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What was life like in the U.S. Army?
“Together with three draftee friends (Bob Buckley, David Desmond, and Jack Kane) and a toothbrush in my back pocket, I left Norwich on March 21, 1955 for my induction into the US Army in New Haven, Connecticut.
No one in the group was apprehensive about what lay ahead. After being sworn in, we started sixteen weeks of basic training. The guys in my platoon, B Company 2nd Platoon, were from the Bronx and Queens. They were very savvy and street smart, but they weren’t punks or knuckleheads. They proved to be very tough to handle as we went through four platoon leaders, all Korean War vets, and sometimes not very nice guys.
Around the fifth week, I was made a squad leader. We were on a forced march carrying one hundred pounds of crap on our backs, and the word was, no one was finished until everyone finished. I was in halfway decent shape, so I picked up guys and helped them across the line. So the platoon sergeant said, ‘You’re the new platoon leader of second squad.’
At the outset, the platoon sergeant told the squad leaders we were to ride the troops very hard or things would not work out for anyone. Typically, they looked for anything to remove guys from the army. But I balked at them telling me to ride people hard. I said, ‘Hey, it didn’t work doing things the way you recommend. These guys are not to be bullied. If they are not listening to you, they sure as hell are not going to listen to me!’
After seeing four platoon leaders fail in their quest, my observations were you could take things personally or not, and maybe it was better to very discreetly have fun with things as they came up. So that’s what I did. And we had a lot of fun. Nonetheless, the second squad, second platoon came out on top in training and low in disciplinary requirements, and weekly passes were given!
After basic training, I went to an eight week course in munitions at Fort Lee, Virginia. It was extra hot: 105-110 degrees, and no air conditioning in the barracks. We laid on top of the bunks and wilted. From Fort Lee, I went to Fort Lewis in Washington State, assigned to 629 replacement company which housed people for reassignment.
At Fort Lewis I met two great friends: John Hartnet, from Jersey City, NJ, and Robert Crapanzano, of Brooklyn, NY. Our main job was providing guard duty for a large warehouse out in the boonies. There was a two-man roving patrol in a jeep.
There was a guy named Sgt. Rice in Fort Lewis, and that guy once told me to go under the building and pick up a cigarette butt. I said, ‘No way.’ We got into it a little, and when I continued to refuse, he ordered me to, ‘Go see the old man.’ So, we went to the captain, who asked us what had happened. After Rice left, the Captain said, ‘So, what’s the story?’ I told him, ‘I had 16 weeks of basic training, and I thought the harassment was over. I would have broken my back trying to crawl under that building to get a cigarette butt!’ The Captain just told me to get out of there.
Christmas was approaching and Crap asked John and me to go home with him to the Bronx. He even said he would foot the bill. He also informed us he was not coming back after Christmas. And that was the last we ever saw of him.
I was home about six months later and received a call from Phil DiBruno, who was also at Fort Lewis and knew Crap. Phil was an over-the-road trucker, and was dropping a load in Versailles (near my home town) and going back to NY; he just wanted to say hello. I asked him about Crap and he said, ‘He’s in the bigs. Head of the union at the Jersey City Shore.’
From Fort Lewis, John and I received orders for Germany. John to Idar Oberstein; me to Baumholder. We were about fifteen kilometers apart. We visited each other one or two times, but that wore thin. My duty at Baumholder, the armpit of Germany, was spending about nine months a year in the field, supporting the third armor tank division. It was bitter-torture cold.
Upon return to the barracks, I saw a sign on the bulletin board advertising for a TD wide (travel duty) position at 7th army headquarters in Stuttgart. I didn’t think I could take it in Baumholder anymore, so when I saw the sign looking for anyone interested in taking the test, that was definitely for me. I prayed I would pass it, and thank God, I did. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to be very, very careful, take my time, and read each question carefully.’ It was a general literacy and comprehension test. So, I passed the test, interviewed, and was selected.
