Basic Training

Benjamin B. Ferencz

No sooner had I graduated from the Harvard Law School than the U.S. Army, in its infinite wisdom, made me a buck private in the artillery. I was assigned to be a typist in the supply room of a battalion being trained for the invasion of France. I never did learn how to type or how to fire a cannon. My prior education had taught me that “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including among these are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This sacred declaration seems to have escaped the attention of the War Department. American officers paraded under a different banner, “Rank has its privileges!” My military career was distinguished primarily by my determined drive to defend the principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. In defense of equal rights and the pursuit of happiness, my primary adversary was not the German army, but the U.S. Army bureaucracy.

From March to September 1943, I was a guest of my country in Camp Davis, North Carolina. It appeared that the basic lesson of basic training was to teach adults how to distinguish the right foot from the left. We were required to spend hour after hour marching around in the hot sun listening to a stupid Master Sergeant bellowing, again and again, “Turn right, turn left, column right, column left....” I decided to assert my endowed right to liberty and refused to march. I explained to the drillmaster, a massive brute from Texas who boasted of beating his wife, that close order drill was invented by the Romans for a reason that was valid in medieval times. Those on the right of a marching unit carried their shields on their right arm, those on the left carried shields on their left and those in the middle held their shields overhead. Thus, like a modern tank, they were protected on all sides against the spears that might be thrown from an enemy on a hill. I pointed out that we were not likely to encounter spears thrown from a hill. A solid block of American footsoldiers approaching the machine guns of an entrenched enemy position would be mowed down if we did what he was training us to do. The “Sarge” listened with obvious contempt and retaliated by declaring war on me!

He stuck a pencil on the top of my head and screamed, “Your (expletive) hair is too (expletive) long. No higher than one inch, soldier!” Being an obedient fellow, I promptly went to the barber and ordered that my head be shaved clean. I then went to the medics and inquired whether I could risk marching around in the hot sun with a completely bald scalp. I noted, truthfully, that I had tried that once as a teenager and the result was that my cranium swelled up like a pudgy balloon. The doctor, a Captain, agreed that marching under such conditions might cause a fatal sunstroke. At my request he wrote out an order that I was not permitted to march outdoors until I recovered a full head of protective hair. I thanked him profusely for his great medical acumen and marched out singing in loud military cadence, “Left right, left, right... left, right....”

The next morning, when we were summoned to our usual “parade of the wooden soldiers,” I brandished the medical captain’s prescription in the face of the blustering Sergeant. “OK you (expletive) wise guy,” came the shouted retort, “I’ll fix your (expletive) wagon!” Since I didn’t have a wagon and it didn’t need repair, I guessed that the burly bully had something else in mind. In short order, I was subjected to a special assortment of tortures designed, I guess, to make a good soldier out of me. I brushed the wooden barrack floor with a toothbrush, wiped out the toilets, stepped into and cleaned the stinking greasepits, and scrubbed the pots and pans for the officer’s mess. When I was through it really earned the name “mess.” The utensils were even more grimy and greasy than when I started. I explained, apologetically, that my hands were not used to near-boiling water and my tender skin could only tolerate lukewarm immersion. I was relieved from duty as an incompetent dishwasher. Since they couldn’t fire me, a host of worse chores became my daily bread. As long as it was work that was useful and necessary, no matter how dirty the job and how malicious the assignment, I served my country without complaint. But things like chopping down trees and planting them around the sandy barracks and tearing them up again as soon as an inspection by a commanding officer was over was the type of revolting stupidity that encouraged me to revolt.

Fortunately, some relief was at hand. As a supply clerk, one of my more useful army duties, surprisingly, was to order supplies. One of my first requisitions was for the official rubber stamps needed to authenticate every military action. I was directed to request one such seal for the battalion commander and one for the company commander. Since it was such a vital instrument, I thought it might be prudent to request an extra one as a reserve. For safekeeping, I kept it in my own pocket. I would sooner have parted with my rifle. The official stamp and an extra book of blank passes became an instrument of justice. When all the officers and the Sergeant had left the camp for the weekend, a line formed around my bunk. My buddies knew that a pass from Benny, validated with the official seal, would get them past all of the MPs. I was simply demonstrating the equality of all men as guaranteed by our noble constitution. There was no limit to my patriotism. I also tried to be kind and charitable whenever it appeared that those virtues were being neglected by the U.S. military or justice was being unfairly denied.

