History

My Army Service 1954

Written by
Roger Woods

In late January a summons from the draft board requested that I report for induction into the U.S. Army at Fort Richardson. On February 13th, 1954, I was introduced to basic training at Camp Carroll on the Alaskan post near Anchorage.

Because I was almost four years older than most of the other draftees, and had completed three years of college, I was designated the platoon leader of the 32nd cycle to be trained in Alaska. Twenty eight draftees called me “Colonel” all during basic training. That is the second nickname I’ve had.

A significant memory of that time is the cold. The Army housed us in Jamesway structures, basically Quonset huts with insulating blanket coverings. An oil stove heated each one. But to crawl out of the cot at six in the morning to go outside into twenty-below weather for calisthenics shocked our sensibilities. Each morning we would do chin-ups on a steel pipe covered with rime-frost. We did push-ups in the snow, knee squats, stretching exercises, and jogged in place until we had a good sweat worked up despite the cold.

Then we ran to the mess hall for breakfast at seven. We were always about ten minutes early. The mess hall didn’t open until seven on the dot, so we stood shivering outside, because we had been issued only part of the cold-weather gear we were to have. For the first week or so, all I wore was my lightweight plaid jacket from Arizona. Despite that hardship, no one fell ill.

We ate at an artillery battalion mess hall located next to our camp. The food there was good, except the biscuits. They were heavy and hard. We called them artillery biscuits. I warned, “Don’t drop one on your foot or you’ll wind up in the infirmary.”

The inductees were from all over Alaska. Chester Noonwuk and Larry Okpealuk were from Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. Henry Jackson was from the village of Hoonah in Southeast Alaska. One or two were from the Aleutian Islands and several from fishing and lumber towns in the Southeast panhandle—a motley crew learning to be soldiers.

After three weeks of basic training we were given leave to go to town, with an admonition to be back on post, without fail, by 10 p.m. As platoon leader, I waited with the captain of our outfit for all to check in. Everyone made it on time except for 18-year-old Henry Jackson. He arrived 15 minutes late, having taken more than enough to drink. Henry walked through the swinging gate designed to separate the troops from their officer. Sitting on the corner of the captain’s desk, he proceeded to tell the captain exactly what he thought of the army in language colorful and profane. Henry was usually a quiet kid, but that night he was eloquent in his descriptions and opinions. Both the captain and I had to hide our faces to keep from laughing.

After basic training I was assigned to the Transportation Section of Headquarters Company, USARAL, (US ARmy ALaska). My duty station was at the port of Anchorage. The dock was constructed on creosoted pilings, with heavy beams and plank decking.

I have vivid memories of cold November nights when we caught the monkey-fist and line from a vessel, and pulled in the heavy wet hawsers, drenching ourselves as we looped the lines over the bollards. When the docking was completed we would go aboard to drink Navy coffee, many times at two in the morning.

We moored cargo vessels and tankers bringing in military supplies. Most often the cargo was aviation fuel destined for the tank farm at nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base.

The Korean War was winding down, but it was still necessary to have a guard on duty at the entrance to the wharf. It was a lonely job during the long dark nights. One day we heard that the guard, as buck private, had fallen asleep in the guard shack. He was roundly read-out by his commanding officer and was forcefully instructed to call for authority before he let anyone enter after 8 p.m. A few nights later, the same soldier was on duty when a fire broke out. The fire truck came roaring down the road with sirens screaming. The guard stopped the firemen, dutifully standing in the middle of the road with his rifle at present arms. Two military policemen came from behind the fire trucks, disarmed the poor guard and allowed the fire engine to enter. The rest of us laughed about military discipline versus common sense.

Colonel Harter, the Commander of Headquarters Company, sent for me one day. He said, “I want to have a battalion newspaper once a week. Do you want the job?”

“Yes sir, sure, I can do that.”

“You will be reporter, editor, and publisher. Find stories of interest to the men. See that I get a copy of the first and every issue.”

I was given a desk next to the personnel office, with a typewriter and a mimeograph machine and started to work. I was my own boss. I wrote stories about noteworthy soldiers in the battalion and of current military incidents on post. Eight to ten pages were printed in each issue. The publication was called The Northern Star.

In January 1955, joint military cold-weather maneuvers were planned to take place in the center of Alaska, near Galena, on the Yukon River. The operation was to drop 2,000 paratroops and equipment. Participating were 101st Airborne Division paratroopers from Kentucky and Alaska based troops.

