My War with the Army

John W. Pinkerton

We flew to Germany on some weird airline with a crew which looked as though they were left over from WWI.  It claimed to be a commercial airline, but it obviously was under contract to the government.  Commercial airlines could not get away with employing stewardesses older than my grandmother.

The winter I arrived in Germany was one of those Battle of the Bulge winters.  It snowed a lot...a lot, and it was very cold a lot...a lot.  On my first guard duty, I had so many layers of clothing on that if I had fallen down, I probably wouldn’t have been able to right myself.

After spending a few days of purgatory in some barracks stuck out in the woods, we were shipped out to various permanent stations.  I was shipped to Schwabisch Gmund which had once been a principality of the Catholic church.  It was a nice little town filled with locals who were experts at ignoring us.

The first thing that struck me about the little town was that the buildings, substantial structures, were old.  We in the United States  have only recently begun to value our history as reflected in the preservation of our older structures.  However, we tear down buildings almost as often as we build them.  The entire time I was in Europe, I felt as though I was on a different planet: maybe it was a difference in the gravitational force.  Whatever it was, it was strange.

My time in Schwabisch Gmund started well enough...then it turned ugly.  Now, I never saw actual combat, thank the Lord, but I did feel that I was at war most of the time...with the army.  When things started going badly, some times my fault, some times someone else’s fault, it really turned ugly.

The story of my time in Germany can, unfortunately, be told best by relating a series of courts martial.

My first experience with a court martial began as an article 15 (like a traffic ticket administered by the battery commander restricting one to the barracks, reducing rank, reducing pay).  One morning I awoke to be told that I had missed the morning formation.  It was news to me.  I went on to breakfast.  When I returned to the barracks, I, along with about a dozen other fellows were called into the Captain’s office, chewed out for missing the morning formation and told that we would be restricted to our barracks for two weeks, be reduced in rank (not much of a punishment being that I only had one stripe) and, of course, a reduction in pay (again, not much of a punishment).  Something didn’t seem right to me.  Most of the fellows hung their heads and accepted the Captain’s decision.  Four of us, knowing that we had not intentionally missed the formation, demanded a court martial.  Although we won the case, this was probably not the best move for a fellow who was going to be with these same nice folks for eighteen months.

The second court martial was not a court martial.  One evening after returning to the barracks after an evening at the servicemen’s club about a half block from the barracks, six or seven of us were standing around in a barracks room.  The room was on the third floor, large, with some divided glass hinged windows about ten feet tall.

Unexpectedly, at least to me, someone threw a boot through one of the windows.  Suddenly everyone except me was tossing boots and other objects through the glass of the windows.  I backed away from the madness and observed what was going on.  The madness was followed by a thoughtful silence.  I walked across to one of the windows with a remaining pane and gently cracked it with one of my boots and commented to the silent audience, “I might as well crack one of the windows because I’m going to get blamed anyway.”

The next day, the big investigation began.  Everyone in the battery was grilled.  No one broke their silence on the matter, but I knew someone, right or wrong, was going to be punished.  Then it dawned on me that if someone confessed and took the blame on himself, the others would be off the hook.  So, that’s what I did.  I told the first sergeant that the others were trying to protect me.  He seemed to have some sympathy for me and assured me that no serious action would be taken against me.  The next day, the lieutenant who was in charge that day, called me in and began reading the Military Code of Justice to me which meant I was about to be court martialed.  Although he was a nice young fellow from Georgia  Tech, I chewed his butt out, and he, of course, ordered me out of his office.  The next day, the Captain returned, and, I suppose because in his perception  everyone had screwed up the case of the broken windows, did nothing.  The whole matter just disappeared...more or less.

