along with brooms, dust pans and rags.
Lunch was filling and we had time afterward to go to the Exchange store to buy a few extra things we hadn’t realized we needed. Most importantly, it was time to follow the drawing on exactly how things were to be placed in our foot and wall lockers. Oh yes, each of us had to buy combination padlocks.
We fell out for Retreat and then marched to the mess hall for dinner. I wondered what we were going to do after that and wasn’t disappointed when they marched us to a theater where we and another platoon of ’Cruits spent two hours watching movies on The Code of Conduct and History of the US Army.
While some guys flaked out on their bunks back in the barracks, I sat on my footlocker reading the field manual they’d issued us along with the rest of our stuff. I also knew that what we’d been given to that point was just a start.
I lay on my bunk thinking about the day just passed when the sounds of Taps came through the night air. Somehow the soft, even sad notes, were clear instead of fuzzy like the rest.
So far, so good.
OFF TO BASIC TRAINING
I found it much easier to roll out of the sack the next morning. Our barracks sergeant of course found fault with no few of us and even Fall on Yer Face made it out to formation with us. We underwent the usual inspection, none of us meeting the sergeant’s expectations. After the flag was raised, we marched in step [almost] to the mess hall. Much to our surprise, we were marched back to the barracks afterward where the sergeant spent an hour showing us how to repack our duffel bags so the clothing would not become wrinkled.
Once all the duffels were packed and padlocked, we were ordered to heft them on our shoulders and fall out. Six or seven 45 passenger army buses sat there and we were loaded into one. [It just happened there were 40 of us in the barracks bay.] Once all the buses were loaded, we drove out of the processing area and up a long hill to new buildings erected in two orderly rows.
These would be our living quarters while taking basic training. I don’t remember exactly how it was organized but it seems to me each floor held a training company of four platoons of 40 ‘Cruits and each building held a training battalion. The ground floor had a mess hall, an orderly room for each company, three day rooms, and laundry facilities. I managed to claim an upper bunk near the door leading to the latrine.
“Secure yer duffels to your bunks and fall in!”
We hurried to comply - some less swift and garnering “Drop ‘n gimme 20!”
We were then led to the same stairway we’d entered - I think we were on the 3rd floor - and marched downstairs and into the mess hall. The other two companies were just ahead of us in the training cycle so they got to eat before us. But, there was lots and lots of food left.
We were then given the afternoon to “police our areas” a term for making our foot and wall lockers meet the exacting standards directed by our new DI.
I doubt anyone else fully appreciated who would be in charge of turning raw ‘Cruits into soldiers. Our Drill Instructor had five stripes of a a Sergeant First Class on his sleeves. He also had five service stripes showing 15 years’ service along with foreign service bars showing a lot of combat time. His Fruit Salad indicated a man who’d been there and done that. A Silver Star earned for some truly heroic action. A Purple Heart ribbon with two little things showing he’d been wounded three times. I later learned another ribbon was for two awards of the Bronze Star. When I checked it out on a chart outside the Day Room [which we were only allowed to use after showing we earned the privilege], I saw he’d served in Korea on a whole lot of campaigns.
Unlike the four-stripe Staff Sergeant in the processing area, our Drill Instructor did not need to shout to catch one’s attention. He had a way of getting into your face and speaking in a reasonable tone that made you shiver and wish to find a hole to climb into. I never heard him use a single world of profanity - until some idiot turned on the firing line and pointed a loaded M-1 rifle in the direction of the soldier standing next to him. Even then, after the initial outburst, he calmed to quietly and effectively dress down the individual so the rest of us could hear - and learn.
The first thing he pointed out was a bulletin board on the wall next to the door. “You will all check the board every time you come near this door. It will list the classes for the next day and, most importantly, the names of those selected for various details.”
Guard duty? What on earth? With what? And where?
KP or Kitchen Police I knew. That meant working in the mess hall.
Latrine Duty was also self-evident.
