When New Recruits Prepared For WWII At Fort Knox

Drill Sergeants Quickly Turned Young Kentuckians Into Trained Soldiers


By Oswald Jett - 2000

The Depression was still hanging on as the 1930s decade ended. One of the results was an influx of young Kentuckians at the Army post at Fort Knox. It was the easiest job available, but patriotism and visions of exciting adventures overseas may have helped bring on the decision to many thrill-seeking teenagers and young men. The pay was certainly not an incentive. Starting at $21 a month, a buck private's pay automatically ballooned to $30 a month after four months of satisfactory service. And the regular Army would accept 18-year-old volunteers.

The war raging in Europe filled the news in newspapers and on radio programs; so that the Selective Service system began action in late 1940. Young men between the ages of 21 and 35 were divided by local draft boards into classifications ranging from 1A to 4F, and each man was assigned a draft number. My number was 116, which meant I would be the 116th resident of my county to be drafted.

That time would soon come around, and I opted to volunteer for three years in the regular Army rather than wait to be drafted. The advantages in such a decision included the choice of a beginning training site, the choice of the branch of service, and a probable advantage in promotions.

I told the recruiting officer in Owensboro that I wanted to be an engineer, but he talked me out of it, advising that those soldiers were involved in much more strenuous labor than I imagined. He suggested the Ordnance (maintenance), but I knew I was not mechanically inclined by any stretch of the imagination. I made no commitment to him, but eventually decided at Fort Knox to join the medics. I was influenced by other rookies who had already chosen that branch, but I knew in my mind I would rather save lives than end them if I had the choice.

At that time Fort Knox was synonymous with the newly-activated First Armored Division. Organized on July 15, 1940, the tank outfit was commanded by Maj. Gen. Bruce Magruder. It was not composed strictly of tanks but included line outfits of infantry, specialists, combat engineers, and field artillery. Supporting units were a Signal company, the Ordnance, a Quartermaster battalion, and my 47th Medical Bn.

In comparison to the rampaging German forces in Europe, the U.S. Armored Force was in pitiful shape. In 1941 there were only two poorly-equipped armored divisions in the U.S. The 2nd Armored Division was based at Fort Benning, Georgia. At the beginning, the only tanks in the 1st A.D. were the soon-to-be obsolete M2A4 light tanks. By mid-1941 there were 66 medium tanks. The M-3 light tanks were equipped with 37-mm guns. The General Grant medium tanks had 75-mm guns, but the Germans had much greater fire power. Our weaknesses, beside lack of training, were the thin-plated armor, high silhouettes of the tanks, and weak fire power, and those faults became obvious during the Tunisian Campaign in Africa.

My Army career began with six weeks of drilling. In spite of being a medical outfit, our drill sergeant was a typical military martinet. That was really not strange, because we were regular army recruits, although medics. With a face resembling a mixture of Popeye and an English bulldog, and wearing a perpetual scowl, he was a fright to begin with. In a most unfriendly manner, and looking like a demon from hell, he would bark out such orders as "Get in step, You!" "Keep your distance!" "Straighten up, Recruit!" and "Don't bend your arms when you march!"

To add to his intimidating looks he had a crossed eye, so it was hard for us recruits to be sure which of us he was yelling at sometimes. "Listen up, Yard Bird!" "Follow my commands and move by the numbers!" "You'd make a real soldier, Puke!" frequently ending with "Wipe that smile off your face!" At least, he didn't use foul language. That was against military policy in those days.

I was soon to learn that Old Sarge was rough on the outside but soft on the inside. He showed a touch of gentleness one evening when he told a homesick recruit where he could find stationery for writing a letter home.

In those early years the medics were generally looked upon with scorn by troops of the line outfits. They called us "pillrollers." Eventually, after combat experience, first-aid men and other medics gained respect. I wound up serving 39 months overseas, mostly as a litter bearer or ambulance driver.

In 1941 the 47th Medical Bn. of the 1st Armd. Div. consisted of native Kentuckians by a large margin; I'd say by about 60% in my company. This changed drastically with a flood of draftees in mid-1941, as regular Army men were transferred to form cadres for new armored divisions. Our company may have been pillrollers in the early years, but I must say we held our own in marching and drilling exercises on the parade grounds. We earned an award or two to prove it.

