J. D. Pendry
Old and young, we are all on our last cruise. – Robert Louis Stevenson
It’s interesting how something, an object of some sort, can bring back a memory. I often have things stir old memories and put me into a daydreaming trance. They come at inopportune times too, well, maybe not so inopportune depending on your outlook. Like when my wife is telling me about her tough day shopping at the mall or when chained to a chair in a meeting of some sort. You know the feeling, you see lips moving and you nod to the sounds that you’re not hearing while your mind is off on an adventure you had 30 years ago. That’s why I was never good at meetings. “What do you think about that CSM?” Uhh, oh, yea great, Sir.” It’s an awful lot like those “yes dears” I issue out to my wife, but don’t tell her about that because the couch is uncomfortable and my cooking tastes worse than T-rations.
I saw a snippet in a recent issue of the Army Times that rewound my memory tape a few decades. The Army is getting a modernized version of the old cattle car that soldiers love being packed into like sardines. This one looks rather nice, has windows and air conditioning according to the paragraph. In 1971, I remember the silver bullets with holes cut into them where windows should be. I understand that model of cattle car was new then. My first cattle car experience was the trip from Fort Ord’s Reception Station to my basic training company. It was a stake bed truck with three long, wooden benches. There was one bench on either side and one in the middle all polished slick by soldiers sliding on and off them. That’s the first time I heard the phrase, ‘make yer buddy smile’, as the Drill Sergeants packed three platoons of us onto one truck. If you can, just imagine being cram packed together with a bunch of sweaty, straight from the clothing issue point, mothball-stinking trainees.
We didn’t get to ride much in basic training. We did get excited once when our Drill Sergeant told us that we would ride LPCs to training the next day. The talk in the squad bay that night was about how cool that was going to be. The next day he explained to us with a guffaw that LPC meant leather personnel carrier.
That old silver bullet cattle car was quite a nice vehicle from our perspective. I assure you that we never complained about having to ride in it. Pvt. Nelson didn’t care for it too much though. Someone would always undo Nelson’s butt pack straps and tie them to the railings inside the cattle car. When the cattle car stopped and the Drill Sergeants began yelling for us to get out of it, Nelson would usually get Drill Sergeant tortured for being the last one out. Once he ran from the cattle car without his web gear, he left it tied to the railing. The Drill Sergeant was not interested in his excuse and tortured him for that as well. Cattle cars were tough on Nelson.
Soldiers will appreciate a ride in their temperature controlled cattle cars as much as we appreciated the old ones. I do have a comment for the vehicle designers, however. Make sure you leave something in there to tie Nelson to.
The cattle car story made me think of other equipment and vehicles we’ve replaced over the years. I imagine there are still a few soldiers about who remember the Jeep. I forget the Army nomenclature. I was the first Army vehicle I drove as a private in 1972. It was in Korea too, so that made it even more memorable. We were at Jackson Main, not too far from Camp Red Cloud, on an I Corps FTX when I got my Jeep stuck beside the General’s tent at 0400 one morning. I suppose they didn’t want the General walking too far to mail his letters so I had to put one of my mailboxes right in front of his tent. The only problem with that is that the approach to the mailbox was up a washed out hill trail covered with loose rock. If you’ve ever driven a light-in-the-hind end jeep, you know that you can’t take it easy and make it up a hill such as this. Being the kind soul that I am, after getting myself up at 0300, I was trying hard to not wake the General. After a few minutes of spinning my tires (and waking the General), I finally gave up and did what I should have done in the first place. I drifted backwards down the hill, revved up the rpms and went up the hill as if I owned it. It was loud, but I assure you that none of the flying rocks hit the General – or his tent. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Later on that same morning, the General saw my company commander standing down the hill and yelled for him to come. My commander was a Major, a West Pointer who we called Dougie. We called him that because he was never without his MacArthur like sunglasses and corncob pipe. Dougie ran up the hill wheezing from pipe smoke and saluted the General. The General had two issues for him, one was that the piss tube, also near his tent, was stopped up and the other was the relocation of a gravel-scarred mailbox.
Piss tube? Probably another item that many youngsters are not too familiar with. It is a drainage sump dug into the ground with a wooden tube sticking out of it, functional but neither private nor female friendly. We did not worry much about those issues in Korea in 1972. Dougie fulfilled the General’s requests and the remainder of our time in the field was uneventful. Unless you consider the night when SP4 Koonts decided to walk across the rice paddy dikes and to a nearby village seeking companionship and whatever else he could find, but that’s a story for another day. Just suffice it to say that paddy dikes in the dark can be treacherous – even more so when the ROK Army Infantry is pulling guard duty.
