What a mistake they made. I can hardly believe that even the U.S. Army would send 660 New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania recruits to Fort Benning, Georgia in March of 1957. After a week at Fort Dix, working in the mess hall, falling out at five in the morning and going through a hilarious session getting our army clothes and boots, Sergeant Daly announced that we should pack up our duffle bags and head out onto the busses in front of our barracks. We were not told where we were going, or what the purpose of getting onto the busses was.
After a short trip in the bus, we pulled up to McGuire Air Force Base and were pushed and shoved onto DC-3 airplanes. To say that the accoutrements were spare within the plane would be to exaggerate. The plane was really for cargo, not human cargo. We were strapped into seats in the most uncomfortable manner and suffered throughout the entire flight. Most of us, including me had not come near an airplane in our lives. The closest to a plane that I had been , was to try an pick up girls at Idlewild ( now JFK) Airport. Many of the ‘cruits “ got airsick. I spent the few hours on the plane looking out at world I had never seen before. The changing scenery over the cities and plains that I saw began to have its affect on me. There was certainly a whole new world out there that I had no idea about and now I was going to find out.
We landed at an air base near Fort Benning Georgia, on the outskirts of Columbus, Georgia. Want to think about what the South was like in 1957 ( just at the outset of school desegration), but no other social changes had occurred. Our troop of 660 newly minted soldiers contained city and suburban boys. There were African Americans, Puerto Ricans, white bread suburbanites, Italian and Irish guys and a smattering of immigrants who came to the U.S. and were drafted ( something about gaining citizenship). We were put into the bus mode and went through town to get to Fort Benning. At the beginning of the Main Street in Columbus was a large billboard, with cloaked Klansman on white horses welcoming us to “Klan Country.” I admit that this did not ring well with me. I knew the Klan had some bad feelings for African Americans, and some for Catholics, but they reserved some really potent hatreds for Jews. Were they really welcoming me in a friendly way, or was I going to see my first cross burning.
I am sure that others saw the sign, but never made mention of it. We were kind of silent on the way to Fort Benning, chiefly because we had no idea what we were doing there. When we arrived, we were all placed in a large field and told to line up ( whatever that meant) and stretch out our left arms and touch the shoulder of the person to our left and push them as far as we could without losing contact with their shoulder. This would be a constant activity over the next few years. That produced all kinds of grunt-like signs and pushing. When it was over, we could hardly see where the lines ended. In front of us strode the Colonel who was in charge of our training. He stood on box and had a microphone. He began to speak in another language, other than English.
I could see that I was not the only soldier not to understand the Colonel. His really Southern accent none of us had ever heard. Tony Arcoraci was standing next to me and looking like he was listening to a speech in Tadzhik. I shrugged both of my shoulders. Some of the words that we could make out were- basic training, lard asses, infiltration course, rifles and bullets, 5 mile runs and various descriptions of our ineptitude. Other than that it was choose anything that you wanted to hear. The speech was supposed to intimidate us. It did not. It was kind of funny for most of the 660 new soldiers and that began the culture clash.
A battalion was divided into companies. Not sure how many that was, but our company was in one barracks. We must have been about 60 soldiers of various types. We wore our new clothes- fatigues- with reckless abandon. We wore a hat that was kind of like a bundt cake with a brim and was a greenish color, as were our fatigues. Our company NCO was Sergeant Yarnell who was so deep South that we always had no idea what he was saying. He also had the habit of having a large chaw of tobacco in his cheek. That made it even more difficult to understand him. He sprinkled his speech liberally with cuss words ( his way of talking). So we might hear something like this before we went to sleep. “ Morry, y’all will spill out you racks at five an I want you drop your cocks an grab yo socks.” Those inspirational words came with just a dash of “ If you don’t get up right away something bad will happen.” When one of our bunkmates would not get up, Sergeant Yarnell would creep very quietly and yell into the ear of the sleeping soldier,’ Get yo ass outa baid.” In once case a soldier answered him in a falsetto tone,”Hey sarge, watch yourself, there’s some delicate shit in there.”
