Army basic training held few surprises. The subject has received extensive coverage in books and movies. I expected to be treated like pond scum--I was! I expected boot camp to be physically demanding--it was that also. I expected to enter boot camp a boy, to graduate a man, and to be a soldier in the United States Army. I did go in a boy, and I did become a soldier. Well, two out of three ain't bad.
Throughout basic training I never got over the feeling that I was just a kid playing Army. When I looked around me, at my fellow soldiers, I saw mostly boys like myself. Even at graduation, I felt like I was part of a well-rehearsed, high school drill team than a formation of United States soldiers. I could not imagine being sent off to a combat zone and feeling comfortable knowing that members of Third Platoon, Charlie Company, Second Battalion, Third Basic Training Brigade would be protecting my flanks. They were all great guys, but not an Audie Murphy or John Wayne in the bunch.
They were volunteers for the Army during a time of war, while a draft was in progress. Persons drafted during this time were most often assigned to the combat arms--infantry, artillery, tanks and armor--not a healthy place to be during a war. Those who volunteered for service were able to choose the job of their preference: clerical, medical, mechanical, intelligence, etc., etc..
My buddies from third platoon were, for the most part, volunteers in order to avoid being drafted into the shooting Army. Most were slated to go off to cook's school or clerk's school or officer's candidate school after boot camp. I was one of just a handful in the entire company who volunteered for the Army, the combat arms, and to go to Vietnam upon completion of my training. I was looked upon with curiosity by my fellow trainees who could not understand why anyone would volunteer to be a pop-up-target if they weren't being forced. The most common response I received from a sympathetic soldier was, "What's the matter, pal? Your girl dump ya?"
At first I said, "No, I'm answering my country's call. There is a war going on, you know!" Tired of being treated the fool, I began to change my reply to, "Yeah! Ain't life a bitch?"
In the isolated world of the basic trainee, I gained an image of the Army as a collection of ordinary people from all walks of life and vast personality and character make-ups being led by a cadre of hard core, spit-and-polish professionals. The reality, however, was best summed up by an anonymous poet who did his best work on the walls of an outhouse in Nha Trang, Vietnam. In his words:
The United States Army: the unwilling, led by the
incompetent, to do the impossible, for the ungrateful.
The only difference between the U.S. Army and the Boy
Scouts of America--the Boy Scouts have adult leadership!
I learned that my view applied only to basic training units, and the poet's view applied to a great deal of the U.S. Army of the late sixties and early seventies.
During the peak of the war in Vietnam, the Army, and the nation's armed forces as a whole, remained focused on what it thought was the main threat--nuclear war or Soviet ground forces over-running the rolling green hills of Europe. For the Army, the Vietnam war was of secondary importance, and was fought as a sideline war--a place to test tactics and techniques and gain valuable combat experience for small unit leaders.
In 1968, their handy little war was getting out of hand and becoming very unpopular. Soldiers assigned to infantry training at that time were routinely trained for European tank warfare in pasture land, then sent to the jungles of Vietnam to combat a cunning Asian guerrilla while wading neck deep in swamp muck and ducking bullets that seemed to be launched by bushes and trees.
Many lessons were learned the hard way as Americans in increasing numbers went home feet first--if they had feet at all. If a man lasted long enough in that on-the-job training environment, and learned how to fight that unusual war and survive, he was usually at the end of his one year tour and rotated out. Many took their valuable knowledge to America's streets, while those who were career minded were planted in the units assigned to NATO forces in Europe. Fighting a small, hot war, while simultaneously fighting a large, cold war made many things the Army did at that time look foolish, even to those involved in the planning. In an effort to appear only half foolish, the Army decided to create advanced infantry training centers dedicated to training soldiers that the Army knew would be going from training directly to Vietnam. Pretty smart, huh?
These centers could dispense with all instruction applicable to the nuclear, tank, open country battlefield, and replace it with Vietnam prepatory training. Camp Crocket, on the Fort Gordon reservation at Augusta, Georgia was such a place.
Camp Crocket took the concept one step further. It would specialize in Airborne Infantry; that is, for those who were slated for jump school after infantry training. Camp Crocket was to prepare troops for jump school and for duty as an infantrymen in Vietnam. Camp Crocket was double smart. The Camp Crocket story is the story of a great plan poorly executed. It was a step in the right direction, but a step not appreciated by the Fort Gordon brass.
Fort Gordon is a gentleman's post with new, clean, brick buildings, manicured grounds, golf and tennis clubs. Fort Gordon is the home of the Army Signal Corps (radio and telephone people) and the training center for the Military Police. Signal men are not noted for rowdy behavior, and with so many cops around, Fort Gordon was probably the most orderly community in America. The idea of bringing a brigade of infantry/paratrooper "wannabees" to their pristine post went over like pubic hair on pastry.
