4. Some Guys Didn’t Make It
The first two or three weeks of boot camp were a little stressful for everyone, there was so much to absorb that was unfamiliar. And the CC expected we should need to be told something only once. The stress level was manageable for most of us, but it seemed to exceed the tolerance threshold of a few.
When we marched away from R&O the company numbered a few more than 70 young men. There were 63 of us to march ten weeks later in our graduation parade. The first man eliminated was a bed-wetter. It surprised most of us that bedwetting could afflict a grown man as well as children. His problem was quickly discovered and he was gone in a couple of days.
Elimination of the weak links was accomplished by the Company Commander with ruthless efficiency. His practiced eye soon focused on three or four men who would be easy to break and he began riding them right at the outset, singling them out for extra criticism and disparagement. (We all got a certain amount of that.) The CC apparently believed the only contribution these men could make to the Navy would be to serve as sacrificial object lessons for the rest of us, spurring us to make that “utmost effort” the “Welcome Aboard” sign at R&O called for. One by one they disappeared from our ranks in the first couple of weeks.
One who didn’t just disappear quietly was a thin, almost frail-looking man a few years older than most of us. He appeared to be getting along okay but one evening had what amounted to a nervous breakdown. An ambulance took him away and the next day a hospital corpsman came to collect his personal effects from his locker. It’s likely his condition began many years before.
Personal prejudice was also a factor. There was only one black recruit among us. I don’t know if that was random chance or a result of a policy of isolating blacks in otherwise all-white companies whenever possible. Racism was blatant and pervasive at that time in U. S. history. Being surrounded by silent contempt, and often outright hostility, would make it especially difficult for black recruits to persevere all the way to graduation. But, to their credit, and the dismay of some Navy people of all ranks, many did.
The CC always referred to our black comrade as “Catfish.” It seems he addressed all black sailors by that name, a kind of codeword for “boy.” Unfortunately, the rest of us followed the CC’s lead and also called him Catfish. Catfish was not one of the weak links. He wasn’t highly educated but he had ample native intelligence and street smarts. For example, we learned in the first few days that we couldn’t compete with him in the arena of put-down repartee. Many of us tried but he could always top our best shots. We just weren’t in his league. He kept us laughing and most of us not from the South had no problem with him being one of us. He had that confident swagger he’d earned on the mean streets of Los Angeles — except when facing the CC. He became clumsy and unsure of himself and almost tongue-tied under the Company Commander’s relentless harassment. It only took the CC about ten days to drive Catfish out of the company. We didn’t learn what became of him.
A tall redhead from Tennessee had trouble executing the physical drill with arms and was punished by being ordered to run some laps around the “grinder,” a huge, paved parade field, while holding his rifle above his head. (Our rifles, old 1903 Springfields without firing pins, were our constant companions.) By the third lap the redhead was limping but the CC told him to keep running. After another half of a lap or so he collapsed on the pavement, moaning in pain. At the infirmary it was discovered that a bone had cracked in his foot and when he kept running on it the damage to his foot became severe. He got a medical discharge with, we heard later, a disability pension.
The non-survivors, except for the Tennessee redhead, would have gotten “General” discharges. The GD stated, “Discharged Under Honorable Conditions,” which sounds okay, but really isn’t. Any man who’d been in the service, and virtually all employers, knew the difference between an “Honorable Discharge” and “Discharged Under Honorable Conditions.”
The GD was given to men who hadn’t done anything to warrant a UD (Undesirable Discharge – for being homosexual, for example) or a BCD (Bad Conduct Discharge – for theft, assault, refusal to obey orders or regulations, etc.) or, the ultimate badge of shame, the DD (Dishonorable Discharge – for desertion, cowardice in the face of the enemy or committing a serious crime, such as armed robbery or a sexual offense). Those with a GD just hadn’t been suited to the military environment. They suffered from excessive nervousness, or lack of physical coordination, or lack of bladder control, or being too slow to learn or just not being able to adapt. The GD was a certification of being found wanting when put to the test. It would be a permanent blemish.