by Albert L. Sohl
Headquarter's Company, 12th Infantry Regiment, S-3 (Plans And Operations)
That first nightmarish week after receiving the infamous "Greetings" letter from Uncle Sam had to be one of the more vivid memories for us, the World War II inductees.
The ordeal began on a bleak January morning when I, along with hundreds of other draftees, boarded a ferry boat in lower Manhattan and crossed the choppy waters of New York harbor. The gossamer outlines of the Statue of Liberty on Bedloes Island symbolically appeared in the distance as our vessel churned toward the Military Processing Center on Gouvernor's Island.
At dockside we were met by tall crew cut MPs carring clipboards. They lined us up quickly in motley formation and conducted a lengthy roll call. Then we were marched over to a low, ugly overheated building across a snow covered tarmac. A bored elderly corporal issued each man a rectangular numbered metal container. Pointing to a long line of wooden benches, he rasped hoarsley in a singsong chant:
"Go over to the benches and strip down to your shorts and shoes. Deposit your belongings in your basket and leave it on the bench. Be sure to remember the number on the side of the container if you want your clothing back later."
This accomplished, we were herded half naked in single file out of a rear door and across a narrow street to a faded red brick structure. Inside, a huge drafty marble hall reminded me of a grand palace scene from any popular opera. In this particular scenario it was cordoned off by heavy ropes into a narrow zigzag maze. Four foot by four foot screened corrals were situated about every ten feet along the route. At each stop, a faceless person wearing a white tunic seated on a low wooden stool, absently examined a segment of each individual entering the cubicle. They performed their assigned speciality on a specific part of our chilled anatomy. No opening was overlooked during the intrusive probing of our goose pimpled bodies. Cries and outraged groans reverberated from the vaulted ceiling in a profane atonal choir as young draftees submitted to the impersonal violation of their persons.
Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, teeth, throat, limbs, digits and trunk were meticulously scrutinized by the medical inquisitors. Our "private parts' (hardly private in that military arena) were shamelessly exhibited as we surrendered our last bastion of dignity to the bored and yawning invaders of our all too frail flesh.
"Drop your shorts".
"Squeeze it back - slowly".
"Bend over and spread your cheeks".
These were but a few of the droned commands, each unthinkable request more denigrating than the last.
Toward the end of this trial were were given a small glass jar and asked to go into the toilet and fill it with a urine specimen and return it to the medic. As I stood over the urinal following orders, a young man in an adjoining alcove was grunting and moaning strangely. I glanced over at him suspiciously. He grinned at me sheepishly and said, "I just can't piss. Not one miserable drop."
"Give me your jar," I said, and then proceeded to fill it up easily. I gave it back to him and said, "There".
"Gee thanks a lot buddy! I really appreciate it," he said.
"Any time," I smiled. "Any time".
And for those of us who qualified, that first traumatic week blended into a blurry kaleidoscope of shifting patterns. The forever train ride to Camp Upton, Long Island. Lined up for barrack's assignment. Uniforms. Haircuts. Shots, (two in the left arm and one in the right, simultaneously). A venereal disease orientation film in gut wrenching, guilt drenched Technicolor, virtually the supreme antithesis of pornography. Every man leaving that crude theater had the undisputed feeling that he was afflicted with at least one of the more exotic diseases projected on that pock-marked screen.
The next long line led us to the IQ exams. A harried spectacled Staff Sergeant handed out the tests and pencils as we entered a chairless quonset hut furnished with ches-high planked counters. It was being evacuated by another group of confused, worried looking recruits.
In a flat, barely intelligible voice our mentor explained that our future Army career would be determined by the results of "this here test". He cautioned that looking over your neighbor's shoulder for the answer would be useless. The questions were based on common sense.
"Write down what you think is right. You've got exactly thirty-five minutes. Now!" he said, glancing at his watch.
