My first destination was Fort Lewis in Tacoma, State of Washington. As soon as the plane landed in Seattle I knew that this was not going to be like a resort vacation. We were not at the regular civilian terminal but at some outlying area of the airport. The airline which had taken us there was Tiger Airlines. I had never heard of that airline before but later I frequently heard the name. Only military personnel was on that flight. We disembarked from a staircase. Then we were lined up in formation, in drenching rain, and marched to a convoy of army buses which took us to our base. It took a while to get there. It was raining so hard that we did not see much on the way.
The first impression of Fort Lewis was that this was a dreary dark gray base with no beauty to brag about. We never saw the main base where the headquarters were. We were directly taken to the site where troops in transit were kept. This area consisted of a flat terrain which was covered with black and dark gray stones. The only grass visible was around the non-descript two story barrack where we were to spend the next three weeks.
These three weeks were the most unpleasant ones during my entire army days. What a contrast to the happy week of our honeymoon in sun drenched Bermuda. In the first place, we were thrown together with soldiers from many different units from all over the United States and from Puerto Rico. We did not have any orders, so there was really nothing for us to do. Yet every day in the early morning hours we had to "fall out" in formation for roll call. Within five minutes we were sent back. Then we were called out again to be marched to an awful mess hall where we were served a really bad breakfast. Here I learned what S.O.S. meant. It stood for "sh... on a shingle" and that is just what it looked like. The scrambled eggs were made from some powdered stuff and the cold cuts looked as if they gave us only the fat cut off from the good meat. Bread was so mushy that, with a little squeeze, it disappeared between our fingers. Even the cereals were nearly unrecognizable. During my stay there I only ate toast and cheese, even for lunch and dinner. I will not even attempt to describe the quality of the latter meals. When I asked how anybody would want to spend his life in the military eating that stuff I was told that the regular outfits received better meals. This made me almost look forward to Korea.
After breakfast we were hustled back in formation again and marched to a field with a lot of rocks and boulders. We had to pick them up and put them in a pile. The next day we marched back to the same place and moved the pile to a different area. I was soon fed up with that routine. After all, we had finished our basic training and were now Pfc.'s (Privates First Class)! So, a thought occurred to me: nobody knew who we were and the cadres did not pay that much attention. I figured that they would never notice if I just would slip away. I also had observed that they marched us in the same direction every morning and that we always made a right turn at the same spot. I was ready for my "big escape." I stayed all the way to the rear of the company and when we rounded the corner, I just turned around and walked into the opposite direction. I had told the young man next to me about my plan and he went along with me. I gave no thought to what could happen to us if we were caught. It just felt good that we were free from our daily "rock duty."
But, there we were, two inexperienced soldiers on the large base with nothing to do. Everybody else in sight was walking or marching somewhere. We had to get ourselves busy but with what? Then it occurred to me that there should be a library where we could spend the day reading in comfort. We were afraid to ask but after walking around for a while we saw some street signs and one directed us to the library. When we arrived there we stood in front of a Dutch brick building. The door was locked. After a little hesitation I rang the doorbell. To our great consternation an officer with a "bird" on one side of his shoulder and a cross on the other side, the chaplain, opened the door. We thought we were caught. I already saw myself court-martialed when the officer said with a smile; "Ah, you are the fellows who are going to assist me in the library?" "Yes, Sir!!", we answered quickly. Were we relieved! He invited us in and asked us if we were familiar with filing books in a library. I had never even been in a large library. Well, he explained to us the system and for the rest of the day we were stocking books from boxes onto the shelves. During the rest of our stay at Ft. Lewis we went there every day. Every morning we marched out at the rear of our company and every morning we turned around when our compatriots rounded the corner. I have no idea what happened to the soldiers who were supposed to have reported for our work. We were never caught and so it worked out just fine. We spent the following three weeks in this most pleasant way.
It was raining nearly every day with the result that we never saw the beautiful mount Rainier which was supposed to be in easy view from the camp. On weekends we got passes to go into town. The first weekend I hitch-hiked to Tacoma. In those days I had no fear of hitch-hiking. I was lucky the very first time. A large truck stopped. The man even apologized because his truck was not very fancy. I did not mind and I was quite impressed with the size of the truck which was pulling a large trailer. On the way to Tacoma we had a nice conversation. He must have liked me because he invited me for the following weekend to his family for an Indian smoked salmon dinner and for fishing the following morning. I was delighted because I thought that smoked salmon was what I knew as "lox." Was I in for a surprise!
