Everybody has a story: Lucky guess was gateway to engineering career

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In June of 1948, after graduating from high school, the next step in life was to get a job. Not yet 18 years old, I did a clumsy job of changing my birth certificate and tried to pass it off on prospective employers. Whether it was that, or a bad job market, I don’t know, but the end result was no job offers.

The ideal job, or so my friends and I thought, was to be a heavy equipment operator. This led five of us to try joining the Navy to become “Seabees” -- that’s the nickname for members of the Construction Battalion. Learning construction with the Navy would surely get us jobs later.

We went to the recruiting office and signed up. They said there would be a little wait, but after several weeks and no word, we went to the office again. Then we heard the wait would be long, since the Navy’s quotas were filled. We decided to forget the Navy and join the Army instead. The Army recruiting office was just down the block. We were told we could get into the engineering corps and learn heavy equipment there.

We did basic training in Fort Benning, Ga. Just two of us, Brownie and I, wound up at Fort Belvoir, Va.

One day, Brownie and I joined many others in a theater to get our assignments. The officer in charge informed us that heavy equipment school was filled and we would be assigned to water supply school in Fort Lewis. The whole room groaned at the thought of water supply and Fort Lewis. He did say that there were two openings in drafting school if anyone was interested. Everyone was interested. In order to choose fairly, the officer said he would think of a number from 1 to 100. The two closest would be in.

Without consulting one another, Brownie and I each choose 37. That was the number, and we were in.

After finishing drafting school, I was assigned to Fort Eustis, Va. I worked as a draftsman for the adjutant general. It was almost like a civilian job. I had a class-A pass which meant that I could leave the post anytime I was not working. My hardest task was addressing packages from the commanding general to his daughter at college. I had to use a Leroy lettering guide to make each letter perfect. I also made name tags for every officer on the base.

While at home on leave in August of 1951, I received a telegram ordering me back to camp, to be shipped to Korea. I flew to Camp Stoneman in California and boarded the USS General W.F. Hase in San Francisco for the trip across the Pacific. We stopped at Pearl Harbor, and the captain gave permission for everyone to go ashore. What a chance he was taking with men on their way to a war zone -- free on an island paradise! I had a nice steak dinner and a Singapore Sling, my first legal drink because it was my 21st birthday. Everyone was back aboard the next morning, and on we went to Japan. Then it was a ferry and a train, and I was in Taegu, Korea.

First, I was assigned to the artillery section of Eighth Army Headquarters. Before long, I was transferred to the main artillery office in Seoul. It was a nice brick building, a former high school, and three of us enlisted men shared a room. Sometimes the indoor plumbing worked and we didn’t have to go outside to the large outhouse. We had a Jeep we could use to go for meals and showers. Hershey chocolate bars were available at every meal. We collected these and took them to an orphanage for the children to enjoy.

In the little time off I had, the Jeep was available, and I was able to visit the Imperial Palace grounds and the capitol building. On another day, I visited with hometown friends in a railway battalion south of Seoul.

One of the jobs I did was to plot spots for Navy ships to anchor in Inchon harbor.

I mention these assignments only to contrast them with what most soldiers did during the Korean War and to show how fortunate I was. My friend Ed became a company clerk for a unit on the front lines. He made it home OK, and we were discharged at the same time. Another friend, not of the original five, was a paratrooper. He made a combat jump north of Pyongyang, North Korea, in October of 1950. While on patrol, he was pinned down by enemy fire in a roadside ditch for most of a day. It was cold and his feet froze. They give him problems to this day. And what of those men who went to Fort Lewis to learn water supply? They were probably up near the front lines providing water for all of the troops, living in tents when possible and enduring all kinds of bad weather.

My interest in drafting led me to become a civil engineer with a satisfying career working with rocket engines and atomic power plant components. Every day I am thankful that the hand of God guided my fingers to write 37 on a slip of paper many years ago.

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