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I Soldiered With Charlie

June 2024
7min read

Charlie and I first met under the most informal conditions imaginable—we were both stark naked. We were not alone in this, for with hundreds of others we were taking a physical examination for acceptance in the first officers’ training camp at Fort Myer, Virginia. The date was May 16, 1917.

On the previous day approximately twenty-five hundred men had descended on the post. Our hopes were high, even though the first latrine rumor most of us heard was that only one in four would be commissioned.

Our company was marched to the post gymnasium early the next morning. Once inside, we were brusquely ordered to strip, then form a single file. It was at this point that the indignities began. As the line entered the first door a hospital corpsman splashed each of us on the chest with a wet sponge. Next another corpsman, armed with an indelible pencil, scrawled a large number on the moist spot for identification. As we passed through a second door, the line never stopping its peristaltic movement, each of us in turn was grabbed by the arm. Some sharp instrument scratched a crosshatching on a spot near the biceps. A damp swab was passed over the lacerated skin, and another vaccination was accomplished.

While we turned our heads to examine our injuries the other arm was seized, and a blunt needle was plunged into it—the first of many, many inoculations. A surprisingly large number of husky men passed out at this point. They were unceremoniously towed out of the way of the procession and propped against the wall, their identifying numbers properly exposed.

Charlie had a huge “35” inscribed on his chest. I followed with a "36.” We were becoming acquainted with each other as the snake dance led us through another door. Here our conversation was abruptly interrupted by a newly commissioned lieutenant of the Medical Corps. He practically jumped at Charlie, snapped a question at him, and made rapid notes on his paper-crowded clipboard.

“Thirty-five,” he barked, striving hard for the tone of command, “what did you do in civil life?”

“Worked in a bank,” Charlie replied with a slight grin.

Perhaps it was the smile that accompanied it, but the answer seemed to infuriate the officer. He glowered at me but without questioning stalked rapidly away.

We came to yet another door. On the far side of it stood the same inquisitor. Spotting Charlie’s number, he hurled another question at him.

”Just what did you do in that bank?”

Charlie grinned the infectious smile that I was later to know so well.

“I ran it.”

In civilian life a man’s mien and clothes give a slight indication of his occupation, but how could anyone even hazard a guess when he was surrounded by hundreds of naked men? Charlie’s physique certainly did not suggest the stereotyped banker. Not tall, but powerfully built, he could readily have been taken for a professional athlete. The answer he gave really upset the questioner.

“What bank was it?”

“My bank, you damn fool!”

The astonished doctor hastily scribbled a note on his memo pad, then angrily rushed away. Charlie turned calmly to me and resumed our interrupted conversation. By this time we had discovered many mutual interests and had begun a friendship that was to last for years.

In the meantime the grapevine, starting from the rear of our file of unclad officer-candidates, had passed on the word to be careful how we answered the apparently innocent questions asked of us as we moved through door after door. The interrogation was being conducted, it was said, by psychiatrists, and a wrong answer could mean no commission at all.

Charlie was sure he had muffed his chance and was therefore not at all surprised to be ordered to the base hospital that afternoon for a special examination. Hallucinations! Thinks he owns a bank!

He rejoined the company a few hours later.

“Are you nuts, Charlie?”

“Sure. We’re all nuts to be here.”

He pitched in with us in the laborious task of issuing uniforms and equipment. With both arms painfully damaged by the morning’s experience, this turned out to be real, unrelenting hard work for bodies unaccustomed to such physical exertion. Taps came at eleven o’clock, but we were kept at it until the job was done to the company commander’s satisfaction. Our second night in the army was notably short. Reveille found us up and in line, if not awake, before dawn.

Charlie and I were of about the same height, and thus we were placed in the same squad. He was thirtyone, ten years older than I and infinitely more sophisticated. It was fascinating and informative to get him talking when opportunity offered.

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.

By the third day our chins began to look like today’s hippies’. Coca-Cola, the ubiquitous, was plentiful, so we did not thirst, but, oh, for the comfort of a shave. Charlie, more resourceful than most of us, attempted, without too much success, to work up a lather using the Coke. At least it wet his beard and enabled him to hack his way through it with his straight razor. The bubbles tickled, and the stickiness persisted afterward; still, we all followed his suggestion and once again looked more like officers.

Jitney service to Petersburg was somewhat less than satisfactory, so one day Charlie appeared with a Hudson touring car, the use of which he shared freely with anyone off duty. The mysterious workings of the military mind again showed shortly after Thanksgiving. Camp Lee was assuming some semblance of order when Charlie was suddenly transferred to the Air Corps. He left the key in his car with the quiet remark “Somebody will want to use it.”

I did not see him at all during the hostilities. It was not until a reunion of the surviving officers of the 31Qth was held in Washington about ten years later that we met again. It was at that banquet that each of us was called upon to relate an incident under the heading “Do you remember when. …”

With Charlie sitting at my side, I told of the time in the Fort Myer gymnasium when he had told his inquisitor he owned a bank. One of those present, unfamiliar with the story and not knowing anything about the man involved, naively asked him, “Did you? What was the bank?”

“Well, it wasn’t just exactly a bank,” Charlie explained. “It was a financial institution, though. It is called Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Beane. You may have heard of it.”

Although from time to time we exchanged letters recalling the days when we soldiered together, I never saw him again. Charles Edward Merrill, my friend Charlie, died on October 6, 1956.


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