Fort Gordon was forced, by the Department of The Army, to make accommodations for an infantry training brigade. Fort Gordon reluctantly made available a remote area several miles away from the main post, deep in the woodlands of the training ranges. They bulldozed forty acres of woodland and erected 122 quanset huts (if you've seen the TV show, "Gomer Pyle, USMC"--those are quanset huts), like a huge tin cylinder cut lengthwise in half, set down with the crown side up. They were 16' by 40', each housed half a platoon (twenty two men).
The idea was to keep the "grunts" out of sight and isolated from the main post population. We "grunts" only saw Fort Gordon once coming in and once going out, and the same was true of Augusta. The training was nonstop and very physical. Constant cycling of troops through the camp graduated one company (approx 176 men) each week. After eight weeks of advanced airborne infantry training the entire company was bussed to Fort Benning, Georgia for jump school. When I arrived on the scene in September of 1968, the training center was running at full capacity.
After a pleasant bus ride through Fort Gordon, Camp Crocket was a shock to the senses. It was like being escorted through a plush country club and being told the outhouse out back is for you.
Camp Crocket was a great idea that got watered down by too many military bureaucrats who were not fully on-board with the concept. I have traveled the length and breadth of South Vietnam and never encountered country like the piedmont pine forests of Georgia. The swamps of the Florida panhandle, the jungles of Panama, or the paddy land of Thailand would have been much better choices for a location.
Vietnam vets fresh from combat tours would have made terrific instructors; instead, we got officers and non-commissioned officers fresh out of leadership school. Our leaders were as green as we were. It was the blind leading the blind. I must concede, however, that I did learn many helpful tips for survival in a counter-insurgency, jungle warfare environment. That notwithstanding, I am grateful that Vietnam was not nearly as bad as Camp Crocket, nor as dangerous.
Crocket was not so much the Spartan accommodations, the red clay dust, isolation, ice cold showers, or gnats and chiggers that made the place such a hell hole. It was the people.
In every basic training platoon there is at least one village idiot, one genius egghead, one gung-ho patriot, one pig pen, and one psychopath. I don't know how the military manages to do this, but ask anyone from any branch of service and this statement can be confirmed.
For reasons that I am at a loss to explain, triple volunteers (Infantry, Airborne, Vietnam) were of two types--gung-ho patriots and psychopaths. The two were drawn to the paratroops like a dead possum drew flies. Camp Crocket was a fairly even mixture of these two groups of people; and for a young gung-ho patriot, Camp Crocket was one scary place to try and sleep at night.
I could easily write a book about Camp Crocket, and some day, I may just do that. For now, a sampling of some events during my eight week visit to hell will have to do.
The men I stood in the ranks with were some of the meanest, nastiest, dumbest, and craziest people I ever knew. Many were given the choice of Army or prison. Mixed in with these bad men were boys just like me: young, eager, clean-cut, hard working American boys. To say that we "good" kids were intimidated by the big "bad" men would be a major understatement. The fact was, even the cadre and the military police were intimidated.
Imagine, if you will, taking a large group of inmates from your state penitentiary and locking them up with an equal number of Eagle scouts. Place this lockup deep in the woods, then send the guards home at night. Do you see any problem with that idea? As you can imagine, there was frequent trouble at Camp Crocket.
Whenever trouble occurred at Crocket, the MP's responded in machine gun mounted gun-jeeps with live ammo. A sergeant who got tough with some of the bad boys of second platoon was placed in an outhouse with the door strapped shut and the entire outhouse was turned upside down with him inside.
Numerous shootings and stabbings (almost nightly occurrences) kept most of the good guys in their own quanset huts after hours. A gang of tough blacks roamed the area looking for young white males to rape. Most of us young white males developed the habit of sleeping on our backs with an entrenching tool cradled where our teddy bears used to be.
Grenades and live ammunition were frequently found during shake-down inspections, hidden in remote recesses of the huts. Some of this deadly contraband was for mischief, but most was for self defense. Several full-scale race riots broke out while I was at Crocket. I stole three live rounds from the rifle range for my M-16 and kept them hidden throughout my stay. After the first riot, I was determined to have more than a shovel to defend myself.
Many of the misfits were weeded out of the Army at Camp Crocket with a dishonorable discharge; some were weeded out by soldiers in Vietnam with a weapon's discharge; and some earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. The best and the worst of America were mixed together at Camp Crocket. Sociologists may debate the merits of the amalgam that emerged; I can only speak for what it did to me.
I entered Fort Gordon a boy full of patriotic idealism and left, eight weeks later, an angry young man full of hate and eager to kill something, anything. I lost my youthful innocence at Crocket, an innocence I would surely have lost in Vietnam anyway. It was not what I lost that mattered so much, but what I gained. I became a cynical and insensitive killer with a chip on my shoulder. The childhood prejudices I put aside in basic training came back with a vengence. I learned a fear and a hatred of blacks. I was more than willing to reek my vengeance on the world, and the U.S. Army was going to give me a gun and all the ammunition I could carry.
