Friday, October 3, 2008

Chapter 5 Ft. Riley, Kansas

Chapter 5

I regarded this occasion as being very important, and one that I was certain the Army would also regard with some gravity. Of course I couldn't have been more wrong, and I was absolutely astounded by the total lack of organization displayed by any part of the army that was visible to us at Ft. Riley. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I clung to my belief that I was doing the right thing. This attitude persisted for almost twenty four hours. I was loyal, stubborn, and a slow learner, so I held on much longer than those who were enlisting with me. They had concluded in about 3 hours that we had all made the biggest mistake in our lives.
Ft. Riley was the home of the United States Cavalry, and the repository of lots of tradition, and horses, and mules, and etc. Having read that there were more than 40 million horses involved in World War I, I thought it only natural that horses would be a major asset in any world war, and when I arrived fresh from the farm, so to speak, the place had a certain familiar and comforting air about it. But cavalrymen did not believe in vehicles, or engines, or airplanes, or draftees, or the current war. I was destined to learn many things.
For awhile I lived in a tent with five other men, and I was ten years younger than the youngest of the five, and twenty years younger than the oldest. They were properly impressed with my youth, ignorance, and over-all stupidity, but absolutely amazed by my innocence. They were all old soldiers, and so old as to be objects of my own condescension. (Thirty eight!) I do not remember the name of a single man, but they took me in tow, and taught me all about the army.
For these old peacetime cavalrymen there were three armies. Army #1 was defined by regulations, existed only on paper, and would be the one turned up by any investigation. It required one to know its regulations, assumed perfect compliance and obedience, and left one with a zero need for thought. Army #2 was structured and inhabited by officers, with clear but undocumented understandings of how that differed from Army #1. Naturally Army #1 had to be perfectly defined for Army #2's differences to be known, and maybe to be justified, though justification could certainly be debated. Whatever, the army as conceived by the officers was terrifically complex, and required some exceedingly clever enlisted men to maintain the capability of having Army #2 distill quickly to Army #1 upon demand. I'm sure that the officers saw the necessity of Army #2, and had gone to the work of inventing it in order to have a working interface between Army #1 and the real world, but I still wonder if they had any knowledge about Army #3. The third army was the real army and it functioned because it was shaped, serviced and guided by enlisted men--well, really by first sergeants!
The second and third armies were undoubtedly derived from war-time experiences, probably starting earlier than Alexander the Great, and including everything up to World War I. The cavalry was heavily into memories of the civil war still, but had had a taste of mechanization in WWI, and hadn't been fond of it. During the 22 years between wars everybody in the army knew everybody else, and many procedures had been developed to make sure that the army was a closed club, of, by and for soldiers. They honed and made complex by years of peacetime ritual all sorts of conventions that had nothing to do with fighting a war with anyone except the Navy. The war beginning in December 1941 was a terrible shock to this system except maybe to the Cavalry itself, and there was a strong desire to keep intact the peacetime army with its traditions and privileges even under the massive wave of draftees and volunteers. They were sure the wave would pass over, and all would survive. But the wave didn't just pass, it swept everything before it. Even in 1944 it was obvious that nothing of that old army would be left. The war was too long, with millions of civilians in an army unable to maintain the kind of continuity necessary to even remember the period of 1865-1941, let along preserve it and teach it. The creation of a Department of Defense, with three services, and the sudden availability of a variety of very powerful technologies not even imagined in 1940 were also the nails in the box of old dreams held by the few old-timers who survived. The Korean War only served to deplete their ranks. They, together with their eternal enemies in the Navy, did manage to stamp out talk about a common uniform, but having done so, they mostly faded away without an additional whimper. And that's what old soldiers do, even as McArthur said. But certainly some remnants of that old army were still alive in Ft. Riley and Ft. Leavenworth in 1942-43, as was the intention to return to the old ways as soon as possible.
In the 70's I knew a three star general pretty well, and we found ourselves discussing the cavalry one day. He was a 2nd Lieutenant when I was a private and we were billeted at Ft. Riley only a thousand yards or so apart. He agreed with me completely in my analysis of the situation at that time, but wasn't absolutely sure about the existence of the 3rd army!! He told of making a bet with another 2nd Lieutenant that the senior enlisted men would obey any order without question. To prove it, he had a sergeant drive him in a jeep along the river, and then, without warning or cause, gave him the order to "turn right". With that, and instantly, they went directly off the river bank into the water. General Johnson had to pay the driver from his own money to have the jeep pulled from the river and reconditioned, the cost thereof being just what he made on the bet!
