1954: A Turning Point

It was 1954 and Bob L. and I had been out after a class at the UConn branch in the Brooklyn section of Waterbury not far from St Patrick's Church. The old Begnal School.

I had played football on the grass behind that church even tho' I went to St Joseph's down the street. My father had gone to St Pat's since he didn't like the Lithuanian masses at St Joe's. But that was an aside since Bob and I had agreed that the Air Force was the way to go. The Korean G I Bill was about to expire and we both wanted to use it for our college years. No Army we both agreed. Stay in college and keep that deferment from the draft.

Bob and I had buddied up in Crosby High for those 4 years and found we both liked the Rifle Club and not the sweat of some other sports. I had departed from my brothers who had all gone to Leavenworth High across the street. I wanted something else but as with Bob neither of us were sure what the something else was. Now December pushed the time button and we both drove over to the recruiting office.

Bob had said ,"You don't dig foxholes in the Air Force." I concurred. But it had to be the G I Bill. We had never had any college member in my family. Both of my older brothers had gone to factory work until that great Good War WWII took them into the military. Jimmy had gone first and so today he rests in the American Cemetery in Margraten Holland. Dave had been saved by the end of the war in Europe and his discharge.

In my family that had left Tom to go to Seoul for the years of that war in the care of the Air Force. It saved him for a 20 year career in the same.

Now my time had come and both of us asked the Officer about signing up and the boom was lowered. He said."We've stopped signing and met our quota. Try next month"

Bob said OK and I couldn't. I needed the bill and that is why I walked across the way and signed up with the Army recruiter. And signed up for 3 years. Wow! I thought a day and a half for every day I was in and that would pay for 4 years in college. If I only knew what those 3 years would bring - Fort Bragg, Airborne, Fort Campbell, West Germany, Bavaria, Big Accident, Hospital, German Airborne Training (Falschirmspringers) and becoming a Training NCO and Teaching as a career. Highlights of the coming attractions as they say in Hollywood!

by RRB

Coming Attraction: Ft Bragg

Ft Bragg doesn't begin there. It starts with my travels with the many guys who wanted the G I Bill and from Waterbury that meant we traveled by bus to Ft Dix NJ.

It was the winter and the first thing was for the Army to get us into military gear and into old barracks that hadn't been used for a few years.

And so it was no wonder that furnaces didn't work and even this crowd of young men would get sick. And with hundreds and closeness the viruses spread quickly.

The powers that ruled noticed that several died and many many were in hospital. They decided to split us up and send us to several different locations for training.

Many fort names that I don't recall with the exception of Ft Bragg NC, the home of the 82nd Airborne Division. And I and others said who the hell wants to jump out of planes!

As we gathered in a group of fifty it was explained that we wouldn't jump. We had to go thru basic training and would have to volunteer for jump training. I wasn't that crazy!

Eight weeks of basic led to eight more of advanced and we were sorted out for jobs within the division. Many of us had some kind of office skills, typing etc., and so me and my new friends had jobs, battling white paper and carbon copies. I became a clerk with Engineer battalion attached here and it became comfortable.

The comfort was short as I had gone to the movies and seen a newsreel. Wow! It was 1955 and the Naugatuck Valley was flooded. I immediately called home and no one answered. I panicked and begged for leave to check on them. It was granted for 10 days. I borrowed 20 dollars and got a ticket to Greenwich CT. From there I hitchhiked to Waterbury Only to find that they were safe with my brother Dave and his family in Newington. And the flood waters hadn't gotten up that far on Bank Street.

Rather than just hang around I volunteered to work with the National Guard. Now many of these guys had been doing a great job BUT I found my truck group had sectioned off a portion of the truck and it had TVs, radios and other items.

I got a train ticket and went right back to Bragg and told stories of the good that had been done by the many

Fort Campbell

At Ft Bragg, my best buddy and I talked about getting to go to Europe with some group. Now a friend said that he had heard that the 11th Airborne was about to be shipped to West Germany taking the place of another division. Both Bill B and I asked for a transfer and 3 of us were given papers tp transfer to Ft Campbell, Kentucky the home of the 11th.

We got there and discovered that most of the division was already on their way. We were part of the cleanup crew but we were in and also We were in the 408 Abn Qtrmstr Co Airborne Quartermaster Company. Part of the Div that passes out the everything to the division.