When I got to the 7th army in Stuttgart, everybody was very nice at headquarters. The facilities were good, there were good living conditions, and the food was good. Upon arriving at 7th army chemical division, I was assigned to work under General John Luben. I was on the CMI team — command maintenance inspection. There were fifty of us. I was the only one from chemical. Most of them were from motor pool.
Colonel Bosa was the team leader. A nicer man had not yet been born. He was fair, but you had to back up your facts/reports, because sometimes the person you were inspecting would question your results. Colonel Bosa had been on the liberation of Dachau — the concentration camp — so he took us all through that and told us all about it. He was the nicest man!
Captain Luben was replaced by Captain John Lally, and he was a real nutcase. He called me Laddie and was not shy about telling me when he was the company commanding officer, he was so tough on the troops that on linen day, the troops would defecate into their sheets, set them on fire, and toss them into the supply room. He was also very negative to the people we inspected. Eventually he was let go.
Next came First Lieutenant Paul Gregin. Gregin was a well-educated graduate of Ohio State, and he had master’s degrees in Electrical and Chemical Engineering. However, he fell far short on basic people skills. When Gregin was on his way out, Colonel Bosa told me his plan was not to replace Gregin. Bosa was completely satisfied I could do the job alone, and he asked what did I think about it? I said, ‘I like it better!’
That CMI job was like a thirteen month travel vacation. I had all my records with me, personnel records and pay records, so if I was on the road and needed money, I could just go in to one of the bases and grab money. We had our own lodging, and four of us pooled $200 to buy a Ford Fairlane. I was the first to leave Germany, so my buddies gave me my $50 back when I left, and brought another person into the shared ownership. We worked Monday through Friday and always had weekends off, so we used the car to go up and down the audubon chasing fillies. You know, the frauleins!
Ironically, after I had been at the CMI job for a while, I came across my old nemesis, Sergeant Rice, who had ordered me to pick up the cigarette butt from under the building back at Fort Lewis! During an inspection, I went into the supply room at a base (in Germany) and there’s Sgt. Rice, and I’m there to inspect him! I said, ‘Oh, Sergeant Rice, do you remember me?’ He played dumb, (because he was) and pretended he didn’t know who I was.
We had to move from the supply room to a munitions bunker, underground. On the way out to that bunker, Rice must have had a flashback of memory, because he said, ‘I hope you won’t be too hard on me with your inspections!’ I just said, ‘I’ll be nothing but fair.’ They passed, and that was a good thing for him, because if they didn’t pass, there’d be hell to pay — there would have been a call from 7th army — someone would have gone down to inspect what the report said, demanding to know what the hell was going on at that base, etc.
The most beautiful part of the CMI job was although I was the lowest ranked member of the team, we were all one big group. Our team was made up of career sergeants, master sergeants, sergeants first class, and college graduate enlisted men. But we went by name, not rank. Our duty was Monday through Friday, and we were on a bus with all other tech services, going out to inspect, grade, and critique all the companies. We were responsible for inspecting all the army posts in southern Germany. We carried our credentials, all our service records. It was amazing, the number of army bases in southern Germany. If not for the fact I was leaving at the end of the assignment to return home, I would have cried when it was over.
I made many, many good friends in the army: Nate Willett, Ben Vitcov, Alan Waterman, Charles Brittingham. Charles was from Philadelphia. He called me within a month of getting home and said he was flying up in a rental plane from Philly to Groton, and how about meeting for coffee? We met, he left, never to see him again. His job on the team was to handle all reports of inspections. He graduated from St. Joe’s in Philly.
After about one year being home, I received a call from Nate Willett of Virginia, who was going to be in Hartford for a bar mitzvah the coming weekend. Unfortunately, I had four catering jobs booked that weekend, so I was very sorry but it was impossible to meet on Saturday. Nate had no ability to change his plans to leave Saturday night, so we didn’t get to meet.
In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed my two years of service. My memories of my time in the army are good ones. I really enjoyed the service, I really did. I saw a lot, and I learned a lot. But I missed my one and only honey, Noreen.”
Photos attached: me in uniform, me in Germany with Charles Brittingham and Nate Willett, and me at Fort Lewis with Robert Crapanzano and Phil DiBruno
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