BOOT CAMP 1948 - AN INTRODUCTION TO THE COAST GUARD
By Jack A. Eckert
In the Beginning.................
On the day after my 17th birthday I took the Interurban to Milwaukee. I went to Room 511 of the Post Office Building on East Wisconsin Avenue and inquired about joining the Coast Guard. I was somewhat interested in the Navy but as it happened their recruiting office was closed. The Coast Guard's was open. That should have been an omen. It was Armistice Day, the Eleventh of November. Visions of one of my favorite movies, Don Winslow of the Coast Guard entered my imagination. I saw myself chasing rum runners and other crooks of various stripes. I didn't know anything about it other than that and as I saw it it would be an improvement over my life as I perceived it through my immature eyes.
Evidently they needed bodies because I took my physical and the mental test that same day and qualified although I weighed 123 pounds, two pounds under the minimum weight for my age and height. But that was ok. I took the Interurban home and broke the news to my parents right away. My father was unhappy but for some reason or other my mother supported it and the necessary papers were signed. I mailed them in the same day.
On the 16th of November, a few days later I packed my cardboard suitcase, boarded the Interurban and rode to Milwaukee to be sworn in. After the swearing in ceremony the recruiting petty officer gave three other fellows and myself our orders, railroad tickets, and meal tickets and told us to proceed to the Boot Camp at Cape May, New Jersey.
We boarded a train in Milwaukee, rode to Chicago and changed to a Pennsylvania RR train called "The General." We all had upper berths. People on the train were certainly congenial. After the berths were made up and the lights were turned out, I crawled up there and didn't sleep a wink all night. At dawn we were awakened, had breakfast and got off the train at North Philadelphia. We had to wait a few hours for the train to Cape May. When the four of us got on the platform we met guys from all over the country who were in the Coast Guard on their way to Boot Camp.
The train we got on was an old day coach with hard seats and no heat. We chugged through the swamps and piney's of South Jersey on a dirty gray November day. We finally arrived at the Cape May train station where we were met by one of the foulest people I ever saw. "Come on you F___in_ C__K Su__ers, get your asses on this F__in_ bus because you A__Holes are mine now." Of course we followed his directions and listened to his foul cursing for the several miles it took to get to the base.
About 45 of us got off the bus and went into a stark looking office in the center of the base. I recognized the seaman on duty as another guy from Waukesha, Don Horton, who's father was the County Veterans Administrator. He did not recognize me as I was a few years behind him in school. I turned in my papers at the desk and was told to wait with the others in a large room across the hall and back of the office.
Someone came along, lined us up and marched us off to the chow hall across the street where I was introduced to Coast Guard fare. After chow we returned to the holding area. We were mustered and lead off to the issue room for our "emergency gear." That was black dress shoes, socks, dungarees, two white hats, rain coat, GI underwear, leggings, clothes stops, and a laundry bag. We were then marched over to a receiving barracks assigned bunks and told to pack up everything but our shaving gear to be returned to our homes. After this was done we were lined up and marched off to the barber shop where we were properly shorn, military style.
We stayed in this barracks for about five days while our company formed. That is each company was 80 men and we had to wait for them to begin our basic training. The BM1 in charge was a decent sort although he ran his own scams. He sold each "Boot" an aerial picture of the Cape May Boot Camp for a dollar and we all dutifully bought one fearing retaliation of a sort if we didn't. We didn't know any better. This was a very regimented place. The Receiving Barracks adjoined the brig and we watched those guys behind the fence all of the time. And they were a mean looking group. The meanest was a tough named Lancaster who was somewhat of a legend.
Cape May Receiving Station - 1948 (The Picture we were Sold)
On my first night at Cape May I didn't get to sleep for what seemed to be hours. I was not used to being in a 40 man barracks sleeping head to toe, upper and lower. I heard grunts and snores and talking all night. No sooner than I had fallen asleep I was awakened by a club pounding on the next bunk and a foul mouthed rebel voice screaming, "hit the deck you F__k__g Bastards." We all hit the deck in shock, readied ourselves for the march to the chow hall etc.
The Receiving Station had been moved from Mayport, Florida to Cape May, New Jersey the previous Summer. It was a surplus U.S. Navy Blimp and Seaplane Air Station that was closed immediately after World War II. Many parts of the station were run down and dilapidated and the Coast Guard was refurbishing it a little at a time as inexpensively as possible as they went along. That is where we came in. Many of us were used as labor to ready the old barracks we were to live in the next several weeks. We sanded and varnished floors, cleaned the heads to make them usable, and painted whatever we were told to paint. By the weekend we were finished, our Company had formed, and we moved in. That night we lost heat to the building. It was freezing outside but we made the best of it and got through the night.
Our training began in earnest. My Boot Camp Company was number G-2. Our Company Commander was a Gunners Mate First Class named Thomas who always seemed to be a fair and decent sort of man. About half of the company was older men who had been in World War II, gotten mustered out after the war, and came back in to make a career of the service. The rest of us were "kids." This was my first real exposure to people from different parts of the country. Of the group I was the youngest and probably the most immature.
We arose at 5 a.m., made up our bunks, cleaned ourselves up and waited for chow call. The assistant company commander would call us out to muster and then march us to chow. We marched in formation to the mess hall and then were admitted by company seniority, C-2, D-2, E-2, F-2, G-2, etc. After chow we went back to the barracks and waited to be called out for morning colors. Just before 8 a.m. we would fall in and march to the parade ground for inspection and colors. After colors it was off to classes, rowing, calisthenics, shots, etc. Everywhere we went we marched in formation. There was a lot of hurry up and wait time. Noon chow was more of the same. Just before 1 p.m. we mustered and marched to the parade grounds again for afternoon quarters. After quarters we usually marched to the airstrip where we had close order drill for the afternoon. At 4 p.m. it was back to the barracks, clean up and wait for chow. In the evenings we washed our clothes by hand and hung them out to dry on the clothes lines back of the barracks. 10 p.m. was taps, lights out and silence about the decks. If we acted up after lights out the company commander would muster us and take us out on the airstrip for night marches. A couple of those nights and we calmed down.
