Your in The Army Now

From High School, I went to Compton Junior College for a short time. My college education was interrupted when I received greetings from Uncle Sam in the form of a draft notice. March 13, 1943 I reported for duty in Los Angeles and was bused with other recruits to the Army induction center at Camp Anza in Arlington, California.

I believe most new recruits facing the prospect of going off to war experience a queasy sense of trepidation, but I was never particularly emotional about things. By the time we arrived at Camp Anza, my feelings had already congealed into little more than enthusiasm. I soon learned the army wasn’t interested in recruits possessing enthusiasm or any other pre-existing notion; the Army was only interested in raw flesh and bone, malleable for quick molding into good soldiers.

And so, the breaking down and striping away of individuality from among the inductees began immediately. As soon as we arrived at Camp Anza, some noncom was running back and forth like an overexcited chicken screaming things like, “Maybe your heart belongs to Jesus, but by god, now your ass belongs to me, so get the hell in line!” I was immediately repulsed by the vulgarity as well as the absurdity of it.

Soon, a group including fifteen or twenty of us from Gardena high were assigned to the 527th Armored Infantry Battalion, 1st Division and shipped off to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training. We hoped things would be better at Fort Knox, but the verbal abuse only grew more acute. Our new platoon sergeant’s favorite pastime seemed to be standing nose to nose with some poor recruit and screaming--or spitting--out senseless diatribe at the top of his lungs.

I abhorred the dehumanizing aspect of boot camp but I realized the need for discipline so I tried to conceal my feelings and just get through the three-months of training. I actually enjoyed the physical regimen; marching, drills, and fastidious attention to weapons, uniforms, and Army protocol. Unlike humiliating some defenseless recruit, these things clearly served a purpose. I couldn't seem to get along with the platoon sergeant, who probably sensed the disdain I felt for him, so I focused on the physical aspect. I thought that might affect the sergeant's opinion of me but whenever I excelled at something, it seemed to only infuriate him more.

A few bullies in our outfit picked on smaller or weaker recruits and the sergeant seemed to encourage or at least allow it to happen. This didn’t help my opinion of him--he seemed himself like just one more bully rather than someone we could respect. I ended up in a number of fistfights, usually on behalf of those physically incapable of defending themselves. Still, in spite of the sergeant, my Army experience wasn’t all bad.

After one month of basic training, we were allowed to leave the army base to visit Louisville. I was a teetotaler so I avoided much of the mischief many soldiers got themselves into. A few of my friends and I went to a USO dance where we met several attractive girls, volunteers from the community who's mission it was to provide soldiers from Fort Knox with a taste of home and hospitality.

Mrs. Ora Ferguson from the Episcopalian Church was in charge of the volunteers and she encouraged them to attend USO dances on Saturday nights, and then to invite the soldiers they met to attend Church on Sunday. One of the girls invited me to attend Calvary Episcopal Church the following week and I accepted.

After church, the soldiers were invited to join some of the local families from various churches, at their homes for lunch or for afternoon parties, which led to my meeting some of the finest people imaginable. Colonel and Mrs. Thompson, who lived in Mockingbird Valley, turned out to be particularly fine southern hosts.

Colonel Thompson was a real American hero, notably born on the 4th of July, 1895. Due to his age, and having already served in the Army during WWI, 1st Lieutenant Thompson would have been exempt from the draft but like a true patriot, he tried just the same to re-enlist in the infantry. Rejected due to his age, 1st Lieutenant Thompson joined the local National Guard as a Private. December 7, 1941, his unit was put on alert and shipped out to Camp Shelby in Mississippi.

Private Thompson quickly advanced in rank and ended up again in command of men who loved him, and with whom he trained vigorously, including keeping up with the younger men in calisthenics and on 25-mile hikes. Eventually the indomitable former WWI 1st Lieutenant shipped overseas to fight in the Pacific Theater in WWII where he was recognized for great valor, and rose to the rank of U.S. Army Colonel.

It was Colonel Thompson’s going away party that a friend and I had attended when I ended up in serious trouble with two Fort Knox sergeants. By the time we made it from the Thompson’s back to Louisville there were long lines at the bus depot. Eventually we were told there would be no more buses until the next day so we found refuge for the night in a nearby pool hall and caught the first bus back to base the next morning.

By the time we arrived, morning muster had already taken place. Due to overcrowding at Fort Knox, I resided evenings with another platoon, and as a penalty for not showing up for muster, the sergeant of that platoon assigned me to laundry detail the following weekend. I also missed morning duty muster with my regular platoon sergeant so he assigned me to KP for the same weekend. I informed both sergeants of the conflict, but received no sympathy from either.

