While visiting home at Thanksgiving in 1976 I considered what I wanted to accomplish overseas while in the military.
What are the points of emphasis going to be? I can see two major ones in addition to my duties as a U.S. Army officer: writing and traveling.
What can be said about writing is that I will buy a typewriter and work a story at a time. If something good develops BRAVO!
As far as traveling is concerned, I will make the best possible use of my time and finances to travel, seeing the people, talking with them, eating with them, and viewing their ART and ARCHITECTURE.
This is no modest task in itself but one which must be undertaken for the full experience of the country’s culture. It should prove most pleasant.Journals, November 25, 1976
I underestimated how engaged I would become as an Army officer. When we were in garrison my day started well before dawn with a simple breakfast in my bachelor officer’s quarters followed by a shower and a drive from Martin Luther King Village near the Mainz main railway station to Robert E. Lee Barracks in Mainz-Gonsenheim. It was well after dark when I returned to King Village. If the officers club across the street from my quarters was open, that’s where I would find camaraderie and dinner.
When we were in the field, we were gone for as much as three weeks at a time. Our field operations were maneuvers in the Fulda Gap and other strategic spots in central Germany. When we were on maneuvers we got very little sleep. We would road march with our tracked and wheeled vehicles from the barracks to the area around Fulda when we were rehearsing for a potential Soviet invasion. When the trip was longer we’d load everything on flatbed rail cars. The rail car loading was a scene from old World War II motion pictures.
We also spent time at designated training sites like Grafenwöhr, Hohenfels and Baumholder. For an extended period of time I split my week between Baumholder (Tuesday-Saturday) and Mainz (Saturday-Monday), which made for never ending weeks. I was young and up to it. I listened to Armed Forces Radio in my pick up truck on the drive home every Saturday, almost like clockwork.
Because I studied French in college I served as an exchange officer with a regiment of French marines in Brittany. Our battalion commander in Mainz told me if the balloon ever went up, that is, if Soviet troops invaded West Germany, I would most likely be transferred to a position where I could use my French language skills as a liaison officer. I also took a platoon through French Army Commando School in Vieux-Brisach where I served as French-English translator. My French-speaking skills improved considerably because of these assignments.
I held three different positions in the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry, a mechanized infantry unit part of the 8th Infantry Division and V Corps. I started as a platoon leader, then became a company executive officer, and spent the rest of my tour of duty as the battalion adjutant. These were positions where I learned what it meant to command troops and used almost every skill I learned before entering the Army. It was life, as good as it gets.
I did buy a typewriter, and still have it. My main writing turned out to be in my journal which covers from Dec, 28, 1975 until Oct. 22, 1979. In reading my journals for this project I’m both lucky and glad to have them.
Some friends from home stayed with me for a while in Mainz. I met Dennis and Diana while working a part time retail job in high school. I took leave and we toured Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland in a rented Volkswagen sedan. Dennis is of Belgian descent and asked me to write for his newsletter at the Center for Belgian Culture of Western Illinois in Moline. It took some time and my first article was titled To Belgium and Back: November 1977. He published two more of my Belgian travel diaries the following year.
As far as travel goes, I had experiences that would have been impossible outside an Army unit. During our field training exercises I got to know some parts of the Fulda Gap better than I knew Mother’s neighborhood in Iowa. As a soldier I was both threatened with a gun by a German reveler during Fasching, and welcomed into people’s homes while stranded in parts unknown. There was still resentment lingering from World War II, especially among people who lived through it.
During my trips to France I felt a part of history. The marine unit to which I was attached was on alert to mobilize to the Republic of Djibouti after the African state declared independence from France. I would have deployed with them, although luckily we didn’t.
During an amphibious landing on Belle-Île-en-Mer we were immediately helicoptered to a drop zone further inland. I missed the U.S. ambassador from Paris who was waiting for me on the beach and had come to greet me. I also think he heard my French was a bit questionable, which it was on that assignment. He finally caught up with me under a poncho, next to a barn, at a farmstead where the owners served us dinner of hard cooked eggs, potatoes and sparkling cider all produced on their property.
There were trips to Roman ruins in the Taunus Mountains on weekends, rock climbing near Trechtingshausen, and many visits to the Rheingau wine country. A number of battalion officers made a trip to Luxembourg where a field officer in the Luxembourg Army showed us historic sites related to World War II. Everywhere we went we felt part of history.
While my quarters weren’t fancy, they were an outpost where I took up residence and deployed all over Europe during my time in Mainz. It was a unique experience for which I am thankful.