The next court martial was the result of being too talkative in Stuttgart.  Stuttgart is a major old German city about an hour’s train ride from Schwabisch Gmund.  Troy, a fellow soldier , and I got a day pass to visit Stuttgart.  We visited and went to the train station to return to Swabish Gumund.  We bought our train tickets and decided to get something to eat at the restaurant in the train station; consequently, we missed the next train to Swabish Gumund.  Let me say at this point: the trains in Europe run on time.  We started talking to a couple of German soldiers, and we missed the next train.  Ultimately, we missed the third and last train that night back to Schwabisch Gmund.  Nothing to do but to get a place to sleep and worry about being AWOL tomorrow.  “Worrying about it tomorrow” is a strategy I’ve often used throughout my life.  The next morning, over breakfast, we discussed our situation and concluded that the best thing for us to do was to go to France for a little vacation because we would soon be going to the stockade regardless of what we did from that point.  We boarded a train headed for Nancy, France.  Troy had second thoughts and decided to jump off the train after it had already left the station.  Troy was a skydiver, and he jumped off the train as though he were jumping from a plane, a mistake.  I, not being a skydiver, jumped off the way any country boy would and was unharmed.  Troy, the skydiver, broke one of his hands.  We went to a military base in Stuttgart and had him repaired.  We then got back on a train headed for Nancy.  I’ll never forget Troy’s words when we came to the border.  Looking out the window, Troy, being from Kentucky, drawled, “Damn, even the police look French.”  We managed to be allowed into France even though we didn’t have the proper paperwork.  We enjoyed our stay in Nancy but finally ran out of money.  We got on a military bus headed for a nearby American airbase.  We found the airmen’s club on the base and turned ourselves in to a really disappointed military policeman who had been enjoying his evening in the club.  The air force turned us over to the army which had a quaint jail cell awaiting us nearby.  We were treated well and a few days later a couple of MPs showed up to take us back to Germany.  They laughed when they saw that we were not nearly as threatening as they had been lead to believe and decided the handcuffs were unnecessary, and when they got us back to Germany, they bought us train tickets and told us to go home.  Nice fellows.

We did.  Because we were scheduled to go to Grafenwohr  to fire our howitzers, the court martial was held in a tent in the field.  Of course, we were found guilty and immediately shipped to the stockade in Stuttgart for three months.  They really didn’t like us very much.

The night we arrived at the stockade was the same night “Jumping” Joe was released from there.  I’m sure we passed each other in the dark of that night.  Jumping Joe was a fellow who borrowed all the money he could possibly manage, including from me, and in front of his sergeant and the assembled battery, threw his suitcase over the fence, climbed the same fence, waved goodbye, and went on a two-week unauthorized vacation.  I’m not sure what became of Joe.  He was gone whenever we returned from the stockade to the kaserne.

We arrived at the stockade in the middle of the night and were ushered into our sleeping area occupied by about twenty-five sleeping souls.  Once again, Troy said something which stuck with me: “Who knows what wondrous personalities will emerge tomorrow?”

He was right about the wondrous personalities.  Most of them were pretty good guys except for the rapist and the murderer.  The rest were in there for military offenses like striking officers.  Troy and I had probably done the least offensive offense of all.  I liked the guys in the stockade better than the average soldier (I’m sure that betrays a weakness of character.).  The stockade was okay: a lot of shotguns and 45’s and prison bars, and disgruntled guards.  Stockade guard duty was not a reward for outstanding soldiering.  Time passed.  I learned to be a pretty good ping pong player, and one day we were told that we were going to go before a “parole” board.  Troy was the first to be interviewed.  Troy was asked if because of his extremely high GT score (IQ) that he felt that the army didn’t treat him well.  Troy’s answer was classic: “I don’t believe the army treats anyone well.”  Concluding that the “parole” board was a dog and pony show, I had a lot of fun with the board’s questions.  Needless to say, we weren’t given a ticket to go back to our unit.

One of the most amusing conversations we had when we were in the stockade was with the equivalent of the warden.  In his office one day, he asked us why we were in the stockade.  We gave him the obvious answer to which he responded that we had done less than anyone else in the stockade.  We just shrugged our shoulders.  It didn’t seem worth our time to try to explain.

