Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Father's Army

A few years ago, my mother gave me a thick brown envelope containing papers and correspondence related to my father’s service in the United States Army. Although he was exempt from combat in World War II, he didn’t talk much about his military service, other than for two years he was never more than a few yards from the enemy. Through this treasure-trove, I’ve re-created a pretty good account of his Army years. 

Envelope containing U.S. Army records

After enlisting in the spring of 1942, my father was inducted on May 1. He was appointed a “leader” in overseeing the transportation of a contingent of men that day from Draft Board No. 90 at 2474 E. 75th Street (a little more than a mile east of the family residence) to the U.S. Army Induction Station at 515 S. Franklin Street. He was assigned to the Army Finance School and Replacement Center at Fort Benjamin Harrison, outside Indianapolis, being exempt from combat because of “defective vision [20/400 uncorrected], malocclusion [misalignment of teeth], pes planus [flat feet)] and varicose veins.” [Note: He would undergo surgery to remove the varicose veins on April 19, 1967, for which I used the opportunity to ditch school and attend a White Sox-Yankees game.] Two months later, dad was placed in charge of transporting himself and two other privates to Fort Jay on Governors Island in New York Harbor. They each received a $3 a day allowance (including meals) and shipped out by train at 21:30 hours.

Fort Monmouth, near the town of Oceanport, New Jersey, was the next stop. He served as a finance clerk (technician, 5th grade) at the same time Julius Rosenberg was stationed there as a radar inspector. The government several years later confirmed Rosenberg was part of a spy ring at the base. The folder contains no information about his term as Fort Monmouth, although he took some leave time after my grandfather died in October 1942.

Appointment to technician, 5th grade

My father came back to the Midwest to attend Officer Candidate School at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, in January 1943. He graduated on April 14, 1943, and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. After a brief stint at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin (where several friends served reserve duty to avoid active duty in the late 1960s), dad was assigned as a personnel officer – basically a military policeman  (MP) – to Camp Ellis, east of Macomb near the tiny town of Ipava, Illinois. The camp would eventually house 5,000 German POWs. He held a number of specialty officer assignments, including Insurance and War Bonds, Canteen and Work Simplification, as well as serving on the House Committee of the Officers’ Club and the Post Forms Control Program. Dad was promoted to 1st lieutenant on August 25, 1944.

Graduation photograph, OCS, April 14, 1943

An undated, yellowed clipping from the Chicago Daily News describes his one military anecdote. Having studied German at Hyde Park High School, my father got along well with the POWs, including Reinhold Pabel. After being transferred to nearby Camp Washington, Pabel simply walked out in 1945 and made his way to Chicago. Pabel opened a bookstore at 1021 W. Argyle Street (now the site of the Pho Xe Lua restaurant), married and had a son. The FBI found him in 1953, but because of his “exemplary” life, he was allowed to leave the country and then return, where he operated a bookstore in Chicago Heights. The family later moved back to Germany, and Pabel became a noted Hamburg antiquarian book dealer and author. He died at age 94 in May 2008.

Undated clipping on Reinhold Pabel, Chicago Daily News

The papers include the recommendation for my father’s promotion to captain, dated July 21, 1945. The Germans had already surrendered, and VJ Day would come in less than a month, thus the promotion was not made. He was transferred to the separation center at Camp Grant, near Rockford, in November 1945 and honorably discharged on December 30, 1945. He left the Army with pay totaling $706.68 and returned home to resume his career as a CPA at the accounting firm of Katz, Wagner and Company. In those days (and when he graduated at the top of his class at the University of Illinois seven years earlier), the Big 8 accounting firms would not hire Jews; vestiges of this practice I’m told lasted until the early 1970s.

All was quiet until my father received a letter dated September 11, 1950, which my mother says caused the color to drain from his face. The letter from the headquarters of the Fifth Army began: “1.  This is to inform you that you have been selected . . . for extended active duty for a period of twenty-one (21) consecutive months . . .  Your name has been forwarded to the Department of the Army for final selection.” The Korean War had started less than three months before and, with my brother and me only18 months old, dad was none too keen on serving again. He used a three-part strategy to seek a deferment.

