The Military Life And
Pasquale "Pat" Varalla
By Pat Varalla
was born in the front bedroom of a small house in North Philadelphia. My
father's parents came to America from Italy in 1882. My mother's from Poland
about 1900. My father was a veteran of WWI. He was in the Army engineers and was
gassed somewhere in France. He abandoned my mother with six underage children
when I was about nine years old.
mother had it rough and had it not been for her father, my grandfather, my
brothers, sisters, and I might have been placed in foster homes. That would have
been as a last resort. She loved her children very much and would have been
loathe to do that.
mother had to work very hard both at home and on her job. Most of the time I was
under no supervision. I was pretty much a juvenile delinquent. I frequently
played hookey from school and quit completely after the first half of ninth
grade. I went to work when I was fifteen years old and started contributing to
the family household.
never forget where, when, and how I learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I
had just come out of the front door of our house at about 4p.m. on Saturday,
December 7, 1941. One of the older kids who lived on the same street had just
come out too. His name was Harry Kyper and he must have been about eighteen or
nineteen. He hollered up the street, "The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor!"
I didn't have the faintest idea what he was talking about. It wouldn't be long
before I found out with all the media coverage that soon followed.
all the publicity and propaganda, we were soon stirred to a patriotic fervor.
All the young men were either enlisting or being drafted. All of us boys were
following the action in the papers or newsreels and playing "War."
Sometimes it was hard to get a "Game" going because no one wanted to
be a "Jap."
1945, when the US of A was almost single handedly kicking hell out of the
Germans and Italians in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific,
"Rabbit" Flynn and I went downtown to the recruiting office to sign
up. I was fourteen and Rab was fifteen. "Airborne!" we told him.
"Airborne! You'll be airborne when I put a foot up your arse.. Go home and
grow up first." We left with his laughter ringing in our ears - Embarrassed!
1946, we went to the recruiting office again to enlist. By this time the war had
been over for several months and they needed new men so that they could rotate
all those vets back home. There was no derision from the recruiter this time. He
told us that we needed proof of age (seventeen last birthday) and at least one
parent's consent. He may as well have kicked us in the arse I didn't think
November 1946, I turned sixteen. As I said, Rabbit was older than I. He had
moved on to other
this time we were getting into trouble. So, when we asked - really pestered -
our mothers to let us sign up, they figured we would be better off under a tough
Army sergeant than running the streets. Jack's dad had split from his mom too.
I was born the attending doctor had either not filed my birth or they screwed up
at the Bureau of Vital Statistics. My mother and I obtained a copy of my
baptismal certificate from our parish church. In the Catholic Church, your
baptismal certificate is also a record of your birth. A little ink remover and
1930 became 1929 and I was no longer 16 but 17.
with "proof," Jack and I went to the recruiter. He welcomed us with
open arms. We were sent to the Schuylkyl Armory, which no longer exists, in Southwest
Philadelphia for physical and psychological tests. Jack failed the psychological
test. Heck, he was only 15 and he was nervous. I felt bad for Jack. He told me
to go ahead and that he would try again later.
was given papers for my mother to sign and have notarized. Then I took them back
to the recruiter, was sworn in, and given a five-day delay enroute. That was on
February 7, 1947. On February 12, I reported back to the armory and was shipped
to Fort Dix, New Jersey. I had enlisted for 18 months.
wouldn't be 16 until June of'47, so you can understand how, being nervous, he
might fail the battery test. Well, I was settled in at Fort Dix about 2 weeks
when one of the other trainees came to me at my bunk and told me that there was
someone outside who wanted to see me.
had no idea who it might be. When I came to the door, there was Jack. I darn
near fell over with surprise. Standing there, in a downpour of rain, soaking
wet, in civilian clothes, was J. A. L. Wheeler, the III. He had arrived only
that afternoon. I could have hugged and kissed him, but men didn't do that sort
of thing in those days.
quickly brought him inside and gave him some of my dry Army fatigues and
whatever. He returned them when he got his issue. I don't recall seeing too much
of Jack at Dix. Basic training isn't exactly party time.
what happened to Jack: He went across the river to Camden, New Jersey, and
signed up a few days after I had last seen him. After knowing what to expect
from the tests, he knew how to react to them.
was one big difference between Philadelphia and Camden; Camden had no 18 month
enlistments. Jack had to sign up for 3 years. Altogether, he spent 12 years in
the Army. He went "Airborne all the way" after a tour in Alaska. He
made the Inchon landing in Korea. he was in one of the first Special Forces
units. He was an advisor in Laos. Jack died January 5, 1995. He was 64. RIP Good
don't remember the trip to Fort Dix. I do remember many things that happened
during basic. A blizzard, the huge mess hall, shots, KP, guard duty, 20-mile
hike, bivouac, pup tent, a damn heavy field pack, the rifle range, some of my
barracks mates and much more. There is one thing that I would like on paper in
about a week, our platoon leader, Lt. Baker, a grizzled WWIl mustang with a
gravel voice usually associated with the stereo-typical 1stSgt, marched us into
an orientation hall. The hall was
know that some of you men are underage," he started, "What we want you
to do is go back to your barracks, get your gear and report to building such and
such. You're going home." The jig is up I thought, and then he continued,
"No questions, no punishment, no nothing. We'll put you on a bus and send
you home. You were never in the Army."
