While it had its discomforts, life wasn’t that bad. My tank crew and Sergeant were tough but good guys, some of them from the coal-mining area of Pennsylvania, and there was a definite camaraderie in the group, which I enjoyed when accepted into the squad. One day I received a box or tin of marshmallow Easter chicks from my Aunt, which I always loved and still do, and shared them with my amused but grateful comrades. I think I went into Needles once and that was enough. We did take a trip to Arizona on a weekend for a welcomed swim and, except for a very occasional movie in the field, but that was about it. At the same time, the American invasion and deployment in North Africa were going on and superior German tanks were creating murderous havoc with our antiquated tank destroyers. At that time, our tank destroyers were half-track vehicles with an old (World Was I) 3-inch naval gun, mounted the completely open, behind a shield of only a quarter-inch of armor and with a gun traverse of only 90 degrees. They were, in effect death traps as was being proven in North Africa. After hearing stories and rumors of their devastation, I began having second thoughts about committing outright suicide for my country, but fate took a hand. I broke my only pair of GI eyeglasses and went to the Battalion MD to obtain a new pair. To my surprise, he checked my eyes but this time repeated what I actually saw which, without my glasses, is not much. He sent me off to the Army Hospital in Needles for an eye test, new glasses, and reclassification back to ‘limited service’. When I protested, although my conscious forbids me from describing it as vehement, he explained that as a gunner the life of my crew and others might well depend upon my eyesight. I must admit a sense of relief but combined with some shame.
After my exam at the base hospital, a Board was convened, chaired by a full Colonel, a Major, and a Captain, of the Medical Corps. I was asked to explain the suspicious difference between my eye test taken at Camp Roberts and the one they just gave me. Nervously, I explained that I memorized the eye chart and why. When I was finished, the Captain said to the Colonel that this was ground for fraudulent enlistment and my heart fell to my stomach. After a pause that seemed like an eternity to me, the Colonel replied something like this: ‘Yes, technically you are correct but I wish we had thousands of more fraudulent enlistments like this’. So, I was reclassified and returned to my unit for transfer. Any guilt I may have felt at the time was erased when, first, no transfer out of the 775-TDB was arranged or planned in the time I remained with them and, a few months later as manpower needs in both the Pacific and European Theaters of war increased, ‘Limited Service’ was abolished.
About May, the Battalion was transported by rail to Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Base), on the California coast near Lompoc. There, brand-new, latest issue, tank destroyers were waiting for us. We all were pleased; these were real tanks with a completely revolving turret (although for some reason I never understood, there was no hatch to close on the turret when the enemy fire got hot), sufficient armor, a good gun, and a fully tracked, high-speed vehicle.
We fell eagerly into the new training program and morale was higher. Nothing about a transfer out for me was ever mentioned so, becoming wiser in the ways of the army, I settled in trying to learn the new TDs and earn a corporal’s stripes as a gunner. We went into Lompoc occasionally for diversion. I remember once there was a carnival in town and my tank commander and crew went in to see a ‘girly side show’, my first experience of anything like this.
Admission was low (although not for poor me), 50 cents I think, and the dancers exposed just enough to entice the audience. Then the hawker would announce another act, for only a dollar, where everything would be exposed. We grudgingly paid it and it was an eye-popper for me. Then the hawker overreached, for tank destroyer men at least, and asked for an additional two dollars to see an erotic dance between the two strippers.
All five or six of us advanced on him and threatened dire consequences if the show didn’t proceed promptly and without additional cost to us. He could see we meant business and the few civilian spectators didn’t object, so the show went on promptly. I don’t know which impressed me more, what I saw for the first time or what I did with my new buddies for the first time.
