(09/07/2020)

By Sidney Underwood

I reported to the Army on March 1, 1965. Each year I pause and reflect on that anniversary date. It is hard for me to believe that it was over 54 years ago. It has been said that basic training is like no other experience and will always be remembered. After all this time, I still remember like it was yesterday.

The night before I was to report, as I lay in my bed, I thought about our home at Cabot Station. Safe and secure with my parents down the hall-way just like it had always been, I knew big changes were coming. The question was, would I be tough enough to survive basic training or would I wash out? With my possessions nearby and my clothes in the closet, it would be hard for me to give all this up.

The next morning at 5:00 AM I was awakened by my mom when she said that my breakfast was ready. Having slept fitfully, I crawled out of my warm bed and went straggling down the hall to the kitchen table. Mom was unusually quiet that March 1st morning. I remember she had made bacon and eggs for me. While I was eating, she mentioned that she had put two sandwiches and an apple in a paper bag for me to eat on the long bus ride to Kentucky. Having said that, I don’t remember her saying anything else that morning.

I remember that I kissed her on the cheek as I headed out the door where dad was warming the car. Going down the road toward Big Bend, he said he had some advice for me and I must not forget it. I still remember his words today: First, he said that I should get in the middle and stay there.

I should do as I was told and not bring attention to myself or do anything that would reflect badly on myself. Second, he told me that when I called home and my mom answered, I must tell her that everything was fine even if I was really hurting.

He said that she would feel helpless if I whined about what I was going through as she would be unable to do anything about it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but dad had just given me brilliant advice.

We drove to the Parkersburg Greyhound station just before 6:30 AM. I had already purchased my ticket to Fort Knox the week before and it had cost me $11.65. My bus to Cincinnati was already loading passengers and dad and I had very little time to talk. He gave me a hug and told me to go ahead and get a seat by a window. I grabbed my nylon zippered bag that contained extra underwear, tooth brush etc., and my bag of sandwiches and stepped up into the bus.

I found a seat about half-way back and sat down next to a window. From my vantage point, I could see my dad standing there impassively and looking up at me.

I waved to him as the bus pulled out onto 7th street heading for the Ohio River Bridge and points west. I thought about him driving back to Calhoun alone and since it was a Monday he would be driving to the high school. I hoped he would have a good day and not worry about me.

We arrived at the Cincinnati Bus Station when it was almost noon, having made a previous stop at Chillicothe where other people boarded the bus. I knew from my ticket that I had a 40 minute layover in Cincinnati. I sat on an old wooden bench and ate the first sandwich and watched the people scurrying around. Outside, several buses sat idling. Some were Trailways, but most were Greyhounds. I walked along and found the bus with the Louisville sign above the windshield. I debated walking around the block to kill some time and see what I could of Cincinnati, but decided against it.

So, I went inside and sat and watched the people swirling around me. With 10 minutes until departure, I again went outside and saw that the door was open on the Louisville bus. I stepped up and showed the driver my ticket and found a seat next to a window. I remember the bus was nearly full of people. I had the only empty seat until an old man sat down beside me. He was probably the age I am now.

We talked very little, possibly about the weather which was nice and sunny. I remember everyone was pleased with this perfect spring day.

The bus crossed the Ohio River to Covington Kentucky and I enjoyed looking out the window. The sun was shining brightly when I saw a young woman doing yardwork. I remember that I waved to her and surprisingly, she waved back. That made me feel better.

At about 2:30PM we pulled into the Louisville bus station. I looked at my ticket and saw that I had a layover of 30 minutes. By now I was seeing men in army dress uniforms and they appeared to be laughing and having a good time. They were probably going home. The lucky dogs!

That made me sad because I had 8 weeks of basic training in front of me. I sat on another bench and ate my last sandwich and the apple. I remember thinking that my mom’s hands had made the sandwiches and folded the paper bag when I reluctantly placed it the trash container. It was my final contact with the life I had known.

The Greyhound bus to Fort Knox looked old and tired. It had probably been worn out on the road over the years and now served only on short runs. It seemed to remind me of the way I felt. I clammered aboard and discovered it was full of young men like me who were reporting to the Army. All of us had those little nylon {AWOL} bags. Let me tell you there was no laughing or joking around on that old worn out bus. To a man, we were apprehensive and nervous, dreading our uncertain future.

