©2008, Even Lazier Publishing/Seed Center
In the early afternoon of December 7, 1941, the report of the attack on Pearl Harbor came over the radio. What to do now? There was no one to discuss it with. My best friends lived on the other side of the city, and I had no telephone. I decided to go to a movie. The cashier looked at me oddly, and there were only two other people in the vast auditorium. By the time the double bill was over, newsboys were selling extras on the street. When I came home from Colt Press for lunch the next day, I listened to President Roosevelt's speech on the radio, and knew that a new future had come into being.
I would not see military service until the end of 1942, after I learned that I could volunteer to be drafted before my number was called. The physical requirements for enlistment in the Regular Army were stricter. Draftees were in what was called "the Army of the United States."
I learned that I could volunteer to be drafted even with poor eyesight, and heard a rumor that the Army was sending bright young men to college. Since Aaron seemed to have recovered his balance, I decided to return to Paterson and volunteer from my home district.
During my physical examination I lied and said I could see the E at the top of the chart without my glasses. I did not want to be classified as "limited service," which I feared would trap me in some gloomy armory as a clerk for the rest of the war. Officially I would enter the Army on December 26, 1942, to report for duty a week later.
As it turned out, I was wise to volunteer. By doing so, I happened to enter the Army just as various specialized units were being manned, and I was sent to the 604th Engineer Camouflage Battalion at Camp Campbell (now a Fort) in Kentucky. My friends Aaron and Bob, who waited to be drafted, both ended up as infantrymen and each was wounded twice.
While waiting for January 2nd, I took a Christmas season job as a temporary clerk at the Post Office.
Before returning to Paterson, I had had a series of strange prophetic dreams. I had spoken about them to Aaron, and also told them to Bob Hanson when I returned to Paterson. Two of them were realized during December. One was of a fistfight under a streetlamp near a high concrete wall. The actual fight followed an argument at the Post Office when I yanked back a stool another clerk had taken from my work station. He challenged me, and we boxed briefly after the midnight shift in the dim dawn. Since I was not combative, the dream of the fight and its setting (the wall was the railroad station next to the Post Office) struck me as odd enough to remember. In the third dream, I was in a foxhole at the crest of a small slope with several other soldiers, looking down at a road; then I turned and saw standing above me a German soldier with bayonet upraised. I lifted my own weapon to parry, and was disturbed to realize that I was armed with a short rifle with no bayonet. Though the dream might be dismissed as a Freudian image, it haunted me throughout my time in the Army, until a day I will tell about later. It became significant when it turned out that the assigned weapon for my unit was the .30 caliber carbine, short and light, carrying no bayonet.
During my last week of freedom I went to a couple of plays on Broadway in New York. On New Year's Eve, Bob and Aaron and I went to a raucous farewell party, and of course I broke my glasses again. I reported for duty half-blind.
Though I was confused and nervous because of poor vision -- my right eye at that time was 20/450, and the left eye 20/275 -- I managed to score 126 on the Army General Classification Test. (Anything over 115 was sufficient for officer's candidate school.) However, I was so uninformed that I did not know the Army provided free glasses, and at Fort Dix I asked for a pass to go into Trenton to get new ones. The sergeant thought I wanted to go home, but it seemed to me it would be anticlimactic to return just after the farewells, wearing an ill-fitting uniform with no decorations.
I went into Trenton on a one-day pass. But the optician did not have the glasses ready at 5 p.m. as promised, so I left a forwarding address and returned to the fort. The glasses did not reach me until several weeks later in Kentucky. It was not a good way to start my Army service.
I was shipped out with several score other draftees, and we arrived by train at 2 a.m. at Camp Campbell. We were actually made to feel welcome, and were given coffee and crude sandwiches at the mess hall. We learned we were now in the 604th Engineer Camouflage Battalion. What I did not know was that the commanding officer, Major Moss (soon to be Lt. Col., and hereafter referred to as "the Colonel") was indeed genuinely happy to see us. The unit had been activated at first with a few score overaged National Guardsmen, and the Colonel got rid of them as soon as he could, arguing mightily with higher headquarters.
My Army experience was unusual because the 604th was a separate battalion of only about 500 men, and its commander reported to Second Army HQ, which was not much concerned with so small a unit. The Colonel was therefore free to indulge in his self-concocted fantasy of how we should be trained. Later in Europe I would be grateful for the seemingly insane training, because of the confidence and esprit de corps it created. But at the time I felt like a rat in a maze. What I recount will not seem particularly harsh in the light of other human suffering, but we felt intensely the contrast with the way other troops were treated.
Much later, in England, Yank magazine did a story on the Engineer unit that had been longest in Britain. One of its men, who had been on special duty with the 604th with his bulldozer, was quoted as saying to his fellows, "You guys think you have it tough. I've just been with an outfit where they have shit for breakfast, shit for dinner, and shit for supper." He was referring to my battalion.
To start with, the Colonel got the battalion housed in one-story tarpaper barracks at the very edge of camp. It was a half-block walk to the latrines and showers in separate buildings. (The two-story barracks in the rest of the camp had these facilities in the same building.) Then the Colonel complained to the Camp Commandant that the quartermasters were wasting food by giving the 604th too much. The QM naturally took revenge by always allotting us the worst cuts of meat.
Psychological pressure was constant. A typical example was a broadcast call at six on Sunday evening to all local towns, to all public places in and out of camp, for all men of the 604th on pass to return to base immediately. When we gathered, hung over or drunk, we were told we were going overseas. We loaded all our equipment on trucks, formed up with full packs, and then proceeded to march into the dark woodlands. Twice before morning we stopped and pitched tents, only to be told a half-hour later to pack up and march again. Of course, when we really did go overseas, we had three months' notice.
We were told we were "soldiers first, engineers second, and camoufleurs third," and that only two men of the 604th had survived World War I. As a routine, in addition to other hikes, each Wednesday morning we left at 4 a.m., without breakfast, full pack, marching eight miles in two hours before we ate, then finishing 25 miles before noon. When some dropouts from paratroop training (for broken bones in jumps, usually) were transferred to our outfit, we asked them if paratroop training was worse than ours, and one man said, "Well, it's a little different."