The “Shirt” (and how I survived the war, daddy.)
By Ervin W Schrader
It is some times very strange and some how very weird how one minor thing or one simple decision can change one's life in a very dramatic way, for ever. This strange phenomenal is not unique to just one man, but is common with every person, man or women. There comes a time when you make a decision that has the most profound affect on your life, so profound, so dramatic that looking back you just can't believe it ever happened, but it did happen
This very seemingly minor incident that I will relate drastically changed and started the chain of events that would have a profound effect on the rest of my life. It all started with the simple act of buying a shirt, a used khaki shirt worn by an unknown soldier in World War Two. I wondered what this unknown soldier experienced in the war and where he served. Was it in the European theater or in the Pacific? Did he get wounded? Was he killed? Maybe he was one of the many who never was in any danger, never in combat. I thought about this a lot. I often speculated what kind of man he was and about his family, about many other things. (The one thing I knew for sure was that he worn the same size shirt that I did.) At the same time I wondered about my possible role in this new war. I always was a dreamer, I guess. I also had a good imagination as well.
It started out very simply with a very simple purpose, to buy an extra uniform shirt to augment the standard issue of my army clothing when I was in the National Guards. In those days after the “War” when the rapid and not well planned demobilization had almost wrecked the army. When we didn't see any new enemies on the horizon except the newly emerging and powerful Russians and partners in crime, the Chinese. We would worry about the Russians and the Chinese later. We finally felt somewhat safe and that we had done our job well, we had defeated the two most dangerous enemies in history, we had soundly and thoroughly defeated the Nazis and the Japs. The sacrifice was great and the world had suffered greatly. Now we wanted peace. We were tired of war.
So now we were at peace and the country thought it could now rest and recover from the effects of the “War” with one eye on the Russians, the other eye on the our suspicious and possible new enemies including especially Communist China, the real enemy. Now, for the time being since the beginning of the War there were no great concerns about the our army and especially our poorly equipped and always serving, but always ready, National Guards. We had just fought a terrible war that we won. So, we in the Guards had to do with the cast offs from the War. We all wanted to quickly forget. We wanted to think now our military was no longer needed. We were tired of the war. Society wanted to believe we, the National Guards were needed no longer. However, we were still needed. When everybody thinks, it is all over and we can now and feel safe, that is when we were at our most venerable condition and at the most risk.
Some of our uniforms were used, or re-issued and a little ragged. The regular Army got the best and the Guards got the left overs. Memory is short and not always sweet, We were wounded, we had won. but now we must keep the peace and the people were tired of war. We still needed the army. We still needed the Guards more than ever before. When there is peace and the war's noise has quited down, that's when we needed our military as much as ever.
I was then a Sergeant in a rifle company and one day as I was browsing in an Army surplus store I decided to buy this shirt. It had the owner's name written in small precise lettering in black ink and his army serial number. As I held up the shirt to examine it, I could see that the man who had owned it had taken very good care of it. There were very small minor and well done repairs. Maybe he did It or maybe he had a wife who did the repairs. All that didn't bother me and that it was used, didn't bother me either. I needed an extra shirt and I thought it would be nice to have this shirt that had been worn by a soldier in the War. It really seemed a little mystical to wear a shirt by a soldier who had probably fought in the War and I hoped had survived. It seemed somehow very personal. Possibility I thought it would bring me the same kind of luck.
I had joined the Missouri Army National Guards when I was 17 and a senior in high school. It was 1949 just four years after the end of World War Two, what everybody always just called the “War”. The War that we all knew that had to be fought and had to won, the war of survival. I kept hearing about the National Guards from a classmate who was a soldier in the “Guards.” I thought it would be fun to join and be a soldier. I guess I had seen too many war movies and listened to too many news broadcasts about the war. After all what did I as a 17 year old know much about anything at the time. I didn't even think what the consequences of this could possibly be in the unknown future that lay ahead.
So I went down to the National Guard Armory one day and told the old care keeper at the door that I wanted to join up. I said I wanted to enlist in Company B, the same unit as my high school friend belonged to. The care keeper was glad to take me straight away to the Company B's head quarters where the 1st Sergeant of Company B was glad to oblige me. Since I was only 17, I had to get my parent's permission. My mother hesitated, but finally agreed and signed a consent form which she did with some misgivings. She realized more than I that this was no boy scout outfit I wanted to join. This was a military unit, part of the armed forces of the USA and also a unit available to the state. Its consequences could be a lot more than just having fun. I was a just a little removed from my boy scout days when I was 12, but after all I was now a grown up man of 17!
