Dog Tags


For he lives twice who can at once employ The present well, and ev'n the past enjoy.
Alexander Pope: Imitation of Martial


.....the memoirs of William T. Paull

he "Great Depression" of the 1930's caused real hardships all over the country, but Butte, a mining town with only one major employer, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, suffered more distress than the average. My dad and my three uncles all worked for the ACM. When the mines closed down all of them were "laid off". Pride kept our family from accepting government aid so they mortgaged the house, borrowed on their insurance policies and ran up a huge debt at the neighborhood grocery store. Uncle Will and Uncle Bert left to work on the big dam at Fort Peck but their wages barely covered their board and room so they weren't able to send much money home. The family finally swallowed its pride and "went on relief". Every week we'd receive a food allotment. This mostly consisted of bags of farina, sacks of potatoes, canned corn, flour and lard. My most vivid memory of a "depression dinner" is fried potatoes and corn. Actually, this is a rather pleasant recollection. I still like crisply fried spuds smothered with cream-style corn.

I remember 1934 as a good year. Dad and the uncles were working again. So was I. I had rustled a job after school and on Saturdays as a "swamper" at Ashford's Grocery. It made me proud to contribute my puny pay check to the family pot. We were slowly paying off the grocery bill, the insurance loans and the mortgage.

This first job was my harsh introduction to the pecking order. The swamper does the brawn work and the driver does the brainy stuff. After the customer's orders were assembled and packed into collapsible crates, called "folders", the driver drove away with the precariously piled boxes, all covered with a heavy tarp. I had to ride on the tailgate to protect the load. We never had to worry about perishables because milk, eggs, and cheese were delivered by dairy trucks.

Ashford's Grocery had a select clientele, catering to all the big-shot ACM officials, lawyers, doctors, and merchants who lived on The Westside, an area west of Excelsior Avenue and south of Caledonia Street. I delivered groceries to unbelievable homes with two bathrooms, and elegant apartment houses ... a few of them even had elevators. These places were the good spots on the route. Instead of repeatedly trudging up two or three flights of stairs with the crates of groceries, I could load them all on the elevator and ride up with them. I unloaded the boxes for the customers ... while the driver sat calmly in the truck, studying the invoices, determining the next stop on the route, and complaining if he thought his swamper wasn't moving fast enough.

*** *** ***

popcornI had enough money for an occasional trip to the Park Theater. My dream was born in this dark hall. I was bewitched by a movie, "Shipmates Forever"; Dick Powell played a suave Annapolis midshipman and a sweet young ingenue, Ruby Keeler, walked down Flirtation Walk with him as he crooned:
"Shipmates stand together,
tho it's a long, long trip;
Fair or stormy weather,
we won't give up,
we won't give up the ship."

This movie fascinated me and I sat through it several times. I'd like to see it again but I'd probably be embarrassed by its corniness. Corny, or not, it eventually had a direct effect upon my life. Romance, patriotism, adventure...all in one neat package. Wow! The Naval Academy offered it all. Besides, since I knew there wouldn't be any college money for me, an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy would provide a free education. Each U.S. Senator and congressman could appoint two boys to both West Point and Annapolis each year. This was long before the women's equal rights movement. Each congressman could have a total of eight appointees in each academy and this was a great patronage plum for politicians. Most used the Civil Service Commission to administer tests to the applicants. Allegedly, appointments to the service academies were awarded according to test scores. In Montana at least, the high scorers on these tests always seemed to be the sons of wealthy people with political clout. In spite of my cynicism, I decided to try for an appointment. In 1936, Senator Murray had one vacancy at Annapolis and two at West Point. The odds favored getting an appointment to West Point, but because of that neat movie, I tried for Annapolis.

