The Military Life And

 Opinions Of

Pasquale "Pat" Varalla

By Pat Varalla

The Beginning

I 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.

My 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.

My 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.


I'll 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.

With 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."

Attempts at Enlisting

In 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!

In 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 I could get my mother's consent.


In November 1946, I turned sixteen. As I said, Rabbit was older than I. He had moved on to other things. I had a new buddy, John Albert Lawrence Wheeler III. That was his actual name, but we called him "Jocko."

By 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.

When 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.

Armed 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.

I 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.

Jack Wheeler

Jack 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Here's 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.

There 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 Friend.

Fort Dix, New Jersey

I 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 detail.

After 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 completely empty - no chairs or other furniture - just a slightly raised platform at one end. We were told to sit on the floor. The lieutenant got up on the platform and started speaking to us. He cut right to the point, no build up. It was a bombshell.

"We 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."

While I was sitting there, thinking about what my mother had said - you pestered me to join, now don't come home till you've done your time and with an honorable discharge - the Lieutenant. let the other shoe drop. "If you don't report to building such and such by xx hours, you are in the Army and any attempt to get out by claiming that you are underage will result in a court martial and a dishonorable discharge." I kept quiet and was relieved. I have no idea how many VUMS were in that company. As far as I know, only one opted out. So there were at least two, and it's clear that the Army was giving us a choice.

Fort Myer, Virginia

I 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.

The 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.

I 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 squad room.

The 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.

The Old Guard is Reactivated

In 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 Guard.

There 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.

A 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 that it was his wish that the old guard become one of the finest units of all three services.

Tomb Guard

Prior 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

The 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.

Unlike 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.

At 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.

Black Jack's Funeral

One 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.

Well, 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 posting.

The 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.

On 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.

As 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.

After 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.

Most Treasured Memories

I treasure most, even with all these honor details, the memories of the men I served with. They treated me great. It was as if I had a barracks full of older brothers. And in a couple of instances, a father or two. Take Sgt. Pickerel. I'll never forget the day he made me take my first shave. We had just fallen in for a funeral escort. He was giving us a quick inspection. When he got to me he stopped and looked at my face really close. He called me Pee Wee. "Pee Wee," he says, "You fall out, go back upstairs and shave!" "I'll miss the escort!" "Go!"

I 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.

The 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.

There 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.

On 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.

The Coast Guard

There 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.

After 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.

After 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.

After 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.

Cutters Duane and Ramsden

After 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 Wharf, Boston.

She 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.

The 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.

After 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.

Civilian Life

I 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.

22 November 2000

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