I was sworn into the US Army on February 19, 1968 at the Boston Army Base. It was the beginning of a career that I could not have imagined. At the time things were extremely hot in Vietnam. The Tet offensive had occurred just a little earlier in the year. We were bombing North Vietnam, and everyday the news reports coming back brought the war into our homes. Honestly, I do not remember watching those news events although I know I must have because I have always had an interest in the news.
I joined the army in part because I had failed in my first semester at Boston University and not knowing what else to do with myself. I had been working a job as a gas station attendant and I knew I could do better. I just did not know how. I also joined out of a sense of patriotism. That came in large part because of my father who had served in the Army Air Corps in World War 2 in North Africa and Europe.
I truly loved the idea of the military regardless of what was happening in Vietnam. I had tested extremely well on the Armed Forces Entrance Test and could pick and choose what I wanted to do in the military. I chose officers school. The choice got me assigned to Fort Polk Louisiana instead of Fort Dix New Jersey where most recruits from the Northeast went.
My arrival at Fort Polk had taken me through the south that was still struggling with desegregation. On the bus trip from Lake Charles Louisiana to Fort Polk I remember passing by a bus stop where there were two water fountains within two feet of each other. One had a sign over it “white only” and the other had a sign “colored.” Jim Crow was alive and well at the time.
At the time, Fort Polk in large looked much as it had in World War 2. All the barracks were still the “temporary” barracks that had been constructed at the start of the war when the size of the army increased greatly. But that was where all resemblance to those days ended. After a brief stay at the “reception station” where we got our uniforms, our military haircut, tested, given shots for various diseases, and had our personnel files started, we were marched, a euphemism for a merciless run, to our company training area. I was assigned to B Company 5 regiment of the 1st training brigade.
We stood at attention in the company street while we were dressed down by our drill sergeants. They told us exactly what we would do, when we would do it, and how we would do it. We were then divided according to where we came from. Two platoons consisted entirely of men from the south, a bunch of us were put in the “Yankee” platoon, while the remainder were put in the “odd ball” platoon for those from other areas.
Good basic training requires that the drill sergeant break us down as individuals so we can be rebuilt in a manner that meets the needs of the Army. Any ego we had brought with us was determined to be detrimental. Our ego was regained with successful training. The start of breaking us down was their yelling at us constantly from the time we entered their company area. They had also put us together as they did because they intended on pitting us against each other. It worked.
After a while each drill sergeant took his platoon into their assigned barracks and told us what was expected of us in the barracks. This included things like where we slept, cleaning the barracks, and fire guard at nights. The barracks were entirely wooden and they were ostensibly guarding against a fire starting in one of them. They also informed us how quickly they expected us to form up in the company area from our barracks once we were given the order to do so. I can assure you, it was on the line of 30 seconds, maybe less.
He gave the order at that moment to form up in the company area and we failed, miserably, at least according to him. At this point he said he did not want us dirtying his clean barracks with our dirty selves and ordered us to crawl under the barracks so we could attempt to complete his order successfully. Each of these barracks had about a two foot crawl space beneath them that extended the full length of the building. We went through this bit of “training” many times before we were finally allowed to go back into the barracks. By that time we were exhausted and scared to death of the drill sergeant. He had succeeded.
Army basic training at the time was about eight and one half weeks long. We were told that we would not be allowed to leave our company area that first weekend. We did not leave the second, or the third. On the fourth weekend we would be allowed a day pass if we were the best platoon during our weekly inspection. By this time we knew as the Yankee platoon we would not win and that was exactly what happened. One of the southern platoons won, of course. But that put a chip on our shoulders that we carrying the rest of our time there. We had been brought tightly together just as they had wanted.
The other aspects of daily life at the time was first meals. Today’s army has large modern mess halls where hundreds of soldiers are fed at once. In 1968 each basic training company had its own mess hall. It was a smallish building that could accommodate roughly 50 men at a time. We were lined up at one door, pushed through the chow line, given about 6 minutes to eat and get out. Lunch meals were always in the field which were generally “C” rations. These rations do not exist any more. What they were was a box that contained a can filled with meat and potatoes, a can of fruit, a chocolate bar, and a pack of four cigarettes. I did not smoke so I could trade those for another guy’s chocolate bar.
From the first time we were marched out of our company area to one of the many training areas one of the drill sergeants sang out a marching song that we had to follow. They had not problem taking us from a march into what in the military is called “double time.” This simply means that we were jogging, full pack on our backs and rifle in our hands. If we were not doing it right, which was usually according to them, they would yell at us that “Charlie is going to get you and you are going to die!” Charlie was the euphemism used when referring to the Viet Cong army. I do not think a day went by when we did not hear them yell that at us at least once. It was not just a scare tactic. It was the truth.
During basic training our contact with the outside world was extremely limited. We could, of course, write and receive letters. We could call home only when we were allowed to leave the company area because all the pay phones were on a different part of the post from where we were. Of course there was no television so we were woefully unaware of what was going on in the world around us.
The first week in April we in the Yankee platoon we advised that we would be allowed our first pass off base. But then, on April 4th, Martin Luther King was assassinated and a riot developed in Leesville, the town nearest to Fort Polk. All passes were cancelled of course. In the 200 men in my basic training company there were a fair number of black men. I had arrived without any prejudices against black people but that would not have mattered anyway, none of had time, or the inclination, to show prejudices. There was not a single such incident of that sort in our company to my knowledge. But the death of King, I believe, removed any lingering prejudices some may have had. We had come to realize that we needed to rely upon each other and that in a combat position, our lives depended upon that.
We all graduated on a Wednesday in the last week of April. Immediately following the graduation ceremony those men who had not previously known their next training assignment found out where they were going. Over 80% of the men were assigned to advanced infantry training right there on Fort Polk. They were also told that this was in anticipation of their going to Vietnam. I was one of six going to officer training afterwards while the others had been able to secure assignments of their choice when they enlisted.
By the time we finished basic training we were still not ready to go to Vietnam but we had become aware of what a dangerous situation it was. It meant that a lot of guys I had trained with would be in Vietnam by that July. It was a sure thing many of them would die there as well. But we were also trained that we could not think about such things. It served no purpose. I was very fortunate. Towards the end of 1968 I was assigned to Korea which was considered an assignment similar enough to Vietnam that we were in no danger of being assigned to Vietnam afterward.
Basic training changed many parts of me. It opened my eyes to a lot, and prepared me for the world that lay in front of me.