By Jack A. Eckert
A bit over the halfway point of my projected 20-year career I made a stab at becoming an officer. To become an officer I had to first jump through all of the hoops at OCS.
PROLOGUE: I was finishing my three-year tour of duty as an Engineman School instructor at the Groton Training Station when the orders came through. Not one set of orders but two on the same day. I was due for rotation and one set had me returning to the Ninth (Great Lakes) District for further assignment and the other orders were for Officer Candidate School. There is no doubt as to which set of orders I was going to take.
In late 1958 I realized that my Coast Guard future as an Engineman and potentially a Warrant Machinist were assured but somewhat limited. I was an EN1 with a few hitches under my belt and settled down with the necessary direction that had eluded me for years. The only problem was that of time. In my late 20's, more than half of my 20 in, it appeared that I was at least four years away from making Chief and probably another four for Warrant Officer even if I wrote perfect examinations. The numbers were against me in a crowded rate. This was frustrating for a man with an ambition to get ahead.
I very quietly looked into the possibility of becoming a commissioned officer through the officer candidate route. I calculated that I could do this in two years if I applied myself. The prerequisites were doable but it would take some time to meet them. I did not have a college education but I could meet the requirement by successfully completing the USAFI College level GED tests and taking a college level mathematics courses. The latter could be satisfied by correspondence but I felt I needed the benefit of a live instructor. The rest of the prerequisites could be met, one at a time.
Without mentioning my ambitions and goals I enrolled in the University of Rhode Island for two math courses, college algebra and trig, one following the other. The classes met twice weekly beginning in January of 1959 for 16 weeks each. I arranged to swap duties so I could make the classes. I was standing one in six so it wasn't much of a problem. I completed both courses satisfactorily and turned the credit slips into Personnel for my service record. Financially the $35 per credit hour was a drain but we absorbed it out of our meager budget. These were the days before educational financial assistance was available.
Meanwhile I applied to take the USAFI tests. I took each section, one at a time, over a several month period because of the demands of my duties. These were tests passed easily.
In mid 1960 I requested to take the one-hour Officer Qualification Test (OQT) test. Up until then I did not mention to anybody, including my boss, what I was up to. He administered the OQT and I passed it without a problem.
With everything in order and all prerequisites met I made a formal application, received excellent recommendations, went through the interview board and was highly recommended by the Groton Training Station Command.
It was too late for the fall 1960 class graduating in January 1961, but in sufficient time for the February 1961 class graduating in June.
Needless to say during my last few months at Engineman School, several of the other instructors rode me a bit about OCS. I had not socialized with the others to any extent. We lived in Rhode Island and I couldn't afford to drink with them. Some of the other instructors were quite encouraging. I was glad I had gone about things as I did because I didn't have to listen to two years carping about my ambition with some waiting for me to stumble.
My detachment day arrived, I shook hand with all, and most of them wished me good luck. And I was off on a new career.
Lady Luck was not on my side. I had two days travel and four days proceed time to get to Yorktown. I took five days leave with it and it was a good thing. That late January night a blizzard hit and we were completely snow bound. In the three years I was at Groton I had always managed to get to work in spite of the weather. This time we were really snowed in.
For four days we were without power. We burned logs in the fireplace to heat our small house, melted snow in the bathtub to flush the toilet and cooked over the fireplace. The telephone was also out. We lived a mile away from our nearest neighbors on a sparsely populated country road. We managed to get through it and now look back to that time considering it an adventure. On the fourth day the road plow came through. Shortly thereafter the power and phone services were restored. We still had 300 feet of driveway to the road filled with drifts as high as 15 feet.
We shoveled our way out about 50 feet and it appeared that my time to leave for Yorktown would come and go and I would still be stranded. We finally called the radio station in Westerly and they broadcast an SOS for us. The appeal for help was made in the morning and by 1 p.m. or so a man with a jeep and plow showed up to break us out. It took him three hours before we were open to the road. He charged us $45.00 and we felt it was a bargain.
I stayed home another day and we went shopping to stock up our larder and take care of last minute things. It would be at least four months until I returned and I was somewhat concerned about leaving my young wife and two children alone in the wilds of Rhode Island. Fortunately we had an elderly but reliable second car that I could leave at home with her.
