20 July 2017

TBT: 44 Years Ago - Boot Camp Memories

Tuesday was the 44th anniversary of my enlistment in the U.S. Navy. Let's take a look at yesteryear, shall we?
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I enlisted in the U.S. Navy in March, 1973. It was shortly before my 18th birthday, so my dad had to give permission as well. I took advantage of their DEP (Delayed Entry Program - yet another military acronym, because they can never have too many) and arranged to go active in mid-July, after finishing a semester of college.

July 18, 1973, just as for so many others before and since, required a bright and early arrival at the old brick AFEES (Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station) building in downtown St. Louis. In the immortal words of Arlo Guthrie,
"... you walk in, you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected ... and they was inspecting, injecting every single part of me, and they was leaving no part of me untouched." (Alice's Restaurant Massacree, 1967)
We were there for hours, parading in semi-nudity ... at one point, wandering up and down the halls in only briefs or boxers, as the case may be ... following those lines.

What lines, you ask?  Let me tell you about the lines.

There were painted stripes on the floor, starting in the lobby of the building. Green for Army, blue for Navy, yellow for Air Force, and red for Marines. Something like that. We were firmly instructed to follow the appropriately-colored line for the branch in which we'd enlisted. The implied threat (there's always an implied threat) was that if we deviated from the correct line, there'd be heck to pay. We weren't sworn in yet, so they couldn't be too nasty. Yet.

So there we all were, walking around in our civvie skivvies. The tile floors were cold, but we were all big, strapping American boys; we could take it. There were tests for everything - vision, hearing, color-blindness, flat feet, hemorrhoids ... yeah, that one was fun.

Forty or so mostly teenage lads, mostly fresh out of high school, standing in a circle around the sides of a room. A guy with a white lab smock and a clipboard (maybe a doctor, maybe not; who knows?) ordered us to turn and face the walls, drop our drawers ... and bend over and grab our ankles, so Mr. White Coat could inspect our, um, hind parts. We also were checked for hernias. "Turn your head and cough." (TSA agents in training, perhaps..?)

See the glamorous things we got to do for our country? (And you thought the military was all sherry and giggles ...)

Then there were the intelligence and aptitude tests. I scored very high in reading/comprehension, math, and mechanical skills. A word about that: the greater part of the mechanical test was identifying pictures of various types of machinery. One of my buddies in high school was the son of a machinist, and there was a VERY well-equipped machine shop in their basement. I'd seen all those machines in use, and correctly identified them. Ooh, I knew what a drill press was.

My scores got the recruiters rather excited ... they just knew I would want to enter the Navy's nuclear program. They were doomed to disappointment, but that's only because I didn't want to extend my enlistment from four years to six, before even being sworn in. (On the other hand, I've sometimes wondered what my life would have been like, had I entered the nuclear ranks. I'd probably have made more money, post-Navy, but ... oh well.

At the conclusion of all the testing, each of us had a very brief meeting with a Navy lieutenant (equal to Army captain) and were sworn in. Why that was in private, I don't know. I've also heard about, and seen videos of, large numbers of newbies being sworn in at the same time.

This went on until mid-afternoon, when we were all put in groups of three. Whichever fella's last name came first, alphabetically, was handed their three service records, and told not to let them go. Literally. ("If you have to take a leak, put the package under your arm! If you lose that envelope, the planet will implode!" Or something equally dire ... it all seemed very military-ish and important. Turns out it was just because it would be bad, and a pain you-know-where, if said personnel records were lost in transit.)

Around 5 pm, those of us who'd elected boot camp at the Great Lakes (Illinois) Naval Training Center were herded aboard a northbound train.

At midnight, the train stopped at a deserted platform and we were instructed to depart. The train pulled away, and we all stood there in semi-darkness - looking around for a sign of any kind, indicating where we might go. No such luck.