Part of our basic training required us to jump over a big hole filled with mud. One guy from the Bronx, “Prince the Klutz,” landed in the muck every time. He was given three minutes to reappear in clean uniform and try again. How he was expected to improve during that interval escaped me. Each time, Prince tripped. He finally collapsed on his face in the mud. The sadist Sergeant laughed with glee at the helpless and exhausted private. For appearing in a soiled uniform, the “Sarge” directed that his victim be confined to barracks until he could perform the feat that physically he was simply unable to perform. There was a risk that he would be shipped out to war without any chance to see his family again. The extra official seal and pass book made it possible to assert the principles of fairness and justice that made America great. I saw to it that Private Prince got back to the Bronx in time to say good-bye to his dear mother.

My battalion, along with many others, was being trained to make a landing on the beach of a secret foreign shore. We were transported by truck to a barren coast near Carolina where our mission was explained. We were expected to go ashore under enemy fire and could expect enemy tanks to descend upon us and try to drive us from the beachhead. We were to defend ourselves by digging a deep hole in the sand and jumping into it so that we could not be seen by the gunners on the tank. We were reassured that the treads of the wide tanks would pass right over the hole and we would remain safe from harm. We were informed that the underbelly of tanks carried no armor so we could blow them up from below with a hand grenade that we were all expected to carry. I must admit that the idea of training to become a suicide bomber on the sands of Carolina was not particularly appealing.

Infantrymen carried a small shovel but I was expected to dig my hole using only the aluminum plate of my mess kit. I never learned how a dig a hole in law school and I was really no good at it. I had dug only a shallow grave when I could hear the rumbling of the training tanks that were descending upon us. I don’t think I am a coward but I recalled that “retreat is the better part of valor.” Under the circumstances, I concluded that it would be prudent to just stick a big branch that I found on the beach, into the unfinished hole and run like hell. From a safe distance, hiding behind some hedges, I observed what would happen to my branch. Sure enough, the tanks came rolling and one ran right over my spot. It stopped as if to look for me and then turned slowly grinding its treads into the soft surf. My branch was buried forever. If I had stayed there, as instructed, there would have been be no more Benny.

You may ask, “Where was poor ole Prince, the Klutz?” Well, he was with us when we were being trained to board the big ships that had to carry us to the foreign shore and then unload us into small landing craft that would dump us on the beach, where we were expected to dig a hole and pray. A big rope net, thrown down the side of the heaving ship, was to serve as the ladder to the bobbing landing craft below. My anxious friend was near me as we descended the ropes, carrying all our gear. As might have been expected, Prince couldn’t hold on. If he had landed in the water he would have sunk like a rock. He probably couldn’t swim either. He was lucky to have landed on his back in the tiny landing craft. I later learned that he survived and received a medical discharge. Justice triumphed again.

Of course, as soon as I found myself in the artillery, I applied for admission into Officers Candidate School. When I was summoned to appear before the OCS Board, I was surprised to see that its Presiding Officer was an old friend who had sat next to me at Harvard. He was then known as Major Hickman, a West Point graduate who was sent to law school by the army. In those days we exchanged notes. He was now on his way to becoming the Judge Advocate General. We expressed mutual joy at finding each other again. He assured me immediately that my application would be approved. I heard nothing further until we were ready to sail off to war.

One day when I was on leave, thanks to my own official pass, I visited an army detention center. I was not trying to survey my future home, but merely keeping up with my studies on crime prevention. Based on my observations, I wrote an article on “Rehabilitating Army Offenders” that appeared in the prestigious Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology on November 1943. The author was identified as Corporal Benjamin Ferencz, 115th AAA Gun Battalion, U.S. Army. The commandant of the Detention Center sent a request to my Battalion Commander asking if I could be transferred to his unit where expert help was badly needed. I learned of the request and the answer at the same time as I received news about my application to go to Officers Training School.

It was December 1943 when the sadistic Master Sergeant called me into his office with a happy sneer. “Well,” he said, “we’ve finally received orders to ship overseas. I’ve been holding some papers here that may interest you. I see you want to be an officer. I also see that a request has been made to transfer you to another outfit. All transfers are now prohibited.” He tore up both papers before my eyes and tossed them into the trashcan with a flourish. “The only way you’ll get out of this outfit is in a box!” A few days later, we sailed off to war.