My departure day finally came. I allowed myself an extra two days to travel to Yorktown. A neighbor accompanied me as far as New York and I continued south. It was a good drive in favorable weather. I arrived in Yorktown at the Reserve Training Station about 7:30 p.m., checked in with the intention of going to town, have a few beers and some supper, and then return to the station for some much needed sleep.
It didn't work that way! Once checked in I was restricted to the Officer Candidate confines. My family behind me, a rigorous 17 weeks ahead of me and a new life about to begin.
THE JOYS OF OCS - I arrived on a Friday night after the evening meal and only a few men had checked in ahead of me, mostly college guys. Everybody making up the 2-61 class was due in by Sunday at midnight. I was shown the barracks where I would live, my room, and where I could park my car on the base. I off loaded my seabag, and suitcase and moved in to my new room. It was a two-man room with a double bunk, two small lockers, and two small desks. It was WWII "apple-box" construction but the place was generally clean. I found the bunk tags and I was in the upper bunk. Well I didn't feel like sleeping in an upper bunk so I switched tags, intending to address the problem when my new roommate showed up. After unpacking the minimum I wandered around to see if there was anybody to talk to. There were a few guys and we adjourned to the "OC Lounge" where we could buy a beer and pretzels and pretend to tell sea stories.
After three beers I slept like a stone.
“Reveille piped in at 5 in the morning on a Saturday? With a bugle call? These guys are nuts,” I thought. I got up, put on a set of undress blues after showering and wandered around looking for others. There was a young LTJG at the OOD's desk and he told us we would be mustered for chow and marched to the Mess Hall at 7. I felt silly, a dozen of us marching a block to eat but decided to play the game. I was the only regular checked in so far and the rest were college people who were designated SA(OC)'s.
The chow was surprisingly good. Much better then I expected. All through the time I was there I was pleased with the quality and quantity of the food. It never got monotonous.
It was Saturday and there wasn’t much to do. The deck in my room was a bit on the cruddy side so I spent the day cutting the old wax off and applying new wax on my hands and knees. No sense in having to do that later on. The college boys thought I was a nut case.
As the weekend had progressed our group marching to chow became larger. The OC Lounge at night that weekend was a godsend. It was a chance to informally meet each other and socialize to some degree. The sea stories improved.
Sunday afternoon came and I met my roommate, H. Gordon Fales. He was a tall thin young fellow from New York City. The upper bunk never bothered him and I never bothered to tell him that he was supposed to be on the lower bunk. He would take one quick jump and land in it without moving a thing. I believe the men in the rooms around us considered us to be Mutt and Jeff.
Monday morning we started our training in earnest. We started by putting on our gym shorts, a tee shirt and tennis shoes.
The gym was across the street from the barracks and we went there for a half an hour of calisthenics each morning followed by a run around the compound. This went on every day except Sunday without fail, rain or shine until the fifteenth week of the training program.
After calisthenics it was a quick shower, dress for the day and march to chow by companies. There were four of them, Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta. There was a fifth company, Echo, that was made up of warrant officers who only had to do the academic portions of the training course to graduate as LTJG’s instead of Ensigns. I was in Alfa Company. We were allowed to walk back to the barracks from the mess hall after chow. This was when we made our beds, cleaned up the rooms, had a smoke and got ready for classes.
We were mustered on the blacktop outside of the barracks just before morning colors. We were given a personnel inspection by the OOD and awarded demerits for such things as unshined shoes, spots on the uniform, cat hairs on neck, ad nauseum. After morning colors we were marched to our first classes in the morning. The muster and personnel inspection were repeated before we left the barracks and were marched to afternoon classes.
There were usually five or six classroom sessions per day. Each class lasted 50 minutes. If the next class was in the same building we just moved to the next room. If it was in a different building we formed up and marched by company. Almost all of our activities were done by company.
In the afternoon time was set aside for military drill and so forth. Once a week there would be a drill down where the four companies were pitted against each other to determine who was the best and the worst in appearance, marching, manual of arms, etc. The winning company was awarded first to go to the mess hall the following week. That was important because it gave the men in the winning company 20 minutes to a half hour more free time from the end of chow to the next activity. If Alfa Company were last, there would barely be enough time to do what had to be done in the barracks and then muster for classes. As in all military training programs the raggedy bunches of men eventually shaped up and actually looked military.