I couldn't be in both places at once so I chose the easier of the two jobs and reported for laundry duty. When I didn't show up for KP, the platoon sergeant sent for me and ordered me to do a Month-of-Sundays of KP. I seldom lose my temper, but this proved more than I could take without boiling over. I blurted out, "Just because I forgot to kiss your ass this morning is no reason why I should do KP for you for the rest of my life." By the next morning, I learned the error of my ways.

I was transferred immediately to the 3554 Service Unit, Casual Company, for what was known as a quick-trip overseas. Each morning while waiting for assignment, those of us who were physically fit were ordered to load and unload boxcars full of ammunition for the base. After a couple of days, I decided anything would be an improvement over unloading boxcars, so one morning after getting out of bed, I got under the bed and hid when they came to collect men for the work detail. After the barracks cleared out, I strolled over to the Fort Knox swimming pool where I happened to meet the Lieutenant in charge.

The Lieutenant seemed to be a nice fellow, so I suggested to him I would make a great lifeguard since I was from California and grew up on the beaches. To my great pleasure, I ended up at the pool, on lifeguard duty, for the balance of my Army career. Still, I was facing a blemished service record, or worse, a shortened lifespan if I shipped out with the infantry. I had sincerely tried to be a good soldier and had taken my licks when I felt I had it coming, and sometimes when I didn't have it coming, but this was all due purely to the belligerence of my sergeants.

Rather than ship out, I decided to concoct a scheme to get out of the service altogether. Even though they had never bothered me, I was born with flat feet, so I went to the base infirmary and told the medic on duty my feet were bothering me. The medic sent me to a doctor who recommended me for limited service and told me I would likely be restricted to some kind of office duty within the States. There was a base tribunal in charge of reviewing Casual Company transfers before reassignment, and within a few days I was called in for an interview.

The Colonel in charge of the tribunal said, "I notice you went through basic training with no complaints, how is it that now suddenly, when faced with going overseas, you're feet start bothering you?" I answered, "Well Sir, I was determined to serve my country overseas so I didn't complain during basic training, and only with that behind me did I address the problem. However, now it appears I'll be placed in limited service and most likely will be unable to go overseas. Considering the circumstances Sir, I would  prefer to get completely out so I can fulfill my desire to serve overseas by joining the Merchant Marine."

The Colonel patted me on the back and said, "I wish there were more men like you." ...And so on August 17, 1943 I received an honorable discharge under section 10, "For convenience of the Government". Before heading home, I returned to my former platoon sergeant and waved my discharge in his face. I can't remember his response but I can only imagine what he was feeling since we both hated each other’s guts. That sergeant is the only person in my entire life who managed to antagonize me to such a degree.

After I received my Army discharge, I mailed all my clothing home, pocketed the government check I received for transportation, and struck out for California on foot. Though more economical than a train ride, hitchhiking proved considerably more of a challenge.

Somehow I managed to get turned around and caught a ride in the wrong direction, ending up in Indiana. The motorist who picked me up kindly took me home with him and provided lunch before returning me to the highway and aiming me in the right direction. I was surprised at the kindness, culture, and education I encountered among those who gave me rides. I was particularly impressed with Oklahoma drivers. On several occasions, they too went out of their way to take me to their homes, feed me and then drive me back to the highway.

The only thing I carried with me was a few things I threw into a bowling ball bag. The bag was so light that, on a number of occasions it took off for California without me, caught up in the tornado of wind from trucks barreling down the highway past me. I was coming to the opinion I didn't particularly like truck drivers but two Good Samaritans in a big rig broadened my mind on that narrow view.

Patriotism was high at that time so, wearing my Army uniform, I usually didn't wait long for a ride during daylight hours, but dusk to dawn was a different matter. The truckers picked me up in the Texas panhandle and since they drove through the night, they spared me the usual nighttime wait between rides. When they offered me use of their sleeper compartment, I crawled in, closed my eyes and woke up the next morning in Phoenix, Arizona.

My good luck continued in Arizona when I caught a ride with two women on their way to join their husbands at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California. These ladies were anxious to see their husbands but they were both exhausted. I was fresh as a daisy after a good nights sleep in the truck’s sleeper compartment, so the girls turned the wheel over to me and I drove all the way to San Pedro.

When we arrived, the ladies were so grateful, they turned their car over to me so I could continue to my folk's house in Palos Verdes for a reunion with my own family. Today it’s hard to imagine a time when you could turn your car over to a hitchhiker with nothing more than a promise to return it in a few days. With my hitchhiking adventures behind me, I was eager to get back to the life I knew before being drafted. For me, military life was over--or at least that's what I thought.

Stories of Philip A. Mehan - Written by Scott Dawes © 2005-2009