Fort dix and fort devens

Fort Dix and Fort Devens

So, here I am in Fort Devens, Massachusetts … the beginning of a 2 year US Army career. I spend the next 2 days receiving G.I. clothing, a haircut, dog tags, and receive an introduction to marching and training. Additionally I had some interviews and completed several personal documents. It was during these early days that I pulled a couple of blunders. First, I had a free $10,000 life insurance policy available to me … all I had to do was name my beneficiary. Well, the two most important women in my life were my wife and my mother … so I listed them both, 50% each. Pretty fair I thought. Needless to say this did not go over very well when Florence was brought up to date. A change was quickly made.

Second, during one of the interviews regarding my future in the Army, I indicated I was a chemist and would like to be in either the Chemical or Medical Corps. I was informed that the best way to get that done was to sign up for Officer Training, which I did. A bit more on this later.

Within a few days I received orders confirming I would be transferred to Fort Dix, New Jersey for 16 weeks of Infantry Basic Training. Some time before the week was over I was one of about 100 G.I.’s put on a troop train, each with a box lunch. Some 15 hours later we arrived in Fort Dix, New Jersey. My basic training was about to begin. During the initial 6 week period we were not allowed visitors or passes. Soon thereafter, when it was permissible Florence would visit me on Sunday afternoons. There were a few times when my folks came along. These visits were a welcomed relief from the drudgery of infantry training during the fall and winter months … a nightmare to say the least.

Some time during the tail end of basic training I was called down to a placement office and was informed that my next assignment would be an eight week course in Advanced Infantry Training to be held at Fort Dix. This was a prerequisite for Officer Candidate School. I asked why infantry … I am a chemist and I expected to work in either the medical or chemical areas … and indeed these were my plans. “We have plenty of time to sort that out later”, he replied. “Right now there are no openings in the Medical Corp … but the Chemical Corp is always wide open since they are always in need of Flame Throwers … but let’s get OCS over with first.” I quickly observed this was a far cry from the test tubes I had envisioned.

So I did a quick calculation and realized I will have spent 4 months completing basic training, 2 more months doing this Advanced Infantry Training thing, 6 months at OCS (perhaps more, not quite sure), a new 2 year enlistment period and finally ending up with a container of highly inflammable liquids on my back. Both qualitatively and quantitatively this did not appear very enticing. So I did what any person would do … I resigned from being an officer. I was quickly informed that I can’t do that … but after some protests on my part OCS was canceled but I would still have to attend Advanced Infantry Training.

The first 4 weeks was solely class room instruction, which was quite easy for anyone who passed French with Mr. Rosenthal. The next 4 weeks was spent almost entirely outdoors. All this was taking place towards the end of the winter of 1951 … and while I never checked the records, that had to be the coldest, dampest, snowiest, most miserable winters of all times. Many a night I found myself in some wet field from which even the local cows had deserted. I was ordered to make the most of what I had and catch a few hours of sleep before we move on … and all I had was a plastic poncho pulled over my head. All night field problems were a way of life. 

I completed this phase of the training and was rewarded with a stripe … I was now a Private First Class. Probably not knowing what else to do with me, I was transferred on base to Company D, 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division as cadre. My assignment was to help train new recruits taking basic training. Within a few weeks pay day came around and Master Sergeant Woods announced that our company clerk was off to Korea and a replacement was needed. Addressing the cadre group he asked for volunteers … all that was required, he stipulated, was loyalty, intelligence and typing skills. I figured 2 out of 3 was pretty good so I raised my hand. He agreed, and quickly anointed me company clerk and then immediately left the area. It was customary for some of the regular army personnel to disappear for several days at a time immediately after receiving their monthly pay.

Sgt Woods went his way and I went directly to the PX area and borrowed a typing instruction book from the library. In another room I was able to find a public typewriter which I could play with for an hour after depositing a dime. After many hours the typewriter and I finally became friendly. I never did master touch typing, but at least I found out how to load paper.

A Company Clerk’s job is not extremely challenging. I had many hours available to prepare 3 or 4 reports daily, so typing speed was of no concern. I had developed a good relationship with the commanding officer, who had to sign off on all my work prior to it being submitted to some other clerk. We even became quite friendly.

