Thursday, November 11, 2010

One Veteran's Story

He didn't storm any beaches or jump out of any airplanes. He didn't wade through jungle rivers or freeze during Europe's worst winter in decades. He didn't even leave the United States during his time in the service. My father, however, is a World War II era veteran. His story is unique, yet also more common than one might think. The US Army swelled its ranks to over twelve million, and surely a minority ever saw actual combat.

He managed to avoid getting drafted, enlisting after several fights with his mother. She had lost her only brother in the slaughterhouse of World War I, and had no desire to see her older surviving son go to war only to die. He won that battle, doing his basic training at Fort Dix, NJ in April, 1945. He entered the medical corps as a corpsman, working at an Army hospital at a small war-time base in the city of Utica. He told me that the base had brothels directly across from each of the base entrances, and each Monday morning he saw a parade of young men coming to take care of whatever they might have caught there the previous weekend. He offered this to me as a cautionary tale, I think, because his exact words were, "Some of these young guys [he was 23, so a bit older than the usual draftee] came in with their peckers hanging by a thread." Colorful, yes, but hardly descriptive.

At some point fairly soon after arriving, an officer saw his education and experience and he managed a transfer to Special Services. The bulk of his time in the military was spent emceeing Army Special Services shows. They would fly from base to base entertaining the troops, putting on dances and what not.

After the war ended in August, 1945, there were riots in Europe as draftees, understandably frustrated there were no answers to their questions as to when they would go home, made their feelings clear. They had been drafted for the duration, but that had reached an end, and they wanted to go home. The Pentagon devised a plan that satisfied no one, so it was probably the best one. Since he was a volunteer, had some college education, and was older, my father, in less than a year, was among those eligible to leave early.

My guess is his last assignment was to fulfill some requirement to get him out. During basic, he had managed to win his sharpshooter medal. As a kid, he had been a really amazing shot - he and his brother would sit in their kitchen sink and shoot out the window above it, and my father would take the letters off a power pole in their backyard when my Uncle couldn't even see them - and had that verified by the US Army. He had managed to rise to the rank of Sergeant. With those two qualifications, he spent the last weeks of his time in the service as a Drill Sergeant, and here I cannot remember if he said he did it back at Fort Dix or at Fort Campbell, KY. In either case, he did two classes of draftees.

He and I were sitting and watching Full Metal Jacket, and he was getting more and more agitated during the long opening sequence set at Parris Island, SC. Finally, he couldn't take it anymore, and he went on to tell me that during his time as a Drill Sergeant in the Army (DI's in the Marine Corps are a different breed of cat), there were strict rules on language, you would never think of touching, let alone hitting, a draftee. The end of each day saw them sitting and writing letters home, those who could. That's another thing, my father's strongest impression - the state of so many of the draftees. It was a very different time, 1946. Particularly those who came from the rural south may not have had electricity, or very limited exposure to it. A couple, he said, weren't used to wearing shoes because they hadn't had them growing up. That doesn't even begin to describe their personal hygiene.

Maybe it wasn't the barely-controlled violence of Marine Corps Boot Camp, but I do know that Basic is not easy, and Drill Sergeants have to be tough. Even when he was much younger, I had a difficult time picturing him as one, but he did it, and I am so very proud that he did.

Not every veteran has tales of daring-do, or has memories so harsh they refuse to share them. They served, though, and did their duty as commanded, same as any MOH winner. I am proud of my father's service, even though my guess is he was glad to shake the dust off his Army boots (he often said that life in the Army was, more often than not, sheer monotony; he said that alcoholism was rampant, especially among non-coms, because there just wasn't anything to do).

Thank a vet today, if you haven't yet.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More