by Jim Foreman


"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.
       "No 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.
       The train 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."
       More people 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 wild animal.
       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.
       "Who or what is Bubba?" I asked.
       "Bubba is 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 happen next.
       Goldberg spoke 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."
       "The 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.
       "It's less 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 station.
       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?
       "What the 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 whole man."
       "Don't 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 him."
       "What can 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.
       "I hope 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."
       "Why don't 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 want?"
       "The sign 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....."
       "Motor Pool 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.
       "Looks like we are stuck here till the Motor Pool opens at eight in the morning," I told the huddled masses.
       "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.
       Twenty minutes 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.
       "He caught 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.
       "The 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."
       Other groups 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 later.
       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 enclosure.
       "If this 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.
       "I'll bet 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 these."
       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 told him.
       "Hot damn, 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."
       "Vas is 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.
       "These new 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.
       Sgt. Schultz 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.
       Arthur, "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 Sgt. Schultz.
       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.
       "Arrite, 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.
       Realizing the 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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