I Soldiered With Charlie

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One such occasion was the night we spent on a minor tactics problem in the surrounding Virginia woods. Our squad had been designated as support to a line of outposts. We spread our blankets for protection against the voracious mosquitoes and lay on the ground near a towering pine. Sleep was out of the question despite a strenuous day in the field. The pungent smell of moist earth filled our nostrils. Fireflies made a fairyland of our little glade. Overhead we looked into the infinity of brilliant stars. We forgot Kaiser Bill and the war we were trying to enter with a bar on each shoulder.

All was quiet until a muted voice was heard.

“Charlie, were you ever in love?”

That started it. The pale streaks of dawn were visible before this most memorable bull session ended. There was no hint of boasting in Charlie’s answer. We, the younger and inexperienced ones, listened and learned from one who had known life at its fullest.

Toward the end of the gestation period for us ninety-day wonders the weeding-out process was begun. The high command devised a really practical test to determine possible fitness for line officers. Our company was divided into two segments. One half was stationed on one side of the parade ground. On the opposite side was the other. In between was a group of regular officers to act as judges. A man from each section was called upon to give three consecutive commands to the distant group. The promptness of response was the test of the carrying power of the candidate’s voice.

Charlie’s voice was weak. There was scant chance that the distant platoon would even hear, let alone understand, him. But when it was his turn, he stepped out of ranks, faced the wide expanse of parade ground, tried to let out a yell, and stamped his foot. Immediately the faraway group executed a snappy right shoulder arms. Charlie took a deep breath, emitted a shallow bellow, and again stamped his foot. Just as promptly, order arms was performed. Once again the deep inhalation, the order, and the stamped foot. This time the officers in midfield saw present arms beautifully achieved.

They looked askance at one another. To them Charlie’s orders had sounded nothing at all like the words employed in infantry drill regulations. And yet the platoon opposite had obeyed him as one man.

Charlie passed the test. He was popular with the entire company, and of course the sequence from the manual was a prearranged hoax. Stamping his foot was the signal for the men to go through the drill.

Graduation day was set for August 15. On the Saturday before that date I had received a pass and made my way to Washington. Only a few of the more obvious misfits had been sent back to civilian life, but the latest rumor had it that the coming week would witness the departure of hundreds of borderline cases. The suspense was almost unbearable.

My purpose in going to the capital was to visit Fred Essary, Washington correspondent for the Baltimore Sun , in his office on Fourteenth Street. He, I felt sure, would have a release giving the names of the successful candidates.

As a former reporter, I had a press card that served as a proper introduction to him. Yes, he had the list, but it was not to be made public until the fifteenth. Then he rose from the chair behind his flattop desk, looked sternly at me, and said: “There is something that I must do right now in my back office. It will take me no less than five minutes. I never lock the top right-hand drawer of my desk.”

At the door he paused and added with a grin: “For heaven’s sake, don’t tell anybody else except the men in your own squad.”

On the lightest of feet, despite the heavy garrison shoes in which they were encased, I made my way to the military shops that lined the avenue. There I purchased that silent mark of rank, a pair of leather puttees, was fitted by a tailor for a uniform with braid on the sleeves, and bought other such things as befitted a new shavetail. I had made the grade. So had Charlie. In all, seven of our closely knit squad had been awarded commissions.

Back at Fort Myer again, I quietly passed on my good news where it applied. It was received with properly restrained enthusiasm. Somehow or other the seven of us wangled passes to the city, where the others first made purchases such as mine; then at the insistence of Charlie we met at the Shoreham Hotel. He celebrated his and our good fortune by having us as his guests. The rest of that evening, and indeed of the ensuing week, is a blurred but happy memory.

Only one who knows the workings of the military mind could explain the assignment of us fledglings. Of our squad only Charlie and I were ordered to report to the Commanding Officer, 3igth Infantry, at Camp Lee, Virginia.

We arrived at an unfinished building complex and were quartered in what was to be a company barracks. It lacked sash in the windows, but it did have a rainproof roof. No running water was available. We had to walk almost a mile for mess three times a day.