44

True Tales

 

Making Me a Man

by Frank Thomas Smith

 

During the Korean War I was drafted into the army where I got my first whiff of how class conscious it is. It was a draftee army then, which is different from a volunteer army because the former is made up of people from all walks of life, not only those dumb enough to join of their own volition. We were being “processed” at Fort Dix in New Jersey and suddenly a dozen of us were bussed without warning or knowing why to the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn. But not to check in. Half of us were led into the basement by a grumbling sergeant and told to load officers’ suitcases onto waiting commercial busses, which certainly had better springs than our G.I. version. There must have been a hundred or more garment-bags – not duffle bags, mind you – which we dutifully but carelessly threw, hoping to break something, through a head-high window, where they were retrieved by the other half dozen grunts, who then dutifully but even more carelessly dragged them to the busses cargo sections and loaded them. At the same time the young officers in dress uniforms (we were in fatigues of course) were boarding the busses. When we finished I stood on tiptoe at the window and watched the last bus start to drive off. One of the officers happened to look down my way and our eyes met. It was Clyde Jones, an until-that-moment friend from my Brooklyn neighborhood. One of the dumbest guys I knew, probably ROTC from college. That was a preview of what was to come. I mean couldn’t those guys even carry their own bags? And: why should we? Because we were privates, that’s why.


After a couple of weeks at Fort Dix doing menial work for officers, I was sent to Camp Breckinridge, KY (Kentucky, for God’s sake) for basic training. I was nineteen, considered just the right age for cannon fodder. The war had been going on for a long time and as tours of duty were eighteen months there was a constant rotation of troops, including noncoms and officers. Our basic training division, the101st Airborne (not airborne at the time, but it looked great on the return address and we wore the “Screaming Eagle” shoulder patch) was very short of noncoms, unfortunately, and officers, luckily. We had a First Lt. lawyer as Company Commander, whom we saw only mornings at reveille, an old-timer First Sergeant with a pot belly who mostly stayed in the office and a young Sgt. First Class as Field First. And that was it!


I don’t remember the First Sergeant’s or the C.C.’s names, but I remember Field First Sgt. Silas Taylor very well. He was only twenty-two years old and already had two combat tours under his belt. He had a bunch of ribbons (they said) but never wore them, which was a good sign. He was average height, very thin with a protruding adam’s apple and nose and was a top notch professional soldier who spoke (and yelled) with a high voice in an uneducated southern drawl.


The first day we fell out in a mob at five in the morning in front of Sgt. Taylor. He looked us over with obvious disgust. “Okay, men, if I may use the term, see that thar hill?” He pointed to a ragged slope about five-hundred yards away. Two hundred heads turned right, glanced at the hill and back at the Sgt. A wise guy yelled out, “Sure, Sarge, what about it?”


“Who said that?”


No one answered.


After a pregnant silence, Sgt. Taylor said, “Y’all gonna be here four months and ya ain’t gonna get no passes, not a one a ya, if the guy who said that don’t step forard like RIGHT  NOW!”


A dark handsome guy stepped forward. “I can’t tell a lie, sergeant, I said it.”


Sgt. Taylor stared at him like someone who had just insulted his mother. “What’s ya name?”


“Agnelo.”


“Spic or Guinea?”


“Guinea, Sarge,” Agnelo answered without skipping a beat, “on my father’s side. My mother was…”


“Shut up!” Everyone laughed. Even Sgt. Taylor smiled, a good sign. “K.P. for a week.” And before Agnelo had a chance to retort: “Follow me to the topa that thar hill, all a y’all.” He turned and sprinted for the hill.


