During the Korean War, being on a 15-day furlough at home was not the same as it was when you were a civilian.
Your concepts of existence were different; you no longer were out looking for a job after graduation and planning for your future. You had no future, only your duty. After fun and excitement at home on your furlough, you were to return to your outfit to resume your duty. Any veteran will tell you that.
My basic training was completed, and my company had been ordered to move to Germany. I wondered what the future would be in the European Command, instead of wondering what it would be like facing duty in Korea.
My outfit boarded the troop ship the General Hershey. I stood on the deck, looking around at the harbor, maybe not returning for a long time, somewhat excited, somewhat concerned, but looking forward to an adventure in a foreign land.
Even the trip was an excitement and an adventure, except for one thing: sea sickness. Guys leaning over the side, heaving up everything in them, was the norm of the day. The high winds aggravated the situation from one end of the ship to the other. It always happened after chow; I learned to get out of the mess galley as quickly as possible and get away from everyone. Being constantly on the move, never staying in one place over a minute, headed off sea sickness. Just being in the presence of someone with sea sickness was enough to make you get sick.
After 14 days at sea, it was a breath of fresh air, finally seeing the port of embarkation, the sea port in Bremerhaven, Germany. We immediately boarded the train to the southern part of Germany. Steam locomotives still were in use at that time, whereas they had long been replaced in America.
It was a nostalgic ride to our final destination. I took advantage of a rare opportunity; since it was possible to walk to the front of the train, I watched the fireman shovel coal into the fire box.
When we arrived, it seemed that the barracks had been built especially for the 471st Quartermaster Salvage Company. Barracks in America were built primarily of wood material; these barracks were built with brick and mortar. The floors were paved with a red, ceramic material that hardly had time to harden. We moved in, settled down and organized to begin our mission.
Things were different from what I had expected, things like sight-seeing and other forms of entertainment. Learning the language, learning how life is in other countries, their customs and their attitudes were challenges. I hardly could wait for the weekends to explore the country in an entirely different world. I made every effort to assure that nothing stood in the way of the three-day passes, which meant more to me than my rank.
Catching the train to Frankfurt was another excitement on Saturday mornings. The train station was just off the post, and it always was loaded with GIs. The fare for Army personnel was free. There were a few German citizens, and most of them spoke broken English. Many of the GIs carried cameras, and I had mine.
World War II had ended several years earlier. Still, there were many bombed out buildings, bullet holes in sides of buildings that were still standing. Although reconstruction was under way, there still were partial buildings that once were business places, shops, banks and all other places of commerce where the German people lived, worked and carried on their lifestyle.
Worst of all, and still in view was evidence of living rooms, kitchens and other rooms buried under rubble that once were the homes of proud German citizens. Even though the war had long ended, there were German citizens living from hand to mouth, foraging for the next meal. Today, there probably is no evidence that there was once a war.
The American cigarette was a major form of bartering. A carton of cigarettes would buy just about anything — cameras, excitement, pleasure, spirits and others. One evening, I sat at a sidewalk café table, drinking a beer. In a provocative, teasing manner, I put a carton of cigarettes in plain view on my table. I lost count of all the propositions from many who passed by. When recalling it today, it was an inconsiderate and foolish idea.
There was another event and a most convincing one.
A group of us left the post together one weekend on a three-day pass. When we arrived in Frankfurt, my buddy wanted to take a detour and join us later at a beer garden. He had plenty of money — German marks — but in addition, he carried a weekend bag stashed with cartons of cigarettes. His intentions, of course, were to be profitable on his three-day pass, which was a popular practice for many.
We waited for him at the beer garden. He finally walked in. He looked like he had been manhandled, but he didn’t have his weekend bag.
The moment before he sat down at our table, he said, “I’ve been robbed! They backed me against a wall and took my bag … , but they didn’t take my money! I don’t understand!”
Bond lives in Richmond Hill.