For the length of time we were in training, when we weren't marched in formation, we would have to run to where we were going. The barbershop, PX, and laundry were about a block away from the barracks. After a few days we would wait until someone else was going to and from that building, then we would get into step and look like we were marching.
The various classes were for the most part well presented. Navigation and CIC were considered the most difficult. We also had Coast Guard Orientation, Gunnery, Seamanship, Damage Control, Communications, and a few more. Every Friday morning we had a test. Each subject used a multiple guess format for ease in correcting. We were required to maintain a grade of 70 or better in all classes. If you fell below that grade average you were subject to dis-enrollment. In other words, washed out. Navigation was somewhat difficult as was CIC. I was a snipe who was not exposed to it before like the bridge rates were. I managed to stay in the 80's and 90's in everything for the first eight weeks. The second half of Navigation was celestial navigation. This was difficult because of the number of minor mathematical calculations that had to be made for each problem and the high probability of errors. My weekly grades dropped into the 70's. What the management watched closely was the cumulative grade point averages for each subject. In general, if you couldn't keep up in navigation or CIC you were washed out. Grades for each test were posted in the barracks, usually by noon on Friday. Needless to say everybody crowded around the bulletin board.
On the subject of being washed out, about one third of those that started didn’t finish. The attrition rate was high. With just a few exceptions those that survived through to the twelfth week made it through the course. The college boys that bilged out were sent to Cape May and the regulars assigned to a district. When a man washed out he was removed immediately from the class, the barracks, and was whisked away as soon as possible. In other words they became as George Orwell coined the term, “un-persons.” Every man that brought his wife to the area failed to graduate. There just wasn’t time for that kind of distraction. This included one Chief Engineman who seemed to be doing quite well. One of the SA(OC)’s was disenrolled during the sixteenth week when the Doctor giving the final physicals found him to be wearing contact lenses. His eyesight, uncorrected, was too poor even for enlisted service and he was discharged. Of the enlisted rates, all of the Sonarmen, Radarmen, Quartermasters, and Electronic Technicians made it. Most of the engineering ratings did well. For some reason most of the Yeomen and Storekeepers didn’t make it.
Friday afternoons were reserved for general clean up fix up. All of the regulars were given regular jobs to do and assigned a couple of SA(OC)’s to help out. It was my job to service all of the washers and dryers. They were pretty well worn and without attention would have been junk in no time. I had a toolbox along with me in my car which I would get and then service the machines, one by one. I sometimes think I got through OCS because I kept the washers and dryers running and no one else knew much about them. God works in mysterious ways.
There was a demerit system that kept you on your toes. It was irksome to say the least. Pettiness was stressed. I don't remember the number of demerits you were allowed before you were washed out but a number of men were given their walking papers because of high demerits. If you went through a week without any being awarded to you, some were knocked off your cumulative total. If you had too many in a single week you were restricted for the weekend.
Naturally there was an emphasis on uniforms and uniform upkeep. We wore whites, except for the few CPO's we had who wore khakis. I could, with care, get two days use out of a set of whites. It cost 70 cents per set for the base laundry to do them. I paid it gladly. The SA(OC)'s were picked on more for uniform problems then the regulars.
A word about haircuts -- They cost a dollar and took less then a minute. At least I didn't have to comb my hair all of the time. The only tools the barber used were a power clippers and an air driven talcum powder applicator. It was so fast he was saying, “Next” as you were sitting down in the chair.
It was all in the game and that is how it had to be approached. Combining academic requirements, military requirements, the physical requirements, and the constant threat of the demerit system. With everything taken into context, you could easily be overwhelmed and that is what they were looking for. You had to have a thick skin first of all and then organize and prioritize everything. For example, I saw within the first couple of weeks that the emphasis in the classes had to be navigation and CIC. What good was it to get 95-100 in all your classes and flunk navigation? That was what was emphasized, that is what was done. At least 65% of my study time went into the two subjects that could wash you out. I took good notes and studied them for the rest of subjects. My strategy worked. I got through the school ok. Many of us organized into study groups and helped each other. The guys I studied with were Jim Carpenter, and Sandy Shores, both ET’s.
