Brent Corey and I enlisted in the U.S. Army after first securing written permission from our mommies (we were both seventeen and not yet out of high school). At the time, the Army had a program called the buddy system. In essence, if you enlist with a buddy the Army promised to assign the two of you together throughout the training period. Bolstered by the knowledge that we would enter the very trying and uncertain adult world and be able to hold each others hand, we were eager to do our part to make the world a safer place for democracy.
We had three weeks after school let out before we had to report to Fort Ord, California, for boot camp. We made the most of our abbreviated summer by spending the days at the beach and the nights with our girlfriends. My girl was my high school sweetheart, Connie Keller, cute as a Munchkin and lovable as a little kitten. She absolutely worshipped me, and as far as she was concerned, I could do no wrong. I could talk her into anything, and did so without shame or remorse. I Took Grandma to Nam. A must read for any soldier with loved ones.
Fortunately, she was not as fertile as she was obliging. Brent nicknamed her "the leech" because she seemed to cling to me like a second skin whenever we were together. No one had ever treated me so adoringly; and I loved the feeling and the girl. To Connie, I was a hero without ever having done anything heroic. I began to fantasize what it must be like to be a real hero to others: friends, family, maybe even an entire nation.
Brent and I spent many moments replaying our favorite hero fantasy scenario while waiting for the next set of waves in the Pacific surf, or waiting for a friendly motorist at a freeway onramp (we hitch-hiked everywhere).
We crammed an entire summer into those three weeks; yet, as usual, time flies when you're having fun. Before we had time to mentally brace ourselves for Army life, we were being hustled off a bus at the Fort Ord reception station by a drill instructor (DI) hurling invectives in a maniacal rage. We, that is all of the recruits on that packed bus, were shocked at his rudeness. He was obviously pissed off, but we had done nothing to warrant his verbal assault. He was repeatedly shouting at the top of his lungs, "Unass my bus you maggots!"
The only word he said that made sense was "you". Unass was a verb I had never encountered before. I was also not aware that Trailway's buses were owned by Army sergeants, and I thought maggots were fly larvae. The details of his message were a little fuzzy but the meaning was clear, "Exit the vehicle as quickly as possible!"
The bellicose DI blocked the center aisle at the front of the bus as we maggots, in a panic, climbed over seat backs, poured out windows, and jumped from the emergency exit. The first week in the Army was non-stop verbal and physical abuse designed to break the spirit of the individual so that indoctrination into the Army machine could be accomplished. On that first night in the Army, Brent and I laid awake in our bunks long after lights-out, bemoaning our stupidity--so far, none of this was fun!
Three days after our arrival I came down with tonsillitis and spent a few days in the hospital. It was just enough time for Brent and I to become separated. I was outraged that the Army would break its promise to allow us to go through training together. I boldly approached my sergeant and said, "The Army promised that we would be together, Sergeant; and I think they should stick to their word or let us out of our contract."
The sergeant looked me over, frowned and said, "What's the deal here private? You two queer for each other or something? I've heard about you boys from California. Is that it Private?"
I was stunned that he would suggest such a thing. Being the typical homophobic male of the sixties, I shut up and never brought the subject up again. We were assigned to different companies, which meant we wouldn't see each other again until graduation, eight weeks away.
When boot camp actually started I was in the third platoon of Charlie company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Basic Training Brigade (C-2-3). Those first few days without Brent were, for me, the pits of despair. My dreams of heroic glory, a ticker-tape parade down fifth avenue, and a tunic laden with medals were replaced by thoughts of escape and running away with a circus. My error in judgment was quickly turning into a living nightmare. "Why wasn't I in the Navy?" I moaned in my pillow.
On one of our first outings as a company (approximately 170 men) we marched to a rifle range to observe a live fire demonstration. After halting the company and giving the command to face left, the company commander strode down the long line of soldiers, platoon by platoon. He stopped in front of third platoon, looked directly at me and yelled, "Where are your ear plugs, soldier?"
We were each issued ear plugs in a small plastic case that was to be worn on the uniform at all times. In the real world, my old self might have said, "Oh yeah! Sorry about that. I guess I'm just not myself lately. I don't know where my head is. Don't worry, it won't happen again, I promise." Since I was not in the real world, I replied in a meek and trembling voice, "I forgot, Sir."
He looked at me with undisguised disgust and said, "You California douche bag!" Then turning to my DI he ordered, "Sergeant, see that this man gets a set of ear plugs, ASAP!"
Later, when Sergeant Robilard, My DI, handed me the ear plugs he said, "You get your head out of your ass, Private Hoffman, or so help me, I'll rip your arm off and beat you with the bloody stump! Do you understand me, maggot?"
"You address me as Sergeant! I am not a Sir! I work for a living, Private!"