So that was my start as a soldier in the National Guards. I thought it was great fun to be a soldier and I was proud to wear the uniform and be in the military and stay home at the same time. We had drill once a week and two weeks summer training. There was a different kind of friendship among my new comrades in arms, a kind of camaraderie that was very new to me, I liked it. Little did I realize that I had made a more serious commitment than I had fully realized at the time. However, I faithfully went to drill every week and slowly learned all of the basic skills of a well trained soldier, even a part time soldier at that. Of course being in the “Guards” kept me out of the draft and that required me to keep re-enlisting unless I wanted to be drafted so I had to re-enlist. This of course was after my graduation from high school when I would be available for the draft. When I first registered for the draft at the required age of 18, I was classified at 1A, the ready to go classification, the first to be drafted. My classification was later changed to 1D, deferred due to being in the Guards. This of course was always depending on our individual performance rating in the Guards which could be changed to 1A at any time at the discretion of the Company Commander. In other words, you couldn't goof off too much and you had obey all orders and to attend all the scheduled drills and extra training. So it wasn't just a real easy way to avoid the draft, you had to work at it some, otherwise you could end up in the draft in no time. For some this was a very much of a shock to find out that all of a sudden their draft classification had changed to 1A, and expedited! Usually this was changed, but not always. It was a good way to get the malingers back in line though.
After the end of the War the United States military had been rapidly demobilized and on the whole the US had to quickly mobilize again at the start of the Korean War. We were terribly unprepared and had to work quickly to get back up to strength. This was a haphazard process and this effected the Guards as well. We were using the same weapons, the same equipment, the same tactics and even the same uniforms that had been worn by the veterans in the “War”. Nothing had been changed, we were the same military. Many veterans of the War were called back into service when they thought that they had somehow survived it all and now were done with it. There was a lot of bitterness among them, but they served again and they served well. They were the cadre for the new soldiers who needed their experience and this they gave to the new draftees and the Guard willingly. Quite a few of the “old timers” in the Guard were former veterans and they were the back bone of our unit. We really needed their combat skills and experience.
We was told that we all would be serving our country in a more efficient way if I we stayed in the Guards as a trained cohesive and well organized unit that could be called up as a complete Division, ready to be sent into into battle straight away if need be. Not only that, but we would be with our friends and not in with strangers as the army recruits would be. The 35th Infantry Division, were told that we were part of the ready reserve, and as such we were a critical unit. There were at least 4 Guard divisions already called up and we expected the call up at any time. I also realized that when I graduated from high school in a few months time that I surely would be drafted into the Army for Korea. So better to stay with what I knew then take a chance with the draft or I could join anther branch of the military. (I had considered joining the Navy or the Marines) It made me feel better to think that and that was the idea behind it. Anyway we were all very patriotic. We were told that because of our continuing and constant training, we would in case of being sent into the Korean fighting, would be much better off than the raw army recruits in the same situation. We of course believed it all.
Soon, in less than a year the Korean War started and being a part time soldier looked a lot more serious and not quite as much fun as before. Now we trained in earnest, wondering if we were to be called up to go and fight in Korea. Our training increased to more and more extra weekends of advanced training and tactics. That summer during our annual two week training we were visited by some high ranking regular army officers to over see our training. This, the old timers said, was a little unusual for so many high ranking officers to be so interested in our training. That this might mean that we would be called up soon. The training intensified and our training now consisted of more heavy weapons, more tactics, training using mortars, bazookas, grenade launchers, hand to hand fighting, bayonet training and now in simulated battle tactics with our tank and air units.