Two hours later we arrived at Fort Knox. The Military Policeman at the gate, a handsome young man, pushed a button and it opened to let us pass through. He looked so cool in his freshly pressed uniform with his red neck scarf, White helmet liner, and spit shined bloused boots.

His leather pistol belt and holster gleamed in the afternoon sun. We all looked at him with wonder. He looked up at us and grinned. Suddenly, I had a vision of us as sheep being led to slaughter.

A grizzled looking old sergeant {possibly about 40} signaled the driver to stop on a marked concrete space not far inside the gate. When the driver opened the door, the sergeant stepped up in the bus and ordered us out.

We tumbled out and lined up in a ragged formation. In a harsh and gritty voice, he told us to wait there for an Army bus that would be along shortly to take us to the reception center. He also said that we would be sending our civilian clothes home by R. E. A. Express after receiving our Army uniforms.

He told us to hang on to our nylon bags for now. Then, he said we could call home and pointed to a bank of 10 pay phones nearby. I called home collect and told mom that I was now at Fort Knox and it was 4:30PM.

I remember that I said that I loved her. Somebody behind me kept saying that I should hurry and get off the phone as the bus was coming and he needed to call his family. Regrettably, not everybody had time to make those calls.

I had been warned about reception centers and the mistreatment that was about to begin. We got on the olive drab Army bus and were driven there. The PFC’s started yelling and cursing at us as we scrambled off the bus. We assembled in front of painted white posts with numbers. We were told to remember the number of our post as it would be ours for the duration of our stay. Mine was #44.

We were dismissed and shown the way to our barracks. The center seemed to be run mostly by black PFC’s who had seriously bad attitudes. We were ordered about constantly and made to do pushups if we weren’t quick enough to respond. They did a lot of cursing when giving orders.

It was dark when we were sent to the mess hall for the evening meal. When I finished my meal and was leaving, I was tapped on the back by a surely black PFC and ordered to KP. What luck!

My first day and now I had to do pots and pans wearing civilian clothes! When I was released from KP, I returned in the dark to our barracks in time to hear over the speaker that we needed to get back to our posts to await further orders.

It was misting rain as I stood by post #44. We were being issued bedding for our stay at the reception center. When my number was called, I stepped forward and received a pillow, two sheets, two wool blankets and a thin mattress. Back by my post, I watched as my bedding slowly got damp.

Inside the barracks everyone tried to spread out their bedding and blankets so that they would partially dry before we had to crawl into them. One of the PFC’s in charge told me that I would be a fire guard scheduled to make sure there was no fire in the barracks from 1:00 AM to 2 AM the next morning. He laughingly said that the midnight fire guard would be around to shine a flashlight into my face to awaken me. It had been a long tiring day and now it seemed it would never end.

At exactly 1:00 AM a bright light awakened me. I struggled to get my mind to work. It seemed I had slept only a few minutes. Up and walking down the center of the barracks and hearing everyone snoring, I was aware of the rain coming down in torrents outside.

A Post Guard happened by and I saw him through the window illuminated by an outside light. I watched as he made his lonely rounds. I remember he wore a dripping poncho and had his rifle slung upside down. Suddenly the homesickness came back and I had to blink away my tears when I thought of home. What the hell had I gotten myself into?

For the next several days were herded around like cattle. First, we all received complete physical exams and several recruits failed them because of bad knees and other imperfections. I wondered how in the world they made it all the way to basic training only to be turned down. I envied them because they were going home.

Second, we got shots for everything receiving them in both arms simultaneously. One good thing, I got two pair of glasses. Amazingly, a civilian tech took my glasses and put them on a machine and suddenly he was handing me the new ones. Next we entered a long shed type building and walked along and received our Army clothing including heavy winter gear from other civilians who were working there. From my perspective, Fort Knox seemed to have more civilians than soldiers! When we exited the shed, we were so loaded down that we could scarcely walk without dropping something.

The constant cursing and threatening from the PFC’s was really getting old. We tried to comply but they were itching to get us to take a swing at them. So we took the brow beating and prayed for Friday when we would be getting the hell out of this miserable place.