I knew he made a joke, but something told me he was not expecting a laugh. It was easy to maintain my stony countenance, for laughing was the last thing I felt like doing at that point. In fact, if they needed a target for the live fire demonstration, I was prepared to volunteer. The Army was becoming less and less fun each day.
As I recall, the remainder of that day went not much better. That night, while lying on my bunk, I resolved to make the most of my situation. I resolved to be the best damned soldier in the United States Army. I resolved to never give a superior reason to call me a douche bag ever again. I further resolved that at the first opportunity I was going to find out what a douche bag was.
I threw myself into soldiering with a feverish intensity. While others played grab ass, I reviewed the manual-of-arms. I cleaned, I polished, I ran everywhere, I was so gung-ho even Sergeant Robilard took me aside and told me to ease up some. In classes, I devoured the instruction. In physical training, I never took a break, never slowed down. I volunteered for everything--breaking the cardinal rule of the Army: "you don't volunteer for nuttin." The Army still was no fun, but I was no douche bag. I even found out what a douche bag was. Yuck!
I was not aware that a competition existed for honor graduate from basic training--a boot camp valedictorian so to speak. When the time came to select a nominee from the forty- four members of third platoon, I was chosen. Sergeant Robilard took me aside and told me what a big deal it is to be selected as the graduating battalion, honor graduate. He said, "First, they promote you to Private First Class. Next, you are awarded the Soldier's Medal. At the graduation ceremony there will be close to one thousand graduating trainees from five companies, the post marching band, roughly a thousand guests, and brass up the ying yang. With the whole formation standing at attention, the Colonel gives the command, 'honor graduate, front and center'"
Sergeant Robilard was painting a picture with words and gestures for my benefit. I was enthralled with his narrative. He continued, "All eyes are on you as you march up to the reviewing stand to receive a plaque and to have your medal pinned to your chest. Will your family be here for your graduation?"
"No," I said, getting caught up in the fantasy, "but my girl and her Mom and two sisters are coming up."
"Can't you just see the pride on her face when you go marching up to that Colonel in your dress greens with a thousand men standing at parade rest behind you?"
"Yes! Yes, I can see it!"
"Hoffman, I've never had an honor graduate come out of my platoon. You are my best shot. You first have to beat out the top guys from each of the other platoons in Charlie Company. I know who they are, and you're a cinch to win. You then go on to represent Charlie Company against to top guys from four other companies. The five of you go before a board of officers and it's like a spelling bee, only they ask you military questions from your basic training. One wrong answer and you're out. The process goes on until there is only one man left--the honor graduate. Hoffman, can you do it? Can you go all the way?"
"Yes! Yes, I can do it! I can go all the way!"
Once again, I dared to dream of glory. Once again, I fantasized of being carried aloft on the shoulders of a bevy of adoring young beauties. I tried to envision the envious looks of my fellow soldiers. Private First Class Hoffman had a nice ring to it, at least nicer than Private Hoffman, ex- maggot.
The other members of Third Platoon helped me cram for my test. They were all in my corner. I was going forth for the glory of Third Platoon, Charlie Company, Mom and apple pie. I did beat out the other challengers, and I was selected to represent Charlie Company. Later that same afternoon, I was standing with four other privates before a panel of officers that were seated behind a long table. The questions they posed to us were simple at first, and all of us made it through the first few rounds. Then one guy didn't know the nomenclature of the standard issue hand grenade. While the kid sweated and pondered, I thought to myself, "Mark 26, you idiot. Go on, get out of here!" Then there were four. The next one failed to correctly identify the Secretary of Defense--then there were three. The third man to fall, failed to describe proper treatment of a sucking chest wound--then there were two. It was between Hoffman and Matsumoto. He was from Alpha Company. Alpha Company was comprised of trainees that came to Fort Ord from Hawaii. Private Matsumoto was a short, goofy-looking, Japanese American--the stereotypical four-eyed, toothy Jap. I have never, before or since, harbored any ill will towards Japanese Americans; but at that moment, it was 9 A.M. on December 7th, 1941, and I was an American sailor. Matsumoto was the only thing standing between me and untold glory. As I fielded each question thrown at me, I thought to myself before giving the answer, "this one is for the USS Arizona, or take this for the USS Utah."
The questions went back and forth for some time with neither of us even hesitating with the answers. The officers were eager to wrap the show up, and I thought they were on the verge of handing us weapons in order to settle it once and for all. The next question was mine, "Private Hoffman, what do we call a chemical agent sprayed from aircraft on troops in the open."