Finally, I walked up the nearest steps and saw a high chain-link fence with a gate and guard shack, across the road. What the heck. I called to the others and off we went. Presenting our orders to the guard, we were walked another several blocks, stumbling in the darkness, and led into a large room filled with cots and sleeping men. We each picked up a blanket, a pillow, and selected an empty cot. It didn't take long to fall asleep.

The next morning, this corn-fed Missouri country boy awoke at 06:00 to the sound of Reveille to find himself surrounded by the most motley assortment of long-haired hippie-type freaks and inner city youth imaginable. Some of them scared me, to be honest.

After breakfast, we were sorted into companies of 80 men (cool! we were men, now!) and marched off, in a shambling sort of way, to be handed stacks of uniforms, underwear, boots, socks, deck shoes, and so on. Next stop was the base barber shop.

That was the great equalizer, just as it was intended. City boys, country boys, farm boys, gang-bangers, straights, heads, and hippies went in ... and Navy recruits came out, equally shorn of hair.

And the night and the morning were the first day. And behold, it was good.


The first two weeks of boot camp were spent learning to march more or less at the same time, salute properly, recognize Navy rank insignia, and things like that. There's a lot of classroom work, throughout.

What, you ask, is to "salute properly"? I'm glad you asked.

A proper salute should have the arm straight out from the shoulder, elbow bent at a 30° angle, and the forearm, wrist and hand in a straight line up from the elbow to the outside corner of the right eyebrow. Right hand was to be straightened, not cupped. (Yes, this was all hammered into us in boot camp, and I've never forgotten.)

Some of the salutes offered by newer recruits were comical in the extreme. We saw thumbs up, down, under, folded, bent, stuck straight out, or ... well, some made you want to say, "I don't care what you think of the company commander, stop using your thumb when you salute!"

Strangely enough to the uninitiated, much time is spent learning to fold your clothes. You see, there's an old admiral in a corner of the Pentagon who invents fiendish ways to fold skivvies. He (she?) probably hasn't seen the light of day for decades. Okay, okay ... I kid.

Sort of.

On Navy ships, each person has a small locker. Officers have a little more space, but their quarters aren't as crowded. In the WWII era, that locker was about two feet square, and one foot deep. (My destroyer was launched in 1945, so I know this from experience.) Newer ships have actual beds, rather than canvas slings like we did, so the enlisted lockers are the size of a single mattress, and eight inches deep. Modern sailors should be glad they have no idea what the tiny lockers were like.

But uniform items must be folded just so, in order to fit in the space available. In fact, that space on older ships was engineered to fit uniforms which are properly folded, and not an inch more.  Fitting in civvies along with my uniforms was tricky, so eventually I gave up and folded all my clothes like uniforms, which made things easier. But I digress.

In boot camp, we had to hem our own pants, which made me bless my mother - she wouldn't let me leave home until I learned to thread a needle, sew a hem, and sew on a button.

Thanks, Mom. :)


The third week of boot camp was called "service week".  Recruits in their third week are referred to as "service weeks", and that's when they clean, mop, and staff the chow lines at the mess hall. They bus tables, wash dishes, and take out the trash.

But some of us didn't have to do that. Some of us, being of a musical bent, had other duties.

Those who could sing were encouraged to join the Navy Chorus, to perform the Bluejacket's Hymn at graduation.

Those who could play brass instruments were encouraged to join the Bum and Droogle Drum and Bugle Corps.  So while most of our companies were slinging slop in the mess hall, or worse, we few ... we fortunate few ... sat in an upper room, practicing a couple of marching tunes, listening to the radio, or generally lounging around. Since I played the French horn throughout school, guess which group I fell in. :)


But most of our days were spent in a classroom setting, learning all sorts of things. Electrical safety, Naval history, how to follow sequential orders ("obey the last order first"), and shipboard safety in general. We were tested to see who could swim*, and how to stay afloat by using our dungarees as a flotation device.

We spent two days learning to put out shipboard fires. This is a biggie. Imagine you're on a ship in the middle of the ocean, and a fire breaks out.

Who ya gonna call?

