Walter M. Windsor
Photo Gallery |
Messages from Friends & Family |
| The Funeral | Death of Our Father - What We Learned | Ancestors |
Forks in the Road: Chapter 5
YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW
My Army career began at the Reception Center, Camp Upton, Long Island, New York. This is where many thousands of draftees, hundreds at a time, were brought for their initial physical exams, classification and assignment. Thanks to my brief time at the military academy, things were not as traumatic for me as they were to some of the men, but it was still quite a change of life style.
While awaiting word as to where I would be sent for basic training, some officer discovered that I had been a radio announcer. I was called in and told that there was a need for someone to address each batch of incoming recruits upon arrival, to give them a few salient bits of information as to what awaited them, and to try, if possible, to put them at ease. I was given this temporary assignment.
Spiced with a few jokes, my spiel had the desired effect. Actually the ice was broken when I (only a raw rookie myself) looked out at the sea of anxious men, and said:
“Welcome to the U. S. Army; it’s good to see all your happy smiling faces.”
They broke up with laughter and relaxed. I was a hit, and I was kept on in that temporary job longer than intended. An Army motion picture unit came to Upton to film a feature-length documentary entitled The Negro Soldier. The director, Stuart Heisler, was a noted Hollywood cinematographer from Paramount Pictures. He fell in love with my welcoming speech, and he incorporated it into the movie. It gave me a kick to see it at a movie theater some year or two later, but even more so to see it on television several times, the latest of which was nearly fifty years after the film was made. Apparently it is among government films offered free to small stations and cable channels. I have had phone calls in the 80s and 90s from friends who didn’t even know me in 1942, but saw the film and recognized me and/or my voice.
I asked to be sent on for basic training, and was finally shipped to Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, to the Special Services Training Center, where I joined a motley gang of draftees who were to be molded into a Special Service Company to provide, what else, “special services,” to an infantry division. Basic training was the same as for the infantry, but after a few weeks some of us were pulled out of that unit and transferred to Camp San Luis Obispo in California, to a new Training Center, where we formed the nucleus of the 23rd Special Service Company.
Of course this meant we started basic training all over again. The marching and some of the other routines were familiar to me from SCMA, and I soon found myself acting as a drillmaster to break in new arrivals. The unit consisted of quite a variety of men; there were actors, singers, musicians, film technicians, sound men and retail personnel, as well as cooks, supply clerks, truck drivers and other non-entertainers required so that the Company could be a self-sufficient unit. There were even a magician, a hypnotist and a Flamenco dancer.
One day I was summoned to meet Lieutenant Gene Terry in my hut. I was quite apprehensive, wondering, as I dutifully saluted, what I had done wrong.
“I understand you were a radio announcer,” the officer began.
I replied in the affirmative.
“So was I,” he admitted. “Have you by any chance got a Broadcasting magazine?”
He was starved for news of the business. I dug a magazine out of my footlocker and gave it to him, then supplied him weekly thereafter. He had worked in the Quincy, Illinois market, and after the war he became the principal weatherman on TV in that area.
I’m confident the magazines carried considerable weight when the basic training period ended and we received our assignments within the company, some of which carried with them “stripes,” or promotion to higher rank and more pay. I was named Entertainment Director and given the three stripes of a Sergeant. Actually, my designation was Tech-4, but this carried the rank, the stripes and the pay of a sergeant. And you were called “sergeant.”
We practiced putting on entertainment for ourselves, as well as continuing military activities. I had looked into the possibility of going to Officer Candidate School, but it seemed the road was blocked by either the First Sergeant or the Company Commander (a Captain) or both. Neither of them had been involved in any way with entertainment, and they looked with macho scorn on those of us who had come from that field.
The Company was then transferred to Camp Santa Anita, California. This was the famous Santa Anita racetrack before the war, but it was now an Army base. Life there was not too bad, as it was only a short hop into L.A., with the Hollywood Canteen, the Screen Actors Guild, dozens of USOs and all sorts of wonderful opportunities for a G.I. to enjoy himself at little or no cost.