I know that one, I thought in silent desperation. It was on the tip of my tongue, but wasn't quite right. Was it acid rain? No that's not it! Caustic soda? Drain-O? Pteradactile piss? The answer just wouldn't come. Suddenly, my time was up. My only hope now was for Emperor Hirohito, standing next to me, to screw it up also. I waited in a catatonic trance.
"Private Matsumoto, can you give the correct answer?"
"Sir! Yes Sir! That would be a blister agent, Sir!"
I knew that, of course! Everybody knows that--a blister agent. Why couldn't I say blister agent when it was my turn? I was dismissed and told to report back to my company. Sergeant Robilard seemed to take the news harder than I did. I tried to console him by telling him I was close, I came in second. He simply said, "Good try Hoffman, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."
The Army made such a big deal about being honor graduate, I began to think that surely there was some consolation prize. After all, I was first runner up. I was the boot camp salutatorian. I should at least get a star by my name, a balloon, or something. Robilard informed me that in the Army, there are winners and losers and Matsumoto won.
The next day, I stood on a parade field in my dress green uniform with a thousand other men eager to get the formality of graduation over with. The mid August sun beat down mercilessly on us as a small legion of speakers took the podium to inspire us with their wit and wisdom. I was able to endure the ordeal, secure in the knowledge that eventually it must end and Connie and her family were waiting for me in the viewing stands. When we marched from the field and turned in our rifles, I would once again smell her sweet perfume, and feel her embrace. Others were having similar thoughts only using their own girls, I hoped.
An hour passed and still the speakers were talking. We could not hear clearly what was being said, because the public address speakers were directed towards the viewing stand. All we heard was babble and the occasional sound of a rifle hitting the tarmac with an awful clatter, followed by the dull thump of a collapsing body. Medics, stationed at the rear of the formation, moved up surreptitiously to remove and revive the unfortunate graduate, overcome with the heat. It was as though a sniper were picking us off one at a time. Giggles and snickers radiated out from the spot where a victim fell.
A new speaker moved to the podium and we could barely make out the command, "Honor graduate, front and center." For just an instant, my heart leapt, then I saw Matsumoto march smartly toward the stand. In my mind's eye, I saw an F4 Phantom jet sweep low over the parade ground and spray, no, drench Matsumoto with a blister agent as the assembled multitudes shouted, "Remember Pearl Harbor, give us Private Hoffman!"
When Matsumoto returned to the ranks, we felt sure the fat lady was about to sing. A collective moan went through the formation as another speaker began yet another inspirational oration. By this time, soldiers were dropping with the regularity of a heart-beat. They remained where they fell, for the numbers were beyond the capabilities of the small medical detachment. We all got the same thought simultainiously. We knew how to end this torment; and without a spoken word, the plan went into effect.
The Army's goal of merging us into a collective machine was a success. The pace of collapsing soldiers began to increase dramatically. We, who remained standing, watched in strained amusement as bodies piled atop bodies. The situation on the field was quite apparent to the visitors in the stands. We could see the people reacting to the carnage on the parade ground.
The fantasy sniper that was picking us off with casual regularity a few minutes ago, now seemed to be mowing down soldiers with a machine gun. The speaker got the message loud and clear, concluded his remarks, and returned the troops to their respective commanders. As we were called to attention, a preparation to move off the field, our fallen comrades suddenly came back to life and resumed their place in the ranks.
We were very satisfied with ourselves. We all made it through boot camp and were now officially soldiers in our Uncle Sam's Army, and we put an end to the command's graduation parade charade. If that were not enough cause for celebration, we would all be home for a few days of leave before reporting to our next duty station, and our next phase of training. In my case, I had volunteered for the infantry, jump school, and for duty in Vietnam. My next stop was Augusta Georgia, the home of Fort Gordon, and a nice little place called Camp Crocket therein.
As a footnote to this story, while visiting my grandmother twenty-four years later; she showed me a letter that was sent to her from the Headquarters, Third Basic Training Brigade, Fort Ord, CA. It was dated 29 Aug, 1968, and said:
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Rowe:
Your grandson, Private George Hoffman, has been selected as the distinguished graduate from Company C, Second Battalion of the Third Basic Training Brigade. The selection was made by the officers and noncommissioned officers of his company and was based on his soldierly attributes, personal conduct, and his ability to assimilate the training presented.
As his grandparents, you may feel justifiable pride in your grandson's military accomplishments. His excellent spirit of cooperation, combined with an obvious desire to excel are the principal personal characteristics which produce the outstanding results that he obtained. These personal attributes characterize not only good soldiers, but good citizens.
It was signed James W. Sparano, Lieutenant Colonel, Infantry. I'm glad the Army sent that to my grandparents; It would have been nice if they would have told me also. From that day on, I always felt that second place was as good as nothing. Life isn't horseshoes or hand grenades; sometimes, close is all you need to feel good about yourself.