Barefoot Soldiers

I love eavesdropping on our veterans’ conversations at their breakfast tables.  It delights me to hear them sharing memories of their wartime service instead of trading opinions on the more common topics of the day: the weather, the Steelers, the latest Washington outrage.

At our last breakfast, I passed by a table of Army infantry veterans in the midst of a spirited conversation. 

“They were treated like dogs,” one man said.  “They got the worst jobs and were never allowed to handle guns.  I don’t think they were even allowed in the infantry.”

“I could never figure that out,” another agreed.  “If you hate someone that much, you’d think you’d WANT them in the infantry!”

The men’s discussion of racial discrimination in the US Army was accurate.  African Americans soldiers were generally barred from any job except hauling, hewing, chopping, and driving.  There were notable exceptions: the Tuskegee Airmen and the three segregated black infantry divisions mobilized during the war (only the 92nd Division was permitted in combat).  The Army justified such discrimination on viciously racist stereotypes that judged black soldiers to be ill-equipped to handle the rigors of war.

The breakfast club men then turned their conversation to the white Southerners they met in boot camp. 

“Some of them didn’t have shoes!” said George.  The others nodded. 

Frank chimed in, “I remember when we were issued socks, one Southern boy asked me what they were for.  He’d never seen socks before!”

“We had guys so uneducated, they couldn’t read and didn’t know their left from their right!” George added.  “The sergeant put a straw in one boot and he counted cadence, ‘Step, Straw, Step, Straw!'” 

A Marine at the table confirmed George’s observation, except to add that his sergeant rolled up the men’s pant legs to teach them right from left.

The Great Depression had indeed wreaked havoc on the rising generation’s health and education, whatever the region.  Hundreds of thousands of teens had left their families and dropped out of school in the 1930s.  Many of them would end up in the military and, if they survived the war, owed a large measure of their personal improvement to the Army and Navy.  My Uncle Joe Branchik, who grew up in desperately poor circumstances in one of Pittsburgh’s ethnic slums, always said that the medical attention, clothes, and food  he got in the Navy were by far the best he had ever had.

After initially rejecting draftees who couldn’t read, needed glasses, were missing teeth, or had a hernia, the Army eventually responded to its manpower shortage by upgrading the defectives.  Tens of thousands of doctors, dentists, and reading tutors were hired to bring soldiers up to a minimum standard of physical and educational fitness.  A full 800,000 men drafted into the Army were deemed illiterate and thus were started on primers with such titles as Meet Private Pete and Private Pete Eats His Dinner.

If war mobilization got the country out of the Great Depression by 1942, then so too did induction into the armed forces upgrade the health, welfare, and living standards of millions.