While at Santa Anita, I became acquainted with an Army surgeon, Major Swigert. He had been an eye surgeon in civilian life, and one of his specialties was correcting a divergent eye such as mine. Of course, the Army did not permit cosmetic surgery, but Swigert understood the disadvantage I had long suffered from this 90-degree divergence. When I faced someone and spoke, the right eye was looking at that person, but the left eye appeared to be looking at someone else, and that someone else frequently answered. The Major admitted me to the hospital with “influenza” and performed the operation. When the bandage was removed and the surgical damage healed, I had a straight left eye for the first time in my life. Swigert told me that the procedure often resulted in a later re-divergence, requiring a second operation. He was right, but by the time the eye went back to about 45 degrees, he was in one part of the world and I in another. An unusual coincidence came about in 1970 when I witnessed the launching of Apollo 13 at Cape Kennedy. One of the astronauts on that mission was named John Swigert, and he was the son of the doctor who had operated on my eye.
Within the 23rd, we formed a little four-piece musical combo, with Bus Buskirk on guitar, Lupe Gomez on violin and bass, George Kricker on trombone and yours truly on piano. This group picked up a few extra bucks now and then playing for dances at the Officers’ Club.
Other close buddies in the 23rd included Robert “Mack” McCay from Arkansas and Bill Pulgram, who emigrated from Austria and had been a tailor. He’s the one that sewed on the stripes and other patches for his friends.
Then we were transferred to Yuma, Arizona, one of the hottest spots in the country. And I mean hot in the literal sense. It was called the Desert Training Command, and it was intended to train its units to serve in the North African desert. Of course the men of the 23rd always had it somewhat easier than the other troops, as we were preparing tn entertain and otherwise serve the fighting men. Singer Margaret Whiting came to Yuma to entertain the boys, and I was picked to be her “aide” and see to it that she was properly cared for, protected, and so forth. She was a most charming young lady, who had just had a big hit record singing her father’s song, My Ideal. We have met a few times over the ensuing years, and she remembers well her experience in the desert.
One day they gave all the members of the 23rd a physical exam, and put some of us, including me, out of the Company because we were not physically fit to go overseas. So, while the 23rd prepared for Africa, some of us went to a replacement depot at San Bernardino. An army directive was issued stating that such misfits as we were to be discharged. We turned in our extra gear, signed away our insurance and war bonds, and awaited the glorious moment. Alas, there was a further directive from the Army. Those who had not actually left were to be retained “for use in the Zone of the Interior,” which means the continental United States. The group in which I found myself had missed discharge by twenty-four hours.
The commanding officer of the depot, Captain Donald Casey, needed help in his headquarters office, which I much preferred to other more strenuous assignments. I soon became his right hand man, performing what would normally be the duties of a Sergeant Major. Blocked from any promotion by the fact that the depot was a “provisional” installation, Casey tried his best to do something to improve my status. He finally recommended me for appointment as a Warrant Officer. This is something between the highest enlisted rank and a commissioned officer, and usually was utilized in the type of clerical work I was doing for Casey. A test had to be taken, which I passed with flying colors, and I was awarded a “Certificate of Eligibility” for appointment as Warrant Officer. The catch was that you had to have a specific assignment with some unit, the table of organization of which called for a Warrant Officer. No such unit was to be found.
The depot was winding down, and I was shipped to Fort Ord, in Northern California, where I found myself in an overseas replacement pool, a rather odd place for a guy who had been removed from his own unit because he was not fit to go overseas. By the way, the 23rd never did go!
Some time prior, I had learned of the existence of Armed Forces Radio Service, which produced special programs for the Army, Navy and Marine Corps for broadcast by its large network of Expeditionary Radio Stations all around the world. I had written a letter inquiring as to the possibility of being assigned there. One day the topkick at Fort Ord called me in. I wondered what terrible fate awaited me.
“What’s this crap about some radio school in Hollywood?” he growled.
I told him I had written the letter some time ago, whereupon he grudgingly told me he had orders to transfer me there.
This was a new world. AFRS was located on Santa Monica Boulevard, within walking distance of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, the radio networks, the theaters, the ballrooms and all the attractions of Tinseltown. We had little or no military routine. We lived independently; I had a bachelor apartment at the Casa Encanta, about a block from the headquarters. There was a per diem allowance for lodging and meals. Very little was needed for meals, because the Canteens, USOs and other meccas of free food were right at hand, including free tickets to entertainment of all kinds.