In this little anecdote one sees traces of each of the three armies. Army #1 says that each order will be obeyed without hesitation. Army #2 decides to illustrate Army #1 by giving a really dumb order. Army #3 knows the game, plays it through, and then gets paid by the officer's personal funds to retrieve the situation. Army #1 doesn't know anything odd has happened, nor is Army #2 anything but vindicated. But Army #3 has some spending money! How pleased I was to hear this story!
My companions taught me almost everything they could about these three armies, including those differences regarded as necessary, or sacred, or just desirable. I was taught how to avoid long marches, how to hide contraband, how to trick others to do your work, how to get into the various systems dedicated to illegal activities, what to do to get your way without resorting to bribery, and how to go AWOL and not be found out. Like a blotter, I took in everything, never realizing how important some of this knowledge would be to me when I subsequently went into the Air Corps, and especially when I received my Commission. Incidentally, my teachers were incapable of suspecting that I might one day become an officer. The gulf between a private in the cavalry and any officer was so vast as to prevent even speculation. In that old world, the colonel carried a short quirt, and a private might catch sight of him maybe once a week. To have to converse with an officer was abhorrent, and it was certainly unnecessary, so there was also a series of lessons on how to avoid that!
I'm really glad that I experienced a tiny bit of this old military world, and I have faith that any long peacetime period will see the creation of analogous behaviors. I visited son Wayne while he was in the Army at language school at Monterey, Ft. Ord, California, Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, and in Korea. I saw an army not even remotely reminiscent of the Army I knew, and this seems to me to prove the point of my speculations quite nicely. The three old armies are dead and gone. Of course, what is now in their place I know not!
In the early summer of 1943 I found myself, a loyal private, detailed from Ft. Riley to work as a door boy at the Army's Officer Staff and Command School at Ft. Leavenworth. There I participated in the big war game in which the invasion of Europe was played out. This game was a big deal. A week-long game rehearsed the whole invasion of the continent of Europe. The Free French were there, and there was a lot of tension. It was a very important preliminary! Also, it was really an eye opener for a country boy, and that's where I first came into contact with what the war was about--and I saw my first general.
In those days, generals could design their own uniforms. My first sight of one was a tremendous shock, as the general was wearing purple, yea, lavender silk trousers and shirt, complete with all insignia and decorations, yet I thought he had put the brass on his pajamas! He appeared to have been wearing the clothes for days, and that is probably correct! I was supposed to call my office to attention when anyone appeared at the door, but I was so surprised to see a Major General, in pajamas, that I stood positively frozen in place. Someone else did the honors, and he brushed me aside in a manner befitting one who only looked through privates. Fortunately he was not offended, so I was spared the humiliation of a demotion, the achievement of which would surely have taxed even a general's abilities, and I was finally able to recover sufficiently to close the door.
At Ft. Riley I was notified that my application for a transfer to the Army Air Corps was approved. I had requested transfer from the cavalry once I realized that somebody, somewhere, had decided that horses were not needed in WWII--somebody's idiocy. There was intense outrage of my old soldier friends when they found out about my request. They believed The Air Corps was populated by draftees, a surfeit of officers, and idiots, and unreliable rejects, and men who wanted to avoid the war. And how could anything that dripped oil be of any use?!! They felt strongly that such a request could never be approved, and were aghast when it came through. So it was off to Lincoln, Nebraska where I took the Air Corps' basic training.
Thanks to my recent superb military training and education, I found the Air Corps to be a piece of cake. Long marches were spent in the Base Library. Officers could be ignored with impunity. Privates could ask questions. Absolute obedience was unknown--you could talk it over first. Apparently nobody at Lincoln had even a clue that there were three armies, thinking that the one defined by regulations was achievable. This failure to understand, coupled with an inability to graft an army air corps onto an old army, was almost certainly the root cause of the Air Corps wishing to become its own service. Because of my frequent interactions with the Air Force in recent years, I'm able to report that the peacetime Air Force now consists of more than one Air Force. Just exactly how many I can't say--only the sergeants know for sure!

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