The following Saturday afternoon he was waiting for me at the base at the appointed time and drove me to his house in the outskirts of Tacoma. It was raining cats and dogs, yet I was able to appreciate the beauty of the surroundings. When we entered the house it was warm and cozy but there was a strong smell in the air. I soon found out that it was the salmon which had been smoked and prepared by Indians and it was anything but the lox I expected to eat. I ate it politely even though I did not care for the taste or the smell. After dinner we had a nice evening but we broke up soon because we had to rise early. "The best time for fishing," I was told.
I thought that we rose early in the army but this was nothing compared to what was waiting for me. My fisherman friend woke me up and it was still pitch black. I do not remember the time but it could not have been any later than five o'clock. Half asleep I worked my way downstairs where my mentor threw me a heavy poncho to put over my military uniform. "This will keep you warm and dry." Well, I needed it. Even in the dark I could see the rain coming down in sheets. I quickly pulled myself into the cab of the truck while my partner was loading up a little row boat. And off we went. I do not know how he could see where he was going. After a seemingly endless time we left the paved road and bounced on a dirt road for another interminable time. Finally the truck came to a halt and I was told to get out and help him to put the boat into the water. Now, you must know that I had never been in a row boat, neither did I have any experience with fishing. Before I knew it we were bobbing on the water in the pouring rain. "Best fishing weather," my friend told me again. I would not know. I was just miserable.
At daybreak I looked around from under my dripping poncho hood. We were in the middle of nowhere. I saw nothing but water around us which met the sky at the horizon which was the same dark gray color as the water. My avid fishing partner put a pole in my hand and told me to put a bait on the hook. When he saw my startled look he realized that I was not the champion fisherman he had hoped for, so he put a worm on the hook for me and showed me how to throw it out over the water. My feeble attempt did not get very far. And so we spent the entire day sitting in that little row boat in the middle of a lake, out of sight of land and in a torrential downpour. At lunch time (I had no idea about time under those conditions) he opened a lunch box and handed me a soggy sandwich and some hot coffee. I really appreciated something warm for my hands and my stomach.
Late in the afternoon we went home. He had caught a bucket full of good sized fish; I had caught none. He must have had a good laugh telling his friends about the G.I. he took fishing. His wife prepared the fish and this time I did like it. Late in the evening he took me back to the base. He invited me for the following weekend again but I found an excuse and thanked him very much for the lovely weekend I had had. It was an experience I'll never forget. I never fished again for the rest of my life but I always remember that weekend in March whenever I see someone fishing.
Finally my orders came for the permanent assignment and it was in Korea with the 25th division Engineers. I do not remember the precise date but it must have been somewhere around the second week in April, 1953. I was barely twenty three years old. I had arrived from Holland some ten months earlier and here I stood lined up in the harbor in front of an enormous troop transport ship. I was told that it was a retrofitted French cruise ship, so it should be very nice. However, it was far from luxurious. We marched single file up the gang plank with our heavy duffel bags on our backs and our rifles on our shoulders and steel helmets on our heads. Mine kept sliding to one side of my head. I must have been quite a sight. When we reached the deck we were immediately directed down the steps to the bottom decks of the ship. To me it seemed like the dungeons: there were no portholes, just artificial, dim lights. We entered a large open area where bunks were lined up four high along narrow aisles. I did not know if it was good or bad but I ended up on the lower bunk. I tried to figure out how to crawl into this "bed" with barely any space for a person, leave alone all the equipment.
I had just thrown my rifle and duffle bag on the bunk when I heard an announcement over the loudspeaker system. This time I could understand what was said. The chaplain was asking for volunteers for different jobs, " this and that and the library......and." My ears perked up. I left everything behind and ran up the steps to the main deck. "Quick, where is the chaplain's office?" I did not want to miss this chance. I imagined a long line of soldiers waiting for an interview for this great opportunity. With some help I found the office and, to my surprise, I was the only one there. I started to relax. The chaplain asked if I had any experience in running a library. Well, I did, of course. After all I had worked in the library at the base just before I was transported to this ship. Now, that is what is called "chutzpah." I got the job and it was even better than I had expected. The chaplain said that, if I preferred, I could sleep in a room behind the library. Wow, did I like that! He asked if I wanted an assistant but I said that I'd rather work alone. Of course, I did not tell him that I was concerned that my assistant might know more about libraries than I did. And so, within an hour after arriving at the ship I brought bag and baggage up to my private quarters which were small but a lot more comfortable than the bunk bed below in the hull of the ship. I even had my private shower and heating and cooling system. And I was not over-worked; the G.I.'s were too busy playing poker and other games, so I only saw an occasional officer who wanted to read a book. Life in the army was good to me! At least, so far. I missed my bride but, while still in the harbor, I was able to call her (from the library!) and tell her about my lucky break.
Next -> CHAPTER 9: MY ADVENTURES IN KOREA
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