Sometime by mid May, Florence and I decided she would leave New York and we would find a place to live together off base. Brown Mills, NJ was the site of our first home. We rented a furnished single bedroom apartment and were as cozy and happy as two little love birds. I would now be receiving 2 monthly checks, a pay check of $80 and, since I was no longer residing on base, a subsistence check of $90. The latter went for rent and the paycheck was for food, clothing, cleaning, and a little entertainment. Hairdressers, nail salons, pedicures and the like were not yet on Florence’s list.

One big weekend we bussed to Trenton, NJ … took in a movie, pizza for dinner and then purchased our first household item … a steam iron. It had to weigh 10 pounds without water. Florence was going to wash and iron my khaki pants and shirts. However she wasn’t quite sure where to position the trouser pleats … on the front or sides. Unfortunately she chose the sides and off I went to work one Monday morning with bell bottom army pants. My only other acceptable trousers were ready for the wash. By the way, hitchhiking was my sole means of transportation to and from work on the base … a short 10 minute ride which was always available … even with bell bottom pants.

The apartment building where we lived housed mostly army personnel, most of whom were officers. Florence made several friends and had a relatively smooth and active social life. During the daytime she swam in the officer’s club pool. On weekends we would socialize with some couples … the men usually dressed in civilian clothes avoiding any display of rank. I never did learn whether fraternization between enlisted men and officers was allowed. It only took one or two social evenings and by month’s end we were dead broke … but managed just the same.

I recall one visit from my parents during this period. It must have occurred towards the end of the month because my dad discovered a pantry shelf with only 2 cans of soup. My mom became upset and out they went to purchase some food for the starving couple. The bottom line is that these were truly wonderful times and a preview of more happy years to come.

There is a tidbit or two I would like to make mention of. During this period Florence decided to do a bit of cooking. Roast chicken of course was an item that had to be prepared. She purchased the chicken, cleaned I presume, and proceeded to prepare it for the oven. I received a frantic call from her complaining that her hands were burning. Apparently she didn’t realize that paprika and red pepper were not the same. She had been rubbing red pepper onto the chicken with her bare hands. The chicken was not edible. Her hands were sore for a week.

Then there was the pea soup, my favorite. Knowing that I like this very thick she used a bit too much peas. This was not only thick but required a knife to cut through. This dish, however, I obediently ate. 

By summer’s end the Korean War was still raging full force and every month I would see more men from my company being transferred to FECOM (Far Eastern Command). Within a few months Sgt Woods, as well as my commanding officer, Captain Matheson was gone. About this time I came across a piece in the Fort Dix Newspaper announcing that there were openings in Fort Devens, Massachusetts for qualified teachers of English. The Army was recruiting men from Europe with professional backgrounds and offering them USA citizenship after 5 years of service. There was an immediate need for personnel who had a command of foreign languages to teach English.

The following day I went down to the proper office and stated my case. I discussed my years of studying French and German in college and mentioned that my father, having emigrated from Russia spoke both Polish and Russian at home, and likewise for my mother who hailed from Romania. Neither of these claims was very accurate. My presentation was either very impressive or they were in dire need of any kind of assistance … regardless I was ordered to be in Fort Devens the following Monday morning. We called Florence’s brother Dave to come take her home, we closed the apartment and the following day I was off to Massachusetts. The second phase of my army career was about to begin.

It was a bright Fall Monday morning and I was at the appointed place at the appointed time. Approximately 30 men, apparently the student body, were seated in the room. Also present were members of the press and some high ranking officers. There were only 5 or 6 “teachers”, all enlisted men, and our instructions were to get out there, establish a bit of a dialog with the men, and rather than attempting any real instruction merely indulge in pleasantries. Who do you imagine was the first to be called? That’s right, me. I got up to the front of the class room and tried to speak in German and French. It only took a few minutes and it was obvious I was making absolutely no progress and was pulled from the floor. While the next instructor was doing his thing I was asked what went wrong. The only explanation I could come up with was that there was a big misunderstanding due to differences in dialects. Needless to say my teaching career was quickly terminated and I was transferred to the IRP (Initial Receiving Point) … the very same area I reported to my first day in the Army. I spent a rather lack luster year at this location performing various clerical functions.

