"Recruit Foreman, you are the tallest one
of the Special Category troops and you have a college education, so I'm making you an
Acting PFC and putting you in charge of a contingent of men and their records. You will
see that they all get to your new unit of assignment at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. All
that you have to do is keep them all together and get off the train when it gets to Rolla,
Missouri. Think you can handle that?" asked the Sergeant.
problem, Sergeant, I'll take care of everything," I replied.
He handed a
large manila envelope containing a stack of records and a blue arm band with a single
stripe to me. "Sign here for receipt of the men and their records."
I signed the
form, but stuffed the arm band into my pocket. After seeing the other people who had been
bestowed with that dubious honor, the last thing that I ever wanted to be known as in the
Army, was an acting PFC.
The bus took us
to the railroad siding where I escorted my twenty-three charges into a rickety old
passenger car. There were holes in the seats and pieces of the ceiling were falling down.
Any windows which happened to be open would not close and those which were closed would
not open. The toilets didn't work and the few doors which still hung on their hinges
slammed open and shut each time that the train lurched over an uneven spot in the tracks.
Although most of the railroads had long since converted to diesel power, our train was
being pulled by an aging steam locomotive.
huffed, and puffed, and belching clouds of black smoke, jerked its way out of the station
as the sun was setting on our second day in the Army. I opened the manila envelope and
read the orders: "Special Orders No. 48, Dated 4 November 1950, 2nd Personnel
Processing Company, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The following EM, (Recruits) are transferred this
post to Hqs. & Hqs. Company, 1903rd Engr Avn Bn, SCARWAF, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Recruit (Acting PFC) Foreman in charge with records." I counted the names on the list
and noses in the car to be sure that I had everyone aboard.
I sat there,
trying to decipher the Army Sanskrit on the orders to learn where we were going and what
kind of outfit we were being assigned to. Engr became Engineer and Avn could mean nothing
other than Aviation. Bn. translated to Battalion, but SCARWAF couldn't be converted to
anything with which I was familiar. Could it be that I was being sent to an Aviation unit
of some sort due to my experience as a pilot? Perhaps everyone else on the car was a
pilot, but realizing that Obert was with us, I knew that this was a foolish idea.
Obert was the
only person aboard whom I knew; however, I certainly wasn't about to strike up a
conversation with him. I introduced myself to the fellow sitting next to me. He was a
tall, lanky sort with big nose which angled off to one side as the result of a number of
hard impacts with the ground. He had a strong accent which placed his point of origin
someplace west Fort Worth. He told me that his name was Billy Bob Boomer and that he had
been a professional rodeo cowboy before being drafted. Sticking out the legs of his
wrinkled uniform pants were green cowboy boots with yellow, stovepipe tops. Noticing my
interest in his boots, he said, "I wear size 14AAA and have to have my boots
specially-made for me by a bootmaker down in Seymour. They didn't have anything that size
at Fort Sill, in fact they didn't even have a listing for my size. Told me to wear these
till I got to my permanent station where they could requisition boots for me."
joined in the conversation. There was Jack Ryder, known as Red Ryder because of his
flaming red hair which stood out in all directions and not even Wild Root Cream Oil could
control it. He was only a couple inches over five feet and would weigh perhaps a hundred
pounds with a rock in his pocket. He was from LaVerne, Oklahoma and made his living as a
professional rattlesnake hunter; said that he had the ability to tame any kind of snake or
Billy Bob Boomer
replied, "Bet you ten bucks that you couldn't tame some of the mean, raunchy old
bulls that I've rode."
A short, fat
Jewish kid by the name of Solvatore Goldberg, said that he was from Oklahoma City and
that, prior to being drafted, had worked as a collector for his father who was in the loan
business. He said that mostly his job was to feed Bubba all the ribs that he wanted and
tell him when to stop breaking bones on someone who failed to pay on time.
what is Bubba?" I asked.
an Ex-football player and later an ex-wrestler who weighs about 300 pounds," replied
Goldberg. "He was number 64 when he played for the old Dallas Bulls, which happened
to also be his IQ. I'd take him along with me when I went out to collect overdue payments.
They usually took one look at Bubba and came up with the money. If they didn't, I'd let
him start breaking a few fingers and then move to arms and legs. He enjoys the work and
says that he likes to hear bones pop. If I didn't tell him to stop, he would probably turn
them into hamburger and then they couldn't ever pay."
I'll never know
how Goldberg managed it, but the uniform which he had been issued only that morning, was
neatly pressed and fit him like a Brooks Brothers suit.
Others spoke up
about their civilian lives. Lester Price repaired traffic signals for the city of Fort
Worth. Bobby Ward was a salesman for a dog food company, while a frail little guy by the
name of Arthur Arthur Arthur said that he was an artist who made a living by hand-painting
eyes on fishing lures. We asked him how he came to have a name like Arthur Arthur Arthur
and he said that his father stuttered and when he was born, the nurse asked what to name
the baby. Every time that he said Arthur, the nurse wrote it down and when she got all
three blanks filled, she stopped and sent it off to the court house to be recorded. By the
time that they got a copy of his birth certificate back, it was too late to change it.
