We, the ROTC Cadets

by Joseph E. Fleckenstein

Lieutenant Lowe accepted the report of “all present and accounted for.” He returned the first sergeant’s salute and his eyes drifted over the company of cadets. It seemed he felt no immediate obligation to say anything. The pause was for effect. Michael Hunter, standing next to me, whispered, “I wonder what torture Beauregard has in mind for us today?”

Michael and I had become good friends while working our way through college and the four-year Reserve Officer Training Corp program. We had a lot in common, but mostly beer and coeds. The five-week long summer camp in which we found ourselves was an obligatory part of the ROTC program. More than anything, the summer camp was a test of a man’s will, his physical endurance, and his suitability to be a leader.

Michael and I decided “Beauregard” was a suitable name for Lieutenant Lowe because he came from down south. He was also a “90-Day Wonder,” which was cause for wariness. The wonders were once enlisted men who had applied for and made it through the 90-day Officer Candidate School. We tended to look down on the wonders in part because they were not college graduates. We had military courses during a four-year period, drills, and the mandatory five weeks of summer camp. Only if we completed the program successfully and received a bonafide college diploma would we be eligible for a commission. And then there would be another fourteen weeks of training. The wonders resented ROTC cadets as smart-ass college boys, while we considered them to be only moderately trained officers.

Beauregard could have told us to be “at ease” – but he didn’t. He allowed us to remain standing rigid with our hands at our sides, staring straight ahead into the distance. After a pause, he told the first sergeant he would inspect the second platoon. Those men were from Indiana, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, all Yankees to his way of thinking. With both the first sergeant and the second platoon sergeant in tow, he slowly weaved through the ranks. He sought out those cadets who seemed to lack the physical and mental requirements of being a US Army officer. It was a task he relished.

“A gig for Hendrickson,” Beauregard said. “His belt buckle needs a shine.” The first sergeant, himself a cadet filling that role for the day, recorded the gigs in a notebook. “Another for Gibson. His hat is tilted to the side of this head. This is the United States Army and not a Vaudeville show.” Too many gigs and a cadet would no longer be a cadet. He’d go home. No one wanted the shame. While the lieutenant was taking his time, we were becoming tired from standing stiffly at attention in the stifling heat.

Beauregard returned to a position in front of the company. “Have the men collect their packs, half a tent, a rifle and return here at ten hundred hours,” he told the first sergeant. “Then march them to Camp A.”  Beauregard sauntered off and disappeared behind the mess hall.

We were each issued a rifle and a bayonet but no bullets. A meticulous Army supply sergeant, a genuine Army sergeant, recorded our name and the serial number of the rifle handed to each cadet. Michael, who was in line in front of me, asked the supply sergeant, “What in the hell am I supposed to do with a rifle with no bullets?”

“Mister, I don’t give a shit what you do with the rifle,” the sergeant told him. “I was told to give you guys a rifle and that is what I am doing. I’ll be here tomorrow and I’ll expect you to return that rifle in good condition.”

Waiting near the assembly area, we sat on our packs in the shade of the nearest barracks. At the designated time, we headed out toward a new adventure in a column of two led by our platoon sergeant, who had a quick step. The road had been driven over by tanks, which had pulverized the dirt into a powder five inches deep. The two men at the head of the column were alright but behind them the dirt rose in large yellow billows. We breathed and ate dirt by the handful. The sun beat down and our sweat mixed with the dust. The resulting mud clung to skin, nostrils and clothing.

After two hours of non-stop marching, we arrived at a large grass field surrounded by old oak trees. A sign in the middle of the field declared the area to be “Camp A.” We resembled a platoon of coal miners, except the coloration was brown instead of black. Sitting in a Jeep parked in the shade, Beauregard watched the proceedings. He told our platoon sergeant to have his men pitch their tents at the south end of the field. We would be bivouacking there overnight. We all desperately wanted to wash away the mud but nobody cared to be the first to suggest water. Nobody wanted to draw attention to their person. I suspected Beauregard was enjoying himself.

In the afternoon, real Army sergeants with genuine stripes and rockers on their sleeves held classes on the topic of river crossings. We are the Corp of Engineers and getting soldiers over rivers is our responsibility, they told us. The mess truck did not appear for lunch. A sergeant, who implied that he spoke from battlefield experience, explained that in combat soldiers sometimes found it necessary to forfeit meals. So, he added, it would be good practice for officers-to-be. Late in the evening a mess truck appeared, and we ate like starved wolves.

After supper, the first sergeant told us that at midnight we were to form up in squads. Another hike! At Camp B, along the western bank of the Potomac River, we would find boats, with which we would launch an attack against a well-prepared enemy on the opposite bank. Michael and I returned to our tent and immediately lay down to catch some rest. We were tired from the march and the sweltering heat. The mosquitoes and the black flies were competing for our blood.

At midnight, a three-stripe Army sergeant gave us a compass azimuth for Camp B, a mile away through the woods, and told us to head out. Our squad consisted of eight men. Two came from New York City and four were from Maine. Michael and I were Pennsylvanians. Somehow, one of the guys from New York got the compass and a small flashlight. The sergeant designated him as our leader and the cadet declared he “could handle this.”

After an hour, we were still wandering around in the woods, but we eventually we found our way to Camp B, where the rest of the company was already stretched out on the grass amongst the tics and ants. We found space and settled in.

Eventually, the first sergeant told us to move out to the boats and start across the river, one squad per boat. He added that the crossing was to be silent and there was to be no loud talking. Getting eight men into a boat became a problem. The flat-bottomed boats could swamp easily if too much weight was put on one side. Once away from the bank the constant sound of rifles smacking boat sides filled the air. We headed for the “enemy” on the east side of the river. A little beyond the half-way point there was a loud ruckus and shouting. One of the boats overturned, dumping a squad into the water. We all kept moving to our “objective.” We figured they could either cling to the boat or swim.

