10: The Army Air Corps: Basic Training

Atlantic City
March-April, 1943

On February 28, 1943, we recruits went to the Pennsylvania Railroad station in Newark, New Jersey. I was extremely pleased to see my college roommate Al Hunter, and a close fraternity brother, Don Kidd. We were put on a train, headed to who knew where. (Since it was wartime, all troop movements were very secret.) After several hours of watching the countryside go by, we suddenly became aware that we were pulling into Atlantic City, New Jersey. Since this was a noted resort, it certainly seemed like a better alternative than places with names like “Fort Dix” of “Camp Benning”. It made for a far less traumatic shift from civilian life.

From the train station, we were bussed to the Chalfonte Hotel, right on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. We had all played Monopoly and it was fun seeing the various streets named in that game as we passed them. The Chalfonte had been a top-rated luxurious hotel, but now the decorations had been stripped away, so that it was just an ordinary large building with many rooms. Somehow, Al Hunter, Don Kidd and I found a large room, which we shared for the next month. Again, this eased the shift into the military world for me.

We were called out to go for our army clothes, a very efficient process. I was fitted with a Size 36-Small uniform. We then returned to our rooms, but were then called out for our first orientation session. I left my new uniform jacket on my bed. When I returned, it was still there, but when I put it on, somehow the sleeves now extended over my hands and the jacket was now more like an overcoat in length. I took it off and looked at the inside label, which now read, “Size 44-Long”. Someone had made a dramatic switch. I thought to begin looking for any recruit wearing a fairly short jacket, but this was not possible. Nor, for some reason, was there any way to make an immediate change through the system. I could not bring myself to do that which had been done to me. So, for about one week, I looked like the model for “Sad Sack”- a comic strip character who walked around in a jacket four sizes too big for him. Finally, I was able to make a clothing change, but the memory of that pitiful sequence remains.

For our Basic Training, we were under the tutelage of a very large sergeant named “Tiny”. He lectured us, drilled us, and was in total charge. Since it was still wintertime, we marched in heavy overcoats, wearing helmet liners and carrying our gas masks. Tiny would shout, “March troo de walls!” I remember one moment, as we were lined up outside the Chalfonte Hotel with the rain coming down, looking across the street at a small patch of ground covered with grass and thinking, “If I ever get out of this alive, all that I will ever want to do is to lie down on that piece of dirt and never move.”

One day, we were taken out for Gas Mask Drill. We marched to an open field on the outskirts of Atlantic City. We were then lined up in a single 40-man row. Tiny stood in front of us, hands on his hips. “Phosgene gas can kill you or paralyze you for life! It smells like gardenias! I repeat, it smells like gardenias! When you are in battle and you smell gardenias, you will put on your gas mask!” He raised his arm and about 50 yards in front of us, clouds of smoke erupted from canisters on the ground. “OK, men,” Tiny shouted, “You will walk into that smoke and when you smell gardenias, you will put on your gas mask and you will walk back to this line! Go!” We began to move forward very slowly. “Move, it, move it!” Tiny bellowed. And we walked into the smoke, each of us sniffing constantly. Phosgene gas, death, paralysis equaled total fear.

I had no idea of what gardenias smelled like. In fact, I had little idea of what anything smelled like, as I had lost my sense of smell in high school chemistry class. (Since I had the largest nose in the class, the teacher had named me the “Official Smeller” and for a full year, I had the honor of smelling every experiment on behalf of the class. By the end of the year, I could not smell a thing and that one of my five senses never did return.) As we were enveloped in the smoke, it became difficult for me to see the other guys, but I did become aware that some of them were immediately stopping, reaching for their gas masks, and turning around.

On I went into the field of gas, sniffing, sniffing. At length, I began to feel dizzy. It occurred to me that maybe I would never smell the gardenias and that this could be very dangerous. I turned around and began running back, trying to get my gas mask on as I ran. As I burst out of the smoke cloud, I could see that every one of the other guys was back in the line, wearing his gas mask. I staggered back, going right by Tiny. He just shook his head with a curious smile on his face. Only later that night did I learn that nobody was stupid enough to wait for the smell of gardenias before turning around. Nobody but me. Thus, I learned that I lacked “street smarts”.

Only a few other memories of Atlantic City remain with me. My mother came there for a one-day visit, while, unfortunately, I was still encased in the 44-Long jacket. I took her to see a horrible war movie, not thinking about the effect this might have on her. The other memory is that of going down the chow line for dinner one evening. My two buddies, Al and Don, were serving food. As I moved my tray along, Al placed a scoop of mashed potatoes in the middle of my plate and then Don placed a scoop of ice cream right on top of the mashed potatoes. It was now clear to me that civilian friendships carried no weight in the Army.

After four weeks of marching, rifle practice, and indoctrination (We watched movies on “Why We Fight” and venereal disease.), we were ready to be shipped out. We understood that we would be going to a pre-flight school, but we knew nothing more than that. Tiny lined us up and told us that as he called our names, we were to go to waiting busses. He then said that since all roll calls began with the letter “A”, he would do something different. He closed his eyes, pointed to his list, opened his eyes and shouted, “Schanes!” I was amazed and pleased. In my entire life, this was the only time my name was ever called first. I ran to the first bus. When the bus was filled, we drove off to the train station and boarded a train. Only then did I realize that neither Al nor Don was with me. While Al Hunter and I continued our friendship after the war, I never saw Don Kidd again.

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Published in: on July 13, 2006 at 3:19 pm  Comments Off on 10: The Army Air Corps: Basic Training  
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