Free Or Not To Be Free (Part III) Boot Camp

     The next morning after chow (breakfast) we were told to fall out when our names were called to meet our Drill Sergeants and get assigned to our training units. I was assigned to Co. D 17th Bn. 5th Div. I was later assigned to the 4th platoon in that company. I remember our Senior drill instructor was not very tall and did not appear that big but when he talked…… everybody listened!! I noticed his smokey- the- bear- hat seemed too large for his head, but his fatigues were immaculate, and the creases were starched extra sharp.


     One of the first things he told us was, “that for the next 8 weeks, he was going to be our mamas and papas” and that we belonged to him, not even God himself could help us. Coming from a Christian home I knew better, but I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe he had gotten special permission from the almighty, at least for the next 8 weeks.


     Someone in the ranks let out a snicker. “ Who the blanket-blank thought that was funny”? “Whoever laughed I want you front and center right now or the whole platoon will suffer”! The Army had their way of dishing out discipline especially when they could not find the guilty party. They would punish everyone and then the peer group would straighten out the culprit. It was very effective. From the rear, I had heard, “It was I, sir.” Well don’t be shy chuckles, step right up here”! The recruit broke ranks double-timed up and stood in front of the senior DI. ” Do you think I am a funny man recruit”, said the drill sergeant. “No sir,” said the recruit. ” Quit calling me sir, I work for a living.” “You will address me as yes drill sergeant or no drill sergeant; is that clear recruit?” “Yes, drill sergeant”, said the recruit. “Now drop and give 25 push-ups and sound off; I will not call my drill sergeant sir”!


     Then he announced to the rest of the company; “ if anyone thought they were tougher, meaner, or badder than him, they could have one free try behind the barracks.” No one took him up on his offer. I was surprised because we had some huge southern boys from W. Virginia in our outfit.


     About the 3d week, our DI made the offer again. He had heard that a cocky young man from the Detroit area had been making comments that hand-to-hand combat was a bunch of hooey and, none of the DI’s were a match for the Karate he had been taking for several years. So when the Drill Sergeant made the offer the young man had no choice but to step up to the plate. Of course, the match could not be seen by the platoon because it was against regulations for a non-commissioned officer to lay a hand on a recruit. So off they went behind one of the barracks while we were given the order to stand at ease. It must have been 10 or 15 minutes when our drill sergeant appeared from around the barracks dragging the recruit behind him. The young man came to his senses and jumped to his feet, his clothes were dirty and in disarray. He was ordered back into the ranks as a hush fell over the platoon. No one ever challenged our DI again. That night we all huddled around the young man to get all the sordid details. He waved us off saying that he was sworn to secrecy for the remainder of boot camp. After graduation day we found out that there was not just one DI, but three behind the barracks that cleaned his clock. 


     From that point on it was exhausting non-stop vigorous physical and mental training. Each day we would be awakened at 5 a.m. to the sound of our Drill Instructor’s voice, and then we had 30 minutes to shower, shave, get dressed, and then fall out in the formation area where roll call would be held. From there we would double time for one mile where we would end up at the mess hall to eat breakfast within 30 minutes and return to the company area for formation again. We then had another 30 minutes to make sure our bunks were made properly and our clothes and foot lockers were in the proper order. By this time it was around 7 am and then it was off to the parade grounds where we would engage in PT for the next hour, rain or shine. The rest of the day was filled with classrooms and field training. This would be a typical day for the next 8 weeks except for Sundays. There were specialty classes as well, first aid, hand-to-hand combat, obstacle courses, rifle range, biological warfare, etc. At least Sunday was not as active as the rest of the week unless you were assigned to KP (kitchen patrol) or CQ runner, otherwise, you had some free time to write home or go to church. We were not allowed to leave the company area on our own, until the 7th week when we were given post privileges.