Sergeant Yarnell was probably in the military during World War II and Korea. He was not facile with words and had not acquired any sense about minorities in the military. He was truly Southern by birth and never seemed to understand that the world was changing. He was unable to pronounce Tony Arcoraci’s name nor anyone else who name was not Smith Jones, or Johnson. His inability to pronounce names was just the tip of the culture clash. When a name came up that he could not pronounce, he would call the person Alphabet and continued to do it throughout training.
There were folks who could not handle the military. They were not suited to being told what to do and when to do it. The could not tolerate the food. I loved the food because it certainly was better than my grandmother and mother’s cooking. One of the poor unfortunates would stay up all night and pretend to be riding a motorcycle by running through our barracks making motorcycle noises. He was soon released from service on a Section 8 ( unable to be in the military for mental reasons).
Training was a lark for most of the fellows, except for the porkers who could not do the give mile forced march. You have seen enough movies to know what basis training was like- the rifle range, the poison gas training ( put on your mask while in the shack and choke to death), the physical training, the rifle range, the infiltration course ( in a foot of red clay mush during a rainstorm, which required us to throw away our clothing and take a shower with our rifles).
Our officers and NCOs did not like us. We did not speak like them, we had no manners, our values were so different from theirs and we were not respectful. One even captures the entire 10 weeks that we were there. We were put on a bus and taken to the Summer home of FDR in Warm Springs, Georgia. Not sure why we were taken, but we all piled on a bus and took off. It was a state park in rural Georgia. As we got off the bus, we noticed that there were colored and white drinking fountains and colored and white bathrooms. Yes, you are correct, the white guys went into the colored bathrooms and drank at the colored fountains and visa versa. As we were going through FDR’s home, a large phalanx of state trooper cars pulled up and gathered us up and were prepared to send us to jail. Our officers and NCOs convinced them that we were crazy Northerners and did not have any idea of the rules here in the South.
We were put back on our busses and sent back to Fort Benning. That was about during our 5th week of training. By the seventh week additional things happened. Some of our Puerto Rican guys decided that they would like an increase in rank and went to the PX and bought general’s stars and wore them at reveille. They were brought up on charges but were eventually released. Some of our number were placed in the stockade, some were brought up on court martial charges and with the number of Section 8’s increasing, something had to happen.
On a personal note- we were having our usual Saturday morning inspection, this time by the base commander, a general who went down each and every row and looked at our beds and foot lockers and checked our uniforms. I guess because I wore glasses he stopped at my bunk walked close enough to me so that I could smell his breath and asked me to repeat the Chain of Command. That was something that we were taught ad nauseum. I knew it like I knew my serial number. I rattled it off without the hitch. The general was impressed. He turned to Sergeant Yarnell and said, “ Give this soldier 10 merits.” Sergeant Yarnell shook his head sadly. After the inspection was over the Sergeant came up to me and said, “ Hillman, yo thin that you is such a big shit for givin that answer. You ain nottin. While evyone has a weekend pass you is goin to stay here and clean up the barracks with a toothbrush.” My understanding of the military was suddenly all too clear. Try not to stand out in any way. Don’t be an oddball or a smart guy or you will get your ass whipped.
On a Monday morning at the beginning of our 7th week of training, we were asked, as usual to rake up the stones and pick up trash and butts ( and field strip them) and then assemble for a battalion activity. We did as we were told. The Colonel,our battalion commanding officer, stood on a box, flanked by all of the company commanders ( lieutenants) and began a somber speech. We do not like you, you are the worst soldiers who we have ever had at Fort Benning. You have no respect at all for the military and you are not trainable. You are a disgrace to the U.S. Army. He went on with more accolades. From now on you can train yourselves till your training ends in three weeks. We will be around to help you if you need us. We all stood there stunned. What had we done wrong? Some of us had an idea. There were some older guys there who had graduated from college and understood that we had come from a totally different world which would not be reconciled for many years into the future.
We actually did our own training. I often think that the person who wrote “Stripes” was in our outfit. We graduated from basic and then went to our specialize schools. I went to the Southeastern Signal School at Fort Gordon, Georgia and that will end my sojourn in the U.S.