The duty consisted of producing the AFRS programs on 16-inch records and shipping them to the stations around the world. The Commanding Officer was Colonel Tom Lewis, a major advertising executive and husband of actress Loretta Young. The first sergeant, Mike Meshekoff, made his contacts shrewdly and ended up after the war as the producer of Dragnet. Captain Bill Conrad was Matt Dillon in radio’s Gunsmoke, and later reached TV series fame as the star of the Cannon program. The musical director of the installation was famed composer-conductor Meredith Wilson, who was a Captain and subsequently became a Major. There were privates, corporals and sergeants who were major writers and directors of top radio shows, some of whom were chauffeured to the office each day in their limousines. Then there were the little guys, like me, who had some localized experience, but were not members of the elite.
There was a period of orientation. Among the subjects taught was the international structure of the AFRS network. A huge world map bore pins representing each of the stations. The standing joke among the men was the station at Ahwaz, Iran, in the Persian Gulf Command.
One day they announced a decision that some of the guys who had been at the overseas stations for a long time would be brought back to the States and assigned to Hollywood. And some at Hollywood were to go overseas and replace them. Then they announced the assignments, and guess who was assigned to Ahwaz! I tried to tell them I had been declared unfit to go overseas, but there must have been another change in the regulations, because two engineers and I boarded a ship at San Pedro to cross the Pacific Ocean. I was “in charge” of this major shipment of nondescript manpower.
We left the harbor about the first of September 1944. We stopped at Suva, in the Fiji Islands, to pick up some civilization-starved guys who had been there a long time and drop off their replacements. None of the others were permitted to go ashore, so we gazed at the island paradise from the deck of the U.S.S. General George M Randall. There was much barter back and forth from deck to dock, soldiers trading cigarettes for trinkets made by the Fijians. I remember the islanders, when a trade was proposed, insisting that there be “no Raleighs.” That brand of cigarettes was not liked by the folks in the South Pacific. Some of the islanders would make music on the pier in the evenings, and there was one particularly lovely song called Isa Isa that all of us loved. For years, I could sing it all the way through in the Fiji tongue, but I don’t remember many of the words anymore even though the melody still haunts me.
After a few days at Suva, we left to sail around the south side of Australia, docking at Melbourne on the west coast. It was my 26th birthday. Again none of the new troops were to go ashore, but they called for volunteers who could play drum or bugle to provide marching music for those who were allowed to leave the ship. Of course I volunteered, and was thus enabled to celebrate my birthday in a pub on the outskirts of Melbourne, drinking beer and buying souvenirs.
Somewhere along the ship’s route, there was a call for entertainment. I was chosen to put together a variety show. I wrote special lyrics for some songs. The General George M. Randall Blues was a bawdy treatment, with many verses, of life on a troopship with some 3,000 passengers, and Sleepy Latrine was sung to the tune of Sleepy Lagoon. I had written a ballad called Please Write, and it was used in the show. A number of talented guys were found among the troops, and we even had one of the few women on board, a Red Cross gal, as a singer.
Finally we made it across the Indian Ocean and docked at Bombay, India, where we were taken to a camp. They didn’t know what they were supposed to do with the three of us. I told them our destination was Ahwaz, but they told me that nobody knew the “secret orders” for troop movements and to bide our time,. Finally they found the papers and we boarded a British scow that took us up into the Persian Gulf. We existed on K-rations on this tub, and the only relief offered was that the ship’s store sold a huge grey pot of hot tea made with milk, at 4 p.m. daily. I had never cared for tea with milk, but after a day or two it tasted better, and I stood in line with the others. We would split a pot between two or three of us.
Hitting land at Khorramshahr, we were loaded into trucks and driven to Ahwaz, about sixty miles inland. The town was next to nothing; the camp was nearby. The purpose of the Persian Gulf Command was to operate a railroad, built by the Army, to transport lend-lease supplies up through Iran to the Russian border. There were half a dozen expeditionary radio stations spread throughout the country to attempt to keep morale up for soldiers who had little to do, nowhere to go, and 120 degrees in the shade but no shade. The “network” headquarters was in the capitol city of Teheran. The radio staff enjoyed the only air-conditioned building in the Ahwaz area. From time to time some of the brass would come by and pull their rank to sneak a nap on the studio floor. This ended one day when the head honcho came by and caught some of his right-hand men cooling off.
