Ain’t Released Me Yet
Memoirs of a REMF
Copyright© 2016 by Robert B. Martin, IV
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission from the copyright owner, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal. I have attempted to recreate events, locales, and conversations from my memories of them.
Basic Combat Training (BCT) Begins
“If it’s natural to kill, how come men have to go into training to learn how?” ...........Joan Baez
On Thursday, February 6, 1969, with my head nearly shaved and wearing ill-fitting fatigues, field jacket, white cotton work gloves (supposed to keep our hands warm in sub-freezing temperatures), and stiff combat boots that were killing my feet, I was one of 49 recruits bussed across the post and assigned to the 3rd platoon of Company D, 5th Battalion, 3rd Basic Combat Training Brigade. It was called D-5-3 for short. Our eight weeks of BCT would begin on Monday, February 10, 1969. We would have a long weekend with our DI’s before then and it wouldn’t count towards the eight weeks of our training.
After the very short bus ride, we arrived at what looked to be an athletic field, or parade ground. Through the bus window I could see several DI’s, wearing their “Smokey the Bear” hats, waiting for us. They were wearing spit-shined jump boots (some even wore patent leather ones), black leather gloves (their only visible extravagance), and heavily starched, sharply creased fatigues. As cold as it was, they wore no field jackets. Maybe they wanted us to think they were tough enough to ignore the cold. Surely, they must have been wearing insulated underwear.
The DI’s began screaming, “GET OFF THE BUS NOW! FASTER! FASTER!” We were trying to hurry off the bus but 50 guys, each with a duffle bag and two laundry bags full of gear, were stumbling and bumping into each other at the door of the bus. My duffle bag and the two laundry bags seemed to weigh a ton as I stumbled out of the bus.
Once everyone was out of the bus one of the DI’s shouted, “FORM UP IN FOUR RANKS!” We had no clue how to form up in four ranks but we continued our bumping and stumbling outside of the bus and the DI’s continued screaming. At some point we must have managed to approximate something resembling an acceptable formation. That’s when a DI called us to attention and began spewing forth a steady stream of rapid and chopped instructions. I had no idea what he was saying. I could tell that my two previous years of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Georgia (UGA) were not going to be much help.
This may not have been the kinder, gentler Army of today, but it was definitely the equal opportunity Army. The DI’s shouted, kicked, cursed, humiliated, and harassed everyone the same. There was no discrimination based upon race, creed, or color. They got up close in everyone’s face, and I mean close, three or four inches away, and screamed. They screamed in our ears. They called us numb nuts, shitheads, faggots, maggots, scumbags, and other vulgar names meant to debase us. I was so shocked and confused by this verbal assault that I don’t remember much of anything except wanting to get away from that place.
The next thing I remember was picking up my very heavy duffel and laundry bags and attempting to “RUN, DO NOT WALK!” towards a barracks that seemed to be at least a half-mile across the athletic field/parade ground. The DI’s were running among us like sheep dogs among their flock and continuing to scream the entire distance to the barracks. People were stumbling, falling, dropping stuff, and, yes, even crying. It was like a giant – pardon my French, but there is no other way to say it – cluster fuck, or a politically incorrect Chinese fire drill. I tried as best I could to become invisible in the middle of this mass of human confusion. I remember stupidly thinking, “Why didn’t the bus driver drop us off closer to our barracks?” Any sensible person in the universe from which I had recently come would certainly have been more considerate. But this was not that sensible universe. This was another world.
The screaming didn’t stop when we reached the barracks. There was more screaming as the DI’s assigned bunks, or “personal areas” (a gross misnomer, as there was nothing personal about these areas) in the large open bay. I didn’t think the screaming would ever stop. Before one DI could exhaust his voice another DI would take over the screaming. They must have rotated the screaming so that none of them got hoarse.
Our barracks were single-level, metal Quonset-hut buildings with concrete floors. Upon entering the front door, the DI’s office was on the right and a storeroom on the left. The remainder of the building was one large room, or bay. Each barracks housed about 25 men, requiring two barracks for our 49-man platoon. One shortcoming of these Quonset-hut barracks was the lack of latrines inside the barracks. The latrines were located in separate buildings; one for every four barracks, or about one latrine per 100 men. They were constructed of the same materials as the barracks and had all the modern conveniences but they were still “out-houses.” It required a very cold jaunt through the snow and ice just to take a late night leak. It wasn’t long before the smell of urine was quite strong outside the barrack’s back door.
The barracks had been thrown up rather hastily in order to accommodate the large influx of trainees since the Vietnam war build-up. Still, everybody said that our barracks were much better than the nice looking brick ones because ours were easier to keep clean. It was said that the guys in the brick barracks had to stay up until midnight each night cleaning for the next morning’s inspection.