I was assigned to the weapons squad on the air cooled 30 caliber machine gun. In time I was “promoted” to the Squad leader position. At that time I had qualified expert on the M1 rifle, the M1 Carbine, the 45 caliber pistol and the 30 caliber light machine gun. I could take apart the M1 Rifle blind folded and put in back together that way. I liked the light 30 caliber machine gun that I considered a good and effective weapon. I became an expert with it. As a machine gunner squad leader, I carried the 45 pistol as my personal assigned weapon. Some times I also carried the 30 caliber carbine as well, another good weapon. I grew to like the rugged efficiency of the machine gun. I also considered the Browning Automatic Rifle, the BAR, to be a very effective weapon. With all this training I thought I had become a well trained combat soldier! So I led myself to believe as did we all. It gave us some confidence. I have to say that I got much more training as a combat soldier in the National Guards in 6 years that I ever got in the regular army where my total “combat “ training consisted of 8 weeks of basic training. I went to 33 weeks radar training after basic so I was not trained as a combat soldier in the army. I was technical, one of the support troops. My 6 years in an rifle company of the Army National Guards was combat training and more combat training, constantly. That was all we really did. We did march in some of the parades as a smart military unit. Marching in tight formation with all the Sergeants in the front row to keep the right step as the military band was playing a grand march and the people were applauding. That always made us feel very patriotic.
At the time in the fighting in Korea it looked like we were getting our asses beat with the entry of the Chinese into the conflict and that it looked like we were in an all out war, no longer a “police action”, but a real shooting war!
However, before all this, before it started to look “serious” in Korea, I was getting my training, One day during my firing for record on the firing range with the M1 rifle, as I was just finishing my prone position firing at the 500 yard range when my coach started kicking me in the rump. As I was about to get up and take care of him, he pointed to an older man coming my way. I could see he was a high ranking officer, but didn't recognize who it really was until he got up close. It was a five star General, it was General Mark Clark of World War Two fame! He came right up to me and asked in a friendly way, “How are you doing soldier?” I was just eighteen at the time, I was somewhat shocked, but had the presence of mind to hold my M1 rifle down range. I said, “Sir, I am waiting for my score.” Then the score came up and it was 8 bull eyes and a four. He said pretty good shooting. Some how I then had the courage to ask him if he was going to call our division up for the Korean War. He looked at me with a slight knowing grin and said , “No your Division isn't quite ready yet. May be later” Well, that didn't make me too unhappy at the time as I had been keeping up with the news and we were suffering a lot of casualties in Korea.
Our division, the 35th Infantry Division, was the same National Guard Infantry Division during the First World War that Captain Harry S. Truman was in and the 35th had also fought many famous hard battles in World War Two. During both world wars the Army National Guard was 100% called up to active duty. It is hard to understand why we were not called up when thousands of raw Army and Marine recruits were thrown in the Korean War with little training, in many cases with just basic training when we were well trained and ready to go. There were many instances where Marine and Army reservists were called up and thrown into battle with no training at all! This was how badly we needed men in Korea at the time. I knew a man who had joined the Marine reserves shortly before the Korean War and had no training when he was called up. They sent him to Camp Pendleton California for two weeks “training”. More or less to learn how to fire the M1 rifle. He was in the Inchon landing that was supposed to out flank the North Koreans, a great idea by General Douglas MacArthur which led to the Chosen Reserver debacle. When millions of red Chinese entered the war and hit the greatly out numbered Marines and Army troops. The long, hard fought and deadly retreat back to the sea, back to Inchon cost us many casualties, but in doing so it cost the Chinese thousands more. Our casualties were compounded by the harsh and extremely cold weather that caused many frost bite and frozen limbs. The wounded in some cases were frozen to death before they could be evacuated. It was a bad time and the ones who survived later said it was like being in hell continuously. You had to experience it to believe it. No one who had not been there could really understand the hell they went through.
So my friend said he had no longer had been a shore in the Inchon landing but a few minutes when he was hit in the right heel by a rifle or machine bullet. He didn't know if it was by the enemy or “friendly fire”. It didn't matter either way. He was wounded. His heel was partly shot away and he was immediately evacuated to a hospital ship and sometime later was sent back to the States for an operation, got the purple heart and was discharged after his wound was healed sufficiently. His heel had been shot away and he gladly accepted his medical discharge. His entire total military career was less than 3 months total. I saw him later after he returned home. I heard his story and I said, “You are one lucky SOB.” He nodded his head vigorously in agreement and emphatically replied, “Your damned right!”
So as time went by and our call up never came, but we still trained in earnest anyway and the Captain said he would not tolerate anyone missing any drill. Anyone missing drill would be arrested and locked up for punishment. I was getting tired of playing this soldier game after awhile and I did miss some drills. Well, true to his word the Captain had me arrested and I spent some hours in a lock up at the local police station. However, for some unexplained reason or over sight I was not busted. It took two of these little episodes before I finally wised up. Sometimes I had to learn the hard way.