It finally came
to me what the Sergeant had said when he put me in charge; we were all listed as
"SPECIAL CATEGORY" troops. Each one of us had some sort of unusual civilian
occupation which wasn't on their official military list. I checked the records and, sure
enough, every last one of us was classified as "SPECIAL CATEGORY", or in good
old Army lingo, oddballs. The question now was, what sort of an outfit would they be
sending nothing but oddballs to?
The train rattled into
Oklahoma City at around 10:00PM, shuttled our car onto a siding, hooked us to several
other passenger cars and puffed away. We sat there without lights, wondering what would
up, "There is a service station over there on the corner, I think I'll run over and
call my parents while we are waiting."
Sergeant who put me in charge, told me to keep everyone together and on the train. I'm not
sure that you should go," I replied.
than a block and if the engine comes back, I'll come running." he replied.
We watched as he
slipped from the car, hopped across the tracks and headed toward the lights of the filling
Just as Goldberg
disappeared into the station, a diesel locomotive backed onto the siding where we were and
coupled itself to us. As the train began to move, I saw Goldberg running toward us across
the tracks. It was an uneven race, Goldberg's stubby, fat little legs against a train
which was already moving. We chugged away, leaving him standing in the dim glow of a dirty
street lamp. Here I was, my first bit of responsibility in the army and I had already
blown it by losing a man. What would they do to me when they found out; would I have to
pay for losing a man or would I just spend the rest of my life in Leavenworth?
hell am I going to do now?" I asked. "When they issued our uniforms back at Fort
Sill, they told us that if we lost anything, we would have to pay for it. I just lost a
worry," said Arthur Arthur Arthur. "A fat little Jew like that shouldn't be
worth too damn much. I'll kick in five bucks to help cover whatever they charge you for
they do with you. You don't have any stripes to take away, so they can't bust you and they
certainly won't fire you and kick you out of the army," said Lester Price.
that they shoot your ass, Snort, Snort--Oink, Oink," said Obert. "I always
wanted to put a bullet in your ass, but never got the chance. Maybe they will let me be on
the firing squad when they shoot you."
you just keep quiet and let someone else find out that Goldberg is missing,"
suggested Billy Bob Boomer, the Rodeo Cowboy. "With all the confusion and people who
will be milling around when we get there, they aren't likely to miss one little Jew."
It began to rain
as the train rattled through the night and everyone except me curled up in the seats and
went to sleep. I didn't get a wink of sleep because I was worrying about what was going to
happen to me when they found that I had lost a man.
It was around five in
the morning when the train screeched to a grinding halt. "Rolla, Missouri, everyone
off," shouted the conductor as he walked from one car to the next. "Fort Leonard
Wood and end of the line for you guys."
We dragged our
duffel bags off the train, along with a couple hundred other new arrivals who had occupied
other cars. As soon as we were all off the train, the engineer gave a couple toots and
rattled away. A sign over a telephone hanging on a pole under a light informed us,
"ARRIVING TROOPS FOR FORT LEONARD WOOD CALL 2114 FOR TRANSPORTATION."
The phone must
have rung at least a twenty times before a sleepy voice answered, "What the fuck you
said for arriving troops to call this number for transportation to Fort Leonard
Wood," I replied. "A bunch of us just got off the train and....."
don't open till eight, call back then," interrupted the sleepy voice on the other end
and hung up the phone.
The drizzle had
turned into a mixture of rain and snow which was soaking everyone to the bone as we stood
on the deserted platform.
we are stuck here till the Motor Pool opens at eight in the morning," I told the
"Let me see
what I can do about getting someone out here," said Billy Bob Boomer as he dialed the
phone, "Soldier, this is Major Catastrophe at the rail head at Rolla and I'll tell
you what the fuck I want. I have two hundred troops standing in the goddamn rain and I
want your lazy ass out of the sack and out here in a jeep for me and trucks for the
enlisted men; RIGHT NOW!" he yelled, slamming the phone down.
later, we could hear the grinding of trucks as headlights began to bore through the mist.
A jeep bounded to a stop next to the platform and a Corporal jumped out. "I'm looking
for some Major who called about transportation," he said.
another jeep to the base, said to tell you to bring the rest of us in the trucks and to be
sure that we got hot coffee and breakfast as soon as we arrived," said Billy Bob.
I could already
tell that this was one man who would go places in the Army.
After we had been fed
a good breakfast, I herded my charges, now numbering only twenty-two, out into the street
where we stood in a small group with the other new arrivals. A Sergeant came by, asking
what units each group was assigned to.
"We are to
report to the 1903rd EAB, SCARWAF," I replied.
what?" shouted the Sergeant, snatching the orders from my hands. "There ain't no
such damn unit on this post. This here is an Armored Post and we don't have no outfit like
here for damn sure."
were loaded aboard trucks which bounced away, until we were the only people still standing
in the street. "Let me see those orders again," said the Sergeant. "I still
don't think that you belong here." He took the orders and strode away toward a large
building with a flag flying in front of it.