But it is not the purpose of this article to brag of military awards or accomplishments, either by units or individuals. Lack of space limits mention of training exercises, field problems, road marches, first-aid training, black-out drives, maneuvers, dry runs, hurrying up to wait, rumors, disappointments, and overseas hazards. What is left is some light on basic military conditions in an army camp in Kentucky some six decades ago.

A ridiculous aspect of early training, extending into the Louisiana Carolina maneuvers of 1941, was the lack of military equipment. In some cases, trucks masqueraded as tanks, planes dropped flour sacks as bombs, and even broomsticks were used as rifles. For our guards and sentries, we used broomsticks too. We usually walked shifts in stages of two hours on and four off. We had to memorize the twelve General Orders, of course, not just the words, but the orders in sequence.

Even up-to-date Army uniforms were scarce when I joined. Most all recruits at that time were issued the ugly and uncomfortable blouses and trousers of WW I. I remember members of our squad guffawing at the unsightly two-toned overcoat issued to one of us. The back seam divided two distinct colors of medium green and a sickly shade of yellow. We were measured for sizes, but as it turned out, my best fit was the little black necktie. I looked like my grandfather's garden scarecrow.

I suppose a World War I uniform could be neat and impressive, but to us the high stiff collars, tight shoulders, flaring hips, and baggy knees added up to "Class A Ugly." We were also issued the round, British-type of steel helmet. We changed to modern olive drab uniforms within a few days, but didn't have the two-piece helmets until mid-1942.

One would think the so-called garrison cap, a snazzy crowned hat with a stiff brim, would be issued for garrison dress uniform, but it was available only if bought at the post military supply store. The cap issued to us, however, was known as the overseas cap, so both types were misnamed. The overseas cap resembled a miniature canoe when the crown was caved in, as was the fashion many troops preferred. Differing from other soldiers, troops of the armored divisions slanted their caps over the left eye instead of the right.

Issued items were the uniform to be worn on the post, but soldiers could buy military items at the store to wear off the post, but we were not allowed to mix civilian items with military anywhere. Another item that could be worn both on and off the post was the garrison belt, which the government did not see fit to issue the troops. A highly- polished leather belt set off the uniform blouse, and no soldier would be seen without one. For work details we were issued gray coveralls, called a fatigue suit, plus a floppy round hat.

We recruits started the day at dawn, as a loud and rude fellow with stripes routed us out of our bunks. Fifteen minutes later, we lined up in front of our barracks for reveille, shivering and sleepy. Next came the daily policing of the area, which lay under a scattering of candy wrappers and cigarette butts. Actually, we were supposed to pick up any object not firmly attached to the ground. As one of the old vets cracked "You are to pick up anything not growing. If you can't pick it up, paint it. That's the motto of this man's Army."

Before the recruit drills were over, the old sergeant was transferred and replaced by a swaggering, red-haired, obnoxious, and ambitious little corporal with a very loud mouth. He was known as "Bear Tracks" which we all called him behind his back. He could not read, but tried desperately to sound as terrifying as our old sarge. He was not a Kentuckian, I am happy to say. We hated his arrogance and attitude, even though we laughed at him to his face, resulting in some recruits being banished to the "awkward squad'; whether they drilled well or not.

He would address the recruits with "Squad, 'tennn-shun!" Then, "awright you mens, wake up. When I give the command, snap to 'tension with yer chins up, chestes out, and bellies in." Bear Tracks was a character to remember. He made a trim, dashing figure in dress uniform, but his speech never failed to betray his ignorance. His habit was to add an extra letter to the plural of some words, e.g., "You mens take them postes over to where the chestes are."

Like all drill sergeants, he was required to give recruits lectures on field sanitation, personal cleanliness, first aid, etc., whenever an officer wasn't available. One day he met a situation he couldn't handle. The subject was sanitation and he was advising us to use only steel wool to shine and clean our aluminum mess kits. "Never," he impressed on us "use Blitz cloth (which we used to polish brass uniform buttons) to shine yer mess kits. If you do you'll get gonorrhea." He was confusing the word for diarrhea, of course. The class roared with laughter, and poor Bear Tracks knew he must have goofed.

We shouldn't have humiliated him, but he had been cruel to us, too. He did rise in the ranks because the officers thought he did well drilling us, and he also looked neat in his uniform. Much later, he considered himself as a staff sergeant next in line for the position of First Sergeant, when that gentleman planned to apply for Officer Training School. Needing someone to help him improve his chances, Bear Tracks had me read him the articles of the Army Guide, while I was on light duty recovering from a siege of yellow jaundice. In the end the 1st Sgt. stayed put, and Bear Tracks faded away, like any good soldier.