We followed all right, but with new combat boots on it was hard going uphill. Sgt. Taylor was waiting for us at the top as we straggled up in clots, panting. When the last man finally arrived (I was somewhere in the middle), Sgt. Taylor looked us over. “A piss poor performance.” (Long pause) “My name is Sgt. First Class Silas Taylor. I’ve been in this army for five years and in Korea twice. For the next four months I’m your mother, father, boss and absolute ruler. You will do whatever I say and do it gladly, cause if y’all don’t you’ll probally get yer asses shot off in Korea where y’all’ll be goin real soon. I’m gonna make men and soldiers outa y’all, whether you like it or not. That’s my duty. And if you do what I say – always – we’re gonna get along just fine. If y’all or any of you don’t do it like ah say, you’ll be fuckin’ me cause then ah can NOT do mah duty. (pause) In which case, ah’ll have to fuck y’all. And you can believe me when ah say that ah kin fuck ya’ll much better than y’all can fuck me. And that includes you, Agnelo.


He was right.


There were some real characters in the Company – as there are in any group worth its salt. Take Dumbo. I forget his real name, but he became Dumbo because, well, he was pretty dumb and had the ears to match. We were in old World War II barracks made of warped wood. The Kentucky winter wind whipped through the slats under the windows and doors and would have made sleep impossible if we hadn’t been so exhausted at night and hadn’t slept in our long underwear and three pairs of socks. A big problem was heating, theoretically performed by clunky prewar coal furnaces in the basements. A man was assigned each night to keep them going. But after a long day of running, marching, shooting and calisthenics the young warrior inevitably fell asleep in the only warm place in the barracks. He had the next day off in order to sleep. They should have given him the previous day off, but no one thought of that. The furnace invariably went out and we woke in the morning with frost covering our blankets. Colds, running noses, fevers and days spent in the infirmary were the result.


During the second week Dumbo was on duty in the basement and we woke the next morning warm as toast. Luckily Sgt. Taylor’s room was in our barracks and he praised Dumbo as an angel sent from G.I. heaven to help the war effort. From that night on Dumbo was our permanent furnace cadre, promoted to Acting Sgt. We thought he should have been Acting General. Dumbo applied for Special Forces, a newly formed elite unit; you know, “green berets”, and he was accepted. Maybe they'd found out about his furnace tending talent. “Acting”, by the way, meant that after basic training all our “actings” reverted to privates, and we had them aplenty.


On the second day Sgt. Taylor asked if anyone of us slobs had military experience. I thought of saying that I had been a Boy Scout but, anticipating the guffaws it would engender, remained silent, as did everyone. I also remembered my veteran Uncle Tom’s words of wisdom: keep a low profile and never volunteer for anything! So Sgt. Taylor simply appointed the oldest men to be cadre – the oldest being a 25 year old policeman. We had acting Assistant Squad Leaders (should be Corporals) Squad Leaders (should be sergeants) and Platoon Leaders (should be lieutenants) – all reporting to the only real soldier in the company: Field First Sergeant Silas Taylor. Actually all that ignorance and inexperience worked quite well because we won the Division “best company” award every month. The other companies were also very short of cadre, but they didn’t have Sgt. Silas Taylor.


Then there was Magarino – a Puerto Rican joker with a Spanish accent which made his jokes that much funnier. He had a beautiful bushy black mustache, which they made him shave off. He was devastated. “Why they make me do such a mean thing?” he shouted at us in the barracks. “My wife will not know me. And what if I lose my sex drive? And then they say: Sound off like you got a pair of balls!”  He was in his underwear and pulled his pants down and cradled his privates. “I ask: Do I have a pair of balls or not?” He didn’t notice Sgt. Taylor standing in the doorway until someone pointed to him. “Oh, How you, sergeant? How many push-ups I gotta do?”


“None, Magarino,” Sgt. Taylor said with a sardonic grin. “And don’t worry bout your mustache. It’ll come back on its own with a hard on.” (pause) “That is if the gooks don’t shoot your prick off.” He turned and went into his room.


Magarino fell on his back. “Oh croool destino!”


