The Seventeenth Largest Army

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In 1917 there was a brief lemme-at-‘em thrust to Save the World for Democracy that saw college boys enlisting en masse. Then followed a vast disillusionment in which it was said that American entrance into the World War was a gigantic farce concocted by J. P. Morgan, the British, and the armaments Merchants of Death; that the United States should never have sent a man. The great four-million-strong doughboy army was gone to make money in the Roaring Twenties, but a little group of men stayed in uniform, keeping their number at the 120,000 range by taking in eighteen-year-olds who joined up for one of three reasons, or so it was said: They were given a choice by a judge of enlistment or prison; they’d knocked up a girl and had to get out of town fast; they were on their uppers, couldn’t think of anything else to do, and needed three hots and a flop. Recruiting officers learned that the end of the harvest season brought in men whose jobs had given out. Strikes or lockouts in the cotton mills also were good.

“Please, gentlemen, quiet, please,” the new men were politely asked while they milled about waiting to be sworn in. The oath taken, it immediately became “Shut up and pay attention, you lummoxes!” There were no centralized training posts; they learned on the job from noncoms. They got $21 a month—70 cents a day. (When the Depression took hold, pay was cut to $16.50 a month, with $1.50 taken out for laundry and a quarter deducted for the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, where retired enlisted men could go when their time was up.) Every company had a handful of leftover heroes of what in America was usually called the World War, as opposed to Britain and the Continent’s the Great War—men wearing a Distinguished Service Medal or Cross earned in 1918, or even the Medal of Honor, but now perennial and perpetual privates. There is often a difference between being a good fighter and a good soldier.

A great percentage of the men were from the South of mountain hollows or pine tree barrens and red soil-surrounded bleached cabins. Few had any family back home, or at least anyone who cared to write to them or perhaps even knew how to write. “It was a special occasion when a unit obtained a recruit who was a high school graduate,” Westmoreland remembered, looking back to Fort Sill in 1936. Forbidden to marry until they had attained the grade of sergeant (which could take a decade, for one served his first three-year hitch as a private and his second as a private first class, and then often stayed there), the rear rankers’ away-from-barracks social life was often confined to association with prostitutes. No sane and decent girl would risk her reputation and that of her family by even talking to a soldier.

The great moment for contact with the outside world was payday. By ten in the morning the money had been handed out and poker and crap games got going in the dayroom, which was normally off limits until the evening. By noon a certain number of men were out of money and out of the game, and their task became to seek out a 20-percent-man who would lend them something at that monthly rate with repayment the following payday. Every company had a couple of such bankers. Armed with their new funds, the losers at cards and dice took off. (Behind them, more fortunate players battled on for high stakes among themselves. Then, at dark, the big winners of each company would meet in the post’s monthly version of the World Series, with really colossal sums tossed down on the table.)

Outside the post, romances of sorts flourished on payday. The poet and critic William Jay Smith, improbably the son of a career corporal who now and then briefly rose to sergeant before being busted, remembered how at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, prostitutes in satin evening dresses stood waiting at the trolley station near the gate. The women wore sneakers and carried blankets, the accouterments for visits to the nearby woods with their patrons. At other posts the custom transported itself to the point-of-product delivery; there were long lines in front of the whorehouses. Prior to lining up came drinking at saloons or speakeasies that lavished welcome upon payday soldiers but failed to know them a day or two later when the money was gone, photo taking at penny-arcade studios, the firing of .22s at a shooting gallery, fistfights with civilians or other soldiers. Then the girls.

When he was satiated, at least for the moment, it became a matter of importance for a man to get back to the post as speedily as possible. Contracting syphilis or gonorrhea was a court-martial offense, and failure to take what was termed a venereal prophylaxis could lead to a charge of failure to obey orders. Each of the Army’s more than 130 continental and overseas posts, bases, or stations had a particular place at the hospital or dispensary or infirmary marked by a green light burning twenty-four hours a day. You got filled up with ptargyrol, which you had to hold in for five minutes- not pleasant—and were given a tube of white ointment to smear on. You signed a form that was witnessed by the medic on duty. He kept a copy and gave you one. You had to state that treatment was taken within one hour of exposure. If you later turned up with a dose, you were in the clear with the authorities, seen as just someone who got an unfortunate break. (Syphilis is, after all, Hemingway once said, the occupational disease of soldiers and bullfighters.) But if you didn’t have the evidence you’d done the right thing, your sojourn at the hospital—Salvarsan and mercury shots, endless—was “bad time,” which meant it had to be served at the end of your regular enlistment, added on.