By Richard H. Dick James
59 years ago, 14 February 1962, Valentine’s Day. I enlisted in the U.S. Army, Airborne, Unassigned. In my Fall Sophomore semester at San Jose State College, my girlfriend, Phyllis, broke up with me and began dating another man. I was devastated. I thought I was head over heels in love with her. She was my life. Without her I was lost. My grades took a nosedive and my attitude went downhill. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies at all. “It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a Free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it.” —George Washington.
I decided to make my girlfriend feel sorry for me, by enlisting in the U.S. Army. The reason I chose the Army was because I had been told by an optician that I had less than 20-20 vision. That meant no flying in the Air Force, which had been my lifelong dream. I found out later that I had 20-20 vision and the optician had made a mistake. Oh, well! I enlisted for U.S. Army Airborne (paratrooper), Unassigned. At least the Army was only a three-year enlistment, compared to the four years for the other services. I wanted to be in the toughest outfit, despite being afraid of heights. In high school I feared diving off the regular diving board at our swimming pool and never dove off the high diving board. I told the recruiter that I wanted to enlist on February 14th (St. Valentine’s Day) to get even with my girlfriend. Boy, was that an intelligent decision on my part (said facetiously)! “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” —John F. Kennedy.Induction Center I woke up very early, on Wednesday, 14 February 1962. My life was about to change, drastically. My dad drove me to the San Jose bus depot. I had been given a bus ticket by the U.S. Army, for a free one-way trip to Oakland CA. I boarded a Peerless Stages bus in San Jose, riding it to the Oakland Bus terminal. There, I was met by a military bus, which transported me, free of charge again, to the Oakland Induction Center. Several of us were met by a government employee, who led us to the section of the center which was responsible for giving induction physicals. I had no troubles passing the Army physical. After passing it, we were led to another section of the building, in which we took the oath, and signed on the dotted line. “The highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country.” —George S. Patton, Jr.
I, along with the rest of the inductees (mostly draftees), repeated the Oath of Allegiance. We all raised our right hands and repeated, “I, Richard Harry James, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, so help me God.” At that point in time, my family became the United States Army. Vietnam was one of the furthest things from my mind. As far as I can remember, I didn’t even know that there were some (very few, actually) American troops in South Vietnam, involved in a war. Processing at the Induction Center took up most of the day. The processing included a physical. I was deemed physically fit, at 6’1” tall, and weighing 151. Yeah, I was tall, and skinny. While there, we received our individual service numbers, different for each of us, to identify us throughout our military service. Our serial number was to our military life, what our Social Security number was to our civilian life. My service number began with the capital letters RA, denoting that I was an enlisted soldier, in for 3 years.
Those who had been drafted had a serial number beginning with US. Reservists and national guardsmen had their own distinctive letters. Late in the afternoon all of us boarded a chartered Peerless Stages bus for the three-hour trip to Fort Ord (a few miles northeast of Monterey CA), for Basic Combat Training (BCT). I was very familiar with the route down to Fort Ord, since I had been on the same roads not more than a few years earlier, when I was a Carmel High School student. At San Jose we took U.S. 101 South, and rode through numerous orchards and farm fields, passing through the towns of Morgan Hill and Gilroy. We eventually turned right, onto State Route 152, heading towards the Pacific coast, and Monterey. Farm fields greeted us almost all the way.
Not far north of Monterey, large sand dunes appeared on the right (west) side of the bus. From having lived there a couple years before, I knew that on the other side of those dunes was Monterey Bay, and then the Pacific Ocean. Just south of Marina, we turned left, and came upon a guard shack and wire fencing, the main entrance to Fort Ord. The bus driver stopped the bus, handing what looked like a set of orders to the Military Policeman (MP) at the gate. The MP motioned the bus driver to continue, at which time he put the bus in gear, and entered the base. As far as the eye could see ahead of us were single and double-story plain wooden buildings. If we had any doubt before, we now knew we were all embarking on a new life, in a strange new world, that of the U.S. military. We belonged to the Army, period! Our freedom and family security had vanished. The bus ride from the Induction Center to Fort Ord had seemed longer than it was, made longer by the fact that those who had been drafted didn’t really want to be on the bus, especially since it was going to an Army base. They, and those of us who were first-time enlistees, knew absolutely nothing about what would be facing us, when we arrived at our destination. The men onboard who were prior service (served prior as enlistees or draftees) knew what lay ahead, but weren’t talking much. The trip took much longer than present-day trips there, because there were no multi-lane freeways or Interstate highways in those days.
