Stephenson Tales

More on (read "moron") Major English

One of the problems that appeared early in the Intelligence Service was that in order to go to Officer's Candidate School one had to have an IQ score of 120, but for an enlisted man to be assigned to Signal Intelligence the score had to be 135 or over. Now, as few civilians are aware, an officer in the Army is appointed by act of Congress as "an officer and a gentleman." Then his actual assignment as a second lieutenant has nothing to do with his mental capacities, but rather is at the whim of someone higher up. It is impossible to know who makes these assignments - but the upshot was that we had many men who were not officers who were much smarter than those who were giving them orders.

The prime example of this was Major English who had been assigned to the 849th Signal Intelligence Service. (I have told elsewhere about his mastery of our wall map.) It appears that no matter how arcane, esoteric or specialized a particular army unit may be, it is required that it have assigned to it a "commander of troops."

This was Major English.

His task was to make sure that we were soldiers. In the 849th he had a bunch of civilians on his hands who happened in some karmic confusion to be wearing the uniform of the United States Army. While at Hammam Melouane, it was at his insistence that we get up at dawn for "assembly." This involved a trumpet call of "reveille," the salute, and standing at attention while the flag was raised; 15 minutes of calisthenics; "dress right" (so we looked like a well-ordered platoon) and sometimes "close order drill." Of course we hated him and this senseless egregious stupidity.

His most ambitious pretense that we were soldiers was what he called an "Alert." This idiocy took place about 2 a.m. The first Sergeant went galloping from cubicle to cubicle shouting, "Alert! Everybody out!!" What a rare way to start a new day - and it was nowhere near dawn. We all leaped from our bunks, shuffled on our clothes - including the 5-pound steel helmets - grabbed rifle (militarily, always called ones' "piece") and cartridge belt; loaded ourselves into trucks and drove about two miles into the mountains where we unloaded and scrambled up about a hundred feet; spread out and fired at least a dozen rounds through the darkness and into a mountain on the other side of the little river. Then we were to load back into the trucks and go back to camp where we disembarked to go back and try to get a little more sleep before our beloved reveille trumpet sounded.

The first time we were required to perform this pre-dawn rite about six Arabs came into our camp the next day wounded and bloody. No one had bothered to check if our target of the opposite mountain had anyone living over there or not. I do not know if we killed anyone, but these poor people - men and women and children - had gunshot wounds and fragments of stone from ricocheting bullets all over their bodies. It would appear that we had shot directly into the dwellings of some olive grove guardians. They were taken to the Allied Force hospital in Algiers for treatment. I never learned if they survived or were even carried back home after being treated.

The second time we were so awakened we were all extremely resentful. When the first sergeant came through, Billy Packer and Bill Marquardt obediently fulfilled their military obligations like good soldiers. I was so furious that I told them not to wait for me but to go on ahead.

Bill Marquardt slept on the top bunk of the wooden bunk bed. Our mattresses, which were stuffed with pleasantly aromatic dried seaweed bought at the "Bon Marché" in Algiers, were supported by sections of chain mail fencing - the kind of fencing that is often used in the U.S. to mark property lines.

Everybody left. Suddenly I could hear something: I realized that the first sergeant was checking the rooms to see that everyone had properly answered the call to battle. When I heard him in the cubicle next to ours I started to panic - here was my rank of tech sergeant about to go down the tube, court martial and probably dishonorable discharge for dereliction of duty. Since I always slept nude - without even any socks on - I threw back my Army blanket against the wall; put my feet up and hooked my toes into the mesh of the underside of Bill's bunk; reached up and curled my fingers into the mesh; and using every ounce of strength I had, pulled my entire body up tight against the bottom of the top bunk. There was a 4x6 rail on the underside of the top bunk behind which I cowered. When the Sergeant burst in he pounded on Billy Packer's top bunk, then the lower one, and turned toward where I was. He felt along the top bunk: no one there, of course; reached under where I was hanging and ran his hand along my mattress. No one there either, of course. He went to the doorway and came back and double-checked the beds. Then he went on his way to the rest of the cubicles. I hung there for a full minute more until I was sure he was gone. Then I dropped panting, gasping and nearly crying with fright down on to my bunk. Thinking back on this close call - as many times I have, you can bet - I will be ever thankful that the sergeant did not notice that I had forgotten to remove my rifle and helmet from where they always hung at the front of the upper bunk.

That was the last of the "alerts" as we moved shortly thereafter to Italy (just north of Naples near Caserta) to Recale where we spent the next year.

Somewhere during that move Major English got reassigned - I hope to some combat troop on the front lines where he would be more at home with his infantry mindset. So we never had any "alerts" all the time we were in Italy.

Composed 18 November 2008; Transcribed by Lucky

© Jim Bob Stephenson 2008

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