Since my academic performance in high school was somewhat lackluster, I had no great expectations... but I felt compelled to try. I took the test in the old Federal Building in Butte. There were just two of us, a classmate, Alden Wright, and me. We sweated out the exam in that huge empty hall while other boys took the test in Billings, Great Falls, Missoula and Helena. My skepticism got a big jolt when Senator Murray selected me as the nominee; Alden Wright was named first alternate. I didn't have to put myself down by rationalizing that there had been political pull exerted on my behalf since my family was staunchly Republican and Murray was a bigshot Democratic leader in the Senate. This was a great ego boost for a shy eighteen year old. I walked on air for six months, my head filled with grand visions of a glorious future in the Navy. How handsome I would look in those dress whites!

News Clip

The euphoria set me up for a big letdown. The crash came when I flunked the physical. I had "essential hypertension", a fancy name for high blood pressure. Alden didn't make it into the Academy either but I can't remember why. Trying to switch gears and find a new goal, I applied at the Montana School of Mines and got accepted, but never enrolled. Before school started I got hired full time at Fuller Paint Company for $75.00 per month. I bought a little grey Chevy coupe with a rumble seat and went to work unloading boxcars, stocking shelves and learning how to cut glass.

When the draft came along, I felt smug. I knew that I had high blood pressure and wouldn't pass the physical. Wrong! Over the years I've found that my blood pressure is erratic and fickle. It always registers in the normal range when I'd like to have reason to avoid something, but the reading is too high when I want to pass an examination for an insurance policy. Anyway, I was certified a healthy young male and rated 1-A. I was on hold and could be expected to receive the "Greetings" notice inducting me into the Army at any time. Steve Kristic, the bookkeeper at Fullers, was in the same 1-A category, and we made a pact. We would never let the Army "get us". Whenever induction was imminent, we'd enlist in the Navy. (I was still remembering that damn movie... and my dreams of conquest as I paraded before admiring females in my sparkling white uniform.)

The Japanese attack spurred us to action. The day after Pearl Harbor, we went to the Navy recruiting station to join up. Since the Marine Corps is a branch of the Navy, they shared the same premises. The swabbies in their dark, drab, bell-bottoms didn't stand a chance. The Marines were friendlier... probably because most of the activity was on the Navy side of the room. They were so colorful in their pale blue trousers with the red stripes, high stiff collars, golden globe and anchor emblems. We were dazzled, seduced, fingerprinted, and sworn into the Marine Corps that night.

This was December 8, 1941. Both of us took advantage of an option to delay our departure until after Christmas. A mistake! That month's delay was one of the most uncomfortable periods of my life. Too many painful going-away parties, too much carousing. Ma was doing her best to be heroic and not cry in front of me. I can remember Dad taking me aside and offering to tell me the facts of life. I was a rarity, a 23-year-old male virgin, but I had a pretty good idea of how babies got manufactured. I had received many lurid, graphic descriptions of the mechanics and joys of sex from my co-workers at Fuller's warehouse. Dad was embarrassed. I was embarrassed. I declined his offer, saying that I already knew about "all that stuff".

*** *** ***

It was twenty degrees below zero in Butte on January 5, 1942, the date of our departure. I probably should have spent the day at home with my family but the atmosphere there was so sad, depressed and tense that I was happy to get away from the house and cruise around town with Steve and some of the other departing recruits. Ma had done a fine job of bearing up for the month between my enlistment and the actual departure, but December, 1941, was a dismal month for us all.

trainThe train was scheduled to leave the Union Pacific depot on Front Street at 7:00 pm. Union Pacific was still using steam locomotives. My recollection of that bleak, cold night in the vast, echoing station conjures up a somber picture reminiscent of a scene from the Garbo movie classic, Anna Karenina ... huddled family groups surrounding their departing heroes, clouds of hissing steam from the locomotive, and an over-all somberness... a sense of doom. I was eager to get the painful goodbyes over with and get on board.