After being assigned bunks we were given about five minutes to stow our gear and make-up our bunks as best we could before “falling out” into formation in front of the barracks. No instructions were given on how to stow our gear or make the bed. Later that day the DI’s tore our bunks apart and threw all of our gear on the floor because we had failed to perform the tasks satisfactorily. Then they showed us how to make the bunks properly and stow our gear. Everyone’s personal area had to look the same. BCT did not allow for individualism. When we graduated from BCT we would look as if we had been punched out of a mold. I’m sure that if there had been a way to make all of us the same height, weight, and color it would have been done.
When we were back outside and in some semblance of a formation, our DI, Platoon Sergeant Thomas B. Ledbetter, informed us that we were to have a “class photograph” made. He then ran us over to a section of bleachers on the side of the parade ground. There, we stood on the bleachers in rows, posing for the photograph. It was one of those rare days when, even though still very cold, the sun managed to shine for a short while. I was in the middle of the third row from the bottom. Platoon Sergeant Ledbetter posed with us, standing in the middle of the first row. Our platoon guidon (flag) and a black signboard with white plastic letters spelling out our unit designation were positioned in front of us. It reminded me of a grade school class picture with SGT Ledbetter as our teacher.
We were marched from the bleachers to a latrine for individual photos. We lined up and the trainee in front of the line was given a hat, shirt, tie, and blouse (Army-speak for “coat”) and told to put them on. After he was dressed from the waist up, he was posed on a stool, and his photo taken so that he appeared to be dressed in a full Class A uniform (green wool dress uniform). Of course it was fatigue pants and combat boots from the waist down. The clothing was quickly removed after the photo and tossed to the next guy in line. There were two or three sets of clothing being tossed around and you had to find the closest fit. We would each receive a copy of the “yearbook” containing the photos when we “graduated” from BCT.
It seemed that every few days we were forming a line and rolling up our sleeves – on both arms – for injections. On the day we posed for photos I received three immunizations; tetanus-diphtheria toxoid, typhus, and typhoid fever. Medics, one for each injection you were to receive, stood at intervals on both sides of the line. The line moved quickly and each medic administered the injection as you passed his station. Some of the injections were given by hypodermic syringe and some by an automated injector, which utilized a stream of high-pressure air to “shoot” the vaccine into your muscle. It was fast but hurt much more than the needle. Sometimes, the injector, or your arm, would move when the medic pulled the trigger and instead of the dose shooting straight into the skin, the high-pressure stream would make a nice neat incision in your arm.
In addition to the tetanus-diphtheria, typhus, and typhoid fever immunizations, I eventually received vaccinations for smallpox, measles, yellow fever, Hong Kong flu, cholera, plague, Hepatitis A immune globulin, Hepatitis B immune globulin, and oral polio. My blood was typed and confirmed as O Negative and I was given a TB Tine test, which was negative. All of this was dutifully recorded in my yellow International Certificates of Vaccination booklet, or “shot record.”
Your shot record was not to be treated casually. A lost shot record could require a repeat of all immunizations.
I wrote home, “These sergeants are really mean!” I also mentioned something in the letter about “not wanting to be in this place.” It looked like the best way to get out was to get it done and over with. You did not flunk out of BCT. You would repeat the training until you passed.
One night after lights out and bed check had been completed, I sat on the floor of a broom closet filled with cleaning supplies and wrote a letter to Carol Ann. “I sure do wish I could just go home,” I wrote. I told Carol Ann that I was in a small room, approximately seven feet by twelve feet in size with a single light bulb on a drop cord that hung from the ceiling. That night it snowed almost twelve inches and there would be another four to six inches on Friday night, February 14. The cold and snow would not keep us from training outside. It wouldn’t be much of a Valentine’s Day, either.
On Friday, February 14, 1969 CPT Spacek, our company commander, sent word that I was to go to the post hospital to find out about the Army health insurance for my pregnant wife, Carol Ann. I walked 1.5 miles through several inches of snow to the post hospital and while there asked about my Achilles tendon. I took off my boots and a medic glued felt liners inside the backs of my boots. I had not taken my second pair of boots with me so I would have only one felt-lined pair. I would just have to wear the same pair every day until the pain in my Achilles tendon resolved. The potential problem with that, of course, was with the black X’s on the soles of one pair of my boots. Maybe the DI’s wouldn’t check too closely. I decided to take that chance.