At Camp Cooke, an event happened that changed my army career and, indeed, affected my return to civilian life like nothing else could. I read in the Stars and Stripes (a newspaper published by the Army and distributed free to all troops) that eligible enlisted men could apply for participation in the recently created Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) for education and training in engineering, medicine, foreign language, and area specialization, the military government and other fields important to the Army’s wartime and occupation/post-war duties. I had attended a very good high school in Rockville Centre, Long Island, New York, and, consequently, my Army IQ score (I forget what they called it) was higher than that required for Officer Candidates School (OCS) and entry into ASTP, even though it was taken at Camp Upton under the least optimum conditions possible. My mother had insisted that I take the non-vocational track in high school even though going to college at that time seemed like an impossible financial barrier to overcome and therefore only a dream to me. I was called into the Orderly Room one morning after breakfast and informed that I had been accepted into the program. I had orders and train tickets, along with a Corporal in my Company, to report to Stanford University near Palo Alto, for refresher courses and further examination.
Before proceeding with that stage, it is interesting to note what happened to the 775-TDB. They continued training vigorously on the use of their new tanks and proper tactics. But then, in the inimitable way of the army, they suddenly took all their tanks from them, shipped the outfit to the Pacific, and issued them armed amphibious landing craft to use in upcoming major Pacific landings. The ‘tiger’ was sunk, so to speak. Certainly, it never caused me to regret leaving for other pastures.
STANFORD UNIVERSITY – STAR UNIT
Coming in from the Palo Alto train station to the Stanford campus for the first time was quite a thrill. I’d never seen any campus like it. It was a beautiful place with palm trees and gardens all about. We were billeted in Encinia Hall, a former freshman dorm I believe. Every morning we had roll call but military formations ended with that. Besides being a part of the nationwide ASTP program, Stanford was what was called a STAR unit. I can’t recall what the exact letters meant but it had two functions: first, to provide refresher courses in selected basic courses depending on the field you were seeking to enter; and, second, when this was completed, to give examinations to determine eligibility and area of specialization for assignment to a cooperating college or university in the geographic area covered. If accepted, all rank was lost and while in the ASTP all soldiers would be of equal rank, viz., buck private, but the prospect of eventual commissioning was implied, at least most of us thought so. In any event, as a ‘private’ to begin with, this posed no problem to me.
We were there about six weeks and I struggled with the math courses. It had taken me three years to complete a two-year course of algebra and geometry in high school. Math was not my strong suit but I was headed for ‘basic engineering’ where we were automatically assigned if we had no previous college record in other fields the Army was interested in, e.g., language, medicine. I studied hard; one weekend trip to San Francisco (which I promptly fell in love with) was the only time off I had. Then came the final exams. As soon as possible after they were done, an officer interviewed each of us separately regarding the result. My interview did not start auspiciously because, as expected, my test grades in math were far from outstanding but I tried earnestly and desperately to explain the reasons for the poor math base I had from high school and my conviction that I was now mature enough to do better, given the opportunity. I remember the officer said to me something like ‘We expect about two percent of those selected to flunk out the first semester and of that two percent, you would be at the bottom of the list’. My pleading has some effect for I was soon assigned to the ASTP unit at Oregon State College in Corvallis, Oregon. It is interesting to note, that the failure rate for first termers was closer to 40 percent than two. Whatever, I owe that officer a debt to this very day for taking a chance on me.
OREGON STATE COLLEGE – ASTP
On the train from Palo Alto to Corvallis, Oregon, we passed through some beautiful country and we arrived in good spirits with the prospects of earning a degree and, at least, a break from Army life. My group was first assigned to Snell Hall, a former women’s dorm but in the second term, we moved to the Men’s Dorm. The course curriculum had been designed for an accelerated program, i.e., to complete a full semester in three months, and complete the basic course in nine months, the equivalent of two college years. This acceleration was my downfall as the course work utilized math not yet mastered even though I got an A in algebra the first term, a B in geometry the second term, and a C in calculus in the third.
Whatever, we were divided into sections (there was a small Army detachment assigned to OSC to oversee our activities) and marched to and forth classes together but that’s about the extent of military formations and exercises except for special occasions involving joint OSC events. Everyone had to work hard under this rushed-up approach to education, which distinguished our program from others, including the Navy V-12, which followed conventional lines and time. Of course, our curriculum was heavy in the sciences including mathematics, physics, and the like. We did have a few courses, however, that particularly appealed to me such as geopolitics and speech.