When he finally
returned, he thrust the orders into my hand, saying, "You belong to some sort of Air
Force thing called the 1903rd Engineer Aviation Battalion. They are over on the east side
of the base in the old WAC barracks. Our trucks don't go over there, so you will have to
hike. Go as east as far as you can on this street, then turn right for about a mile. Your
unit is in some barracks with a high, chain link fence and guard towers around them. Looks
like a stockade. We hoisted our duffle bags onto our shoulders and trudged off in the
direction we were told, taking turns carrying Goldberg's bag in case he should show up
We found our way
to the location described by the Sergeant. It consisted of about twenty buildings set in a
square inside a tall fence. The fences terminated at guard towers at each corner of the
compound. Tall poles with floodlights were placed every fifty yards all the way around the
was where they kept the WACs during World War II, wonder whether all this security is to
keep the men out or the women in?" asked Billy Bob.
if these trees could talk, they would have quite a story to tell," said Ward.
"There probably ain't bushes anywhere else in the world that's seen as much nookey as
I took my
charges inside the compound and located a faded sign over a door which said, "ORDERLY
ROOM". Seated behind a desk, wearing six stripes with a diamond in the middle, was a
short, fat Italian-looking man who looked like the bad guy in every gangster movie that
I'd ever seen. The nameplate on the desk said that he was 1st Sgt. Santino. He looked up
from a racing form as I entered and said, "What do you want?".
"If this is
the 1903rd Engineer Aviation Battalion, I have some men with me from Fort Still," I
new recruits have finally arrived. Now everyone who is a PFC or above can stop pulling
KP!" he shouted, jumping to his feet. "Sergeant Schultz, front and center."
loose?" asked the fat, round faced Sergeant, reverting to his native tongue as he
emerged from the supply room where a poker game was in progress.
recruits just arrived from Fort Sill. You're the First Platoon Sergeant, so get them
located in the barracks then send some of them to the mess hall to relieve the people on
KP," said Sgt. Santino. I pulled the Acting PFC arm band from my pocket and slipped
it place on my arm, perhaps being an Acting PFC wouldn't be so bad after all.
took the orders from me and began to call off the names on it. I've had it now; he is
going to find out that I lost Goldberg. We each answered when our name was called.
"HERE"; Boomer, "HERE"; Cooper, "HERE"; Evans,
"HERE"; Filpot, "HERE"; Foreman, "HERE". Damn, here it
comes. Brace myself for what is bound to happen to me now. Goldberg, "HERE",
shouted Billy Bob Boomer from somewhere in the back. Harris, "HERE", continued
I was home free,
Billy Bob had saved my ass and Schultz had bought the ploy. The fat, German Sergeant was
now the one responsible for the lost Jew; seemed only fitting.
youse worthless bastards, line up according to tall, behind this PFC," shouted Sgt.
Schultz, pointing at me. We milled around, trying to shuffle ourselves into line according
to height. "Youse is in the Army now and youse asses belongs to me."
Sgt. Schultz, as
well as the rest of the cadre of the 1903rd, was made up of members of a National Guard
unit from the south side of Chicago which had been activated for the Korean war. Most of
the members of the unit were also members of a Chicago street gang called the Roaches,
most of whom had joined the guard because it gave them a chance to play with real guns and
they could use the armory as a place to hang out and play basketball.
As an Illinois
National Guard unit, it was commanded by a 1st Lieutenant Hull, a nephew of a state
senator. Lieutenant Hull had served during WW-II as a clerk typist at Fort Riley, Kansas
in the base special services. His primary duty was to keep track of the basket balls in
the field house. When the war was over and he was discharged, his uncle got him a job
reading water meters in Chicago, made him a 1st Lieutenant and put him in command of an
obscure guard unit.
On the night
before activation of the 1903rd, Lt. Hull and his company clerk, Cpl. Santino, had given
everyone in the unit promotions to the highest rank allowed in the Table of Organization
for a Battalion Headquarters. Lt. Hull became Lt. Col. Hull, Cpl. Santino became First
Sergeant Santino and even Private Schultz, who had been in the unit for less than a month
became a Platoon Sergeant.
possibilities offered by the activation, Col. Hull got his nephew, Mickey Nerdlinger, a
seventeen-year-old high school dropout, to enlist. Known as Mickey the Machinegun, because
of his ability to make machinegun sound effects with his mouth, he expected to be assigned
as armorer where he could have his own machine gun. Instead, uncle Wallace listed him as
the Battalion Construction Supervisor and gave him the rank of Master Sergeant. About the
only construction which Mickey Nerdlinger had ever done was to build a tree house, which
fell down the next day, breaking his little brother's arm.
We were assigned
to a unit which replete with rank but totally devoid of experience.
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