Within a week we were on a train to NYC and the Brooklyn Yards and a troop transport to take us to Bremerhaven,West Germany. After 8 days of shaky North Atlantic travel with hundreds of guys puking their guts up after breakfast, lunch. and supper. we arrived. And they immediately bundled us into a train to head south to Bavaria, near the Alps, the towns, Augsburg and Munich. One thing I have to add here is that the new facilities were the old kaserne housing from WWII. It was better than what we had left stateside.

Bavaria

Getting acquainted with Germany meant watching guys stripping the wires on their radios because of the different receptacles and then blowing out their sets because 220 is stronger than 110. A way to learn! And having the guards tell us later that sneaking off to the bierstube just off the kaserne meant that some of us had just drunk human feces with our beers. You learn one way or the other!

This crazy young group of jumpers began immediately to drink, drank, drunk themselves thru beer halls thruout Augsburg and Munich. Too much of this "good" thing led the commanding officer to send the entire division out on manuevers in the middle of winter.

It worked and cooled off the crew. 10,000 guys and some never learn.Young and foolish and paratroopers! Right about then I was assigned to Graves Registration and our Sgt decided to cruise the various beer halls in the area. Supposedly looking for Lord knows what! After the 4th stop we headed back to our area as I slept in the back of the truck on a camouflage net our driver passed a "honeywagon". Fertilizer truck. He failed at that.

I woke up 2 days later in a hospital. having no idea what happened. When they realized that the fluid coming out of my nose was cranial I was pumped full of penicillin and transfered to another hospital near Belgium.. I spent a month or so here and discovered that I was supposed to die and had had meningitis. My amnesia kept me from the court martial and that they thought I wouldn't make it. You noticed that I fooled them all!

As an aside my mom was blest with a second telegram as earlier had happened (1945) with my oldest brother, which I quickly countered with a letter saying I was doing well.

As another aside I would later make a trip to Margraten in the Netherlands to visit the grave of my brother Jim dead as of March 1945.

Falschirmspringers

When I went back to my company things calmed down for a bit. And then came the West German Falschirmspringers!

Falschirmspringers are paratroopers. West Germany was about to restart this group in their armed forces.After having typed up the next list of jumpers from our company to travel to Munich and the Air Force base and the waiting C-119's (Flying Boxcars) as was my job.

It was the weekly large jump which attracted kids from the area and left scattered bicycles to trip up 'chutists blown off course . My job as Training NCO was over for the morning and so I sat with a group of "legs' non-jumpers as we listened to the Exec Officer practically beg for volunteers to train with the restarted German group.

Bill B jabbed me in the ribs and dragged both his hand and mine up. It would be to embarassing to back out and so Bill and I went thru training with a group of Amis and Deutchers in that winter.

Two weeks of hellish training with all kinds of gear and sweat pouring out despite the wind and cold, German and American young men bonded for a bit and waited for Jump Week. Three jumps would make it official. But it snowed Monday and it snowed Tuesday and they said that Wed… no! It started to clear and they rushed us off to the air base and waiting planes.
Me who had said me jump. Like Hell!

The planes lumbered down the runway and finally got off the ground. My Lord we were going to drop into a nice Alp valley with plenty of soft snow to land on.

Ten of us 5 of each group . Stand up! Hook up! Move to the door!

As I exited I heard the jumpmaster say,"Wrong place!"

Too late and we all shouted and screamed. No not the mistake. The Bavarian Alps. The valley was gorgeous with black trees, and small chalets and a village street and at least 4 feet of snow everywhere.

The German jumpers apologized to the villagers who had seen us and particularly to the hausfrau who had a helmet come crashing to the ground near her. Trucks came to pick us up and 2 jumps later we were jumpers or falschirmspringers.

Teaching

My last year as an active soldier was as Training NCO. Here is where the Turning Point actually happens. I enjoyed teaching and got better and better at it. It was the Cold War and the Russians were active in East Germany and in Czechoslovakia and so the military kept us moving and showing off our readiness.

My 3 years in the U S Army and the Airborne would come to an end with the closing of 1957 and beginning of 1958. When I returned to Connecticut I went immediately to Central Conn State College to become a teacher. God Bless the G I Bill which began paying my tuition there and also a parttime job.

Wow! How quickly I found that their approach was dull and duller. I transferred to UConn at Storrs to major in History and minor in Philosophy. American History was and is a great source of discovering that most texts are BS and you have to search for the truth. And I have been searching ever since, as have many others!

It led to 35 years of teaching at Kennedy High School and activity in the teacher's union and 2 real teacher strikes for wages and benefits. The military tour was a profound turning point! Maybe an understatement!

Robert Blake

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