Saturday was field day. That is everybody was assigned to cleanup duties. At 11 a.m. we laid our sea bag contents out on our bunks and stood by for inspection. In those days our clothes were rolled and stopped. This was an art on to itself. For years thereafter I rolled my sea bag even though it wasn't required. We weren't allowed flat irons or access to them, even for our dress uniform. The inspections were progressively more rigid. Demerits were awarded. If you acquired to many you would be placed into a disciplinary company. Company S had the misfits and discipline problems. About a half dozen of our company wound up there. Company X was for those that had been screened out and were awaiting discharge. This was a real motley crew.
After noon chow on Saturdays it was free time. There wasn't any recreational activities to speak of except for shining shoes, washing clothes, or seabag maintenance.
Church was mandatory on Sunday. We had our routine marches to chow, etc. but were generally left to our own devices. Sunday night was an event. We went to the movies on the base. We were marched there to and from. We were always back to the barracks by 9:45.
In those days all of us smoked. We were not allowed to smoke in any building. There were designated areas outside of each barracks. There were no butt cans and no butts lying about either. We field stripped the cigarettes when we were finished. The butt was torn apart, the tobacco shaken out. The remaining paper was wadded into a little ball and thrown away. These were the days when it was considered effeminate to smoke a cigarette with a tampax on it. Cork tips were really frowned upon.
I had a lot of problems with the immunization shots we received. We were marched to the infirmary, took our shirts off, and went through a shot line. The shots were given two at a time, once in each arm. And were the arms ever sore for a few days. Just about the time they got back to normal it was time for more shots. One set of them put me in the hospital for a few days with a high fever. Close order drills were very painful. We had to do the manual of arms as we were marching. It was probably their way of getting us to work off the after effects.
About the third week of training we were sent to the galley for a week of mess cook duties. We looked forward to it with anguish but it really wasn't that bad. The days started earlier and ended later. We rotated jobs, serving line, scullery, set ups, peeling potatoes, helping the cooks and so forth. There was really more of us than there was work to do, one of the few times in all my years in the Coast Guard that this was so.
After Galley Week it was back to rowing the 26 foot monomoy surf boats, marching on the grinder, and classes, the daily routine.
We made $75.00 per month. There were no income taxes and no social security taken out. We were paid $15.00 a payday, on the 5th and 20th of the month. That was health and comfort money. The only place to spend it was the exchange. We were allowed to go over there with the permission of the Company Commander or his assistant. Stamps were three cents in those days. Even though I wrote a lot of letters, postage was not a big expense, cigarettes were. They cost 14 cents a pack. Naturally I bought a few trinkets and some candy once in awhile. The $15.00 was almost a savings wage. At the end of the training the money that was with held was paid in a lump sum. Thank God for that. Unlike the Navy where you could take a "dead horse", the Coast Guard did not routinely authorize advance pay for any reason. You got it after you earned it, not before. For those who don't know, a dead horse is a six month advance pay draw routinely given upon request to a sailor when he is transferred from one duty station to another. You can imagine the hardship that caused for the first six months aboard after reporting in.
A rumor went through the company that we would get ten days leave after we completed our training. It was just a rumor and we were all speculating about it. Even though I had left home because of my discontent I was somewhat homesick and wanted that pretty badly.
Just before Christmas we learned that four companies would march in the inaugural parade for President Harry Truman in Washington in early January. Now our marching began in earnest. The Coast Guard was not to be embarrassed by the likes of us. So it was march, march, march, and march some more. We really began to shape up.
Our first liberty came just before Christmas. We were bussed to a pavilion on one of the piers in downtown Cape May. There were a number of girls present, probably one for each three or four of the boots. We were free to roam around the downtown area but there wasn't much to see and do in the early winter there. We had three of those liberties, about six hours each, and nothing much to do but it was a change of scenery. I prayed that I would not stay at Cape May as a member of the permanent party when Boot Camp was over.
Christmas came and went as did New Years. Two days before the Inauguration Day parade we were bussed to the local train station and went by train to the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Base and Shipyard outside of Baltimore where we remained overnight. These were modern barracks in modern brick buildings. Really a welcome change. The next morning we were mustered, fed and put on a train for Washington. On arrival we got off the train, marched a mile or two to the formation area and awaited our turn. Eventually we marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. I saw the president out of the corner of my eye. I think we marched seven or eight miles that day. We returned to the train and were awarded a liberty in Washington until midnight. I was off and gone finding my way to some roller rink where I played the role with a couple of girls I met. Got back to the train in time, got aboard, and we rode back to Cape May that night. The next day was a minimal routine and rest up day. We were all tired and we needed our batteries charged. We were told we looked real good in the parade.
After the basic training was over we were assigned to work details until we got our orders to our new duty station. I received mine first, Boston District with ten days leave authorized. I left the next day, all alone on the shuttle bus, got on the train and headed to Waukesha.
My withheld pay provided the money I needed to get to Waukesha and back on the train. There wouldn't have been a Boot Camp leave without it.
The train ride to Chicago and then to Milwaukee and Waukesha seemed much shorter than the train ride out to Cape May. I couldn't afford a pullman berth so I had to ride in the day coach. I finally alit from the Interurban in Waukesha with my seabag on my back in a rumpled uniform. I took a cab home for 25 cents.
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