Despite the pressure, we all (or most of us) enjoyed it. We soon made friends with our new classmates and had lots in common. We were also practically the only, at least able-bodied, men on campus, and our presence was welcome to the young ladies. Mixer dances were held and dating and romances soon bloomed. Others brought their fiancé from home, got married, and took a place just off campus and some of those already married were soon joined by their wives. During the week, however, all soldiers were required to sleep in the dorm. One young Oregonian lassie picked me out at a dance and, on a canoe ride way up a small stream in a forested but remote city park area, practically took my virginity from me. A few weeks later, she told me she was “late” but that pronouncement was premature. Nevertheless, it scared the hell out of me and I preserved my semi-celibacy until after the war was over in Europe. I did, however, meet some lovely girls both on campus and elsewhere in Oregon.
One weekend in the summer, a group of about four or five of us hitchhiked to Newport on the coast. En route, you pass through some of the famous Oregon forest areas. Newport is a resort town perched high over the coastline with beautiful views. We quickly discovered why only a few or no one was in the water as we waded into the surf and felt our feet freezing into ice blocks. Man, it was cold! However, we lucked out. There were four lovely and sweet girls our age from Salem also visiting for the weekend. We hooked up had had a great time dancing and innocent flirtations. As it turned out, several of us saw them often in Salem on weekends and in Portland when two of them moved there to work. I was dating a beautiful brunette (Virginia Resnik, I think) and I pined for her months after we left Oregon.
During this period, my mother’s long-term relationship with a married man hit a big snag. After constantly promising to marry her when his children became of age, he was now obviously stalling. Probably more in an attempt to push his hand, my mother decided to leave him and come stay near me in Oregon for an indefinite period. While I loved my mother very much, I wasn’t exactly anxious to have her here with me at OCS, or anywhere else for that matter. I was never really seriously consulted and out she came. She rented a room in a nearby off-campus home and started working in a campus sorority kitchen. It was nice to see her but, frankly, I was embarrassed and, so to speak, she cramped my style. I didn’t want to hurt her, she had had enough of that in her lifetime, but I was uncomfortable. The problem was solved for me, however drastically, as described by the events that happened next.
In the third term, things started getting tough for me. While I was doing OK in math, the course work was often based on a level of math I had not yet studied or mastered, e.g., in physics, and consequently, it was affecting my grades in non-math but related courses. In retrospect, I did much better than the average in holding on through the third term but I knew the end was in sight for me. During this term, however, we began to hear rumors that ASTP was in jeopardy and all sorts of rumors flew about. But as the term neared its end, the bomb burst. Because of unexpectedly high casualty rates in the Sicily campaign and the impending European invasion, there was an “emergency” need for additional, front-line manpower. It wasn’t difficult to find. There were about 300.000 young army soldiers in ASTP and the Army Air Cadets training programs—which were virtually eliminated and most of the students and cadets transferred directly to infantry divisions awaiting overseas deployment.
The ending was worth a Hollywood movie. After many, prolonged goodbyes at dances, walks in the park, etc., the fatal day arrived We assembled outside our dorms with everything we owned in one duffle bag and marched down to the Railroad Station where the troop train was waiting for us and the OCS band was playing. OCS students, friends, and faculty were there to give us a resounding sendoff. Wives and sweethearts were being separated for who knows how long, maybe forever, and the spirit grabbed the crowd. A girl that I had dated a few times but was no big thing to me didn’t have anyone to kiss goodbye to, caught in the moment, she sought me out and overwhelmed me with hugs and kisses. That didn’t help a thing. So, it was bye-bye OCS and all the ‘beavers’ left behind (but OSC would hear from me again) (5).
(5) In the ’70s, I returned to the campus of the now Oregon State University as a senior official of the Agency for International Development to negotiate and eventually award a $5 million grant for institutional development in dryland agriculture in developing countries.