I joined the advance team of twenty six men. As I boarded a military plane the loadmaster helped me strap on a parachute. He said “When you jump, count to eight, and then pull the D-ring. Hang on to the D-ring; you may never get another.”

“Whoa; hold on. I’m not trained to jump.”

“It’s just a precaution; just in case,” he said. We landed safely and I didn’t have to jump.

The housing at the Galena Air Base was Jamesway huts which had been there for about 14 years. In 1945 the Yukon River had flooded the base, soaking the huts. They dried out after the water receded, but had not been used for years. The whole place was as dry as tinder. There were six huts on each side of a long wood-frame enclosed passage, with an entrance from the corridor to each hut. An exterior exit from each hut was on the opposite end. The kitchen and mess hall were at one end of the complex. The entire structure had wooden plank flooring.

The cooks were up very early the next morning, roasting turkeys. Around 4 a.m. the kitchen caught fire. Flames raced down the hall and all the huts exploded in flame.

One of the cooks had the presence of mind to run down the outside of the huts banging on each door and yelling “Fire!” He didn’t know which hut we bunked in. We awakened coughing from the smoke, grabbed what we could, and escaped out the end door. I had my boots, parka, and pants. Everyone got out, most of us in our underwear, and only a few with singed hair and slight burns. It was four-below-zero outside, so it didn’t take us long to don what clothes we had. We sheltered in an old hangar until we were airlifted back to Fort Richardson later that day.


The maneuvers were quickly rescheduled to take place on the flats west of the Susitna River near Talkeetna. Again, I went out with the advance team. We bivouacked in tents in clear, cold weather. The frozen swamp designated as the drop zone was a mile long and a half-mile wide. The next day in early afternoon the air drop began, with artillery pieces and heavy equipment descending under huge chutes, from planes flying at 1,000 feet of altitude. Then the C-99s, known as ‘flying boxcars,’ flew three abreast over the drop zone with their rear doors wide open. Paratroops spilled from all three at the same time. At close intervals the next three planes unloaded their jumpers, then the third wave, and so on, until all 2,000 paratroopers were deployed.

On snowshoes, I stood to one side, about midway down the drop zone, admiring the sunny day and the magnificent view of Mt. McKinley to the north. I watched as stick after stick of troopers jumped. Parachutes opened all around the zone…all except one. I watched as one man plummeted past the open chutes surrounding him.

My God, he’s going to die, I thought. I wondered if his chute malfunctioned, or if his D-ring wasn’t attached. He fell more than 900 feet, hit a small spruce tree, and landed in 42 inches of snow close to where I stood. I trudged over to him. He was sitting up, his eyes were open, and he was looking around. He said, “My back hurts a little.”

A helicopter landed near him. The medics braced him and strapped him into an evacuation basket on the chopper. I found out later he suffered only a ruptured disc in his spine. I learned that his name was Stanley Melzak, and that he had been a steel worker in Pittsburg before entering the service.

I wrote the story and printed my finest edition of the battalion newspaper. Later, I saw accounts of this incident in both the Chicago and the Los Angeles papers. After some research, I added a postscript to my story. A number of men like Melzak survived free falls from aircraft. Most notably, one RAF pilot who bailed out when his plane caught fire after an attack by German fighters in WWII. Fearing a fuel tank explosion, he jumped. Falling from 12,000 feet with his chute unopened, he landed on a steep alpine slope among trees and in deep snow. He came to his senses, discovered he could move his arms and legs and lit a cigarette. He also suffered only a spinal disc injury, from which he fully recovered.

The company commander of the administrative group where I was assigned was a captain. He was the only soldier I met who actively disliked me. Whether an instinctive personality clash, or for another reason, I don’t know, but I didn’t like him either. His supercilious attitude and condescending manner offended me. I was taught to be self reliant and confident. Soon it became apparent that many of the troops felt as I did.

Every month for a year, Sergeant Burkholder included my name in his list for rank promotion to corporal. It was routinely crossed off by the captain.

I bought a two-year-old Buick from a chaplain who was rotating back to the lower forty-eight. Later, Sgt. Burkholder told me “The captain was trying to negotiate a lower price for that sedan you bought, and he was really mad when you got it.”

About two months before I was released from active duty, Sgt. Burkholder included my name in the promotion list again, but not in the usual alphabetical order.