At Christmas 1972, during the Bop Hope USO show three other soldiers and I were on duty and unable to go when the show was up north near us. The 1SG worked it out so that we could see the show at Osan Air Base. I drove us there and back in my jeep, the same one that had the “US Mail/Courier – Do Not Delay” signs on it in English and Korean. We were flat out both ways on the Seoul-Pusan Express Way. I returned with a broken speedometer. The old Motor Sergeant didn’t buy it when I told him I didn’t know how or when it happened. When I took him out to look at it, he picked up the quart of Jack Daniels that had some how appeared in the shotgun seat and said, “Hell, looks fine to me.”
The ¼ ton trailers that came with the Jeeps were quite useful. They made great coolers for unit picnics for example. We’d fill them with ice and beer, and when the beer was gone, we’d throw Dougie or one another into the ice water. A sobering experience that is. I drove a trailer filled with beer and ice to a unit picnic we had a few miles from Camp Red Cloud. The trailer was so heavy that the front wheels of the jeep kept leaving the ground. It was much lighter on the return trip, however. I don’t want to give up secrets to any officers who may read this, but whenever we were in the field most of the non-potable water cans strapped to the backs of our Jeeps were doubling as olive drab beer coolers.
I liked another old vehicle also. It was the 1¼-ton tactical truck. We called it a five-quarter. We took one to a softball tournament in Seoul. We weren’t sore losers, but on the way home (home being CRC), we mooned Yongsan, Itaewon and a few other minor places from the back of the truck. I’m not sure if it’s the truck that caused me to remember the act or vice versa. I do remember the advice our 1SG gave to us after he convinced the commander to let us use the truck. “Don’t go down there to Seoul and show your asses.” Roger, Top.
Are you old enough to remember steel pots? As far as serving its designed purpose of protecting your head, the Kevlar is light years better. There was much utility in the old steel pot though. You could dunk it in a GI can with an immersion heater in it and get enough hot water to wash what’s important and shave. And you’d better shave while in the field or some cantankerous old lifer (which is what I called them before I became one) would have you dry shaving on the spot – no mirror needed. I’ll never forget the sound of that rattling old steel pot when double-timing with it on in basic training. We didn’t get camouflage covers in basic training. We got old scarred, beat up and dented pots that the Drill Sergeants made us paint. Then they spent the next two months making sure they were scarred, beat up and dented when we finished with them.
Our issued boots were hard leather, not like the soft leather that’s issued now. We had to go through a break-in period and even the toughest old feet often had trouble breaking in a new pair. After two weeks in basic training, I developed a nasty blister that became infected and turned into blood poisoning. They admitted me to the surgical ward at the old wooden World War II era Army Hospital on Fort Ord. Do you know what was in the surgical ward? With the exception of some guy who just had a cyst removed from his butt and me there was an entire ward of evacuees from Vietnam, most of them my age or a year or two older. It was an interesting place for someone who had been in the Army less than one month. I probably would not have re-upped at that point. Missing body parts does not make a good recruiting poster.
How about the old entrenching tool? It had a wooden handle, a shovel on one side and a pick on the other. They were heavier than today’s version. In basic training, we wore them on our web belts where they would beat the daylights out of our legs while running. Getting them clean enough to pass an inspection was practically impossible. It was a sturdy piece of equipment and performed as intended. And to quote my Drill Sergeant during unarmed combat training, “You can ruin a sumbitch’s whole day with this e-tool.”
Ever fire a .45 cal pistol, 1918 vintage? You could shake them in your hand and hear every part rattle, but once you became accustomed to yours you could hit what you were shooting at and a malfunction was unheard of. Simple weapon, not sleek like the 9mm. It was like an old trooper, sturdy and dependable. Unlike its replacement, there was no slack in the trigger to fool with. On a range in Germany, having just been issued our brand spanking new Beretta 9mms, we were out to qualify. A female 1LT, (please ladies, no hate mail) and I swear I’m not making this up, during familiarization fire (hot range – real bullets) actually looked into the business end of the 9mm with her finger still on the trigger when she had trouble understanding all the slack in the trigger and why it wasn’t shooting. She was definitely trying to be on her last cruise.
Ever have C-rations? Meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) accomplished one thing from my perspective. They caused me to long for my C-ration spaghetti and meatballs and peaches (actual canned fruit not dehydrated fruit-cocktail chips) and pound cake.
This equipment, just like a lot of old uniforms and our old silver bullets had their last cruise but live on in our memories. We can toss the garrison cap onto that memory heap now. Can you remember an Army without a garrison cap? If you’re that old, you’re definitely on your last cruise.
Portions of this article are absolutely true, portions are embellished truth, and some are pure fabrication – you know, typical war story material.