Basic Training at Fort Polk

by Jerry Prater

Army Aviation Flight School
Ft. Polk “Welcome” Sign

The Continental Trailways bus that transported us 37 draftees from the Dallas selective service office arrived at the Reception Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana at approximately 11:00 p.m. on Monday, December 12, 1966.  As we exited the bus, the soldiers assigned to the Reception Center began yelling at us, and telling us to line up in two rows, and to stand at attention.  They then told us that if we had any documents with lewd language or seductive pictures of women, we’d better get rid of them now because we would be in deep trouble if they were discovered on our person after leaving the Reception Center.  I had a note in my wallet from a buddy of mine that had a cuss word in it, so I threw it in the garbage.  One of the soldiers noticed one draftee was chewing gum, so he yelled at him to swallow it.  One of the soldiers asked me for the packet of documents, and he took them out and told us to reply when our name was called.  Our induction forms were divided between the four soldiers, and they called us individually to answer some questions, one of which was if we were a conscientious objector.  Since I had a very strong religious upbringing, I had given a lot of thought to how I would answer that question, but I just couldn’t decide what I should say.  When I was asked, I thought about it for several seconds before answering.  Then, I blurted out one word that would make a cataclysmic change in my life.  My answer was “No.”

Greg Payne   Robert J. Dargis
Ft. Polk Welcome Sign   The Reception Station at Ft. Polk

After completing the forms, we were transported on a deuce and a half to a mess hall where we were fed breakfast.  We were then marched to a barracks where we would spend our first night as a private in the Army.  The non-commissioned officer in charge told us that reveille was normally at 0500 hrs. (5:00 a.m.) but we would not have to get up until 0800 because we had arrived and processed in so late.  All of us had trouble going to sleep because of all the events of the day, and our anxiety and fear of the two years we were forced to serve in the Army.  We finally went to sleep, expecting not to have to get up until 0800.  That didn’t happen!  A Sergeant came into our barracks at approximately 0545 yelling at us to get up, and asking why we didn’t respond to our call over the loud speakers to report for breakfast in the mess hall.  We told him of our instructions from the previous evening, but his response was that we had a schedule to meet and we were already late for our first formation.  We hurriedly got up, got dressed, and got into formation.  The sergeant marched us to an abbreviated breakfast, then to the quartermaster where we were joined by another group of draftees and we drew our uniforms, fatigues, shoes, boots, socks, underwear, canteens, mess kit, helmet, helmet liner, harness, back pack, and other supply items we would use during basic training.  All these items were placed in our duffle bag and we marched to another location where tags with our last name were sewn on our fatigue shirts, and tags with our full name and serial number were sewn into our combat boots, dress shoes, hats and fatigue caps.  We were also provided with a plastic name plate to be attached when we wore our dress green and khaki uniforms.  These items were replaced in our duffle bag and we were marched back to the barracks where we had slept, dropped off our duffle bag, and marched to the mess hall for dinner.  We were then marched back to the barracks where we had slept that morning. 

We were awakened at 0500 on Wednesday, December 14 and marched to the mess hall for breakfast, then we were joined by yet another group of draftees and marched to the barber shop where we got the fastest and shortest haircuts we had ever had!  After we walked out of the barber shop, a group of drill sergeants greeted us with a lot of very loud profanity telling us to form up with our duffle bag facing them.  After all the guys in my expanded group had their hair cut and got into formation, one of the drill sergeants had a packet of documents and told us to board the “cattle car” trailer very quickly after our name was called.  Each of the guys went up the wooden steps, moved as far forward on the trailer as possible, and sat down.  One of the guys whose name was called before mine was a little heavy, and he had a lot of difficulty stepping up the wooden ladder.  As he was struggling with the steps, one of the drill sergeants went up behind him and kicked him hard in the butt.  That didn’t help the guy who was struggling, but it definitely sent a message to all of us who had not yet boarded the trailer.  The rest of us climbed up onto the trailer without incident and we were transported from the south fort to the north fort, and we exited at our basic training company area.

Several of the drill sergeants greeted us with more loud profanity as we exited the trailer, and they had us form up just behind the company headquarters building.  We were instructed to stand at attention and look straight ahead at some object, our eye balls were not to move in any direction, we were not to look up, down, left or right.  Four or five of the drill sergeants were walking back and forth through the formation yelling and cussing at some of the new recruits because they were not standing at attention properly.  Several were ordered to drop and give 50 push-ups so they would understand how important it was to obey orders exactly and immediately.  One of our training officers, Second Lieutenant Larry Courtney, was strutting around the formation in his starched uniform, spit shined boots, polished helmet liner, and camouflage scarf.  As he was walking in front of the formation, one of the new recruits looked at him as he strutted by.  2LT Courtney noticed that, and he walked right up to the recruit, got right into his face and said, “Do you like my body?  Why are you staring at my body?”  One of the drill sergeants came over and ordered the recruit to drop and give 50 push-ups.  That sent a very strong message to me about what the drill sergeants meant about standing at attention and not letting your eyes move at all.  It also gave me a brief insight into what the eight weeks of basic training was going to be like.