Later he told me, “I waited until the last minute. The captain was hurrying to leave his office. I apologized for being late in presenting it, but it needed his signature. He flipped through the list quickly, signed his name, and you got your promotion.”

I sewed the corporal stripes on my sleeves. The next day I waited until I was sure the captain was out of the command offices before I went in to give the traditional cigars to the major and the lieutenant, who were pleased. The captain walked in just as I was leaving. No other choice, so I handed him a cigar, and he said, “Did you have a baby?”

“No, it’s thanks for the stripe.” I walked out.

The next day Sgt. Burkholder said, “The major told me the captain raged in the office for twenty minutes.”

I said, “Tough. I’ll give him the damn stripe back. Just get me my cigar when you tell him.”

Sgt. Burkholder laughed.

The first television station began broadcasting in Anchorage in 1955, the year I started the battalion newspaper. Developing stories kept me busy during the week, but I needed a challenge for time away from the post. One evening in Anchorage I walked by a store on Fifth Avenue called, ‘The Three GI’s’. Their display of TV sets attracted a steady flow of customers. I went in, met one of the three, and asked, “Can I sell TVs for you on the weekends?”

“We really need someone for evenings. Can you sell?”

“I think so. I like to talk to people. Sometimes I make them laugh.”

“We’ll try you out. Do you want to start now? I’ll show you around,” he said.

We spent an hour and a half as he described procedures, sales and delivery tickets, and the selection of TV sets. He showed me home appliances in a side room.

My new boss said, “Come in tomorrow evening. Pay will be commission only.”

After four evenings of selling they told me to come in on weekends whenever I was available. I showed people our selection. We offered table-top sets with screen sizes from thirteen inches to nineteen inches. Console models had twenty-one inch screens. All were black and white models. Everyone watched the single television station broadcasting in Alaska at that time.

I related the merits of several models, discussed price range, and usually closed the sale. Sometimes I sold a refrigerator or a washer and dryer set. At the end of four weeks my commissions were six times my monthly Army pay.

No items found.

My Army Service 1954

History

Author

Roger Woods

Roger Woods arrived in Palmer, Alaska, at the age of 13. He graduated from Palmer High School and continued his education as a graduate of the University of Arizona. He served in the U.S. Army from 1954-55. He was a home builder in Alaska from 1966-2009, and established a manufacturing business in 1973 and a fisheries observer business in 1987. In his book, Treasure Alaska, "Roger wites of his adventures, the people and their humor, the history and the excitement of change during 70 years in Alaska."

In late January a summons from the draft board requested that I report for induction into the U.S. Army at Fort Richardson. On February 13th, 1954, I was introduced to basic training at Camp Carroll on the Alaskan post near Anchorage.

Because I was almost four years older than most of the other draftees, and had completed three years of college, I was designated the platoon leader of the 32nd cycle to be trained in Alaska. Twenty eight draftees called me “Colonel” all during basic training. That is the second nickname I’ve had.

A significant memory of that time is the cold. The Army housed us in Jamesway structures, basically Quonset huts with insulating blanket coverings. An oil stove heated each one. But to crawl out of the cot at six in the morning to go outside into twenty-below weather for calisthenics shocked our sensibilities. Each morning we would do chin-ups on a steel pipe covered with rime-frost. We did push-ups in the snow, knee squats, stretching exercises, and jogged in place until we had a good sweat worked up despite the cold.

Then we ran to the mess hall for breakfast at seven. We were always about ten minutes early. The mess hall didn’t open until seven on the dot, so we stood shivering outside, because we had been issued only part of the cold-weather gear we were to have. For the first week or so, all I wore was my lightweight plaid jacket from Arizona. Despite that hardship, no one fell ill.

We ate at an artillery battalion mess hall located next to our camp. The food there was good, except the biscuits. They were heavy and hard. We called them artillery biscuits. I warned, “Don’t drop one on your foot or you’ll wind up in the infirmary.”

The inductees were from all over Alaska. Chester Noonwuk and Larry Okpealuk were from Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. Henry Jackson was from the village of Hoonah in Southeast Alaska. One or two were from the Aleutian Islands and several from fishing and lumber towns in the Southeast panhandle—a motley crew learning to be soldiers.

