War without War

April 24, 1943 was the beginning day of active duty for me. Camp Lee, Virginia, was my site for basic training. There was an attempt to enlist me in an Officers Training Program which necessitated speaking French; I told them I had only two years of French in high school, and knew nothing, and proceeded to prove that by flunking the oral test. There followed advanced training in army administration, which really was a slightly elevated “clerking”. After training I was sent to Iceland, and was there until just after the War in Europe was ended, returning on the first troop ship back into Boston after the European war. Discharge came in February, 1946.

Reflecting today on my Army experience, it is clear that while I was aware of racial segregation, it was not something which was much discussed among my friends, nor that I thought much about. At Camp Lee, we knew there was a regiment of black soldiers, located in another section of the Camp, and that there was somewhere a separate PX canteen for those soldiers. Occasions for even seeing those men were limited. There were times when I would pass their section of the Camp, but generally the only times my friends and I ever saw the black soldiers was when we were all on parade together. On those occasions I remember that there was discussion about the expectation that the black troops would make a fine impression “on parade”, and that “we would need to be really good to compete with them. Later, during my service in Iceland, I cannot remember any black troops on the island. My ignorance and unconcern about segregation during that period of my life, appalls me today. I guess that is part of what segregation was all about; being “apart from” meant there was no occasion or need to be “concerned about”. Acceptance of the status quo was “easy”. For me there was no “dis-ease”.

In Iceland I worked in a headquarters office of the 556th Signal Air Warning Battalion, attached to the Air Force, at Meeks Field. Meeks then bragged the longest runway in the world; the field was used as a refueling place for planes flying from the states to Europe, bearing arms and soldiers for what became the invasion of the continent. Recreational possibilities were limited at Meeks Field. The lava-rocked fields provided only difficult walking, as one form of recreation. A friend from the deep South, walked over those fields with me often. He was much taller than I; to each of his single, long steps I had to take several steps to keep up. He named me “short stroke”, and that became the way I was addressed by others who shared our Nissen Hut living quarters. Reykjavik was a slow, occasional bus ride away, and the attraction there was mostly a USO for enlisted men. It was often crowded by Officers whose reservations were first-honored. The little city was often overwhelmed by the presence of our troops, and I saw local Icelanders reject what were much too frequent instances of “ugly American” behavior. My youthful self did not know how to cope with that, nor have either the curiosity or ability to learn from that opportunity in a “new” land.

The relation between Officers and enlisted was generally poor. Today I wonder about the bottled anger I felt at the daily stupidity I saw, bolstered too often by a military culture which could not bend to meet personal needs. My job was to keep records for a company of men. In that context I met a man of Hungarian ancestry whose English reading and writing skills were limited. I offered to help him read, but really knew nothing about how to do that. I gained permission to meet him evenings at Battalion offices, and there we worked until he could finally write brief notes to his wife in English. She wrote to him in English, and I often had to read her letters. I remember his pride when he was able to struggle those letters without asking for my help. That was one of the most rewarding things that happened for me in Iceland.

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