The physical part of the training gave me some problems. About three weeks into the training I strained my Achilles tendons and couldn't do the running and exercises. I limped around for a couple of weeks until the soreness went away. By the time I got back to the running and exercising I had fallen somewhat behind. As with most exercise programs, you are pushed and strained a bit more each day, building up gradually. When I returned I had fallen back almost to the beginning and that plagued me for the rest of the training period.
The long morning run before breakfast was the most difficult thing I had to do. In those days I smoked and that didn't help anything either.
At the end of the fourth week of training, if we weren't restricted because of demerits or didn't have the duty, we were allowed to go on liberty. Liberty began at noon on Saturday and ended at 2200 (10 p.m.) on Sunday. The E-6's and E-7's were able to go to the clubs at the Navy Mine Warfare station and Fort Eustis Army Base. There wasn't a lot to do except drink and dance on Saturday night. Yorktown was somewhat dead. I volunteered for SP duty on the first weekend I had a duty day. That provided an opportunity to case out the town without spending a lot of money.
I really don't know what the SA(OC)'s did on their liberty time. They couldn't get into the clubs on the bases and the regulars tended to go their own ways. Most of the regulars were in their late twenties and the college fellows were in their early twenties. This was a five to ten year disparity in age meaning a lot at that time of life. In fact our world had been much different then theirs.
In general, when at the training station, everybody undergoing training was equal in rate. On the weekends on the other military facilities the crows meant something.
At the end of the eighth week my wife farmed our two little boys out to friends and rode the bus down to Yorktown. We enjoyed a great weekend together and in particular enjoyed a night of square dancing for amateurs at the club at the Mine Warfare Station. Her visit gave me a real boost in morale.
One of the more interesting things we did was get underway on the CGC Cuyahoga, a “buck and a quarter” that had all of the trappings of a larger ship. It was an ideal training vessel. We rotated through the various watches underway. The one thing I really knew how to do, answer bells in the engineroom, was not part of the curriculum. The CO of the Cuyahoga was a man from my past, CWO David McCormick who was Group Commander at Sturgeon Bay when I was stationed there. I spent a lot of my stand around time with him in the little wardroom drinking coffee and reminiscing.
The training seemed to last forever. At the end of the fifteenth week we were done with it for all intents and purposes. Classes were over, the exercise regimen was stopped and we started to gain weight on the good food. Some of us were farmed out to different activities on the station. I spent several days with CWO Ed Eaton who I knew from the Mackinaw, helping to set up an Engineman School for reserves. That was right up my alley having just completed three years of instructor duty at Groton.
On graduation week my wife came down to Yorktown on the bus and stayed at a local motel. I went there after the day was done. On the training station we processed out, played a few baseball games and had a couple of parties. The nicest party was the night before graduation at the officers club.
On graduation day four of us were used as the honor guard for visiting dignitaries. That was the last time I ever wore my enlisted uniform. It was a rush-rush morning. As soon as the honor guard duties were over we barely had enough time to change into our dress white officer's uniforms for the final ceremony. I just left the enlisted uniform on my bunk in a pile.
We marched to the auditorium by company. There were the usual graduation ceremonies and it was all over. Everything had been packed in the car the previous day. I picked up the last remaining things in my room said a few good-byes and we were off.
I didn't know what to think when the gate guard saluted me as Joana and I drove through the gate, me with my newly minted ensign bars on my shoulder and she with a big smile because she had me back and we were going home to Rhode Island.
EPILOGUE: In the next several years I ran into very few of the men that I attended OCS with. All of the regulars except for the few selected to go into aviation went to ships. Most of the SA(OC)'s who received reserve commissions went to shore billets. I lived with Gordie Fales for four months and never have seen or heard from him again even though we got along very well together. Whitey Whiteman and I went on the CGC Escanaba together. Two of our class became admirals, John Lennon, and Bill Donnell; a few made captain. Age got in the way of the older fellows like Whitey and myself. Most of the Reserves who graduated served their minimum obligated time and left the service. A handful integrated and did well for themselves.
COAST GUARD OCS 2-61 ROSTER – Roster of those who graduated with the June 1961 Officers Candidate School class.