“You know military drill?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
“Good. When we fall out, you will take the 2nd platoon Guidon position.”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
When the sergeant yelled for us to fall out, I ran downstairs and quickly found my spot. The three other platoons were almost formed up and a sergeant with six stripes and a diamond in the middle, our First Sergeant, gave my fellow soldiers dirty looks for failing to do the same. For the first time, we saw our officers. Three Platoon Leaders, lieutenants with silver bars, stood slight ahead of the platoon sergeants with another, the Company Commander wearing two silver bars in front of all with the six-striper slightly behind him, another officer with a gold bar slightly to one side.
Ours was the middle of three companies. We were put At Ease and our DI’s walked through each platoon to make minor “adjustments” in our posture and uniforms. How could men not see how others wore their headgear? Did they think they could make theirs individual?
The company commander then asked the first sergeant to “Call the Role.” Each platoon leader passed that to their sergeants who then barked the names of each individual from a list on a clipboard. [Not a computer - an actual piece of wood with a clasp to hold papers.] Each ‘Cruit called out “Present, Sergeant” until all answered. The sergeant then reported the results to the platoon leader who then reported that to the company commander.
A bugle call came through the loudspeakers and began a routine I would become very familiar during the following weeks. A sergeant major standing with the battalion commander [a lieutenant colonel] called “Stand At Aten-shun.” Each first sergeant followed suit, echoed by each platoon sergeant. The sergeant major then ordered “Present Arms!” at which the order was echoed and we raised our hands to our forehead in the hand salute. We held it during the playing of the National Anthem, at which we heard “Order Arms” and dropped our hands.
The officers then turned the companies over to the sergeants who inspected us once again, “suggesting” changes in our recent responses. The other two companies were dismissed and the men streamed inside to the mess hall. Our platoon was the last to be released as we had far more infractions to be corrected - often accompanied by many commands of “Drop and gimme twenty!”
Again, the food was filling and high-energy in content. Some of the older men complained about it but the newbies like me found nothing to complain about.
And then, after breakfast, came the part all of us awaited - issuance of our weapons and field gear.
The list is rather lengthy so I’ll cut it down to a few items all of us couldn’t survive without. A poncho to hold off the rain. A shelter half - or one half of a tent to share in the field with another soldier. Web belt, backpack, entrenching tool [a nice name for a folding shovel] and, most important of all, our mess gear. There was also our helmet and helmet cover and a first aid pack.
But, that wasn’t all. We went to a barred door and, after showing our ID card and dog tags, we signed a sheet and were handed an M-1 Garand Rifle with bayonet, bayonet sheath and weapon cleaning kit.
Rifle, M-1 Garand - the basic infantry weapon
We were told, quite firmly, we were to memorize our weapon’s serial number as firmly as our individual serial number.
Now, in truth - we were soldiers!
Four racks for our weapons stood in the center of each bay.
“You will sling your weapon over your right shoulder with the muzzle pointing downwards. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
When our less than gusty reply dissatisfied him, the DI shouted, “Are you a bunch of weenie little children? Let me hear you.”
“YES, DRILL SERGEANT.”
When all did as directed - two ‘Cruits slinging them over the left shoulder, of course - the DI ordered us to sit on our foot lockers. “Pay attention, ‘Cruits. I am going to show you how to break down your weapon, clean it, then reassemble it.” He paused, then asked, “Has any of you ever owned or fired a weapon?”
I was one of three who raised our hands.
“Come forward and watch closely what I am about to do.”
We complied. I stared in amazement as he broke the weapon down in what seemed a matter of seconds.
He first turned it over and pulled up on the trigger guard to remove the trigger group.
He then broke the weapon into two pieces.
“This is called Field Stripping. Each of you will do as I did and then show it to the people on either side of you.”
Having owned and used rifles while living on the ranch, I quickly learned how to break down the weapon. I then bit my lip as the guy to my right couldn’t figure out how to remove the trigger group.