While my group of trainees were being welcomed to the company, a second “cattle car” trailer full of trainees arrived and they received the same type of welcome.  After the second group had been properly indoctrinated, the entire company was put into formation and First Lieutenant Brian Kilbane, our Company Commander, spoke to us briefly.  He informed us that we were assigned to Company E, 4th Battalion, 5th Training Brigade, and that we would remain with this unit for our eight weeks of basic training.  He also told us that the company would consist of four platoons of approximately 60 trainees each, and we would be assigned to platoons alphabetically.  Since my last name starts with a “P,” I was assigned to the third platoon.  He then introduced Staff Sergeant Donald Tarpley, our “Field First Sergeant” to whom all the Platoon Sergeants reported.  After Sergeant Tarpley told us of some of the things we could expect, as well as some of the things expected of us, he told us exactly where we stood in the scheme of things.  He told us that we, as Army trainees, were the lowest form of life on this earth, we were lower than whale shit, which was at the bottom of the ocean.  We were told to salute everything that moved, and if something didn’t move, we were to walk up and shake it so it would move, then we were to salute it.  Lastly, he told us that we had better give our soul to the Lord because our butts belonged to him.  The company was then dismissed by alphabetically, with all trainees designated to the first platoon going to their barracks first.

Army Aviation Flight School
Inside the Barracks at Ft. Polk

I walked into the two story wooden barracks that was built hurriedly at the beginning of World War II and noticed that there was a row of eight double bunk beds on both sides of the floor.  I selected an upper bunk about halfway down the east side of the bottom floor.  The two drill sergeants assigned to my platoon were Johnnie Redden, a tall, husky Texan, and Federico Tubera, a short, muscular Filipino who had been a jungle fighter against the Japanese during World War II.  We were sent to the supply room to check out our mattress, pillow, and bed sheets, then instructed how to properly make a bed where the sheets were tight enough that a coin would bounce off it.  Our drill sergeants advised us that, due to the threat of spinal meningitis, the head and foot of each bed would alternate so no one in the bed above, below or directly next to you could breathe in the direction of another trainee’s face.  We were also instructed to put up a “sneeze sheet” on one side of our bed next to our head to avoid spreading or receiving germs.  We were then taught the proper way to hang our uniforms and display our shoes, boots, hats and caps.  We then learned how to roll our clean socks, underwear, and tee shirts, as well as the exact area in which each item was to be placed in our foot locker.  Our drill sergeants advised us to pay a small fee and use a cleaning service authorized by the fort to clean all our dirty uniforms and clothing.   

Our drill sergeants then informed us of several aspects of army life we could expect while we were in basic training.  Reveille (Bugle Call) would be at 0500 each morning, and we must get up, shower, shave, get dressed in our fatigues, and be in platoon formation outside the barracks by 0530.  The Company Commander, or one of the two training officers, would conduct an inspection of each of the four barracks each morning after we left the company area for our training sessions.  The platoon with the highest daily and weekly ranking would receive special privileges and benefits, and the other three platoons would have to live with the stigma, as well as constant reminders and harassment of the drill sergeants, that they did not measure up.  Additionally, the order in which each platoon was called to line up for each meal was determined by the daily inspection ranking.  We could smoke in the barracks, and all ashes and cigarette butts had to be placed in the “butt can,” a red coffee can filled about one-third full of water that was attached to the two rows of wooden columns, and that the cans had to be cleaned each morning before inspection.  Our drill sergeants also told us they had to sign for the wooden barracks and, if it caught on fire, it would burn down in 17 minutes and they would be responsible for paying to rebuild it.  In order to prevent, or detect a fire as soon as it starts, we would be required to walk a fire watch on both floors every night from 2100 (9:00 p.m.) until 0500, the time designated for us to sleep.  A trainee on each floor would be assigned to get fully dressed in fatigues and walk up and down the middle of the barracks floor for one hour.  They would then wake up the trainee who was scheduled to walk the next hour, undress, and go back to sleep.

