Daily Archives: 25 April 2021

Impressions of Army Basic Training, 1963

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 68-70:

To my utter surprise, I found that my WASP background had prepared me well for basic training. I’d already lived in a tent at summer camp with boys I didn’t particularly like. I’d gone away to school years before; I didn’t miss anyone but our family dog. Army food was better than Yale’s and the army in-processing system no more impersonal than Yale’s. Most of my fellow trainees were friendly and much more interesting to me than the suburban types at Yale.

At Yale, I was a sub-mediocre athlete. But in the army I was a near star.

Most of my fellow trainees had never played any sport. Sports were mandatory at my school; they weren’t in the nation’s public schools. Most of these new soldiers had never run anywhere. At my school we ran all the time, just as we now did in basic training.

The result was that I played end and caught passes in football games. Wearing combat boots, I ran the fastest mile in our training company. Going on marches was no problem after hiking in the White Mountains as a ten year old.

Even better, I’d already learned how to shoot a .22 rifle at summer camp. Later, Phinney Works’s father, a World War II major in the army, had taught me how to shoot his World War II M-1 rifle, which the army was still using at Fort Leonard Wood in basic training.

Apart from hitting what you aimed at, the main objective in shooting the M-1 was to keep it from slamming you in the face when you did rapid fire. The trick was not to wrap your right thumb over the stock so that your thumb’s knuckle joint wasn’t subsequently slammed back into your cheek by the recoil. Sergeant Duty warned us of this feature of the M-1, but few paid attention. He was a font of hard-won military lore, but most trainees lacked the frame of reference needed to absorb his advice. There was no war going on so the advice seemed academic.

The randomness of the draft meant that I shared basic training with a wide cross-section of American men, somewhat tilted toward working-class men. We were nicely assorted as to size, shape, and color. The truly odd and quirky types were mostly found among my fellow volunteers.

The draftees were a bit older than the volunteers and more homogenized physically, with a couple of exceptions.

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