After three weeks of basic training we were given leave to go to town, with an admonition to be back on post, without fail, by 10 p.m. As platoon leader, I waited with the captain of our outfit for all to check in. Everyone made it on time except for 18-year-old Henry Jackson. He arrived 15 minutes late, having taken more than enough to drink. Henry walked through the swinging gate designed to separate the troops from their officer. Sitting on the corner of the captain’s desk, he proceeded to tell the captain exactly what he thought of the army in language colorful and profane. Henry was usually a quiet kid, but that night he was eloquent in his descriptions and opinions. Both the captain and I had to hide our faces to keep from laughing.

After basic training I was assigned to the Transportation Section of Headquarters Company, USARAL, (US ARmy ALaska). My duty station was at the port of Anchorage. The dock was constructed on creosoted pilings, with heavy beams and plank decking.

I have vivid memories of cold November nights when we caught the monkey-fist and line from a vessel, and pulled in the heavy wet hawsers, drenching ourselves as we looped the lines over the bollards. When the docking was completed we would go aboard to drink Navy coffee, many times at two in the morning.

We moored cargo vessels and tankers bringing in military supplies. Most often the cargo was aviation fuel destined for the tank farm at nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base.

The Korean War was winding down, but it was still necessary to have a guard on duty at the entrance to the wharf. It was a lonely job during the long dark nights. One day we heard that the guard, as buck private, had fallen asleep in the guard shack. He was roundly read-out by his commanding officer and was forcefully instructed to call for authority before he let anyone enter after 8 p.m. A few nights later, the same soldier was on duty when a fire broke out. The fire truck came roaring down the road with sirens screaming. The guard stopped the firemen, dutifully standing in the middle of the road with his rifle at present arms. Two military policemen came from behind the fire trucks, disarmed the poor guard and allowed the fire engine to enter. The rest of us laughed about military discipline versus common sense.

Colonel Harter, the Commander of Headquarters Company, sent for me one day. He said, “I want to have a battalion newspaper once a week. Do you want the job?”

“Yes sir, sure, I can do that.”

“You will be reporter, editor, and publisher. Find stories of interest to the men. See that I get a copy of the first and every issue.”

I was given a desk next to the personnel office, with a typewriter and a mimeograph machine and started to work. I was my own boss. I wrote stories about noteworthy soldiers in the battalion and of current military incidents on post. Eight to ten pages were printed in each issue. The publication was called The Northern Star.

In January 1955, joint military cold-weather maneuvers were planned to take place in the center of Alaska, near Galena, on the Yukon River. The operation was to drop 2,000 paratroops and equipment. Participating were 101st Airborne Division paratroopers from Kentucky and Alaska based troops.

I joined the advance team of twenty six men. As I boarded a military plane the loadmaster helped me strap on a parachute. He said “When you jump, count to eight, and then pull the D-ring. Hang on to the D-ring; you may never get another.”

“Whoa; hold on. I’m not trained to jump.”

“It’s just a precaution; just in case,” he said. We landed safely and I didn’t have to jump.

The housing at the Galena Air Base was Jamesway huts which had been there for about 14 years. In 1945 the Yukon River had flooded the base, soaking the huts. They dried out after the water receded, but had not been used for years. The whole place was as dry as tinder. There were six huts on each side of a long wood-frame enclosed passage, with an entrance from the corridor to each hut. An exterior exit from each hut was on the opposite end. The kitchen and mess hall were at one end of the complex. The entire structure had wooden plank flooring.

The cooks were up very early the next morning, roasting turkeys. Around 4 a.m. the kitchen caught fire. Flames raced down the hall and all the huts exploded in flame.

One of the cooks had the presence of mind to run down the outside of the huts banging on each door and yelling “Fire!” He didn’t know which hut we bunked in. We awakened coughing from the smoke, grabbed what we could, and escaped out the end door. I had my boots, parka, and pants. Everyone got out, most of us in our underwear, and only a few with singed hair and slight burns. It was four-below-zero outside, so it didn’t take us long to don what clothes we had. We sheltered in an old hangar until we were airlifted back to Fort Richardson later that day.


The maneuvers were quickly rescheduled to take place on the flats west of the Susitna River near Talkeetna. Again, I went out with the advance team. We bivouacked in tents in clear, cold weather. The frozen swamp designated as the drop zone was a mile long and a half-mile wide. The next day in early afternoon the air drop began, with artillery pieces and heavy equipment descending under huge chutes, from planes flying at 1,000 feet of altitude. Then the C-99s, known as ‘flying boxcars,’ flew three abreast over the drop zone with their rear doors wide open. Paratroops spilled from all three at the same time. At close intervals the next three planes unloaded their jumpers, then the third wave, and so on, until all 2,000 paratroopers were deployed.