After a couple of months, one morning we were placed in  the back of a truck and returned to our battalion.  Upon arrival we were ushered into the Captain’s office and told that we could be moved to another unit if we liked.  I responded, “I’d rather screw with you people than anyone I know.”  That pretty much set the tone for the rest of my time with these folks.

The next court marshall was entirely my fault.  We had to pull guard duty on special weapons for a few days.  It was four hours on and two hours off which is the opposite of normal guard duty.  Oh, by the way, special weapons was the euphemism for atomic war heads.  After pulling a few rounds of guard duty and drinking six cups of coffee, I was back on for a four hour stint.  My legs became tired and I decided to sit on my helmet for a few minutes, a mistake.  The first sergeant awoke me, and the word before I got off my guard duty was that I was going to the stockade.  My job then was not to go to the stockade.

This was going to be one of those big courts martial with a board of three, a prosecutor, and defense officer.  I knew that the biggest jackass to ever wear a uniform was going to the chief of the court: I had one no-reasons-given removal and I, naturally, removed him.  I had a friend in headquarters who was in charge of making the assignments for the courts martial.  I asked him to assign the second biggest jackass as my defense lawyer.  He was a two-time Viet Nam vet and a hard ass and an honorable man.  I knew he couldn’t help himself: he would do the best job for me he possibly could, and I sure as heck knew I didn’t want him on the board.  My first meeting with him as my defense officer was amusing.  As I sat in the waiting room,  a shout went forth which shook the timbers of the old building: “Send Pinkerton in.”  After saluting and sharply saying, “Private Pinkerton reporting, Sir,”  he took a long moment to look me over before he asked, “Pinkerton, you didn’t request me did you?  You know I’m in charge of special weapons.”  I responded, “No, Sir, no one would be that stupid.”  He smiled and did the best he could for me.  The upshot of all this is that I was busted one rank and fined.  What really saved me from the stockade, in addition to my own cleverness, was my Captain at the time was about to come up for his chance to be a Major for the third time.  If he was not awarded the rank on the third try, he would be cashed out of the service.  He didn’t want this and had realized that I was a key part of his fire direction team.  We were about to go to the field for battery testing.  Unless his battery scored pretty high, he was not likely to make major.  Well, we went to the field, fired second best out of sixteen batteries, and he made major.  Lesson learned: make yourself invaluable to your employer.

The only other time I got crossed with the powers that be occurred on our way back from our successful field test.  The track 155 mm vehicles were taken to the site via train and were loaded aboard a train’s flatbeds to return to Furth, our home base at the time. We had moved from Schwabisch Gmund to Furth a few months earlier.    Several of us were killing time in one of the track vehicles.  Someone had a liter bottle of beer and was passing it around among the fellows.  No harm done.  A new Texas A&M lieutenant suddenly appeared atop the vehicle staring down at the vehicle’s occupants.  I simply opened the back door and stepped out on to the siding of the track looking up at the lieutenant who was preoccupied with the fellows who were still in the vehicle.  I realized that he had never noticed me, and I ambled on back to the passenger cars.  The other fellows got a little light Article 15 punishment and were off the hook.  One day an officer approached me and asked, “Pinkerton, you were not in the vehicle with those other fellows, were you?”  I gave him the answer that he was obviously seeking.

A couple of months passed, and I was headed home again by airplane.  This crew was even older than the one that had taken me to Germany in the first place. 

One more note.  One NCO is assigned the duty of re-up officer.  It’s his responsibility to attempt to get soldiers to reenlist in the army near the end of their term.  He didn’t bother in my case: I guess he just didn’t want to hear it.

I recently met a fellow who corrected me when I claimed to be the worst soldier of all times.  He said that he had suffered through four courts martial when he was in the service at a time contemporary to my service.  Okay, okay, I may not be the worst soldier ever, but I’m still claiming high honors.

As for the army, all and all, it was okay.  I’m glad I did a little time with those nice folks, and I still cheer for Army in the Army-Navy game.


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