If you’re looking for sex in this history, forget it. The closest I got was a couple of one-day passes to the nearest town, so small and dull that I forget its name. There was a USO there though, which was the only thing we could afford. Coffee was free, soft drinks cheap, no booze, not even the 3 point 2 piss-like beer they served at the club on base. There was dancing on Saturday night and I fell in love (sort of) with a girl there, dark and beautiful – at least to my starved imagination. Those who know me will find it hard to believe, but I was too shy to even ask her to dance. Just sat on the sideline watching her dance with everyone else.    


Surely you will ask if we had objections or at least doubts about the morality of that war. The answer is no. We didn’t even think of it - except Agnelo. The doubts, objections, demonstrations and fleeing to Canada only started during the Viet Nam War. This sounds hard to understand today, but remember that we weren’t far from the end of World War II in which America was the good guy against the Nazis, Japs, fascists. We were in the middle of the Cold War and if our leaders said that we had to go to war in Korea to prevent the Communists from taking over the world, who were we to argue? Call that a dumb excuse if you like, and I can only agree with you. Nevertheless, it was true, then.


Most of the things I’ve related here sound funny, but most weren’t when they took place. Memory is very good at generating comedy. The fact is that we were scared of going to war, of being in the “pipeline”, as it was called, to Korea. As it turned out though I didn’t go there, because of sheer luck. Instead I was sent to the Army Language School in Monterey, California – a one year long academic vacation – to study Russian. But even if that had not been the case, I wouldn’t have gone. When basic training ended those of us unlucky enough to have family names the first letter of which corresponded to the first half of the alphabet went to Korea; the rest, the second half of the alphabet, went to Germany. So either way you look at it Germany was inescapably in my karma.


One day they called about twenty of us from the whole Division to “Classification and Assignment”. We didn’t know why. Once seated in an over-heated room, waiting as usual, about to fall asleep, a Master Sergeant appeared. He told us that based on the General Aptitude Test we all took the first week in the army we had an aptitude for learning foreign languages. This surprised me, for I had failed high school Spanish, but that may have been because of an innate aversion to irregular verbs. The Army Language School in Monterey, California had openings for students of Swedish, Russian, Chinese Mandarin and Korean. He passed out forms on which we were to write our first three preferences. Everyone except me understandably put them in that order, thinking of hobnobbing with luscious girls in Stockholm instead of being shot at by the last place Koreans. I was on a Russian authors kick, having recently read Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov” and Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago”, so thinking about how great it would be to be able to read them in the original and hobnob with Lara look-a-likes, I put Russian in first place despite knowing that Russia was behind the Iron Curtain and my chances of ever going there were slim indeed. (I have never gone there.)What the hell, my second place, Swedish, was a good enough fallback option. Wasn’t Ingrid Bergman Swedish?


They called us back to Classification and Assignment two weeks later and informed us that by the time the applications had arrived in Monterey the Swedish course was full, so those who put that language in first place (everyone except me) were rejected. I had been accepted for the Russian course. The remainder now had the opportunity of resubmitting their applications for Korean only, the Russian and Chinese courses also having filled up meanwhile. About half left muttering to themselves, the rest resubmitted their applications. You see there was a catch. We had been drafted for two-year hitches, so after basic training only eighteen months would be left. In order to attend the Language School however, you had to re-enlist after Basic for three years. The ones who signed up for Korean were probably hoping that the war would be over by the time they got there. I walked back to A Company whistling Dixie.


To be more accurate, we did have a couple of noncoms in addition to Sgt. Taylor and the First. They were cooks, Cpl. Sweeney and Sgt. Alphabet (Eastern European name too complicated to pronounce). Cooks are in a separate universe though, known as the Mess Hall. We saw them three times a day at meal times and when on K.P., but otherwise had nothing to do with them – officially. Cpl. Sweeney was a sweet talking black guy and Sgt. Alphabet a non-talking white one. Most Saturday nights poker games were going on in the barracks. Nickels and dimes until only the winners were left, when it could get considerably bigger. Sweeney and Alphabet made the rounds of the various barracks, usually late when everyone was tired, and politely asked if they could play. After the second time they played in my barracks, someone figured out how they were cheating. It was Agnelo the Wiseass. “Look,” he said, “in every poker hand one guy wins and everyone else loses – right?”