Once everybody had their weapons field stripped, the DI pulled out the cleaning kit from the butt of the stock of his weapon. It held a small can of oil and a rod. He had us do the same and we removed a small piece of cloth from our cleaning kits and he showed us how to put it into the end of the rod.
He was surprisingly patient with those who had never before held any kind of weapon. He didn’t even yell at the three who kept calling them “guns.”
“This is not a gun, recruits. This is a rifle. You will refer to it as a weapon.” He further explained that guns were artillery pieces. “When you go into combat, this will save your life and the lives of your companions. You must learn to treat it more carefully than your wives or girlfriends.”
I wondered about that. Going into combat? Korea was over and we didn’t have anything brewing that I knew of.
He then went up and down the barracks, stopping to ask every one of us our name, rank, serial number and the serial number of our weapon. He also inspected each weapon, pointing our where pieces of Cosmoline had not been cleaned away. [That’s the waxy stuff they smeared all over weapons when storing or shipping them.] He managed to find the tiniest motes of dust in the darndest places.
When it was time for the evening flag lowering, we were told to stack our weapons in the racks and fall out. As it was our third time, we did so faster. He told us before dismissing us for chow that, as the next day was Sunday, we would fall out wearing our khaki uniforms.
I’d heard a lot of stories about Army food. So far, everything they’d served us had been okay. Not exactly haute cuisine but good, filling meat and potatoes type food. There was always soup, a main entrée and dessert for dinner. The baked goods were fresh and often oven-warm. With nothing pending, we could take our time.
For those of you who have never had the pleasure of dining in a military cafeteria, let me explain it to you.
First, you move into a single file from your parade formation and make your way into the mess hall. There is a huge stack of metal trays laid out that look like most frozen foods from your grocery story (at least four times bigger.) You pick one up and work your way down a line of steam tables with huge containers of food. A soldier stands behind each item and slops his food into the appropriate section of your tray. In some cases, an actual cook will slice or portion out the main meat. Just beyond the steam tables is where you pick up a cup or glass to fill at the appropriate dispenser – lots and lots of milk or thick black coffee. You then continue to follow the line to the table assigned to your squad. There will be condiments on the table, just the bare necessity. Once you clean every little crumb on your tray, you take it to an area where you place it on a pile, dropping your utensils and drink container in the appropriate place.
You are then either free to find the assigned area to have a smoke or return to your squad bay.
I know my bunk mate and I came from different backgrounds. I’d been raised in the Mormon church and kinda found it hard to melt in with those who were “Gentiles,” as we called them.
One thing surprised me. There were six or seven Negros [that’s what we called them in the 50’s, nothing racist about it] and several Latinos. Being in the army broke down any barriers. We were recruits trying to adjust to massive changes in our lives and we turned to anyone who could help us get along. Our ten man squad was mixed and we hung together as we knew we’d be going through a lot of stuff together.
As in our bay, the mess hall had a bulletin board. Before leaving, I stopped at it, finding a small notice in one corner indicating where one could fall out the next morning for church services. There was a place for Jewish personnel that evening after chow. There was even a Mormon church service.
We had no idea what to do. We had until nine o’clock to be in bed but didn’t have enough money to do much more. Monday was the first of July, meaning payday for those who had any coming. For those further along in the cycle, buses ran through the training area to take them to the base theaters - I think there were four or five of them - and the Enlisted Club. As for newbies like us, it was either the company Day Room or our bunks. I wandered to the Day Room to find it had a small library of paperback books and magazines along with a pool table [always in use], several tables for card players and a color television set.
Duple had been an inveterate card player, dragging me to many of her “hen sessions” to make a fourth, so I picked a table looking for a fourth and quickly learned the basics of Pinochle. Two tables were playing poker using matchsticks instead of money. But, I quickly learned the stakes were for real.
As Taps played that evening, I lay in my bunk and thought being in the army wasn’t going to be all that difficult. Just follow the rules, listen to the DI and do my best to stay out of trouble.