While at the hospital I also visited the pharmacy and spoke with one of the pharmacists about how I might get into the Medical Service Corps. He told me to tell my 1SG (First Sergeant) that I had decided not to attend OCS and should be transferred to the Medical Service Corps (MSC). Since I was a registered pharmacist I would not be required to go to AIT (Advanced Individual Training). Instead, I would be stationed in a hospital as a pharmacist right after BCT. That sounded good to me. However, on Sunday, February 23, 1969 I wrote Carol Ann and told her that this was not true. I did speak to the 1SG but was told that I would be required to attend AIT even if I managed to get a transfer to the MSC.
My bunkmate was Mike Mazzucca from Chicago. He had the upper bunk and I had the lower. Each bunk had a thin cotton mattress with a top and bottom sheet, one pillow with pillowcase, and two wool blankets. It was so cold at night that the two wool blankets did not provide enough warmth so we slept in our GI long johns, even though for some strange reason this was “against the rules.”
The bunks required “hospital corners” with the top blanket pulled very tight. During inspections the DI would toss a quarter on the bunk and it had better bounce. If not, the DI would tear the sheets and blankets from your bunk, toss them on the floor, and tell you he would be back in five minutes and the quarter had better bounce. Failure always meant punishment and punishment was usually in the form of push-ups. This strict discipline was new to some trainees and the learning curve was steeper for them than for others. Obedience and attention to the smallest of details was required. When it was time to use the bunk for its intended purpose, sleep, I would very carefully slide between the sheets in an attempt to disturb the covers as little as possible, hoping that when morning came I could simply slip back out of the covers and my bunk would still be made. It never worked that way.
Two pairs of black combat boots, a pair of “low quarters” (black dress shoes), and a pair of shower shoes were lined up beneath the bunk. Each trainee had a footlocker and a wall locker in which gear and clothing were kept. Our personal areas were considered to be "on display" and ready for inspection at any time. This required two sets of toilet articles, one for show and one to use.
As already mentioned, I could only remember the names of a few of the guys with whom I suffered through the hell that was BCT. However, after reading through old letters and the class “yearbook,” which was similar to a high school yearbook with pictures of the class and activities, I could put names with the faces that I remembered.
The two guys with whom I spent the most time were Michael Mazzucca, (second row, first from left in the class photo) and Thomas Lett (third row, first from right – I believe). Lett was a small, wiry, shy, timid, and quiet kid who was picked on a lot by the DI’s. I spent a lot of time with Mazzucca and Lett because everything was done in alphabetical order and my name, Martin, came between Lett and Mazzucca. We marched, drilled, and did PT in alphabetical order.
The platoon was divided into squads, each consisting of about ten men. The DI randomly selected the Squad Leaders, who were responsible for keeping the squad on time and squared away. My squad leader was a tall, lanky black kid. Another squad leader was Ronald Moor (top row, first from right in class photo). Ron was tall, strong, handsome, and smart. He was also a natural born leader as evidenced by his receiving the American Spirit Honor Medal at BCT graduation.
Another trainee, whom I could never forget, was Tommy Poston (top row, fourth from right in class photo). He was grossly obese, totally inept, introverted, and unable to do anything correctly. He was the kind of guy that attracted bullies in high school. He did not seem to know his left from his right and was eventually "recycled" (I mentioned earlier that you could not fail BCT, you just started over) and sent to the "Goon Platoon." That was where klutzes were sent for remedial drilling and to learn their left from their right. I have to admit that, although cruel, it was funny to watch those guys trying to drill. It was very much like watching an old Keystone Cops or Three Stooges movie. They turned in different directions, ran into one another, and dropped their rifles. It was rather pitiful, actually.
Recycling was about the worst thing that could happen to anyone. It meant more than the normal eight weeks of training and could conceivably go on until someone decided the trainee would never learn and should be discharged from the Army with a less than honorable discharge. That decision could be a very long time coming because the DIs and Company Commander had to make sure the trainee wasn’t faking in an attempt to get discharged. An inept trainee could spend the duration of the war in BCT. I’m not sure which would have been worse.
We also had our comedian, Frank Mountz (second row, second from left in class photo). I don't remember anything else about him except his great sense of humor throughout the entire ordeal. Lloyd Mitchell (second row from top, fourth from the right in class photo) was a black kid from St. Louis who wanted desperately to become an Army medic. Unfortunately, I don't think that ever happened. After successfully completing the eight grueling weeks of training Lloyd disappeared the day before BCT graduation. Rumor was that Lloyd thought he could go home for the weekend to visit his mother because BCT was over. He is said to have hopped a bus to St. Louis. He missed graduation and was listed as AWOL (Away WithOut Leave). I never found out what became of him. Probably nothing good.
To be continued in Chapter 7, Leaders and Rules....