By Robert Savage
Since there was no war going on during my two years in the service—the Korean War had finally ended, and the Vietnam War had not yet begun—the word “veteran” doesn’t have the same meaning for me that it does for those who risked their lives for this country during wartime.
Not long after my basic training was completed in 1954, President Eisenhower froze all military ranks to save the taxpayers money. Ike was not a typical politician. Before becoming president, he had been the commander of NATO and before that, the Supreme Leader of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944—he knew the horrors of war first-hand and was more aware than anyone of the terrible sacrifice so many families had to make. After he took office in 1953, he moved to significantly reduce military spending while still fighting the Cold War effectively.
Pay for an Army PFC at that time was less than $100 per month, but there were three options for me to improve upon that. One was to sign up for officer training school, which would have required me to extend my two years for several more months. Another was to ship out to Germany, which everyone said was a fun place to be stationed, but I wanted to stay in the States, near my family and my girlfriend. So, I chose the third option; I signed up for jump school in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The 82nd Airborne was one of only two such divisions in the United States in the 1950s, the other being the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Both outfits had become famous for their campaigns in Europe during World War II, and the drop zones at Fort Bragg were named for the battles in which they had fought—Sicily, Salerno, Naples, Normandy. After completing jump school, which involved a lot of rigorous training and five parachute jumps, we were required to make at least one jump every three months. Our pay was an extra $50 each month, a lot of money at the time.
Back in the 1950s the 82nd Airborne had about 50,000 men, divided into several regiments with at least 20 companies in each. One incident that stands out in my memory took place in 1955. My regiment, the 325th Airborne, was sent to Fort Meade, Maryland, for a special performance before top brass—generals and senators—as well as members of the press. We made our parachute jump before all these important spectators on a beautiful spring day. Following that, a demonstration was prepared to show how full-sized tanks could be dropped by parachute. The planes used were C-119s, the same planes we had jumped from but with the whole rear section removed to make room for the tank. As the plane lifted its nose, three enormous parachutes would pull the tank out on tracks. Then five larger parachutes, each one big enough to swallow up a house, would open and slow the descent of the heavy vehicle enough to avoid damage when it hit the ground.
The plane flew over the same sandy DZ (drop zone) we had used for the personnel jump. We didn’t expect anything to go wrong and were eager to see this spectacle. We had no idea what a spectacle it would be! In parachute language, a streamer is a chute that does not open and takes a jumper to the ground fast and hard. To the tune of “Beautiful Dreamer” we used to sing in grim jest, “Beautiful streamer, open for me, don’t let my blood splat on the DZ.” On this day, cruising over the DZ, a C-119 tipped its nose up slightly and three huge parachutes pulled the first tank out into space. But before the five larger chutes could catch any air, the tank descended fast, trailing five enormous streamers. It didn’t just hit the ground, it buried itself, with a huge cloud of dust and an earth-shaking whump. Instead of applause from the spectators, there was an awed silence. Inspectors probed and conversed and argued, and the procedure was tried several more times, but always with the same discouraging results. We never learned whether the tanks were completely destroyed or if their remains could be salvaged. Rumor had it that it took many men and much equipment several months to dig up what was left of them.
Another memory that sticks in my mind is more personal. My job with the 82nd Airborne was truck driver, which kept me busy bringing jumpers back from three major drop zones in North Carolina. The drop zones were small man-made deserts for paratrooper training about a half-hour ride away by truck, but only five minutes away by plane. The people running the motor pool were familiar to me, as were all the other drivers and the mechanics. We were all about the same age, 21 or less, and had gone through jump school together. One Saturday, a friend who was the regular weekend guard at the motor pool asked me to take his place that evening because he had a date. He knew me to be a responsible type who wouldn’t let him down. I was glad to help him out, and the one order he passed along to me was, “Don’t let any vehicle out of your sight, and don’t let anyone take out a vehicle for any reason.” That seemed clear enough, but less than an hour into the evening, a full colonel showed up and said he had to have a jeep right away. A private can’t refuse an officer’s demand, but my friend’s order did not permit me to meet the colonel’s request for a jeep. Informing him of my orders made him even more adamant. Not being Solomon, this required me to think fast. Either choice could have gotten the regular guard into serious trouble, as well as myself. My solution was to lock up the motor pool and drive him to where he needed to go, only a short four miles away. It still baffles me how I came up with this solution.
In the autumn of 1955, the largest peacetime military maneuvers to take place since World War II were planned for rural Louisiana. Divisions from all parts of the United States met there to take part in the exercise, nearly 150,000 troops, in an area that encompassed a substantial portion of the state. The purpose of Operation Sagebrush was to evaluate the effectiveness of military operations in a nuclear war. A provisional army representing U.S. Forces was built around the 1st Armored Division, and our 82nd Airborne was designated to simulate the enemy. We wore wooden attachments on our helmets to give the impression of some unnamed threatening army. Air Force bombers, fighter planes, and other aircraft crisscrossed Louisiana’s skies, stirring great interest among the many citizens who had never seen a helicopter.
