By Marvin Druger
I have high regard for the military personnel who fight wars to keep the peace. There is a certain pride and camaraderie in the military that is admirable. You make good friends who are loyal to each other the rest of their lives.
My own military service was in the Coast Guard Reserve in between wars. I was classified 1-A in the draft and received a letter and a one-way train ticket to report to Whitehall Street in New York City to be inducted into the U.S. Army. That same day, I received notice that I was admitted to the Coast Guard Reserve. I immediately returned the train ticket to the army office and agreed to serve in the Coast Guard Reserve.
I departed for Cape May, New Jersey, where I would do my basic training for eight weeks. I was glad to be classified as a seaman, because I thought seamen are on the top of the ship and the other possibility, fireman, was below decks where escape would be more difficult if the ship sank.
The company that I was assigned to had a mixture of young men who wanted to make the Coast Guard their career and science professionals who wanted to get their service over with as soon as possible.
When we first assembled in the barracks, the chief petty officer walked into the room. He was from Texas and had a southern drawl. His first words to the assembled group were, “Which of you boys is Jewish?” We looked at each other with trepidation. A friend of mine raised his hand. I hesitated but then, I didn’t want my friend to be persecuted alone, so I raised my hand. “Get dressed up,” said the chief, “You boys is going to church.”
We were then transported to a synagogue in Cape May where we enjoyed bagels and smoked salmon, drinks, and even girls. This became a regular Sunday ritual.
I was appointed company yeoman. I was the only recruit who could leave the base to buy supplies and goodies for the other men. Everyone liked me because I was a source of pleasurable items. Then one day, the recruit company commander was attacked. His clothes were torn and he was beaten. The chief approached me, “Druger, how would you like to be company commander?” I replied, “Only if I can still be company yeoman,”
So, I held both jobs. At first, I slept with my buddy, Howie, in a double bunk. I was on top and Howie occupied the bottom berth. Then, I was able to move into a room with a bed and all the luxuries. I tutored one of the petty officers in math and received even more perks. I assigned my personal friends to the lighter duties. Howie was assigned by me to deliver the mail. Others who were not friends of mine were assigned to clean the latrines and do other menial, unpleasant tasks.
But all was not fun and games. As company commander, I had to march the recruits and drill them in freezing winter weather. One day, I was marching the recruits and we were approached by a company marching toward us. Ordinarily, we would simply slip by each other, but this didn’t happen. Opposing troops were hitting each other and cracking jokes. I pretended to be angry. “This is not the Boy Scouts,” I yelled. “This is the Coast Guard and the next one who gets out of line will get two hours of extra duty tonight.”
Extra duty involved marching back and forth in the freezing night with a full pack.
A voice rang out, “Yeah, except for your friends.” I responded, “And you’re the first ones for extra duty.” I pointed my finger at two recruits at the end of the row. It was the two recruits who had beaten up the previous company commander.
As we marched back to the barracks, I said to myself, “I’m crazy to give them extra duty. They’ll kill me.” But I followed the rule of a good teacher or parent, “If you make a threat, you have to carry it out.” So, I sent the two recruits out for extra duty.
“We’ll get you, Druger,” they threatened as they left the barracks.
“You deserved it,” I said, with a shaking voice.
Several months after I returned home from basic training, I found a note taped to the door of our apartment. “We were here, you weren’t. We’ll be back,” written in red.
I told my wife about the two recruits who had threatened me, so that she would know who to blame if something happened to me. Well, the note was from my brother and his wife, written in red lipstick. Whew!
Another memorable event in my training period was when I was second battalion commander. A battalion consists of hundreds of men divided into companies. A very high-level officer came to the base to observe the marching. There was a regimental commander at the head, followed by the first battalion commander with a horde of marchers, then the second battalion commander with a large group of marchers. Everyone was standing with a rifle by their side. The protocol was to issue commands that would get the men to lift their rifles to their shoulders before marching. The regimental commander yelled, “Regiment.” The first battalion commander yelled, “Battalion.” I yelled to my men, “Battalion.” “Right shoulder,” yelled the regimental commander. “Right shoulder,” echoed the first battalion commander. “Forward,” I yelled. My troops started walking forward with their rifles dragging along with them. Whoops! Somehow, I didn’t lose my job as company commander.
The base commander was fanatic about the raising and lowering of flags. There were two flagpoles, one with the Coast Guard flag and the other with the American flag. The commander would always watch the raising of the two flags from his window. A maze-like pathway led to the different flagpoles. I carried the American flag, accompanied by four honor guards. I marched them along the zig-zag pathway and stopped in front of the flagpole. I looked up. It was the wrong flagpole.
“About face!” I commanded and we zig-zagged our path back to the other flagpole. Again, I didn’t lose my job as company commander.
I was very active during basic training, and I even took up boxing. On one occasion, I badly beat an opponent in boxing. His friend decided to get even. He boxed me and landed an uppercut that made me see stars, and ended my boxing career. I can still envision those stars.
When I returned home, I was on inactive duty for seven years. I had my bag of Coast Guard clothing ready for immediate use. But, there were no wars during that period. I finally received an honorable discharge along with a very nice diploma. My wife refused to let me frame and hang the diploma.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” she said. “Your friends were drafted into the army, served overseas in potentially dangerous situations and you were in the Boy Scouts for a few weeks.”
So, the discharge diploma remains hidden in my attic.
In a way, I am ashamed of my period of military service, compared to countless others who served during wars and were wounded or lost their lives. But, even during war, there is humor and military personnel all have humorous tales to tell. How else can they keep sane amidst the irrationality, cruelty and stupidity of war?