The only duty, other than running the radio station, was that each of us assigned there was listed on a schedule for garbage detail, This wasn’t just the trash from the station, but waste of all kinds from the entire Ahwaz camp. The job was to haul it all in a jeep out to a certain spot in the desert and dump it off. There was a warning telling you to take a carbine with you, but when my turn came I couldn’t imagine why I’d need a gun to empty the garbage, so I didn’t take one. As the jeep came over a ridge adjoining the dumping place, a horde of natives descended upon us. They meant no harm to us, but they really wanted that garbage and nearly trampled us to death to get at it. I saw for myself how really poor people exist, and it was not a pretty picture. I’ve never forgotten that incident, and I try to remember it whenever I think I have it tough.
Among the experiences enjoyed in Iran, there were basketball broadcasts and a football game played at Abadan that I broadcast play-by-play on the network. I participated in a program saluting our Russian allies on “May Day” for which I was commended. I re-adapted the Moondreams concept to become Dear Janie, which was in the form of an imaginary letter to “the girl back home,” with recitations of poems and song lyrics set to appropriate music. No, there wasn’t a real “Janie.”
One of our hotbeds of audience enthusiasm was the Army bakery at Ahwaz. They often called in for requests. One night they called and said they were sending something over to us in appreciation. They had gone hunting and bagged a wild boar, which they had barbecued. They sent us a big slab of meat, along with some G. I. bread still warm from the oven. It was one of the finest eating experiences of my life.
The Iranians in Ahwaz enjoyed our station. We received regular reports from a civilian named Simon who was employed at the station and lived in the town. One of our announcers was Bob Gooze, who had been Bob Gordon on the air back home, but of course used his legal name in the service. He would end his newscast each morning with “Bob Gooze speaking.” Simon reported to me that the natives were very upset with Bob, because “Gooze” was a dirty word in the Persian language. Seems it meant “fart”. We had a great time kidding Bob about this, but he took it to heart, and the next day he changed the pronunciation of his name to “Gooz-AY.” When Simon came in, he said that was just as bad since it was the past tense of “Gooze.”
This was a camp where a three-day pass was rare, because there wasn’t any place to go. But an engineer at the station had managed to get a permit to go across the border into Iraq and visit the city of Basra. He regaled me with tales of his adventures there until I managed a pass and permit and joined him for a weekend. He was acquainted with a family there by the name of Essaye, and they had a very attractive daughter named Berta. She apparently had some valid claim to being royalty. She spoke English, as did the entire family, so we got along well. We corresponded thereafter, until one day, after the war, I was contacted in New York by a man from Iraq and asked to meet with him at the Drake Hotel. It seems he was a representative of the Essaye family, and he wanted to arrange for me to marry Berta so she could come to the U.S. The proposition did not interest me, and that was the end of my Iraqi connection.
I reported to Major Bill Downs in Teheran, who headed the network. He had been in radio ad sales in West Virginia, which hardly qualified him to run a network. But at least he had worked in a radio station and knew the language. A lieutenant was placed in charge of the Ahwaz station who had absolutely no background for the job. I told the major how disastrously this guy was affecting my programming and the work of the others at the station. He thought I should be put in charge, but I would have to be a commissioned officer. He recommended me for a direct commission (sometimes called a ”battlefield commission”) but the Persian Gulf Command had been declared a “provisional command” (there’s that word again) with no promotions available.
Downs asked me if I had ever wanted to go to Officer Candidate School, and I told him I had tried for over two years but had been blocked. He found that a test was about to be given and interviews conducted leading to the selection of men to go to Medical Administrative Corps OCS. He arranged for me to take the exam. Although I knew nothing about medical matters, I passed the test and the interview. Next thing I knew I was on a plane to Cairo on the first leg of a trip back to the States.
Some of the other fellows and I did the tourist bit with the Sphinx and the Pyramids, and I even rode a camel. Then another plane took us to Tunis, Algiers and Naples, Italy After a few days at a converted college there, with artillery sounds penetrating the air regularly, we boarded a troop ship, which was a former luxury liner, and headed back to civilization.