Neither the Ghostbusters nor a fire department are available, so you have to take care of it. We donned appropriate gear, learned to connect fire hoses, different types of nozzles, foam applications for flammable liquids, and put out fires. We learned that crews on ships have a set terminology for fires, so that commands in those adrenaline-pumping situations are understood clearly.

And think about this: it's important to learn how to extinguish a fire quickly, without flooding the ship. Generally speaking, introducing sea water inside the ship is a BAD thing. So you learned how to operate portable pumps, to get the water back out before the ship sinks.

See? I told you it's a bad thing. :)


We marched and marched and marched, practiced the 96-count manual of arms ... what? You don't know what that is? You've seen drill teams slapping rifles to either shoulder and going through elaborate exercises in unison. Like that, without the twirling or tossing rifles back and forth.

96 consecutive moves, in unison, performed by all 80 men. We practiced until it was in unison ... and heaven help you if you dropped your "piece" (1903 Springfield battle rifles with the firing pins removed).


The final week of boot camp ... when the company no longer swayed in preparation for the first step ... when everyone started on the same foot, classes were finished, shoes were polished, creases were sharp enough to shave with, salutes were crisp ... all of which meant that we could properly follow orders ...

All this meant was we were qualified to join the fleet, and start learning what the Navy is really like. That's when our education began in earnest.

Some went to ships, but most went on to training school to learn the basics of their chosen field. But we were sailors, and life would never be same again.




* Contrary to what one might think, non-swimmers were not exempt from shipboard duty. Sailors go on ships, after all. But their service records were stamped in big black letters: NON-SWIMMER. I'm sure this made a difference to them if their ship was sinking.

14 comments:

Ed Bonderenka said...

Brings back memories. I joined to avoid the draft which ended before my number was called.
I was on Camp Lejuene leaving the NCO club with a friend and we started talking about basic.
He was a big guy, football player.
He said Air Force basic was tougher than Army (he was prior service).
I said Army basic would have been tough for me being so physical.
He said Air Force was tough with all that classroom work.
My flight arrived on a Friday afternoon Presidents Day weekend.
Three days drilling in civies.
A friend and I cut each others hair with sewing scissors to get it over with.

Rev. Paul said...

That's interesting, Ed. I was surprised that there wasn't more emphasis on the physical in boot camp. Was in better shape when I got there than I was when I graduated. Lots of emphasis on marching & the classroom work; not much else.

monalisasmilesnow said...

Somehow knew you were Nuke School worthy.

Rev. Paul said...

Thank you, ma'am - I appreciate it very much.

threecollie said...

What an excellent and interesting post. I wouldn't mind if you shared similar about shipboard life sometime. Good stuff.

Rev. Paul said...

That's an excellent idea, Marianne. Hmmm. :)

LindaG said...

A few years back, our youngest was not accepted because he could not swim properly.
And for other reasons.

But hubby and I both joined the Air Force in 1973. He on delayed enlistment. We met at tech school, got married in '74, and have been married 43 years now.
Thank the good Lord. :)

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Thank you for sharing Reverend! Great story.

Rev. Paul said...

Linda, yours is a good story, too. :)

You're welcome, TB. I'm glad you liked it.

drjim said...

So Now We Know.....Great history, Rev!

My Dad was in the SeaBees, and went through Port Hueneme. He never went through Great Mistakes as he wasn't considered "Regular Navy".

And thank you for your service!

Old NFO said...

General orders and fire watches, I can't believe you forgot those! :-D

Ed Bonderenka said...

What tech school?

Fiona said...

I am so glad to getvto follow you again

Rev. Paul said...

Jim, I had published much of this in the past, but combined it all & filled in more, this time. It was an honor.

NFO, I didn't forget ... time got away from me. And there was a lot more boot camp after service week. Including standing guard over the log book in the barracks. :)

Ed, I wound up as a personnel clerk (Navy-ese: Personnelman). It's a long story, but sounds like I need to write it.

Fiona, welcome back! I'm glad to 'see' you again. :)