Looking Back From Ninety


How American soldiers were trained at mid-century

All army recruits, whether volunteers or conscripts, were sent to one of several training camps in the U.S. Those from the northeastern states went to Fort Dix near Trenton, New Jersey. I was drafted in January 1956 so did my basic training in the rain, mud, and sometimes snow.

I had to take a taxi from my New Hampshire home town to the county seat, where the draft board was located. Four or five of us were then sent by bus to Manchester, where we joined a larger group going through physical and mental tests. Those of us who passed (almost everyone, including a tender lad who eventually got himself an "Unsuitable" discharge) were sent by train to Boston and then to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where we arrived quite hung over. We first went to a processing center where we were issued uniforms, given immunization shots, had our teeth fixed if necessary (a traumatic event for some lads who'd never been to a dentist), and were given endless batteries of tests. Then we were cycled into a basic training company. I think one or more companies began a cycle each week. I was assigned to Company G, 272nd Infantry Regiment, 69th Infantry Division, no relation to the famous "Fighting 69th" of the First World War. We called ourselves the Cocksuckers, of course.

Someone who read this page to compare my experience with that of Vietnam-era draftees complained that I'd ignored the horror of being shorn. But we didn't wear our hair very long in the 1950s, which is probably why I don't remember being troubled by the buzz cut.

A training unit is a simplified and over-manned version of a combat infantry company. We had 10 or 12 men in a squad instead of 8 or 9, and each company operated as a unit unto itself. There was a permanent cadre, in my case all veterans of the Korean War and therefore very serious about training. The lesser jobs (squad leader, platoon leader) were assigned to recruits with previous military training or who seemed to have leadership ability. We lived in "temporary" WWII barracks, wooden, two-story, heated by a coal furnace, usually below freezing by morning. There are four squads in a platoon, so in our case that was about 50 men, who lived on one floor in double-decker bunks. Another platoon on the top floor, and two more platoons in another barrack next door. A cadre sergeant lived in a private room in each barrack. There was an orderly room across the "company street" and a supply room nearby.

The training day was 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., and could be longer if one got "kitchen police" or furnace detail. Since the training was arduous, most of us were sleep-deprived for the entire eight weeks. A very few soldiers (most of them black) summoned enough energy to leave the company area at night and go into the little town (Wrightstown) nearby for drinks and sex. I was 25 years old, much too old for this sort of work, so I slept whenever I could, including during the training day. We had Sunday off, though we were expected to clean the barracks and our personal gear.

Technical training

Basic had two purposes. The first was to teach every soldier how to use all light infantry weapons. Some of this was intense, as with the M-1 Garand rifle (later replaced by a similar rifle, the M-14, firing a standardized NATO cartridge), which we had to disassemble, clean, and reassemble in the dark, and to shoot under any condition. Since I'd been a hunter from boyhood and in college had fired on the rifle team, I became a coach for those who were terrified of firearms, to ease them through the requirement that they be marksmen of a certain standard. (At the end of the day, the several "bolos" who simply couldn't do the job were qualified by us or the cadre. We simply picked up our bolo's rifle and fired on the target for him.) Other training, as with the "bazooka" rocket launcher, was fairly superficial. I think we fired one live round, but at least we would have known what to do with the thing if the occasion arose.

Similarly, we learned to dig foxholes (not as easy as it sounds), camouflage our faces for night combat, bivouac in the woods and snow, march fast over fairly long distances, use the bayonet (on dummies), and even some simplified hand-to-hand combat. We also had regular physical training. Sadly, I finished basic training in worse condition than I began it, what with the general exhaustion and respiratory ailments. (You did anything it took not to go to the hospital, since that would mean being "recycled" into a new company, the worst possible fate for a soldier. You want to stay with the people you began with. They aren't friends, exactly, but you know where you stand with them.) But as a soldier, I think I functioned fairly well.

There was also some classroom learning, which I don't remember as well. We were lectured about hygiene (especially venereal disease), the Uniform Code of Military Justice, how to behave as a prisoner of war (another direct result of the Korean War experience), and so on.

Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Mental conditioning

The second purpose of basic was to turn a civilian into a useful soldier, which is to say: an automaton. We did everything in squad and platoon formation, got shouted at, were very respectful to the cadre and even to our designated squad leader, and generally worked ourselves to exhaustion. The intent was to stop us from thinking as individuals and to encourage us to think as members of a combat unit. For me, this was certainly less successful than the military training described above. I was out for myself every minute, so as to survive the experience in reasonably good health. I think everyone was./

Altogether, it was a good training program. I often thought that if I'd been discharged on March 17, 1956, instead sent for on-the-job training at Fort Bragg, I would have been a more useful soldier than the one that emerged after two boring years in the army. (The 69th Infantry Division was disbanded at about the time I graduated from Basic, though I don't think the two events were at all related.)

There's a fuller account of my two years in the Army in my memoir: Looking Back From Ninety: The Depression, the War, and the Good Years That Followed"

"Second Eight"

If you were going into a combat arm--a fate that everyone tried to avoid, since really what it meant was living through basic training for two years--then you went to a "second eight" weeks of advanced training. For the infantry, I think there were two such posts, one in Kentucky and one in Alaska. I think the same was true of artillery, armored, and other combat arms.

Alternately, you were sent to a technical school (say for company clerks or radiomen) or for "on the job training" in some other technical area. Thus, I did my "OJT" at Fort Bragg in psychological warfare. I was a radio broadcast specialist.

When the "second eight" or technical school or OJT was finished, you were then assigned to your permanent station. I simply remained at PsyWar on Smoke Bomb Hill at Fort Bragg, though after a few months I was sent to France, where I was in charge of troop education and training for a "headqarters and heaquarters company" of 400 men who filled all the various jobs required to handle the Communications Zone of the U.S. Army in Europe.

It would be fair to say that I hated military service while I was doing it, but I afterward found the training very valuable in that it enabled me to write intelligently about military affairs, then and now. I took my discharge in France and went to work for The Overseas Weekly in Frankfurt, reporting on the US Army in Germany for a hectic and mostly enjoyable year. When the Vietnam War was first brewing, I grabbed the chance to visit the "front," such as it was, which I could never have done if I hadn't gone through basic training. (I even wore my Army fatigues.) And ever since, most of my books and articles have been on military topics, as evidenced by the advertisements on this page.

When I look at the television news, I am both amused and embarrassed by the reporters' ignorance of the most elementary facts of military life. That's also true of feature movies like Saving Private Ryan, which ignore how the army operates: as an eight- or ten-man squad responsible to a sergeant, and acting in concert with three other squads under a lieutenant who is the platoon leader; the four platoons acting in concert under a captain who is the company commander. And so on, through battalions, brigades or regiments, divisions, armies, and corps. (We don't deal much with armies and corps any longer, of course, and increasingly we've stopped thinking in terms of divisions. And a modern brigade is "heavier" than ours was, with considerably more firepower. Every soldier now has an automatic weapon, and every squad has a machine gun of considerable lethality.) It is a very elegant construct for moving men through intricate and dangerous situations, and it is almost never shown for what it is on television or in the movies.

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