I enlisted immediately after high school graduation, but I did allow myself about a month in which to relax and travel. Something I really enjoyed without thinking of the consequences of spending a summer in southern Missouri.
Fort Leonard Wood-1967
Why, oh why did I think going to boot camp in southern Missouri in July and August was going to be ok? Oh, the innocence of youth! Yes, it was hell. I swear there was an unprecedented heat wave that summer. We spent hours in the hot sun; learning to march, doing pushups and calisthenics. More marching, stop and do pushups, march some more. Tired of the sun? Clean the barracks. Clean the grounds. Do some pushups. The 1st Sergeant found a cigarette butt. Clean the grounds again. Sgt. Sisk found a gum wrapper. “Assume the position, trainee!” and more pushups. We were the sorriest pieces of shit that had ever populated Charlie Company, 2nd of the 2nd. Maybe someday we would be soldiers, but it was in doubt.
By the middle of July it was so hot, we were allowed to “unbutton”. In the military, if you have a button, it’s required to be buttoned. Why the hell else would you have a button, numbnuts? We could unbutton our collars, unblouse our trousers and roll them up, as well as our sleeves. Whew! It did make a difference. We were still miserable sods. We did get some relief when we filed into air-conditioned theaters for instruction in The Uniform Code of Military Justice or some other important information. The sergeants would be watching for anyone nodding off, for not only were we miserable, we were tired. Tired in a way that none of us had experienced before. Tired took on a new meaning. I could fall asleep in an instant. Marching down a gravel road, we would get a break: “Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em!”, not me, I would lay down where I was and instantly fall asleep, without even moving off into the shade. The guys would wake me up when it was time to saddle up again.
If there was any good news, we had brand new barracks. Three story brick buildings instead of the old wooden barracks that were still so common. These were outfitted with new bunks which were quite nice, especially compared with the old saggy steel bunks that were still in use in most units. Everyone said, “These are like what they have in the Air Force!”, as if that was the highest standard in comfort that one could hope for. They were nice and sleep was important to me.
In my squad bay were some fine lads: Hamilton, Powell, Samuelson, Wagner and a good friend, Dennis Barber. There were a lot of latinos in our company, Sanchez and Rivera were in our squad. Damn, I wish I could buy everyone a cold drink! I would like to get drunk and order drinks all around! Cold beer for these brave boys! We did help each other a lot that summer. We were a a team. Everything had to be in order, bunks made just so. All your uniforms, clothes, even underwear had a place according to army rules. We spent a lot of time cleaning and polishing and doing it again.
Gradually the days crept by and there was less drill in the schedule. We could actually march reasonably well. Then we were issued M-14 rifles. That was a big moment for me. I actually had a god damn rifle! We learned everything about the M-14 rifle. We learned to drill with a rifle: “Order arms!”, “Port arms!”, “Left shoulder arms!”, “Right shoulder arms!”, etc. We marched to the rifle range and learned to shoot under the hot sun.
One thing I did enjoy was calling cadence as we marched, I think everyone is familiar with this. The drill instructor calls the verse and the soldiers shout it back all in time to left, right, left.
“I don’t know but I’ve been told, Charlie Co. is good as gold!”
“Ho Chi Minh is a son of a bitch, he’s got the blue ball fever and the seven year itch!”
Also a big favorite-
“If I die in a combat zone, box me up and send me home!”
“Pin my medals on my chest and tell the girls I’ve gone to rest.”
There was a creative element to this that was fun, at least to me. We also would sing, usually when marching back to the barracks at the end of the day. Songs like, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” were big favorites.
We had all survived the first few weeks of training. No one in our squad had been injured, which sometimes happened, of course. You weren’t allowed to quit, where the hell would you go anyway? You weren’t going to get out of the army, though we did hear rumors of some dumb ass trainee, who was so dumb, they actually were discharged. Or trainees who did get out for some medical condition or injury. The draftees all pondered these things: you mean they really let that guy out of the army? We really didn’t know of any specific incident, but still the stories persisted.
Life went on, we survived another day of blazing heat. Another day went by, and another. We learned to shoot standing, kneeling, sitting and prone. We learned to maintain our rifles. We cleaned them and cleaned them again. We had bayonet training, close combat training and more lectures in the theaters where it was a struggle to stay awake. I didn’t realize it, but I was gaining weight. I ate everything I could lay my hands on. We were now allowed to go the nearby PX on Sundays. We could buy snacks, transistor radios, and the like. There was a little burger shack where you could get a hamburger & fries on Sunday. Sundays were a day off from serious training. Everyone needed a break, drill instructors included. More days went by. Maybe in the 7th week, we each threw a live grenade from a bunker. One at a time under careful supervision. It seemed like it really had an end now. In the beginning weeks, it seemed hopeless, but now it was the last week. We fired our rifles in our final qualification. I was one target short of shooting “Expert”. A great disappointment. Finally, we were turning our rifles in. It really was coming to an end! Hooray!