All of our meals would normally be served in the mess hall, which meant that all of the trainees, other than the squad leaders and platoon guides (trainees selected for leadership roles because of their previous experience in ROTC), would be required to serve KP (Kitchen Police), the detail that all enlisted men dreaded the most.  Those assigned to pull KP would be awaken at about 0430 so they could get dressed and report to the mess hall to assist in the preparation of breakfast.  They would continue on this detail until after the dinner meal had been served and the mess hall was “policed,” all dishes, trays, pots, pans, tables, floor, and everything else had been cleaned and ready for breakfast the next morning.  Of all the KP duties, the one I hated the most was washing the pots and pans because so many were used for each meal, and they were so dirty, greasy, and hard to clean.

Lights out was at 2100 and we went to sleep expecting to be woken up at 0500 by the guys who were walking the 0400 to 0500 fire watch.  Instead, we were awaken by Sergeant Tubera as he walked into the barracks at approximately 0450 banging on the metal trash can, pulling mattresses off the bed onto the floor, and yelling for us to get out of bed and get dressed.  All the other guys were getting dressed but, since we only had 6 sinks for all 56 trainees in my platoon, I hurriedly went to the sink so I could be one of the first to shave.  I had very wiry and tough whiskers, but very sensitive facial skin.  As a result, I had to shave very slowly and very carefully to avoid cutting myself in several places and bleeding a lot.  We all shaved, dressed and were in formation by 0530.  Sergeant Tarpley told us that platoons would fall out for meals in numerical order, and that each trainee was to stand at parade rest in front of the lines painted 5 meters apart on the sidewalk.  Five trainees would be called into the mess hall at a time, and each trainee was to sound off with their number as they entered, “One drill sergeant,” “two drill sergeant” and so forth.  Any trainee who sounded off with the wrong number had to drop and give 50 push-ups, plus go to the back of the line.  After each 5 trainees entered the mess hall, we were to come to attention, march up 5 of the lines and stand at parade rest.  This process continued until every trainee entered the mess hall.  While we were waiting in line, we were ordered to study and memorize our 11 general orders because any drill sergeant may come up to any trainee at any time and ask him to repeat one of the general orders.  Failure to quote the requested general order verbatim would result in the trainee having to drop and give 50 push-ups, plus to go to the end of the mess line.

Sergeant Tarpley then turned the formation over to the drill sergeants, and each platoon marched to the road in front of the company area.  When the entire company was marching on the road, we heard the order “Double time, march!”  We then had to run in step and in formation for slightly more than one mile.  Even though I was reasonably athletic, I began suffering after about half a mile, but I was able to finish without having to walk or stop.  However, many trainees did have to walk part of the way because they were not physically able to run even half a mile.  When we arrived back at the company area, the first platoon got in line for breakfast, and we went through the prescribed procedure for meals.  As we were in the mess hall eating, some of the drill sergeants would roam around and tell the overweight trainees to stop eating and leave the mess hall after only a few bites.  They would also yell at anyone who was not eating fast enough to suit them and either make them gulp the remainder of the  food down, or to stop eating and leave the mess hall.  We were also required to do 5 chin ups as we exited the mess hall after each meal.

Since we were inducted less than two weeks before Christmas, we were given a 14 day leave beginning at noon on Monday, December 19, and we were to be back in time for the 0530 formation on Tuesday, January 3, 1967.  Our company clerk had chartered a Continental Trailways bus for all the trainees who wanted to travel to the bus station in Dallas.  I had purchased a ticket and, after we had breakfast and prepared the barracks for inspection, I dressed in olive drab dress uniform and fell into formation with my platoon.  After we were dismissed, I went to the designated area and waited for the bus to arrive.  Some of the drill sergeants were roaming among us as we were waiting to check our hygiene and make certain that our uniforms were properly outfitted.  The drill sergeants noticed that at least three trainees did not shave that morning, so they ordered them to pull out their razors and dry shave.  All of them had blood on their face and someone gave them handkerchiefs so the blood wouldn’t get on their uniforms.  The sight of them bleeding made a lasting impression on me, and put a damper on my bus ride to Dallas.  While I was on leave, I did a lot of push-ups and ran several times because I wanted to be better prepared for the physical aspects of basic training.  My bride drove me back to my company area on Monday, January 2 well in advance of the lights out time of 2100.

Returning to Ft. Polk
January 2, 1967

Once again, Sergeant Tubera came to our barracks Tuesday morning at about 0450 banging on the metal trash can, shaking bunks, and yelling at us to get out of bed and into formation.  This was the first official day of our basic training and we had our first session of PT (Physical Training) after we had eaten breakfast and prepared the barracks for inspection.  We did at least ten repetitions of all twelve of the basic exercises.  However, Sergeant Tubera added one additional step when he led PT, which was about twice each week.  He considered any trainee with a waistline in excess of 30 inches to be a “fat boy,” and all fat boys had to do an additional ten push-ups after every exercise.  Since I had a 32 inch waist, I was considered a fat boy and had to do all those extra push-ups.  After two weeks, we had a PCP (Physical Combat Proficiency) test and were measured on five separate events, with a score given for the time it took to complete the event, or the number of repetitions completed.  After I completed the test, I went to Sergeant Tubera and asked if I was still a fat boy even though I scored 455 out of 500 on the test.  He told me that if I scored that high, I was no longer a fat boy.