Bottles emerged even before the train crossed the Montana Street trestle. The twelve brand-new Marines were in a day coach with the back end of the car assigned to us. We were hardly out of Montana before we were being warned that we'd be kicked off the train because of our rowdy behavior. The other passengers forced the conductor to calm down. We were gallant young heroes going off to save the world and they were willing to tolerate us. We weren't destructive, but were as noisy and as obnoxious as any group of young drunks can be. The conductor finally banished us to an empty club car and left us alone. Several of the passengers joined is in our happy exile and I suppose a good time was had by all. My recollection is a bit hazy.

We did make it past Salt Lake without being evicted. The Navy Shore Patrol met us at the station in Los Angeles and we were given a special escort to the Southern Pacific station and tucked into the train for San Diego. Two guards rode with us all the way to the Marine Base. I remember one SP remarking, "I'd like to see just how wild you tough Montana cowboys will be after a week in boot camp." We were threatened with all kinds of dire disciplinary action but we never heard any more about the railroad's complaints. Perhaps the Corps thought we were just acting like normal, healthy Marines.

We were herded by the SP's onto trucks which delivered us to the Marine Reception center and the reception wasn't cordial. I remember wondering why everyone hated us so much. My tender sensibilities got many shocks. We were given cardboard boxes, told to strip, stuff everything into the carton and address it to next of kin. Ma told me years later that the arrival of this box containing my clothes was one of the worst things she experienced during the war. There was a foreboding finality about it. It seems to me that our clothes could have been given to the Salvation Army, or some other organization. An impersonal box containing socks, underwear, and personal effects, was not a graceful gift to already nervous, grieving parents.

As we stood in long lines for physicals we were given little bottles and instructed to provide urine specimens. Unsurprisingly, my bashful kidney wouldn't produce. Vern Basinger, who was next to me in line, had a full bottle and he shared his output with me. "Greater love hath no man than he who shares his specimen with his brother". I often think of Vern and wonder if he remembers this incident. American Indians have blood brothers, but I guess he and I are piss brothers. He must have been healthy -- we both passed. A doctor took me aside and informed me that my blood pressure reading was borderline. He could reject me and was giving me a choice. Did I want to pass this physical and be inducted into the Marine Corps? I guess my decision was influenced by the comradeship developed during the train ride. Anyway, what was the alternative? Go home as a Marine reject and be drafted? I opted to stay in the Corps.

We were herded into the quartermaster's corral. Socks, skivvies, t-shirts, blankets, dungarees and sea-bags were thrown at us as we passed down the line. Sizes were assigned by the quartermaster's clerk as he casually eyeballed our physiques, but we were carefully fitted for our shoes. The Corps didn't give a damn about how natty raw recruits looked but we had to be able to hike for ten to twelve hours without getting blisters. The line ended as our names were stenciled on the sea bags and the blankets. It's an indication of how far down the Corps was in the procurement line. Our blankets were khaki-colored rejects from the Army. I still have them, both with their label: "W. PAULL".


Still in line like the sheep we had become, we sat on stools while our heads were shorn by stony-faced Marines wielding electric shears. After that ultimate indignity, we were finally allowed to get dressed. Except for the shoes, nothing really fit.

We were herded into a barren barracks and assigned bunks. This seemed promising, but there was no respite. We had to dump all our gear on the beds and fall out into a ragged formation in front of the barracks. We were bombarded with lectures about Marine Corps history and how lucky we were to be accepted into the Corps. NCOs shouted instructions: how to make bunks; how to stow gear; how to jump to attention.

Sometime during that busy day we got marched to the PX where we each received a galvanized pail full of treasures: tooth brush, shoe polish, scrub brushes, soap, a razor, shoe laces, etc. We found out later that this largesse was expensive. Our first pay check was docked ten dollars to pay for all these luxuries. We also found out that we were charged for the head-shearing. Finally we were allowed to crawl into our sacks... but at 5:00 am, the lights came on. Three sergeants burst into the barracks, banging their swagger sticks on the metal bunks and shouting: "Rise and shine. Drop your cocks and grab your socks!" Boot camp had begun.


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