I felt sorry for one Gomer Pile type who was picked on constantly and made to do pushups until he cried. They called him every four letter word in the book until he curled up in a fetal position with his hands over his ears.

And for that he was repeatedly slapped in the face. Some of our recruits were black and they fared no better than the rest of us. Those PFC’s were true bastards and they really enjoyed making our lives miserable. I will never forget them. We carried the hatred of those S.O.B.’s all the way through basic training.

Finally Friday arrived and so did Sergeant Nethercutt. In a Texas drawl, he told us to fall out and assemble and follow him to basic training. He called cadence and we straightened up and felt a sense of pride for the very first time.

We entered an old two story World War Two wooden barracks that would be our home for the next 8 weeks. He had us gather around and told us if we obeyed him we would get through the training with no problems. If, however, we made trouble for him there would be hell to pay.

He said that each day’s assignment would be posted on the bulletin board. He also warned us not to ever return to the reception center to settle old scores with those PFC’s., because we would only get ourselves in deep trouble. He said we had survived it and now it was time to move on.

I could not understand why the Army condoned the way we were treated at the reception center. Of course, the officers in charge knew what was going on there. Perhaps it was to acclimate us to the rigors ahead. Later, during bayonet practice, I took great satisfaction in imagining it was those PFC’s I was fighting. It took me a while to realize the ARMY is not a democracy and lowly recruits have absolutely no rights.

I should add that there were many black instructors during my basic training and they were not at all like those PFC’s at the reception center. They treated us as men and took good care of us. As a result, we respected them.

And so the basic training began.

Up each morning at 6:00 AM to fall out and assemble in the company area. Running in the morning became a daily part of our lives. After several miles, we would be released to go to breakfast, but first, we had to hand walk the monkey bars {overhead horizontal ladder} outside the entrance to the mess hall. If you fell off, you went to the end of the line. We had a little guy named Brammer who fell off the ladder the first day and failed to get anything to eat because we were on a tight schedule.

We learned to swallow our food first, and chew it later!. Brammer was determined to eat, and the next day he did not fall off the monkey bars. So he got to eat. Basic training, basic survival. We did what we had to do.

We were issued our M-14 rifles on the third day. They somewhat resembled the famous M-1 Garands of World War Two except the M-14 held 20 round clips of 308 cartridges. Ours were the last of the big heavy rifles soon to be replaced with the smaller M-16’s. We were taught how to fieldstrip and reassemble them. The train- fire instructors were patient with us and we soon got the hang of it. Then it was days of marching to the various rifle ranges, sometimes 5 miles one way including trips up Agony and Misery hills. Over time, we just got numb to the distances we travelled.

We were taught the correct postures of shooting positions. Lock and load were three words we heard often. Firing at 75 meters, 150 meters and 300 meters. We were told to inhale and partially exhale before firing. The recoil was not bad as long as we snugged the rifle tightly to our shoulders. After 50 rounds, we forgot about the recoil as everything became automatic for us. We were issued ear plugs that when not in use were carried in little plastic tubes chained to our fatigue jackets. Some young men from Kentucky and Arkansas proved to be the best riflemen qualifying as Sharpshooters and Experts.

I managed to score only Marksman simply because I had trouble clearly seeing the 300 meter targets which were the size of a man from the waist up. {300 meters is a long damn way out there} When I hit targets, they would fall down and then pop up again. I really made it hard on the 75 and 150 meter targets.

If I could hit a target half the size of a man at 75 and 150 meters reliably, I might hit a man standing at 300 meters. I remember we had to pick up every brass casing after each firing session. They were sent somewhere to be reloaded. The night before we qualified with our rifles, Sgt. Nethercutt told us to swab out the barrels, but not to disassemble them. That way, he said. We could be sure they stayed zeroed. We had learned to listen to everything that man said.

We had PT every day with an instructor on a platform pushing us hard. We also practiced with Padded Pugal sticks wearing helmets and I enjoyed that training. The hand to hand combat in a sawdust pit, not so much. The Special Forces instructors who taught hand to hand were really dangerous looking men. They had that swagger and that look. No one dared mess with them.

We knew they could kill us with just one blow. So, we were very respectful.