As we approached America, everyone on board looked forward to seeing the Statue of Liberty. Then a rumor got started that we were landing at Newport News, Virginia, instead of New York. When we finally sighted land, it turned out to be Boston. I kissed the ground as I left the ship, and we were treated, as we boarded a train to Camp Miles Standish, to a quart of fresh milk each and all the doughnuts we could eat. Boy, did that taste good!
When I hit New York on a pass that weekend, I completed a true trip around the world, courtesy of Uncle Sam. I had been in NYC on leave prior to boarding the Randall in California. Thus New York to Los Angeles, to Fiji, to Australia, to India, to Iran, to Tunis, to Algiers to Naples to Boston to New York. I had circled the globe.
Then I reported to Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania for Medical Administrative Officer Candidate School. It was formerly the Carlisle Indian School, where athlete Jim Thorpe made his fabulous sports records. Studies soon began, and I again found the experience at SCMA to be valuable. A lot of the medical information was hard to swallow, but I bit my lip and memorized. It was a six-months course. This being the summer of ’45, the war in Europe came to an end in the middle of the course. The need to graduate a batch of new MAC officers was considerably lessened. Having survived most of the course in good shape, I had to take a physical exam as one of the last things before graduation. They flunked me on my eyesight, washing me out of OCS on the grounds I was not fit to go overseas. I tried to reason with them that I had just been returned from overseas, but I got nowhere and soon found myself at Fort Lee, Virginia, in, of all things, a quartermaster replacement depot.
Realizing that all men returning from overseas were entitled to a furlough, I applied and it was granted. I did a little visiting of friends and family; then I took myself to Washington and camped out at the office of the head of the Medical Department. I asked to see the General, but was instead turned over to a full colonel. He listened sympathetically to my story. He picked up the phone and called Carlisle, asking whether any factor had contributed to my disqualification other then the physical exam. When he hung up, he told me that not only was there no other factor, but I had been at the head of my class. He said he would see what could be done and asked me to come back later in the day. When I returned, he advised me that it had taken some slick maneuvering, but I was now ordered back to Carlisle to join the next class, mine having already graduated. In the process of all this, we had a very friendly conversation and he learned of my experience in broadcasting. He said there was a possibility of something to which I could contribute, and instructed me, when I passed the final board and knew my graduation date, to let him know.
I was not welcomed back. The people conducting the school did not like the fact that I had successfully gone over their heads. Then the war with Japan ended, so there was no reason at all to create more second lieutenants. They made it very tough to survive, but I and about twenty others, out of a class twice that big, managed to make it.
The day they gave out the gold bars to the few who graduated, they read off the assignments for each man. One by one, each was assigned to remain there at Carlisle in a replacement pool. However, when I came last in alphabetical order, my assignment was to McGuire General Hospital in Richmond, Virginia as "officer in charge of hospital broadcasting." The colonel had come through. The other guys didn’t know what to make of it.
At McGuire, the Army had installed a sophisticated internal radio system that became the prototype of what was later called the Bedside Network. There were four channels, three of which carried local radio stations, the programs carefullly selected as being the most suitable for hospitalized servicemen. The fourth channel, which we called MCGH, was programmed by my staff and me. In addition to the AFRS shows, we produced local programs. The patients received this service through a device called a Hush-a-Phone. This gadget looked like a miniature flying saucer. It was kept under the pillow, where it could be enjoyed by the individual but was not audible to any of the others. Each patient could select what he wanted from the four available programs without disturbing the guy in the next bed. I obtained the full cooperation of all the Richmond radio stations and the system worked like a charm. I was even able to broadcast play-by-play a wheelchair basketball game.
After six months as an officer, the Army decided I could return to civilian life. Accordingly, on Valentine’s Day 1946, Uncle Sam gave me a Valentine - my honorable discharge; or, more accurately, a transfer to the Inactive Reserve. I certainly didn’t want to be in the Active Reserve, but the choice of the Inactive insured that I’d be an officer if the Army called me up again. After forty months, my Army career had ended.
Photo Gallery |
Messages from Friends & Family |
| The Funeral | Death of Our Father - What We Learned | Ancestors |
Walter M. Windsor
www.walterwindsor.com | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | 678-320-0057
© Copyright 1997-2007, Walter M. Windsor -- Copyright 2008, Bill Windsor