“Right.”


“Well, those two guys pool their dough then somehow tip each other off as to whether they got good or bad hands. If Alphabet, for example, knows that Sweeney has a good hand he passes on bets and drops out later. They gotta end up winning. They’re a team.”


“So what we do?”


“When they come in next time start yawning and break up the game. They’ll get the message that we’re on to them.”


They got the message and we never saw Sgt. Alphabet there again. Cpl. Sweeney did come occasionally though and we let him play. He still won, but not as much. He even came to say goodbye when we were leaving at the end of basic. I asked him if they always sent A to Ls to Korea and M to Zs to non-combat zones. He said they alternated; the previous group of M to Zs went to Korea. But, he predicted, the way the war was going the next group would probably all go to Korea. He was a Korean veteran himself and said no way was he going back. He didn’t say how he’d avoid going if they sent him.


Years later I ran into one of the guys I was at basic training with. He had gone to Korea and told me the names of the dead and wounded. One of the KIAs was Ackerman, a skinny little guy who could barely carry his full pack and was often sick. No one picked on him, in fact we helped him as much as we could. He should have been pushing a pencil somewhere instead of dodging bullets in Korea.


There’s a lot more to tell, but I know when it’s time to stop when even my relatives are yawning. So I’ll come to the last day when we were in formation to receive our orders. No wait! I must tell you about guarding stockade prisoners and what happened to Agnelo. There is a link.


A stockade is an army jail – not as bad as Abu Ghraib – but by any measure not nice. Prisoners were sent out of their cells on work details and trainees were assigned to guard them. Sgt. Taylor said it was part of our training, but we suspected we had to do it because there weren’t enough MPs. Rumor had it that if you let them escape you’d have to serve out their sentences. When my turn came I was given a carbine and told to report to the stockade at 6 a.m. I had to wait there two hours until the weak winter sun struggled up over our Camp Breckinridge world. Two guys in unmarked fatigues were assigned to me and I led them – or rather they led me – to a site near the edge of the Camp where they were supposed to dig up and smash rocks. What for I couldn’t guess. At the briefing I was told not to enter into conversation with them (they were sly), not get close or they could take my weapon, and if they tried to escape I should shoot to kill. No kidding. I didn’t know what they were in for, could have been mass murderers or just AWOL. They both had picks and shovels and started to use them on the rocks. I sat on a boulder about ten yards away with my carbine on my knees, safety off. I asked myself what I’d do if they attacked me or ran off. If the latter, probably nothing. They couldn’t get out of the Camp anyway. If the former, yes, I’d shoot them if they didn’t get me first. I was nervous and I didn’t like the whole situation. We’d have to be there the whole morning. I took out a cigarette and lit up. When they saw that they laid down there tools and looked at me hungrily.


“How about a cig, friend?” one of them asked.


I was about to back off a few more yards in order to manipulate two cigarettes out of the pack and still have time to grab the carbine in case they tried something. Then I thought better of it and threw them the whole pack. “Take a couple a piece,” magnanimous me said. The one guy took four from the pack, gave two to his buddy and tossed the pack back. “Got a match?” he said. I tossed him my Zippo. He lit up and inhaled deeply. The other guy put his two into his breast pocket. “I don’t smoke,” he grinned, “but I can trade these for some cake ol’ Junior gets from his mommy.”


I didn’t ask who Junior was.


The short guy took a step towards me with the Zippo held out. “Here’s yer lighter, thanks.”


I stood up and pointed my gun at him. “Don’t come any closer,” I shouted.


He laughed. “Hey, man, don’t get uptight. We’re nice guys, just misunderstood.”