Less than two weeks after we returned from Christmas leave, we were having a session of PT and, as usual, a few of the drill sergeants were roaming around the formation making certain that all the trainees were completing each exercise correctly and “by the numbers.”  After we completed one of the exercises, Sergeant Redden walked up to Larry Nunn and asked him if he had shaved that morning.  Larry said that he did shave and, according to regulations he shaved every morning.  I was in PT formation next to Larry and Sergeant Redden asked me if it looked like Larry had shaved.  I responded that his face didn’t look like it, but I knew he did shave because he was at the sink next to me that morning.  I was lying, and I believe Sergeant Redden knew it, but he just walked away.  I remembered seeing the blood on the faces of the three trainees after they were made to dry shave as we were leaving for Christmas leave and I didn’t want one of my buddies to have to go through that experience.

During our first two weeks of basic training, we were taught all aspects of military courtesy, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, hygiene, first aid, treatment of wounds, character guidance, proper marching procedures, and rifle classes.  We went to the firing range during our third week, and this was a real challenge for me because I had never fired a weapon of any kind in my life.  When we arrived at the firing range, we were shown a pit that was about two feet high and ten feet in diameter with a steel mesh cover.  We were told that this was our urinal for use while we were at the firing range, and anyone who put chewing gum, cigarette butts or any other article on or in the urinal would be required to reach in with their bare hand and retrieve the object.  The officer in charge informed us of some safety procedures and told us that the M-14 was a powerful weapon with hardly any recoil.  He demonstrated that by placing the butt of the rifle against his chin and fired a round.  When I was firing my M-14 on the range, I knew I was doing something wrong because the rifle butt was hitting my shoulder hard and causing me pain with every round I fired, and my shoulder was black and blue the next day.  My firing accuracy was also very bad, and my scores were among the worst in the company.  I never figured out the proper way to hold the rifle, and I didn’t understand how to get my front and rear sights in line.  When we went to the qualifying range, my score was 30, which was just barely above the minimum required score of 27, so I qualified as a Marksman.  

Sergeant Thomas Eustice was our platoon sergeant and he was housed in a room at the entrance to our barracks.  He would regularly strut around the barracks in his starched fatigues, infantry scarf, spit shined boots and shiny helmet liner and make threats about what he would make us do if anybody in the platoon didn’t measure up.  He would always end the threat with his favorite expression, “If you thing I’m bullshitting, just try me!”  As we were coming to the end of our basic training, all of us were anxious to learn what MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) we would be assigned, and where we would be stationed for our AIT (Advanced Individual Training).  Sergeant Eustice obtained a copy of that list and read the assignments to us.  I’ll never forget what he said when he came to my name.  He said “Prater, E-3-3, TIGER LAND.”  I couldn’t believe it!  Here I am a college grad who doesn’t know the first thing about firing a rifle and I’m going to the infantry while all the high school dropouts who fired expert were being sent to be trained as company clerks, finance clerks, etc.!  I was devastated.

We completed our eight weeks of basic training, and we had our graduation ceremony on the morning of Friday, February 24, 1967.  After the ceremony, we returned to the company area and had our last company formation.  Just before we were dismissed, Sergeant Tarpley had us march in place to the cadence song he sang when he marched to our training destinations.  It was the Amen song, he would say the words “See the little baby,” and we would sing “A – amen”; “wrapped in a manager,” “A –amen”; “On Christmas Morning,” “A – amen, amen, amen.”

Amen Song (1963)

As we were marching in step to this song, I became very emotional because I was leaving my first duty station in the Army where I got to know a lot of the trainees and most of the drill sergeants. Now I was being assigned to Tiger Land where I would be trained as a combat infantryman and then shipped to Vietnam to fight the NVA and Viet Cong. Almost all the 236 guys in my basic training company remained in their dress greens and were preparing to leave Fort Polk for their next assignment station.  The twelve or so of us who were going to Tiger Land had to change into our fatigues so we could pull KP duty and get the kitchen clean for the next group of trainees who would be assigned to the company area.  Later in the morning, we were put on the back of a deuce and a half truck and taken to Tiger Land, which was also located in the north Fort Polk. What a thrill!

Fred Dunlap
A Deuce-and-a-Half Truck Entering Tiger Land, 1967