Well, as more time went by, I had been promoted up the ranks to Sergeant in spite of my lackadaisical performance. Making PFC was no great shakes and I had made Corporal just by being there in time and grade. I also made Sergeant because one day I had brought in a very dumb friend, at his insistence, who wanted to enlist. The pressure was then on the Captain to do more recruiting. I told the captain that I had brought in another volunteer. He was pleased and said I was going to be promoted to Sergeant. I really, by that time no longer liked playing the soldier game that much. I had been doing this for almost 6 years and it was getting tiresome.
One day day things changed for the worse in a way that we all thought that the Captain was abusing his authority as Company Commander. The Captain, who was a lawyer by trade, brought in his company law clerk and made him a brand new Tech Sergeant straight away, one grade and stripe higher than myself. This person with absolutely no military training whats-so-ever and couldn't even do an about face without tripping over his own feet. He now was in one stroke on a company posted order was in fact my superior. This was not well received by myself or the other men. He was made the company supply Sergeant!
So, finally to get to the point of this story, the next very serious result of the effect of the “Shirt”, one night during drill this “Supply Sergeant flunky” decided on his own to hold a in prompt clothing and equipment inspection. Unfortunately at the time I was just a little drunk as I had spent some time at the Armory PX before drill which a lot of us would do from time to time. (actually a lot of the time.) Being a little drunk probably contributed to this incident getting out of hand, and this is a warning about how this situation went awry went under the influence of a few “innocent” beers. “Oh the pitfalls of booze” someone once said. I didn't use good judgment to say the least. Remember now I had this old World War Two khaki shirt, one more than allowed. I always worn it when the class A uniform was ordered and sometimes when it wasn't. I somehow felt better, like I was a more of a real soldier.
OK, so this jerk comes up to me and looks over my pile of clothes and said in a pathetic imitation of a “tough” non-com, “You have an extra shirt. You have to turn it in.” I looked as this imitation of a “Sergeant” with undisguised contempt and I said, “Like hell! Over my dead body. I bought this shirt and it doesn't belong to supply.” (I really didn't accept the fact that this “amateur” and Captain's flunky had any authority over me.) I tried to explain that the shirt was bought in an Army surplus store with another man's name and serial number of a different time and place, but to no avail to this idiot.
That night after drill as I was changing into my civies, here he comes with the Captain who chews me out and tells me that I must do as his Supply Sergeant flunky ordered me. Well, I blew my top and cussed out the Captain and his flunky in no uncertain terms. I refused his direct order to turn in the “Shirt”. Enough said: The next drill night as I came in to our company area I was directed to the bulletin board and there was a notice from the Captain that said in official standard military language, direct and in no uncertain terms:
SGT Ervin W Schrader is hereby demoted to Private (E2) for insubordination, effected immediately.” Signed: Capt. McCracken, Company Commander
Well, this really got to me even though I had expected some kind of company punishment, such as loosing a stripe, but not this. Once again my temper got the best of my good judgment and I got myself in real trouble. I waited for this jerk after drill and in front of the Armory. I proceeded to beat the living day lights out of him. I have to say I really did a good job of it. If he is alive today I think he remembers that beating I gave him as the worst one in his life. He deserved it in my opinion and I still think so to this day.
So after missing the next two drill nights and after thinking over my situation I finally went to the next drill and was immediately summoned to the Captain's office where he told me forth width that he was giving me two choices: One: A Court Marshall or Two: The Draft. He said he couldn't allow his “Sergeants and non-coms” to be beaten up without due punishment! Well, I guess he was right and I had to be punished. Good discipline meant I had to be punished. I thought it over, but I didn't take much time to decide. I said, “I'll take the draft.” Good decision I thought later after wards and I still think so today. It could have been much worse. I was fortunate that he gave me this choice. The other way could have been disastrous. A Court Marshall could have meant stockade time. It was one of those decisions you have to make that will effect the rest of your life. I think in hind sight that I made the right decision.