    Everywhere you went you were required to be in the proper uniform, unless instructed otherwise. For a recruit, this meant Olive Drab fatigues. Mail call was a special time for many GIs, especially when that was the only time we were able to hear from our families and friends. Phone calls were not allowed. All of us were back in the barracks after a day of the usual activities. I had taken my uniform shirt and hat off when someone stuck their head in the door and yelled, “Mail call”! Without any forethought, I bolted out of the barracks and headed over to the Mail room which was by the orderly room (company office), and ran smack dab into a D.I. from another platoon. I attempted to steer around him and leave the area, but it was too late……….he had me. “Stop right there recruit!”, “Where do you think you are going”? “To the mail room,” I stammered. “Not out of uniform you’re not, get down and give me 20 push-ups,” he ordered. I complied. After the 20 push-ups, he ordered me into the prone push position, and for the next 10 minutes had me roll over, stand up, and back to the prone position. He repeated this over and over for at least 10 minutes. Finally, he ordered me back to my barracks to retrieve my hat and shirt. Out of breath, I hurried as fast as I could back to the barracks fearful that I would run into another D.I. From then on I was never caught out of uniform again.


     The Army loves inspections. I think it’s because they need to look at us at our best every once in a while. The trouble with inspections especially a General inspection there isn’t any communication between the top and lower brass about what they want to inspect. Everything from wall and foot lockers to the latrine and outside grounds was subject to be looked over. Everything is going to be inspected and scrutinized. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone when the DI said; “ all butt cans had to be painted red and stenciled with black letters “BUTTS”. I was assigned to the detail to paint them. Upon going to our company’s paint locker we discovered we had no red paint. It either had been overlooked on the requisition form or pilfered. Now the Army has a method they use when they don’t have the time to reorder an item. It’s called relocation. So when we went to the sergeant to tell him our dilemma he simply said,” Relocate it”! Everyone who has served knows of this method. It’s a form of stealing, but legally you are not held accountable for your actions, because technically you are not removing it from government property. And what you relocate today very well could be relocated from you tomorrow. So that is exactly what we did and the cigarette butt cans looked great. 


     Our drill instructor requested that we replace the bare spots in the side lawn with sod. Right away we thought of relocating. We grabbed 2 or 3 shovels and off to the parade ground we went, hidden under the darkness of night of course. The next morning he had us standing tall in front of him. The General of the base drove by and saw all the sod missing, and was calling over Ft. Knox wanting to know who vandalized his beautiful parade ground. Our drill instructor explained to us in a very loud voice when relocating it is important to always assess where the material is coming from, and more importantly who it belongs to. 


     The following morning at formation our DI asked for volunteers to drive trucks. I and 3 others raised our hands. ” Good meet me right after muster”, he said. I forgot the cardinal rule of don’t volunteer for anything. He led us around to the back of the barracks where he had two wheelbarrows and two shovels waiting for us. He said, “Here are your trucks you can take turns driving them”! You guessed it we were detailed to fill in the bare spots on the parade grounds.


     In the 6th week, we were introduced to the infamous gas chamber. We had been hearing about it from the beginning of boot camp. And dreading it also. A few days before we had been given instructions in biological warfare, which included how to properly administer our gas masks in case of a gas attack. The Army always scheduled activities that might make you sick soon after eating a meal. So, the gas chamber was no different. 


     Right after eating lunch, we were marched over to the gas chamber, where we were given instructions on what would take place. The gas being used for instruction was tear gas. We would put on our gas masks before entering the gas chamber. Then we would file in one by one down several short corridors that turned to the left and right until we came to an instructor. He then would instruct the three of us to remove our masks, with our eyes open, and yell as loud as we could our name, rank, and serial numbers. Then he would release us to leave the gas chamber.


     It sounds simple, and maybe it should have been. But, sometimes anxiety takes over and your memory sometimes goes blank. It didn’t matter if you were the first or the third person. If someone messed up you were all in trouble because you were trying not to breathe in any of the gas. You had to wait for all to complete the task to leave the chamber. I was last in our trio. The first guy did ok, but the second had some trouble getting his serial number out, and after a couple of tries he managed to blurt it out. Now remember we are trying to hold our breath, but the gas is burning our eyes and causing us to lose our vision. Plus it is causing even more stress to an already stressful situation, which makes you want to breathe even more. To be honest I only remember getting my name out and then I heard the instructor say; “GO”! We then stumbled and pushed each other down the twisting hallways and out the door!