We came up to a large wooden sign that read “U.S. Army Reception Center, Fort Ord, California.” We had arrived!Reception Center “The reason the American Army does so well in wartime, is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis.”—from a post-war debriefing of a German General. Civilian “reception centers” offer free coffee and treats, a purposely feel-good experience. We learned to forget that in the Army Reception Center. Sure, you’ll get free coffee . . . . at mealtime, in a regimented mess hall. As soon as the bus pulled into the Reception Center, and stopped, we were herded off the bus and told to “Fall In!” Of course, almost all the recruits had no idea what he was talking about, so the cadre had to explain that “Fall In” meant to form as a group, in formation. He showed us how to form up, in a formation.
With the help of other NCOs, he gave us instructions on how to line up and determine correct distances apart from each other, using outstretched arms, and lining up directly behind the man in front of us, for those who weren’t in the front row. The words “meatball,” “screw-ups,” ”bozos,” and quite possibly “shitheads” were probably bandied about, to describe us, out loud, and quite often during the process. One of the men was seen with one of his hands in his pocket. That’s how we learned that we were NEVER to be seen with hands in pockets. If caught, the question was almost always, “Recruit, what is your right (or left) hand playing with?” Another possible remark was, “Recruit! Stop playing with yourself, IMMEDIATELY!” The NCO (Noncommissioned Officer) in charge explained, very authoritatively, that he was going to read off our names, alphabetically, and that we were to respond by yelling, “HERE SERGEANT.” He re-iterated that he was not to be called “SIR,” because he was a sergeant, therefore having to work for a living, unlike officers, who were to be referred to as “sir.” The ranking cadre NCO then read off our names in alphabetical order, by last name. When my name was called, “JAMES, RICHARD HARRY,” I responded loudly with “HERE SERGEANT,” as we were instructed. Upon completion of the roll call, the NCO then read off the rules and regulations that we were to abide by, including the fact that we were NOT to leave the Reception Center area under threat of being considered AWOL (Away Without Leave), which would be dealt with harshly. That included making phone calls. Remember that in the early 1960s the main ways of communicating were by landline telephone or written letters. The only phones available for personal use, were banks of pay phones located in strategic areas about the barracks area. We were immediately warned that using those phones was not permissible until later in our training cycle. Even later in our training cycle, using the pay phones was an effort in frustration. There weren’t enough available phones for the quantity of trainees present. If one wanted to use a telephone, he had to stand in line for long periods of time, hoping that the people in front would keep their conversations short and sweet. Long conversations occasionally resulted in fights, begun by frustrated trainees waiting in line. Even when we were finally permitted to use the pay phones, it was a rare occasion that I called home, usually when I needed money. I relied on writing letters for private, easy communications.
I could already tell that this was going to be a psychological adjustment for me. There was no doubt it was an unfamiliar way of life, and we were all going to have to adjust to it. We were going to become soldiers, whether we wanted to, or not. It would become imperative that I and my fellow recruits learn self-discipline. It was ironic that, although we were there to learn how to fight for the defense of freedom for our fellow countrymen, we had to relinquish our freedom. On the other hand, we were the personification of the term “equal rights.” Each of us, no matter the civilian background, financial worth, or race, was treated just as badly as the other. The Reception Center’s mission was to turn civilians into soldiers. It was a tune-up for recruits, prior to entering the official U.S. Army Basic Combat Training (BCT), aka Basic Training. Our group was billeted at the Ft. Ord Reception Center, for processing during our first five days in the Army. We were each paid a “flying $20.” That was Army terminology for advanced pay, to be used for purchased required toiletries, etc. We were given a list of the items we would be required to have, then “marched” down to the local PX (Post Exchange, military version of a small general store). One of the nice things about the PX was that there was no tax charged on your purchase. Also, you were charged the cheapest possible price. The PX was a military establishment operated for the convenience of military personnel, not an attempt to make a profit. As an example, the price for a carton (ten packs of twenty cigarettes each) of cigarettes was $2. The items listed included toiletries, a can of “Brasso” (for shining brass items), a can of shoe polish, a small shoe polish applicator brush, a large shoe brush, a comb (whether needed, or not), etc. Each was part of what would be a required display in the top drawer of our foot locker, which was also to be displayed a certain way. We were given a sheet of paper showing EXACTLY how the items in the foot locker, wall locker, etc., were to look, each item with its own designated place. We were then “marched” to the unit supply room, to receive, what I was to learn over time, the standard U.S. Army bedding issue: mattress cover, two sheets, two olive drab blankets, and a pillowcase. We were then “marched” to our barracks. From my Book #1, of my four-book set of SLURP SENDS! Book #1 (“SLURP SENDS! On Becoming a Green Beret Book 1”), #2 (“SLURP SENDS! Experiences of an A-Team Green Beret Book 2”), #3 (“SLURP SENDS! Experiences of a Green Beret In Vietnam Book 3”) and #4 (“SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences In Vietnam Book 4”) are all available on Amazon or from me.PHOTOS: Peerless Bus (Internet photo) / Typical Fort Ord barracks in 1962 (my photo)SLURP SENDS!