When we neared the opposite bank, machine-gun fire erupted in our direction. The muzzle flashes indicated three machine-gun nests, all firing blanks. We knew that the Army would not wish to shoot to kill us, considering the amount of time and money they had already invested in each of us. No one feared for his life. The boat to our right arrived at the river bank a little ahead of us. Then our boat hit land. A man from the first boat ran up to the machine gunner and pulled him from behind the gun. He shouted, “You son of a bitch! You hit me in the face with those God-damned blanks.” The cadet swung at the guy, an enlisted man, but missed. The two men became the only true combatants of the evening.

Michael, who was the first out of our boat, took a few steps and shouted, “There’s a big fucking snake here.” He ran up the bank and disappeared out of sight. Michael hated snakes. I was next to last out. A few feet from the boat, some kind of small animal ran in front of me and stopped, challenging me to come closer. Whatever it was, I walked around it. My personal objective was to get through the night without serious encounters, injuries or gigs.

Eventually, someone sounded a whistle, marking the end of our attack, and we all gathered around a barrel-chested Army sergeant. Headlights from Beauregard’s Jeep illuminated a small area in the middle of a field. The sergeant told us to get back in the boats and return to the other side of the river. “Reveille will be at six hundred hours,” he said. Nothing about “I know you are all tired, so get your sleep.” No, a real sergeant would not talk like that.

I jumped into the first boat that had an empty seat and we pushed off for the western bank and Camp B. None of the men were from my squad. Once in the tent, I lay down in my uniform, too tired to bother removing my soaked boots and socks. Because I did not wish to pay for a lost rifle, I kept my rifle next to me in the tent. Michael climbed in the tent while I was sleeping.

Next morning when count was taken, two men were missing from the second platoon. Later, we learned they were in the boat that capsized during the assault. They had lost the oars to the boat and drifted with the boat downstream. When they returned to camp two days later, they were told to pack their bags and go home. Another cadet lost his rifle in the river and had to pay for it. Beauregard gave the cadet four gigs for that. The Army very much did not like to see a soldier separated from his rifle.

After lunch, Beauregard inspected the company, starting with our platoon. As he weaved between the rows, now and then he would scan a cadet from cap to shoe. He stopped in front of me, paused, and asked, “Where you from, mista?” I knew he didn’t care about the city. He was interested in the state. “Pennsylvania, sir.” In response, he told me, “Let me see your bayonet.” I retrieved the bayonet from the sheaf at my left side and held it in front of me, resting on both hands. I knew the bayonet was in good condition, because I had given it a good cleaning that morning. Beauregard took the bayonet and turned it over. “This chir thing is one of the worst I ever seen. One gig,” he told the first sergeant. Beauregard was baiting me, but I said nothing. He handed the weapon back to me. I replaced it in my sheath and stood at attention, waiting. He paused, then slowly stepped down the line.

Beauregard grew tired of playing with us and we marched back to the barracks. Most of us had had only an hour or two of sleep. Some of us still had wet boots and socks. We all had dozens of welts from the insects. The march back was tiring, but we all made it.

It took most of the morning for the supply sergeant to accept the rifles. He was fussy and made some cadets clean and oil their guns two or three times. The coating of oil had to be just right: not too thick and not too thin. And definitely no sign of oil on the rifle’s stock.

Two days after the river crossing, Michael told me he was itchy all over, particularly on his private parts. Large red blotches covered his hands and face. He said he was going to see one of the horse doctors. I couldn’t determine which he disliked more: snakes or Army doctors. After a couple of days, when Michael hadn’t returned, I went to the dispensary to inquire. A nurse led me to a room where Michael was sitting in a bathtub full of some kind of solution up to his neck. He wore only a pair of briefs. “What the hell?” I said.

“I got poison ivy all over my body. It itches like a son of a bitch,” he said. “They make me stay in this bath all day long. At night I sleep in a bed, but that’s almost worse because the itching gets really bad.” “Look at it on the bright side,” I said. “Now you are excused from the long hikes in choking dust.”

He laughed and told me, “I’ll take the dirt.”

Michael said Beauregard had visited him at the dispensary to let him know he didn’t do anything out of line. Without becoming too sentimental, he told Michael he “will be alright” and that he was “a good soldier.” Michael stayed in the hospital until the summer camp came to an end four weeks later. Beauregard gave him a “pass.” During those weeks, and more of Beauregard’s tests, I began to enjoy summer camp, the challenges and the camaraderie. I convinced myself I could handle anything Beauregard might have for me. In fact, I suspected I could enjoy a stint as an Army officer.

On the last day in camp everyone reported one at a time to Beauregard in his office. We heard that Beauregard decided five cadets in our company were unsuitable officer material and he dropped them from the program. Sometimes it was due to too many gigs but mostly for no stated reason. The officer’s decision was final. There was no board of appeal, no means to submit a complaint. It’s how the Army functions.

When my turn came, I didn’t know what to expect. I entered and saluted. He told me “at ease.” It was the first time I had heard him utter those words. In due time, he told me that I passed and congratulated me. “Thank you, sir.” I said, and he responded with a “dismissed.” If I completed one more year of the ROTC program and received a diploma, I would be awarded a commission as a second lieutenant.

On the last day at camp, Michael and I were given bus money for a return trip to Pittsburgh. But there was an ample supply of drivers willing to give a ride to young men in uniform. We kept the money and thumbed our way home.