     What we saw and heard after leaving the chamber was even more shocking. Through blurred vision, we saw grown men coughing, crying, spitting, and vomiting as they knelt or lay on the ground in a prone position.. Snot and drool covered their tear-stained faces as they fought to catch all of the fresh air they could. I soon found myself not any better off than them. 


     Bivouac came in our seventh week. This was a grueling double-time march for (x) amount of miles ( we thought it was around 50, but it was probably more like 10) up one of two steep inclines nicknamed; Agony or Misery with full field gear on. At the top was the bivouac area where we would camp. I did well until we got halfway up Misery, and well I started to feel exactly that and was falling behind. It was then our Company Commander saw that I was struggling and came alongside me where he coaxed and encouraged me to keep pushing on. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity we crested the top of the hill. I didn’t finish where I originally began in the ranks but I finished. What a great feeling! Failing might have meant recycling.


     Then it happened, someone in the front hollered out “GAS!” All of us still gasping for air started frantically groping for our gas mask pouches to try to retrieve the masks. Finally, I got mine out pulled it down on my head, tightened all the straps, took in a deep breath, and exhaled it out. I felt the air “woosh” by my skin and the rubber on the mask. Good! It sealed, and now I could breathe normally.


     Firewatch was something I never did understand. If chosen you were given a two-hour time slot during the night in which you would roam the barracks or the bivouac area to check for fires. After we set up camp the platoon leader told me I drew the 2-4 am shift for fire watch. Shortly after we had settled in our shelter halves for the night it started an all-night rain. I thought to myself; ‘why do we need a firewatch in such a downpour”? “Ours is not to wonder why, Ours is to do or die”! I was woken by the fire watch before me at 2 am. Drudgingly I crawled out of my sleeping bag and out in the pouring rain I went. Cold and shivering at around 3:30 am I set my watch ahead to 4 am and woke up the next watch. I crawled back into my tent and my nice warm sleeping bag. I never heard anything about the difference in the extra half-hour the other watch would have had to make up.


     We were given base privileges on the 7th and 8th weeks of basic. Even though we were limited to only a few hours it was great to get away from the company area. Some would go to the post exchange, others to the serviceman’s club, and still others to the golf course or bowling alley. I was invited to tag along with some of the older guys from W. Virginia. They would go to the golf course where we could drink beer and wouldn’t get caught by any of the Dis. One of our instructions was that we were not to drink alcoholic beverages. Up to this point in my life, I had never drunk any such beverages. 


     We were all sitting around the table at the golf club when a waitress came to our table and asked what would we have. She started taking orders from the older guys who ordered a pitcher of beer and four glasses. When the order came one of the guys started pouring each glass and then handing it over to each of us. Not wanting to look like the “kid” I was I took a sip like the others. Later in life, this would be a choice I would regret over and over. But for now, I thought it was the best feeling I ever experienced. I do remember thinking; “This stuff tastes terrible.” But when alcohol starts to seep into your brain, and that warm fuzzy feeling takes hold, taste is no longer an issue. When the club closed we headed over to the bowling alley and finished out our time there. None of us bowled we just sat at a table and drank until it was time to get back. We got back 10 minutes ahead of time and headed off to our bunks as quietly as we could to avoid our DI. 


     Finally, graduation day arrived. After this we would no longer be considered recruits, but United States Army soldiers! About two weeks before we were told to write our parents or our loved ones of the date and time of graduation so they could be there. Even though I knew it was doubtful my dad could make it I was still hopeful. It was a grand event as each company marched onto the parade grounds and in front of the spectator stands, as the people stood up and clapped and cheered us on. We were told to keep our eyes straight ahead but I sneaked a peak in hopes I would see my father in the stands. He wasn’t. 


     After the ceremony, we all checked the bulletin board in the company area for our next duty station. Just about all the drafted soldiers were going to infantry training. I felt for them because it meant most would end up in the Republic of Vietnam. I looked at the board for my name. Finally, I found it. By name, it said Fort Huachuca, Arizona. I heard myself asking the DI, “Where in the heck is that”? He said, “Don’t worry you will love it!” Oh well, I thought, the next stop was Fort Hooachoooca. That isn’t the way it is pronounced, as I would soon find out.


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