My grandfather used to say, "Mixing good with the bad was like mixing shit with ice cream--it doesn't help shit any, but it sure screws up ice cream." My grandfather was no sociologist, but his analogy was "right on" for the Camp Crocket experience. I am not aware of any emotional scars resulting from two tours in Vietnam, but it took me ten years to get over Crocket.
In 1992, almost twenty-four years afterward, I returned to Fort Gordon. I wanted to see Camp Crocket, not to relive fond memories, but to get back in touch with a key and pivotal point in my life, much as a survivor of the holocaust may want to return to the concentration camp. I did not expect to see an active camp. I figured the place was a ghost camp or storage facility. I imagined dilapidated, rusting quanset huts overgrown with weeds. I knew just being there would bring back memories, some good, but mostly bad.
Passing through the pristine main post area of Fort Gordon, I was left with the same impression as I had had years earlier: beautiful, quiet, placid, orderly. I felt sure I could find the old site once I located the range road; so I drove my rental car in the direction that I was sure would lead to familiar turf. I found all the familiar landmarks, but no Camp Crocket or even a sign of the spot where a camp could have been. Bewildered, I returned to main post and stopped a Captain walking to his car. "Excuse me, Sir!" I said, "Can you tell me how to get to Camp Crocket?"
Quickly, he replied, "Camp Crocket? Never heard of it."
"It's here on Fort Gordon," I assured him, "somewhere in the range area."
"Sorry, never heard of it, and I've been here over six years. You're probably thinking of Fort Stewart, south of here."
"No, it was here, I'm sure."
I was now certain that the camp had been torn down, but I thought the legend or legacy would live on. The Army is big on preserving military history. I began surveying people that were wandering about the post and discovered that the Captain was not alone--no one had ever heard of Camp Crocket. Some of those I spoke with had been stationed at Fort Gordon, on and off, for over twenty years, but seemingly had no knowledge of the camp. I was becoming confused, like being caught in the twilight zone. How could anything so substantial and so dynamic just disappear without a trace, mental or physical?
I had to get to the bottom of the mystery, and I went to the office of the post newspaper. My inquiries got me nowhere, but I managed to peek the interest of a civilian employee who directed me to the post historian and the post records of that time. The post historian had never heard of any camp named Crocket. He poured through records at my insistance. He was right, but he believed me. Together, we searched elsewhere. It was in the records of court marshal proceedings and article 15's that I first saw reference made to Camp Crocket. At least, I knew I wasn't crazy; it did exist! The records were full of Camp Crocket entries. A telephone search of Fort Gordon old-timers finally led me to a retired master sergeant that remembered Camp Crocket and knew of its demise. He gave me detailed directions to the place where it once stood. It was located where I first expected it should be, but the reason I didn't recognize it the first time was that--where once there was a teaming beehive of military activity--now there was a mature pine forest.
I parked the car and moved into the woods on foot, trying hard to orient myself. In the spaces between the rows of trees were wider spaces. These, I soon realized, were the streets where we would form up in company formation. In the places where huts once stood, trees grew straight and tall. Trees that did not exist twenty-four years ago, a grown man could not wrap both arms around and touch his finger tips. Each company had a mess hall, and where the mess halls stood only the concrete pads remained.
By counting the pads, I located the area my old company occupied. The relationship to that pad told me where I'd find my old hut; or at least, the spot where it once stood. I decided on the spot where my bunk was positioned and I moved to stand there. I did this to assimilate a piece of me that was left there many years ago, a piece I wanted back.
I felt a need to stand in the place where I lay night after night trying to make sense of a world gone mad. To stand again in the same place where a younger me dreamed of girls, home, a collie named "Lady" and a red '62 Corvair--the place where fantasy grated against reality to form a callous on my soul. Symbolically, I wanted to retrieve any remnant of that good, naive dreamer I left behind; and, in its place, leave any remnant of the evil I took from there.
I believe I understand how Camp Crocket vanished. No one who had anything to do with Camp Crocket has anything to be proud of. The bad guys remember it as an interlude in a failed military career they would rather forget; or if they made it to, and survived Vietnam, they had the glory of wartime service to cling to. The good guys behaved like frightened children, and in many instances, when a stand on principal or honor was called for, they looked the other way. In one case, a group of blacks entered a barracks hut after lights out and raped a kid repeatedly while his fellow soldiers pretended to sleep through it all.
Leadership was nonexistent and maintained a low profile with the rest of the sheep. No heroes emerged from Crocket, no bands played, no medals were won. Once there, the only thing that mattered was getting out; and the best way out was to bide your time and avoid calling any attention to yourself. The absolute worst scenario was to get embroiled in a court martial that would take you out of cycle and cause you to remain a holdover at Crocket, sometimes for months. That was one factor for the "silence of the lambs," even the cadre wanted out with no delay.
The command soon saw the experiment as a bad move and the Fort Gordon brass were only too eager to erase all traces of Camp Crocket from their post, memory and all. In a way, it was sad to see Camp Crocket as it is today, but if the legacy of Camp Crocket is for others as it is for me, perhaps it is best as a home for the trees, and its memory should just fade away like a bad dream.