It has long been said that a good soldier never loses anything. I was soon to learn that meant he stole the article from some other soldier to recoup his loss. Another truism was that a well-trained soldier was likely to live longer under hazardous conditions.

Another ancient theory is that a good soldier always gripes. We were mostly all good soldiers then. We had our reasons. But in my opinion, the persistent gripe about Army food was not legitimate.

Willing soldiers volunteered to be sent to an army cooking and baking school. I never knew of one coming back a less than competent cook. I am speaking of garrison life, where the food was known as Class A rations. Any soldier could not want better tasting steaks, chops, vegetables, or pastries. Garrison meals at Fort Knox were planned to please as well as being nutritious. On Fridays our company was invariably served a meal including cornbread and buttermilk (for us country boys), mashed potatoes, stewed tomatoes, greens, pumpkin pie, and salmon patties to cater to the Catholic soldiers.

So Uncle Sam, we must admit, was considerate of the needs of his boys. Even after we went overseas, ration specialists and food manufacturers tried to satisfy the troops. That wasn't easy to do when so many foods were available only in dehydrated or powdered form. Can you imagine the taste of unsalted powdered eggs?

But at Fort Knox we didn't have that problem. Yet when we moved overseas one of our cooks was such an expert he could contrive a delicious chocolate pie from army D bars, an emergency ration composed of bran, soy beans, a little cocoa, and who knows what else.

Overseas we had a little powdered milk for cooking purposes, but there was no butter at all until in mid-1944 some genius invented an ersatz spread that would have been more properly named axle grease. Its major drawback was the impossibility of melting it, to use in lieu of real butter or lard.

Even the much maligned C rations, used under combat conditions and emergencies, were actually good tasting if they could be heated. For many months there were only three choices in the cans: beef hash, meat and vegetable stew, and beans. Even the little tin of coffee was top-notch. Also with each set were several crisp crackers. Be honest, veterans, this type of meal was just monotonous, and was often eaten cold.

When describing our uniforms I neglected to mention the difference between the branches of service. The color of the piping (braid) that trimmed his cap showed a soldier's type of unit; blue for infantry, yellow for tanks or cavalry, red for artillery, etc. In addition, the lapel insignia button indicated the branch. Our medic braid was maroon, and the insignia button showed two snakes wound around a winged staff. This oddity, I learned, originated from a Greek myth, the caduceus.

Popular songs I recall, while at Fort Knox, not necessarily in sequence, included: "Boogie Woogie Bugler of Company B," "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," "Green Eyes," "Marie," "The Java Song," "Over the Rainbow," "Reluctant Dragon," "San Antonio Rose," "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire," "Star Dust," "Elmer's Tune," "The Jersey Bounce," "Pennsylvania Polka," "White Cliffs of Dover," and the country music hit, "Walking the Floor Over You."

During maneuvers, a popular tune began with this line: "Good-bye, Dear, I'll be back in a year." But the song was never again heard after the maneuvers ended. The day after the 1st Armd. Div. returned to Fort Knox, the soldiers lying on bunks in our barracks, listening to a radio, were suddenly shocked when the program was interrupted by the announcement that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. We were at war with Japan, and all leaves were canceled.

There were still only two armored divisions ready for action then. We considered ourselves ready to help make our country safer and a better place to live. I did my part by walking guard with a broom handle and peeling peck upon peck of potatoes.

Even when U.S. forces invaded North Africa on Nov. 8, 1942, the other armored divisions were still in training. Our division, under Maj. Gen. Orlando Ward, was dubbed "Old Ironsides." The 2nd Armd. Div., led by the armored expert, Maj. Gen. George S Patton, was known as the "Hell on Wheels" division.

I was to serve four and a half years rather than three, and many selectees drafted for twelve months served almost as long as I did. Although I had been promised 30-day-a-year furloughs when I volunteered, I wound up with not a single day of furlough. I did have a few three-day passes over the war years. I'm not complaining. I survived, and thousands of poor fellows gave the supreme sacrifice.


Oswald Jett, 3411 Greentree Road, Lexington, KY 40517, shares his articles with our readers regularly.


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