In Defense of My Country or why I can celebrate Memorial and Vet’s day

Image from VroomBroom at

Image from VroomBroom at

In my last year at Northwestern I really screwed up…….I was partying, failed a course, got mononucleosis (no sleep, etc) and had to drop out a quarter.  I was three hours short of graduation so instead of having a Toga party ala Belushi, I decided to volunteer for the draft, since I would have to go in eventually.

Photo by Stephen Davies from

So I went to the army recruiting office in Evanston and someone had told me that you want to try for military intelligence – of course that was a typical army misnomer; it meant you are at the front lines, you phone back to the gunners and say “the enemy is 100 yards in front of me, start sending those shells”.  Well luckily, I couldn’t qualify.  It was the McCarthy era.  The sergeant asked me where I was born – Portland, Oregon.  my father, Helena, Montana. my mother, somewhere on the Russian-Polish border (actually Stepan, Poland) and was three when she came to the US.  Oh Oh, that made me a security risk.

So, I just volunteered for the draft and took my chances.  I took my physical.  Height 5 foot 8, weight 110 pounds (!), eyesight, 20/500 (I could see at 20 feet what most people saw at 500 feet), jaundiced from the mononucleosis.  Passed, classified 1-A.   I still don’t believe it.

So on 4 March 1954 I packed a small bag, got on a train from LA to Salinas CA, and we all bused over to Fort Ord, by Monterey, CA.  Now this is one of the most beautiful areas in the Golden State.  However, the foggy and cold mornings and the warm days made for rampant sickness and I was stricken with acute Pharyngitis during the very difficult basic training.  They gave me a shot of penicillin, told me to report to the hospital which I didn’t because if you stayed away for more than a few days, you had to start basic all over again, a fate worse than Pharyngitis.

After basic we received our next assignment:  mine was 8 weeks of clerk typist school at Fort Ord.  That was a snap.  You could leave the base on the weekend and I generally drove down to LA with three people (that’s how I made more than the very few dollars I was getting from Uncle Sam every month).  We would leave at Saturday noon, come back Sunday to check in by 6 PM.

I was third in my clerk typist class and was surprised because the two ahead of me didn’t seem to pay much attention to anything.  It turned out, they were given the test results from someone and someone else turned them in, so I was the valedictorian of  my class.  what an honor.  So I was assigned to court reporter training (16 weeks) at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana.  I did well there, and as a result got to choose whether I went to Korea, Germany or Austria.  Salzburg, here I come.

After 13 days on a flat-bottomed Army ship from Brooklyn to Livorno, Italy, sleeping on hammocks 4 high, I met with my assignment sergeant.  I had been told that my MOS was critical, and to insist on being a court reporter.  I was asked where I was born, my father, my mother and asked one additional question:  did I have any other relatives in Eastern Europe.  I answered honestly that they had all been killed in the Holocaust.  Then because Sen. McCarthy didn’t have as much influence in Italy, I was assigned to administration in the counter intelligence corps in Salzburg and given a top-secret clearance.  Strange are the ways of the military.

It is early 1955 and I am on a train to Salzburg along with the others assigned there.  When we arrived, we were taken to our lodgings, not an army barrack, but a former sanitarium that had been taken over by the Nazi officers in an area called Parsch.  All single private rooms, and we received a food allowance to eat in our dining room (order from the menu!) because of the super secret nature of the work at the 430th CIC unit.  Our cover name was Headquarters, USFA (US Forces Austria), and I bought a used Opel convertible (no top down until May), and lived the glorious life in Salzburg:  The Mozarteum, the castle, the bakery (founded 1329).

Our physical training consisted of weekly skiing at Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s Eagle nest home.  Our work, mainly screening prostitutes that soldiers were marrying and intending to take home to the US, and making certain they were not Russian spies.  However, I was not involved in the very secret work of spies going into Eastern Europe and the listening posts in Salzburg and Vienna.  I worked in a great office environment with good people (actually the officer I worked for was Major Major).

Austria at the time was a four-power country, with control each month passing from Russia to the US to France to Britain.  We drove to Vienna one month to see the passing of power from the Soviets to our government.  A very impressive ceremony with the Russian soldiers, bayonets on the end of the rifles goose stepping in perfect step and the US soldiers, chrome helmets glistening in the sun marching to “The St. Louis Blues”.

I did get to go to Munich and drink beer in the Hofbrau beer hall with my buddies.  I took a trip through Europe and visited my cousin Sherman and his family in Bamberg, Germany, where he was stationed prior to going back to school and designing much of our guidance systems for our space program (see blog on Sherman, an American hero.

All good things come to an end.  The four powers signed a treaty to turn the government over to Austria and the command was closed.  A small group of us stayed behind until the very last day to clean things up, and left after a short 10 months in this military paradise to be given my discharge at the Presidio, San Francisco, three months early to I could go back to school and get my degree.

Photo by foxumon from

It was two years out of my life, but it sure could have been worse.  I still hated the non-coms who controlled my life while in (don’t obey, go to jail) and I always cheer for Navy in the Army-Navy game, and the VFW won’t let me join because I was not in during a war and even though I sent in my money, I don’t get the cap and can’t go to the VFW lodge, but what the hell.

And when my children and grandchildren asked me what I did in the war, I tell them a fought the battle of the Vienna Woods.

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2 comments on “In Defense of My Country or why I can celebrate Memorial and Vet’s day

  1. I’m not sure things have improved much, Jerry. By 1970 they were denying security clearances if you ever had a close relative convicted of a felony. I had an uncle who did time for tax evasion.

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