I was shaking all over. “Come closer and I shoot, honest to God.”


“Okay, okay I’m goin’ back, don’t get trigger happy.” He tossed me my Zippo, which fell at my feet. It was a half hour later that I picked it up.


They did about five minutes work every hour. I didn’t care, just wanted the morning to end. “Where ya from, kid?” the tall one asked. I didn’t answer him.


“He’s scared shitless, Jack. Leave him alone,” Shorty said.


“Yeah, maybe when we get out we’ll run into him someplace.”


“Yeah, like Korea.”


“We’re gettin’ out soon, hero,” Shorty said. “They’re emptying out the stockades and sendin’ everyone to Korea. Maybe we’ll see you there.”


“Nah,” Jack said. “We’ll be in a disciplinary company, that’s what they say anyway. This fairy’ll probably be dead by the time we get there.” They doubled up laughing.


As time went by I began to feel silly. Those guys were probably harmless – at least in this situation.


Finally it was twelve o’clock. “Okay, let’s go back,” I said.


“Whatever you say, hero,” Jack said.


Now to Agnelo.


After about two weeks into basic training Agnelo said he was fed up with the army and had no intention of going to Korea to get his ass shot off or, worse, to have to shoot another human being, gook or not. He said he was going AWOL* at the first opportunity. That opportunity, however, would have to wait. We had been promised a 5 day pass once Basic was half over. Since we were all from the East, that was sufficient time to go home. The Catch22 was that if anyone went AWOL before those two months had expired, nobody would get the pass. So Agnelo promised to wait until that time. He simply wouldn’t come back. When we warned him that deserters could be shot, he said he wouldn’t desert, just be AWOL, so he’d be put into the stockade which, in his opinion, was better than Korea. Then, however, the Chinese invaded Korea from the north and the war picture changed. Eisenhower cancelled all trainee leaves and our 5 day passes went up in Chinese smoke.


Reveille the morning after the announcement was dramatic. Instead of the repetitious “All present and accounted for, Sir” – the second squad leader, third platoon, cried out, almost gleefully I thought, “Second squad one man absent and unaccounted for, Sir!” It was repeated up the line: “Third platoon, one man absent and unaccounted for, Sir!” “Company A one man absent and unaccounted for, Sir!” Everyone knew it was Agnelo. I felt a surge of admiration. Here’s a guy with a pair of balls!


Agnelo went straight home to Massachusetts somewhere and that was the first place the MPs went and brought him back and threw him in the stockade. I hadn’t thought to tell him what I’d heard from the prisoners about disciplinary companies being formed and sent right to Korea. It turned out to be true and Agnelo was there before our guys.


Finally, after four months, we were finished with basic training and stood in formation before Sgt. Silas Taylor and the pot-bellied First Sgt. Quinn. The Company Commander was absent, called to some important meeting they said. Sgt. Taylor called us to attention and we stood so ramrod straight that a Martian might have mistaken us for real soldiers. Then he turned us over to First Sgt. Quinn, who ordered “At ease, men.” He gave an astonishing speech, that much I remember, although not the words. We were expecting something gung ho, like you’re soldiers now, be proud, go kill the enemy, shit like that. But it was nothing like that. He said he had been in the army a long time and was close to retirement, that he had been in two wars and that was two too many. He regretted that one of his last acts in the army was to give fine young men their orders to go to war. Then he gave us an expanded version of my uncle’s advice: Never volunteer unless you know it’s worthwhile to do so. And be careful, very careful; try to come home alive and whole, in body and spirit. Then he gave out the orders to each of us, calling the names, alphabetically of course. When my name was called I marched front and center and he gave me the envelope which contained my orders to go to the Language School and he shook my hand. “Good luck, son,” he said, as he had said to all the others as well. There were tears in his eyes. When I saw them I couldn't help feeling guilty.                   


     

*AWOL = Absent Without Official Leave

 

For another military True Tale with a medical twist, see: Medic           


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