On snowshoes, I stood to one side, about midway down the drop zone, admiring the sunny day and the magnificent view of Mt. McKinley to the north. I watched as stick after stick of troopers jumped. Parachutes opened all around the zone…all except one. I watched as one man plummeted past the open chutes surrounding him.

My God, he’s going to die, I thought. I wondered if his chute malfunctioned, or if his D-ring wasn’t attached. He fell more than 900 feet, hit a small spruce tree, and landed in 42 inches of snow close to where I stood. I trudged over to him. He was sitting up, his eyes were open, and he was looking around. He said, “My back hurts a little.”

A helicopter landed near him. The medics braced him and strapped him into an evacuation basket on the chopper. I found out later he suffered only a ruptured disc in his spine. I learned that his name was Stanley Melzak, and that he had been a steel worker in Pittsburg before entering the service.

I wrote the story and printed my finest edition of the battalion newspaper. Later, I saw accounts of this incident in both the Chicago and the Los Angeles papers. After some research, I added a postscript to my story. A number of men like Melzak survived free falls from aircraft. Most notably, one RAF pilot who bailed out when his plane caught fire after an attack by German fighters in WWII. Fearing a fuel tank explosion, he jumped. Falling from 12,000 feet with his chute unopened, he landed on a steep alpine slope among trees and in deep snow. He came to his senses, discovered he could move his arms and legs and lit a cigarette. He also suffered only a spinal disc injury, from which he fully recovered.

The company commander of the administrative group where I was assigned was a captain. He was the only soldier I met who actively disliked me. Whether an instinctive personality clash, or for another reason, I don’t know, but I didn’t like him either. His supercilious attitude and condescending manner offended me. I was taught to be self reliant and confident. Soon it became apparent that many of the troops felt as I did.

Every month for a year, Sergeant Burkholder included my name in his list for rank promotion to corporal. It was routinely crossed off by the captain.

I bought a two-year-old Buick from a chaplain who was rotating back to the lower forty-eight. Later, Sgt. Burkholder told me “The captain was trying to negotiate a lower price for that sedan you bought, and he was really mad when you got it.”

About two months before I was released from active duty, Sgt. Burkholder included my name in the promotion list again, but not in the usual alphabetical order.

Later he told me, “I waited until the last minute. The captain was hurrying to leave his office. I apologized for being late in presenting it, but it needed his signature. He flipped through the list quickly, signed his name, and you got your promotion.”

I sewed the corporal stripes on my sleeves. The next day I waited until I was sure the captain was out of the command offices before I went in to give the traditional cigars to the major and the lieutenant, who were pleased. The captain walked in just as I was leaving. No other choice, so I handed him a cigar, and he said, “Did you have a baby?”

“No, it’s thanks for the stripe.” I walked out.

The next day Sgt. Burkholder said, “The major told me the captain raged in the office for twenty minutes.”

I said, “Tough. I’ll give him the damn stripe back. Just get me my cigar when you tell him.”

Sgt. Burkholder laughed.

The first television station began broadcasting in Anchorage in 1955, the year I started the battalion newspaper. Developing stories kept me busy during the week, but I needed a challenge for time away from the post. One evening in Anchorage I walked by a store on Fifth Avenue called, ‘The Three GI’s’. Their display of TV sets attracted a steady flow of customers. I went in, met one of the three, and asked, “Can I sell TVs for you on the weekends?”

“We really need someone for evenings. Can you sell?”

“I think so. I like to talk to people. Sometimes I make them laugh.”

“We’ll try you out. Do you want to start now? I’ll show you around,” he said.

We spent an hour and a half as he described procedures, sales and delivery tickets, and the selection of TV sets. He showed me home appliances in a side room.

My new boss said, “Come in tomorrow evening. Pay will be commission only.”

After four evenings of selling they told me to come in on weekends whenever I was available. I showed people our selection. We offered table-top sets with screen sizes from thirteen inches to nineteen inches. Console models had twenty-one inch screens. All were black and white models. Everyone watched the single television station broadcasting in Alaska at that time.

I related the merits of several models, discussed price range, and usually closed the sale. Sometimes I sold a refrigerator or a washer and dryer set. At the end of four weeks my commissions were six times my monthly Army pay.

No items found.

Author

Roger Woods

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