So all this came about due the simple act of buying the “Shirt”. This incident has changed my life completely in many ways. I think it was a turning point. I went on to serve two years in the Regular Army, just days before the Korean War was officially declared over, got in before the Korean GI Bill expired and went on to be trained as a Radar Technician for 33 weeks at Ft Monmouth NJ. (unheard of at the time for a 2 year draftee!) I survived some “training accidents” that very well could have ended my life. Usually I was wearing my “Shirt”. There was one incident that happened after our firing the machine guns one day. I was sitting on the edge of a trailer behind a jeep and was helping load the machine guns when a gun was thrown in and it discharged a round that had been left in the breech. The round made a hole in the trailer about two inches below my crouch. A little more elevation and I either wouldn't be here to tell the tale or I would have been be emasculated for sure. However, all this pales in comparison when comparing my experience with that of a combat soldier in war time! I was just lucky. I was really just a peace time, somewhat reluctant soldier and glad of it! I always worn my lucky “Shirt” when the class A uniform was required. I somehow always felt better that way.
After my “punishment” and my draft classification being changed to 1A and knowing that I was going to be drafted, I decided to beat the draft and enlist in the Navy. So along with a friend went down and enlisted in the Navy. Passed the physical, did well on the IQ test and expected to be sworn in the Navy. The old Navy Chief assembled us volunteers and said that the Navy didn't want any body who was not 100% certain that he wanted to join the Navy and sent us all home to think about it. If we were sure, to come back the next day and we would be sworn in for an enlistment of 3 years. Well, I went home. I did think about it and decided that I didn't really want to be in the Navy. This I decided was fate in action. I was not meant to be a sailor. So I waited for the notice to report for the draft. I tried to get the new Captain of my company to stop the proceedings with the draft, but he said he couldn't do it. So that was it.
I was always lucky, never in any real danger although I had some narrow escapes at different times, but nobody was shooting at me in anger. All my army experience and subsequent army schooling I think has greatly helped me later in civilian life to obtain some good technical jobs as well being able to go to school using the GI Bill. To buy a house under the GI bill. To use the VA for my health care. (using the VA as my my main health care has had some dubious aspects though at times) I do believe my military experience broadened my personality and my out look on life as well.
It was a lasting experience that I'll never forget. I think any honest man would have to agree that his military experience had a profound and lasting effect on the rest of his life whether it was in combat or not. I think it might have been a combination the enforced discipline, the comradeship and the over all experience of having all your decisions being made for you. That they had you for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, under orders that you had to obey. For a few, this was what they wanted and what they needed. For others it was a kind of spring board to a more thought out improvement goal that made one want to excel in life. For a very few, a life that they just couldn't accept or handle and for these few it meant severe punishment, the stockade! It was a real life experience that I think most every man would either benefit from or not. For a very few it would increase their negative side. They would become the miscreants, the failures in life. The ever lasting negative effect of the Dishonorable Discharge that would forever haunt them for the rest of their lives. They were the failures, the rejects and the unfortunate few that the military did not want and would soon get rid of them in a hurry.
Finally, after some trying weeks in an Atomic Cannon battery at Ft Sill Oklahoma and my subsequent transfer to Ft Bliss, (and this is another story on how I managed to get out of Ft Still. It is a story that still amazes me on how I did it and that it really worked) I began to really enjoy my last year in the Army at Ft Bliss Texas near El Paso where I met my wife to be. After thinking back I would have to say that I got more out of the Army than the Army got out of me! And that is for certain!
I never did give them back “The Shirt.” I think, just maybe, that this shirt may indeed have had some “mystical powers” that gave me a little extra luck along the way, at least I felt that way. Something like a good luck charm that your superstition, although you couldn't explain, seemed plausible all the same. I worn it quite often when I was in the army until it started getting a little thread bare. Even in the peace time army I got away with some incidents and accidents that could have killed me or gotten me into some serious trouble. (that is another story) I was never ever in harms way during my entire 9 ½ years in the military.
I kept that old shirt for a long time before finally, somehow loosing it in a long forgotten move, somewhere. I was starting to think I had a real good luck charm. I missed that old worn out “Shirt”, worn by a unknown soldier who had probably survived the “War”. A shirt that along with my own stubbornness and my unwise actions had changed the very course and events of my life as if it was a tangible thing. Probably for the better, at least not for the worse. I think it certainly gave me a comfort, a belief that there is sometimes things that we really don't understand and that maybe one's life is channeled and guided into a course that is like a re-run of a previously programmed event. I suppose, though that most of us would scoff at such things. I wonder though. Is it possible that we re-live things in our minds over again and again until we get it right? Somehow, like re-writing a story or re-thinking an experience until we get it the way we would want it to really be. The way it just had to happen. The way we dreamed it to be. Well, anyway this a true story of “The Shirt”. Just take my word for it. It really happened.