They taught us only basic stuff like choke holds and how to throw someone down. If any recruit was goofing off, they paid dearly for it. The thing was, those instructors talked so low, we had to strain to hear their instructions. No one wanted to screw up and be made an example of. They were our secret heroes and we talked constantly about them when we were polishing boots at night in our barracks.

One good memory of the training was the fact that when convoys of Army tanks came rolling by, all the training stopped because no one could hear anything. We really appreciated the “Hell on Wheels” guys because we got to rest for a while.

Crawling under barb-wire on a night mission was really cool. We were warned that a machine gun would be firing over us so we had better stay low. Inching along on our backs with our rifles on our stomachs and the barrels touching our steel pots, we could see the tracer rounds just above us. I thought I had done well until a Train-fire Sergeant examined my rifle with a flash light and found a few grains of sand in it!

One of my best memories was throwing my first “Live” grenade. For days we had practiced with dummy grenades, throwing, rolling and tossing underhanded into bunkers. Being left handed, I was told by Sgt. Nethercutt to tell the instructor that I threw with my left hand, otherwise, he would assume I was a righty.

The grenade instructor had seen it all. Some recruits froze up while others dropped their grenades after pulling the pins. Nethercutt said that he was confident we would not, “Screw Up.” He actually used a different word that I cannot repeat. When it was my turn, I ran to the shielded bunker and announced that I was a lefty. The instructor placed the grenade in my left hand and told me to, “Pull Pin and throw.” I threw it as hard as I could toward an old car body about 30 yards away and then I hit the dirt. I heard the concussion and felt gravel and dirt raining down on my steel pot. I kept the pin as a souvenir.

The fourth week of training we were allowed to go to the PX for the first time after evening chow. We had done well in Saturday morning inspections and this was our reward. I found out later that it was unusual for basic trainees to be allowed to do that. Draft beer was dispensed in large steins and everybody was in a jovial mood. We were starting to feel like soldiers. One evening returning to our barracks, we saw a busload of recruits headed to the reception center. We all yelled out, "You'll be sorry!"

The second time we took the PT test, we all did very well. The goal was to run a mile in combat boots in six minutes or less. Sgt. Nethercutt ran it with us. He kept encouraging us to keep up with him. We decided to do just that or die trying and we made it. Unlike the first time, no one fell out, fainted or threw up. Eight weeks of basic had made us stronger and we were feeling good about ourselves.

A strange thing happened to us recruits during that 8 week period. The skinny recruits gained weight while the fat ones lost weight. So, we all ended up looking pretty much alike.

During week 8 we took our proficiency tests in all phases of training that we had received. I’m proud to say I was in the top 10 in point scoring.

Sometime during my last week, I called home and talked to mom. She said that they had been notified they had a package at the Spencer Railroad Depot. When they picked it up, it was my nylon bag with the clothes I had worn when I first came to Fort Knox. I couldn't believe it took that much time for my clothes to get there.

My group from A-8-3 {A company, 8th Battalion, 3rd Brigade} graduated from basic training on Saturday, May 1, 1965. Sgt. Nethercutt had led us through all of it dispensing sound advice. He gathered us together one last time in that old barracks just as he had done that first day and wished us well. He said that we had been an exceptionally good group. He made us feel proud! I will always appreciate the fact that he took good care of us without cursing or belittling us. He is probably gone by now because 54 years was a long time ago.

Once again aboard a Greyhound bus, this time headed for Louisville, we were a happy bunch of soldiers. We had 14 days before going to our advanced individual training. My Orders indicated that I would be returning to Fort Knox while others were going to Army training centers all over the United States depending on their Military Occupational Specialty.

With a note of sadness I realized this was the last time I would ever see guys who were now my friends. Guys who had sat together each night in that old barracks polishing boots, talking about cars and girls and writing letters home while listening to transistor radios tuned to the same station playing popular songs. I remember hearing, Mrs. Brown, You have a lovely daughter by Herman’s Hermits, virtually every night. That song was one of many heard at night while we polished our boots before the lights went out at 10:00 PM.

I learned this summer that those World War Two wooden barracks have all been torn down except one and it is on display at Fort Knox. It is a relic of the past just like me. You know it just might be my old barracks that survives today. I would like to walk inside it one more time and remember when.


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