I was sitting there, thinking about what my mother had said - you pestered me to
finished basic in April and was given orders to report to Ft. Myer, VA. After a
couple of days at home, I took the train to Washington, D. C. At Union Station,
a motor pool bus was waiting to take me to the post. I can't recall any other
soldiers on the bus, nor can I recall the driver saying anything. I remember
feeling alone. The drive to the post seemed like a long ride in the country. It
wasn't built up as it is now.
bus pulled to a stop at the first barracks it came to. The driver told me that
this is where I was to report. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Just
about all the buildings were permanent red brick structures, nothing like the
temporary wood frame ones at Dix. It felt more like an academy than the Arny.
went inside and there was a soldier buffing the floors. Wow! This was nicer than
home. I went into the orderly room and reported to the 1st Sgt George H. Waple.
My old topkick may have been a VUM. He took my orders and records and told the
CQ to show me a bunk. He took me upstairs, down a long hall and into a long
company was out on details and I was alone except for the barracks orderly. The
daily orderly's job was house cleaning, clean out butt cans, sweep up, etc. I
was putting my things away when the B.O. came up to me and introduced himself. I
can't recall his name. He was surprised to find out that I didn't understand
what kind of outfit I was in. He told me that I was in the Ceremonial
Detachment. My eyes must have popped out of their sockets because he laughed as
he expounded on what CD did. He told me that we were spit and polish, White
House detail, military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, guard at the
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and much more. And all this was done by this one
company of one hundred men. Also included among these duties were KP, regular
guard duty, prison chaser, close order drill, qualify at the rifle range, etc.
The caisson riders, too, were part of our company and gun salutes.
Old Guard is Reactivated
April of 1948, I had been in the Army for about a year. We got notice that the
CD 7011 th ASU(MPs) was to become the leading unit in the reactivation of the
3rd Infantry Regiment, the oldest infantry regiment in the U. S. Anny - the Old
was a big ceremony at the Capitol where the regimental colors were received by
the color guard. This was on Army Day, April 6th, 1948. Then followed the annual
Army Day parade through Washington. We were the first unit behind that great
Army band. On Pennsylvania Avenue, at the White House, we were given the
command, EYES RIGHT! and there about 20 feet away, in the reviewing stand, was
the President of the U.S. of A, Harry S. Truman. he had a large grin on his
face. That moment is fixed in my memory like a photograph.
couple of days later, every man was given a copy of a letter from Major General
Hobart Gay, MDW, Commandant, quoting K. C. Royal, Secretary of the Army,
about how good we looked and
to the 3rd Infantry's reactivation, near the end of winter in 1948, I was given
the very distinct honor of being chosen for guard at the tomb of the Unknown
Soldier. After a short training period, I was posted on the mat. There were 3
sentinels and 1 SOG in each relief. There were 3 reliefs. A relief was on 12
hours and off 24. Each sentinel walked 1 hour on and 2 off during daylight
hours. At night, it was 2 on and 4 off. It was understood that in the off duty
time that you could be "volunteered" for another detail if the company
was short handed and you were in the barracks
CD was issued 30-03 Springfield rifles and not the WWII M1 Garand. it was a
great rifle for a ceremonial outfit. At the tomb, we had 5 rounds of ammunition
locked and loaded. This was serious business. We were there to prevent
desecration of this most revered monument.
today, then the tourists were free to walk anywhere they liked, even up to the
mat. Every once in a while, some jerk, trying to impress his girl, might haze
you. A quick call to the sergeant of the guard would straighten things out.
other times, when the tourist busses came, they were timed for the changing of
the guard, there might be wall-to-wall people on the plaza. Tourists would line
up on each side of the mat and you had a kind of a "gauntlet" to run.
I remember being a bit nervous once or twice; but, thankfully, there were no
incidents. I had just celebrated my 17th birthday a couple of months before
becoming a TG.
of the biggest events to occur while I was at Fort Myer was when General of the
Armies John J. Pershing, died. he had been retired and living at Walter Reed
Hospital. During WWII, many of the Command Generals would visit him and seek his
advice on aspects of the war. We all knew who Black Jack was because we read
about him in the history books when we were in school. His exploits in Mexico
and France were well known to us. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find 1 in
10 who knows who this great general was, especially in the under 40 crowd.
we got news of his death and the barracks was abuzz about the upcoming funeral.
It was going to be big. I was detailed as honor guard to Walter Reed Hospital.