The section worked 2 shifts a day and when I was assigned the 4 to midnight stint I had access to a Jeep during daylight hours. This provided me with the most productive activity I would have that year … borrowing the section’s jeep I taught myself how to drive … probably at the expense of the gear mechanism. I must admit I also learned how to drink beer.

There were 2 activities I did try my hand at during this period. The first was when I volunteered to umpire inter company baseball games. How difficult could this be I thought. Little did I know how high passions ran during these games. My first assignment was behind the plate calling balls and strikes. My problems began when I realized how little protective gear the catcher wore and more importantly I wore none. Occasionally the ball came right down the center of the plate … these were easy calls … likewise for the pitches which were a foot outside. It was those many … oh, so many pitches which were just on the line … to make a scientific call one has to think for a second or two … which apparently led to the conclusion held by both teams alternatively, that I did not know what I was doing. While I was fortunate to get back to my barracks alive I did manage to earn a distinctive honor. While nobody ever gets fired from umpiring free of charge … I did.

One of the functions of my IRP section was to cut orders for new recruits indicating where they were to begin the initial phase of their training. Every group which departed from Fort Devens had to be accompanied by a “seasoned” soldier. I volunteered for these assignments as often as I could. I would merely drop the group off at their destination and immediately begin my journey home. The Army provided me with train vouchers for transportation back. The trick was to get back without using these vouchers … which could then be returned for cash.

The usual procedure required finding a nearby air force base and “hitching” a free ride back to Boston’s Logan airport. Being in uniform we were always welcomed by the staff and they cooperated. At worse I spent a night waiting in some remote office for a plane heading my way. When a ride did become available we were required to put on a parachute … which of course made little difference to me, since I doubt very much if I would ever jump from a plane … this was not covered in any of my college courses. Usually a cargo plane would come by which was heading my way and had space for a hitch hiker … the only problem being that the rear area was not designed for people … but cargo … and accordingly there were no seats or heating. So usually it was a bit uncomfortable. The worst occurred on one trip returning to Boston in the evening … I was freezing in the rear and asked if I could hang out in the pilot’s section … permission was granted. As we approached Logan airport for a landing I was standing up front watching the ground rise at a very rapid pace. I thought for sure we were crashing and began to panic. My instructions at this point was to shut up and get to the rear … but I could not navigate the incline and soon fell on the floor … my legs in the pilot’s section and my head in the rear … and about as close to a faint as I ever have been.

On a more serious note there were daily news items daily which made me very uncomfortable during this period. The trial of accused spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was taking place. It was prime news … and I shuttered with each headline. A Jewish couple spying against our country … a shadow I could not avoid … and here I was hundreds of miles away from my “one square mile”. I remember this well.

I utilized all my furlough time as well as any weekend passes I could obtain and made the trip back home as frequently as possible. An early train ride Saturday morning would get me to the Topping Avenue apartment by mid afternoon. Sunday evening I would make my way back not caring how late I arrived. More than once, to save a few dollars, I would hitch hike back. Finally, September 1952 was here and I started to look forward to my discharge.

The last photo attached includes my mother and grandmother in the background. This was taken during a 10 day furlough which we spent in Saratoga Springs. During my stay in the Army my folks had sold the store and moved from their Topping Avenue apartment. They were going to become full time Saratoga residents. This never did materialize and I was never told why. There may have been insufficient income to sustain them year round … or, as I suspect, my mother’s health was an issue. She had suffered from Rheumatic Fever as a child and retained a bad heart. Most likely the harsh winters of upstate New York played havoc with her physical condition.

Several months before I received my Army discharge they had moved back to the Bronx, found an apartment in the same area as before and my dad found himself a job working for some other Fruit and Vegetable entrepreneur. My mother’s health had begun to seriously deteriorate.

My discharge was official on October 3, 1952 and I departed Fort Devens heading straight to my pregnant wife in NYC.