Three letters were written to the Chief of the Illinois Military District. My father’s appeal pointed out his 44 months of service during World War II, his financial support for his mother and stated, “Our doctor advises that it is physically impossible for my wife to care for the two small children alone at the present time.” This was somewhat exaggerated, since one grandmother lived two blocks away and the other within two miles. Isaac Wagner, one of the accounting firm’s principals, wrote that dad was needed for the upcoming tax season and some of his colleagues had already left for the service. Finally, Congressman Sidney Yates, in his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives, reiterated those points and added the firm would seek no other deferments. Although we didn’t live in Cong. Yates’ district, he offered his assistance because his sister and my grandmother were good friends. The Army informed Mr. Wagner and Cong. Yates on October 3 that “a delay of six (6) months . . . has been granted.” Another order to report for active duty was revoked on January 3, 1951 (exactly 27 years before his namesake first grandchild would be born), and final discharge came on September 18, 1951, when he was “found to be unavailable for mobilization for a period in excess of 365 days.”

Letter from Cong. Sidney Yates to the U.S. Army, Sept. 30, 1950

With my eyesight even worse than my father’s, I figured I’d do stateside duty if drafted and military service didn’t faze me until the end of high school. By then, the Vietnam War was raging, requiring hundreds of thousands of draftees. I held a student deferment until the draft lottery in 1970, where my number was 265. At first I was relieved, figuring it was high enough, but rumors swirled that the available pool was so low that your number was meaningless. Luckily, that was not true, and the draft winded down.

I still have the crest from the Army hat in the photograph a few paragraphs up to go with the historical records. As a youngster, I wanted to serve because he served. Unfortunately, circumstances dissuaded me from doing so. Perhaps if the draft were restored, the country would deliberate a little more before sending their youth into combat.  I don't expect that to happen.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyable post. I'm not sure how comfortable Sidney Yates would have been with the story of his "string-pulling", if he were still alive.

    For what it's worth, here's my draft deferment story:

    As you may know, my brother Rich received a lotter number somewhere in the 300's--probably in the same lottery that you and Fred were in.

    A year or two later, I received the number 7. My recollection is that it didn't seem particularly real to me (especially since I was, I think, a junior in college and would continue to have a student deferment for nearly 2 more years); I remember being sort of pleased that it was Mickey Mantle's uniform number.

    My parents, however, did react. They immediately sent me to see a lawyer. I have no idea what he charged them, but he merely handed me a pamphlet published by the Quakers--a guide to getting out of the draft. The lawyer told me to review the rather lengthy list of physical ailments that qualified one for 4F status.

    That list contained an item described as "chronic dislocation of a major joint". In those days, I played some handball, and had, from time to time, managed to pull my right arm out of its socket; it always slipped right back in, leaving me in fairly intense pain for a few moments. The last time I had played, my arm stayed extended for about a minute and, after it finally slipped back in place, I was unable to use it for about an hour or so. (That was my last handball game.)

    My periodic arm extension seemed to me to fit the bill. I had never seen a doctor about this, so my lawyer (I think of him as my lawyer, even though I met with him for half an hour at the most, never saw him again and have no idea what his name was) told me that I would need a medical history. I had an annual checkup shortly after this, and duly reported this history to my pediatrician, who duly noted it in the chart.

    Fortunately, by the time I graduated college (June 1974) and my student deferment expired, no one was bein drafted, so I never found out whether this condition would have sufficed to exclude me from military service.

    My vision, like your father's, is less than 20/400 uncorrected. I know that this wouldn't have exempted me from service, although it may well be that it would have exempted me from combat duty.

    Like most people, I think that the student deferment was inequitable and, in retrospect, a tremendous policy mistake. However, I was personally glad that I was able to take advantage of it and avoid service in Vietnam. To this day, I frankly don't know what I would have done had I been drafted. I doubt that I would have evaded the draft; in all likelihood, I would have complied. This would, in part, have been because I just didn't then (and don't now) have it in me to take a step as radical as evading the draft would have been. But this would equally have been because, like a lot of middle- and upper middle-class suburban kids of that era, I just couldn't imagine anything terrible happening to me and, therefore, the risk of serving seemed remote.