There was to be a private viewing in the hospital's chapel. A guard was posted
at the foot and head of the open casket. Black Jack didn't look like the man in
the newsreels now. That large, jut-jawed soldier was now gaunt - just skin and
bones. After all, he was in his late 80s and he had been in poor health for
several years. We alternated between attention and parade rest during each
following day I was in the company for the normal routine. The general's body
was moved to the Capitol for public viewing. The ceremonial company maintained
the honor guard. There were four riflemen and an NCO in charge. The general's
body lay in state in the rotunda until the following morning.
the day before the burial at Arlington National Cemetery, I read the duty roster
and found that I had been chosen for the great honor of being in the firing
party. The morning of the burial the general's body was borne on the caisson
thought Washington, D. C. There was a huge military escort including the Corps
of Cadets from West Point. My 1stSgt, George Waple, and drill sergeant, Henry
Pickerel, were in charge of the all services casket bearers. Behind the caisson
were the honorary casket bearers. These were all the WWII generals, including
Eisenhower and Bradley.
is the custom, the firing party waited at the grave site, when the caisson
entered the cemetery gate there commenced a gun salute timed to end at the
arrival at the grave site. We knew when the first gun was fired that it wouldn't
be long. There was another gun salute when the casket bearers carried the casket
to the grave.
the graveside services, the military units came alive. Corps! Battalion!
Company! Attention! Present Arms! Sgt McGee gave the commands and the firing
party formed to fire the volleys - ready! aim! fire! - three times. Then present
arms! Finally, taps.
This moment has never left me after all these years. I was still 4 months shy of my 18th birthday.
treasure most, even with all these honor details, the memories of the men I
served with. They
went back into the barracks, took off my uniform, got my razor and went into the
latrine. I stood at the lavatory staring into the mirror at my face.
"Pick's nuts," I thought. I couldn't see a single whisker; but, orders
are orders and I lathered up. Scraped the soap off and I had my first shave. To
this day I still question the Sarge's vision.
01' top kick, Waple, and Pick became General Bradley's drivers. Waple later
became an officer and moved onto other things. He wrote a book about his Army
career, "Country Boy Gone Soldiering." Pick spent 25 years driving for
the Chainnen of the Joint Chiefs. I still communicate with them occasionally.
was no "Chicken Sh_t" at Ft. Myer. I can understand it in basic, but
not in a regular unit like ours. Our officers and NCOs were great. We knew what
we had to do and we did it.
July 29, 1948, I left Ft. Myer and went home. I handed my mother my honorable
discharge. My Army records show at that time I was 5'6", and 120 pounds. I
was still growing.
were no jobs at that time for a 16 year old high school drop out. After
exhausting my 52-30 Club benefits, I tried a technical school. It didn't suit me
and I quit after 6 months. My old pal Jocko came home from Alaska with a pocket
full of money and we went on a tear.
Jack went back to his next assignment, I decided to reenlist. I had always
wanted to go to sea, so I went to the U. S. Navy recruiting office. I was told
that their quota was filled and that there was a waiting list. Disappointed, I
was walking around Center City and came upon the Coast Guard recruiting office.
The guy on the poster outside had a sailor's uniform on and I thought what the
heck, I'll give it at try. It couldn't have worked out better. I loved the Coast
Guard. I enlisted January 20, 1950.
boot camp, I was assigned to the Cross Rip Lightship in Nantucket Sound,
Massachusetts. I wrote a story about my experience aboard the Cross Rip
for the U. S. Lighthouse Society's magazine, "The Keepers Log." For
those who might ask, a lightship is the same as a lighthouse, except it is
placed where it isn't feasible to build a lighthouse.
6 months aboard Cross Rip, I applied for and was accepted at the U. S.
Navy Sonar School, Key West, Florida. I was there from November 1950 until May
1951. The Navy treated me just great. Almost all of my classmates were Navy and
as it was with all my mates, I remember them with appreciation.
Duane and Ramsden
sound school, I was assigned once again to the 1st CG District, Boston, MA. In
June 1951, I reported aboard the USCGC Duane (WPG-33) at Constitution
was a great ship with a great crew. The Duane was built at the
Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1935. She served the CG until 1986. She still serves
off Key Largo, Florida, as an artificial reef. Divers report that she still
looks pretty good. I made four patrols on the Duane; Baker, Easy, Dog,
and How. In July 1952, as we were enroute for Charlie, orders came through to
transfer one sonarman to the CGC Ramsden at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
Duane made a scheduled stop at Argentia, Newfoundland, where my brother
was stationed at the Air Force Base. He took a furlough and we flew to Westover
AFB. He went home to Philadelphia and I reported to the 1st CG District, Boston,
before going to the Ramsden (WDE-482) in Philly.
a few weeks in dry dock at the Navy Yard, we sailed to Honolulu, T. H. This was
before Hawaii became a state. The Ramsden made stops at Curtis Bay
(Baltimore) Maryland, Miami, both sides of the Panama Canal, Acapulco, Mexico,
San Diego, California, and on to Honolulu. I made 1 patrol, Nan, and was sent
back to the states for separation. Because of the Korean War, it was rumored
that we might be extended. It never happened. If it did, I would have sailed
into Korean waters along with several ports including Japan. It would have been
a great trip.
was discharged at Alameda, California, near the Bay Area during January 1953. I
was 5'10", 140 1bs. Within nine days of arriving home, I had a job. I've
spent almost all of my post service life driving for a living, buses, trucks,
big rigs. I've had a great life - no regrets. I married the beautiful Eileen
Scullion. We have 4 children and 3 grandchildren. I obtained my GED at age 55.
Return To Coast Guard Stories