We drove to Louisiana in a long convoy, which extended for many miles through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, the Florida panhandle, and Mississippi. Those of us driving trucks were required to keep an exact distance of 50 yards from the vehicle ahead. The trip lasted for several days, and it was difficult to stay awake at such a slow and monotonous pace. Entering the outskirts of Anniston, Alabama, at dusk, which we knew would be one of our stopovers, we could barely keep our eyes open. When the truck ahead turned right my truck kept going straight, and the remainder of the convoy all followed me. We were supposed to meet at a parade field where we would park our vehicles and set up tents, but we wound up in the wrong section of Anniston, separated from the hundreds of vehicles ahead of us. Our leaders tried to find out which truck led nearly half the convoy the wrong way, but all the drivers in my unit covered for me. They never did figure out that it was my truck and the driver was me, and it is my sincere hope that now, more than 60 years after my honorable discharge, no one reading this will care.
Along the Gulf Coast we saw stately mansions surrounded by ancient trees draped with Spanish moss—my first glimpse of that phenomenon. The convoy took wide detours around both Baton Rouge and New Orleans and kept to rural roads, many of which were unpaved. Getting close to the area designated for our military exercises, everything seemed desolate. The ubiquitous Spanish moss was strung like cobwebs throughout the trees and scrub bushes. We passed through areas where people lived in crude dwellings and spoke an English-Creole dialect; they watched our military vehicles bounce along on the rough dirt roads and probably thought they were being invaded. When we reached Louisiana near the end of October, it was still the dry season, and at the end of the day we were so covered in dust and soot it was almost impossible to recognize each other. As we entered the territory designated for our maneuvers, the rural roads had many crude wooden bridges constructed over meandering creeks. Our leaders saw this as an opportunity to get drivers familiar with the fording mechanisms of our vehicles. So, instead of using the bridges, we drove down into the creek beds, engaged our fording gears, crossed over rather shallow water, disengaged the special gears and drove back up to the road. There were at least half a dozen crossings like this before we arrived at our destination.
When they told us that the dry season would soon end and the rainy season would begin, we didn’t know the rainy season would present even more problems. Several days after we arrived it began raining and it never stopped. Some days it rained lightly, but for the entire time we were in Louisiana, several months, it never completely stopped. The cooks hung a huge tarp over their outdoor kitchen, but for those of us standing in line to get our meals on metal trays, it was not possible to avoid having our food rained upon. Those of us lucky enough to be truck drivers could sit in the cabs of our trucks to eat, and the others could sometimes find room in the backs of the trucks to wipe off a place to sit. The rest had the choice of standing up to eat or sitting in the mud. Rocks like we have up north are scarce in Louisiana.
There were times when the little jeeps slid off the slippery unpaved roads and turned over in the gutters. Other times, our large trucks got stuck in deep mud. On those occasions, officers had to arrange for giant vehicles with winches to be brought in. Groups of men had to carry the heavy cable with its large steel hook through chest-deep mud and attach it to the bumper of the mired truck. Sometimes, the suction of the mud would pull the rescue vehicle in instead of pulling the stuck truck out. When that happened, they had to find a tree big enough to wedge the rescue vehicle behind. We watched one rescue where the winch vehicle was positioned behind a tree that was at least a foot in diameter, and just as that tree started to crack, the suction gave way and the truck broke free from the mud.
When we had time off and wanted entertainment, we drove into the little town of Marysville, 40 miles west of the camp and only four miles from the Texas border. A little theater was open several nights a week and showed old Tarzan movies from the 1930s. Other times the only activity we could find was to watch a high school basketball game.
When we started home early in 1956, most of the little wooden bridges had been washed away, so it was fortunate we had practiced fording streams. Military training was good for me. Learning to obey orders whether I agreed or not was easy for me because I had already been taught at home to do what I was told. I was from New England and had led a somewhat sheltered life and joining the service was my first opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds, cultures, religions, and parts of the country. President Truman had integrated the armed services following World War II, and when we were in Louisiana, we were told the law was on our side but were cautioned to be careful, and the Black soldiers were advised to wear their uniforms when leaving the camp. We all took pride in being part of the 82nd Airborne, called America’s Guard of Honor. There was a special song that we marched to, and we always double-timed whenever we were in a parade. That was our trademark.
I have many more memories from my brief time in the military during peacetime, but these few are the ones most likely to interest readers.