I Vote My Conscience!
I have been exposed to war heroes, who have brilliantly described their exploits in India, the European Theater, Korea and other parts of the world. To me, they have displayed courage and good memories. Until now, I have withheld discussing my military accomplishments; because I am completely overshadowed by those who served. But shouldn’t people like me, who exploited their cowardice successfully, get some credit also? Remember, the National Guard was our last line of defense. Not every wartime experience involved places like Guadalcanal, Korea, Sicily, Anzio, etc. etc. We served as goalies in the war to protect Miami (from the submarines), New York City (from blackouts) and the Westminster Kennel Club (from rabies).
I had never had any military experience, until I went to the 71st Regiment Armory on 34th Street and Park Avenue in dangerous New York City during the Korean War. I had phoned two friends, Walter and Maynard, and said, “Why don’t we volunteer for the National Guard, either to avoid the draft or to serve in other ways?” They both agreed with my artful draft dodging and wanted to join me.
I do not doubt that my fellow war heroes suffered from uncomfortable overseas transports with seasickness, crowded conveys, sleeping quarters packed like sardines and messy latrine digging. But getting from my home to the 34th Street Armory was no picnic either. High crime rates, knife fights and angry cocker spaniels, without police protection, posed a threat to all three of us. When we signed in for the first time, many an anxious (and often oversized) rookie hit the ground when they saw the three- foot long needle aimed at their buttocks for the required tetanus shots. Sergeant Crowley laughed hysterically, as the terrified recruits picked themselves off the floor, staggering around and looking for something to hold on to. It was no secret that many of the non-coms and career National Guardsmen resented our group of pimply- faced college graduates who ran to join the National Guard and avoid the pleasure cruise to Korea. Most of the knuckle-scraping sergeants resembled something out of Tobacco Road and would scoff at higher education. They were resolved to make our lives miserable. I don’t doubt that those who served overseas have run into nasty sergeants. But the hatred of the enemy must have been more significant. We only had our sergeants and wives to complain about.
The armory on 34th and Park was built like a medieval castle. I am sure that it must have had chains and torture racks in the basement. But I never saw them. It was made of red brick with a 250 foot tower, modeled after the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy. The purposes of the tower and basement eluded me, but I was suspicious whenever a recruit was absent. The training schedule was Monday from 6 to 10 PM, target practice every other Thursday and two weeks of camp during the summer. The regular army serving overseas was busy all the time. Their lives were controlled from minute to minute. We poor National Guardsmen, couldn’t even plan our theater parties and social lives without interruptions? Don’t we deserve some sympathy?
The inside of the armory was built like a stadium, with seats in the balcony. When things were slow, we would play softball with a ball that looked like a pillow. I hit many home runs into the balcony and felt like a Jewish Joe DiMaggio in suntans. I’ll bet the overseas servicemen never had to engage in a vicious softball game (with pillows) of rookies versus sergeants, who wanted to maim or kill us. (All they had to confront were Nazi and Japanese soldiers).
After a while, I got to know the sergeants better. They didn’t dislike all of us, just the ones with a face. Sy Milestone was their particular target. He was a vertically challenged bowling ball- shaped accountant, who just couldn’t look like a soldier, no matter how hard he tried. However, he did fit in with the after hours beer drinking, and spent most late evenings sloppy drunk and the victim of many pranks. No overseas battalion could have tolerated him, without turning him over to the enemy.
So, after ten months (September through June) of a strenuous training schedule, we were about to leave for our two week summer camp in Fort Drum in Peekskill, New York. We had learned how to break down and reassemble our M1 rifles, polish our boots, wear our dress and work uniforms, follow marching orders and become reluctant soldiers. Some of us also learned how to shoot M1 rifles without being knocked into the balcony by the recoil (or kickback). Until we learned, it was obvious that the FIRERS were always in more danger that the FIREES. (My targets were often spotless and unmarred by those ugly holes.). We learned to love our rifles, hug them and keep them clean. We were also in danger of severe punishment if we ever dropped the rifles on the ground. (Perhaps that was what the basement dungeons and steeples were used for.)
Our convoy was set to leave 34th Street at 4:30 AM because “This is a war maneuver and we can’t spend our valuable time sleeping,” according to Captain Corona. (He once filled my gas tank in his day job. I was glad he didn’t recognize me, otherwise I might have had to salute him). Since Peekskill was a long and tiring trip (at least 50 miles), the good Captain thought we should stop for a BIVUOAC after 25 miles. This involved pitching tents (which we wouldn’t use), digging latrines (which we wouldn’t use) and eating dog food rations (which we would rather not have used).
Peekskill New York made Anzio and Seoul look like thriving metropolises. The only thing that made it more palatable was the fact that we presumably all spoke the same language (except for the sergeants, who only spoke in expletives). When we arrived at Destination Ground Zero we leaped off the trucks and ran to our bunks. The beds and toilets were shoulder to shoulder. I didn’t care to live with my neighbor’s constipation, diarrhea or wet dreams so intimately. But I had no choice. The next two hours were spent learning to make and strip the beds before chow time, which was an experience in gastronomical torture. Slops of stuff were mixed together, coffee was mixed with tea and everything looked and tasted like road kill. I had forgotten that the cooks were guys like me and not graduates of Cordon Bleu. (In fact I was offered one of the cook jobs. But, having been guilty of overcooking water, I felt unqualified).
On Saturday, it was announced that Governor Dewey was coming to Drum to review the troops. (What troops? We were just a bunch if guys dragged off the streets.) So we had to clean our bunks, wash our uniforms (the Chinese laundrymen were fighting in Korea), polish our boots until we could read our freckles and warts in them and clean and polish our rifles to the same degree. On Saturday night there was lots of beer drinking and I had to pull Sy Milestone’s head out of the toilet bowl three times. The last time I saw him, he was in his under shorts, propped against a wall, with his hat in his mouth and feeling no pain. I notified the sergeant (who probably put him there) and four guys threw him on to his bed.
Sunday was a typical 105 degree day. The troops were in formation and ready for inspection from Governor Dewey (who I must admit really did look like the groom on a wedding cake). Just as the Governor was passing me in the first row, the Guardsmen on both sides of me collapsed from the heat. Colonel Galliano (the Battalion Commander), who was proudly escorting the Governor in the troop review, grabbed the soldier on my left, while I tried to lift up the obese soldier on my right. Governor Dewey held onto my right arm to keep me from being pulled down by fatso and everyone else continued marching out of step. I thanked and saluted the Governor and prayed that we wouldn’t get called to Korea, because the North Korean and Chinese armies could capture California and parts of Nevada in 2-3 months with our battalion defending the country.
The second week of camp was equally exciting, with dropped rifles, dirty uniforms, poorly polished shoes and lots of guard duty and potato peeling as punishment. We kept an eye on beer-laden Sy Milestone and tried to prevent the sergeant from killing him. He was never sober enough to understand what was happening to him.
I suffered an asthma attack on the last two days, which, although obvious, baffled the medics (who were probably the same guys who prepared the meals). As a result I was discharged from the National Guard before I was allowed to display my military prowess. I guess I would not have succeeded overseas like the heroes I have met. And, as far as my domestic military achievements, all I did was hold hands with Tom Dewey. (I call him Tom, because we must have become buddies from such intimacy). I really would like to try my hand at the military again, but the only venue left for me is the Boy Scouts. I can still polish a mean boot and make a hospital bed. But I may have to lie about my age.