The point of my issued pencil was broken. Frantically I raised my hand along with several others who faced the same crisis. Our problem was either ignored or unseen in that milling mumbling mob. Emulating a hungry beaver I gnawed rapidly away at the cedar stump of my writing tool. Exposing the blunt graphite I addressed the first multiple choice question:
(1) You are on a low hanging branch over a swift flowing stream. You notice a raft coming rapidly in your direction. The raft is holding a two year old child and an elderly world famous physicist. You have only a few seconds to reach down to try to save one of them. What would be your choice?
(a) The child?
(b) The scientist?
(c) Not sure.
What is the reasoning behind this seemingly innocuous question? What are they looking for? (a) Save the baby? Show human compassion? Think of the future contributions the child may provide? Or Cold logic? Knowing the proven value of the scientist it would perhaps be wiser to save him.
"Twen'y two minutes left", the Sergeant droned.
And (c) of course, indicates indecision. Or does it? How did they arrive at such a ridiculous premise? Perhaps the examiner is testing our gullibility? WHAT IS A WORLD FAMOUS PHYSICIST AND A LITTLE BABY DOING ON A RAFT IN A SWIFT FLOWING RIVER IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Sighing and hoping for a fast cessation of global strife I opted for (a). Give the kid a chance at life. And of such decisions leaders are made.
The memorable finale of that dizzy first week was K.P. Kitchen Police. As a chosen "volunteer" I was ordered to tie a towel around the foot of my cot. At precisely 3 A.M. in the coal black, snore saturated barracks I was roughly prodded by a flashlight wielding PFC. Groping for my fatigues, shoes and socks, I stumbled numbly into the harshly lighted latrine and hastily dressed. Bundled up but shivering in the frigid predawn darkness, I fell out on the company street with my fellow KPs and answered to roll call. Then it was on the double to the mess hall.
The brightly lit building looked like it could house a small dirigible. The Induction Center chow hall was designed to feed hundreds of men every forty-five minutes. In charge of this formidable task was, what appeared to be, a six foot four, two hundred and fifty pound Mess Sergeant known by friend and foe as "Siple the Terrible". The Master Sergeant's belt strained unsuccessfully to support his buldging belly. His beady little eyes and hairy ears missed nothing. The fearful sound of his voice rivaled a stentorian blast from a Viking horn.
Siple's unchallenged domain was a scene right out of Dante's Inferno. Bubbling cauldrons the size of garbage cans, pulsated with lava-like concoctions. A sweat soaked wretch stirred the mixture with an oar size paddle. Immense water filled urns were fed twenty pound bags of ground coffee by robotic galley slaves. Fry pans as thick and round as truck tires sizzled and spat with their load of powdered eggs and raters of bacon. Row upon row of hot aromatic bread loaves were scooped from the roaring overns by squads of perspiring bakers. A small mountain of peeled potatoes were chopped up in readiness for the pans. The clink and rattle of heavy duty china resounded loudly above the overall din. Piercing sharply through the controlled confusion was the resonant bellow of Sipe the Terrible's frenetic commands. He seemed to be everywhere at once, an omniscient awe inspiring conductor directing a cacophonous overture for the gastronomical symphony to come.
Three other drones and I were assigned to the Scrubbing Detail. We were led to a steaming sink the size of a small wading pool. It was stacked high with food encrusted and blackened pots. A coarse bristle brush and a bar of yellow soap was handed to each of us. After the first tentative steps we began to catch the flow and rhythm of the operation. Stripping down to our bare waists we gradually developed a system. Alas, as our work pile diminished another great heap of pots and pans were avalanched into the groaning sink.
Not too many sweat soaked hours later I began to recognize familiar pots boomeranging back to us. It was an endless drudgery. A morning without end. No finished work to admire. No joy of accomplishment.
However during short breaks, I looked about and saw others with far more onerous jobs than mine. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I would guess that it was the Army's way to stem dissension and perhaps revolt.
"You ain't got it so bad, buddy. Just look past your nose at those poor bastards over there".
And thus I learned: The grass is NOT always greener on the other side of the military street.
Submitted by daughter, Lisa Sohl
Albert Lincoln Sohl
Albert Sohl and friends, 1942 (Albert standing on left)
Albert Sohl and Training Buddies, 1943 (Albert, bottom left)
Albert Sohl and friends doing laundry