I don’t normally write war stories about myself, but since this is “Black History Month” I thought it was appropriate to talk about my first time away from home in the integrated U.S. Army.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun daily newspaper on Feb. 23, 2004.
It was 1958, I had just graduated from Manatee High School in Bradenton, Fla. A year or so earlier I joined the U.S. Army Reserve. As part of my commitment I was required to take 12 weeks of basic training and the balance of approximately three additional months in the regular Army immediately after graduation from high school.
My time had come. Like hundreds of other high school seniors in the Reserve we were all headed for basic. That meant Fort Jackson, S.C. We took a very slow train for two days. It stopped at every village, town and city picking up boy soldiers while it meandered its way north along the Eastern Seaboard toward our ultimate fate at Jackson.
Since all of us were “Weekend Warriors” we already had our uniforms cut to fit like a glove. As a member of he Reserve we also received our dozen prescribed shots months earlier.
During the two-day orientation period at Fort Jackson’s a new soldier gets his uniforms, shots and bedding. Since we were “old soldiers” we thought we could bypass all of that. Not so.
A regular Army sergeant met us outside the barracks where they were giving shots. He collected our blue shot record cards that indicated we had received our inoculation.
Then he ripped up our records and told us to get in line and take a second round of shots. There was a lot of moaning on our part, but we did as we were told.
After our reinoculation we stood in the uniform line. A supply sergeant made us turn in our uniform that fit and issued us new ones that were several sizes too large.
We moaned some more, but it did us no good.
The big surprise was still to come. We were taken by two-and-a-half ton trucks, known in the military as “Duece-and-a-half’s” to the company training area. The 250 soldiers in our company were split into four platoons of approximately 60 men. A sergeant was in charge of each platoon.
As we stood on the blacktop street in front of our barracks with our duffle bags like a herd of turtles, out strode our platoon sergeant onto the front stoop. A sucking sound came from the mouths of most of his young charges.
We couldn’t believe our eyes. He was BLACK!
How could this be? How could a bunch of white, Southern boys get a BLACK platoon sergeant?
I was an “Army Brat” who grew up on military bases around the country during World War II, so his blackness didn’t bother me much. But some of my fellow Southern Reservists weren’t as liberal minded. They weren’t having any part of this dude.
They wouldn’t soldier with the likes of him—No way, no how—Period!
As he towered over us standing on the barack’s steps he slapped his swagger stick with its .50 Cal. machine-gun shell casing handle against his gleaming black paratrooper jump boots. His leather stick made a popping noise as it hit his jump boots. Clad in a light, cotton officer’s khaki uniform with razor sharp creases, the sergeant looked like a mahogany David in all his splendor. Michelangelo could have produced no finer sculpture.
“My name is Sgt. Sapp,” he began in a slow measured tone. “You soldier with me and do it right, you’ll have no trouble. You don’t, your ass is mine.”
I could see from the looks on most of his new recruits’ faces he wasn’t making many converts.
He ordered us into ranks and told us to count off. The response from most of his new platoon wasn’t pretty. It could have been a scene from “The Dirty Dozen” where Lee Marvin, who played the major, tried to get the prisoners to shape up, get into ranks and count off.
The first couple of weeks in boot camp was long and hard. Soldiering with a black platoon sergeant almost 50 years ago was viewed as a terrible indignity by many of these young men in my platoon.
After a while, what I began to notice, was Sgt. Sapp could easily do everything we were trying so hard to learn how to do. True, he was R.A. (Regular Army) half-a-dozen years older than we were and a lot wiser.
The sergeant did calisthenics with us until we fell on our faces. He drilled us into the pavement and marched circles around us. While we sweated in the 95-degree heat at Jackson wearing our wilting green fatigue uniforms, Sapp looked fresh, clean and almost flawless.
A month went by at Jackson by then many of my fellow Reservists were beginning to realize that Sgt. Sapp was not only a far better soldier than we would ever be, but maybe he was the best platoon sergeant on base. By this time most of us were trying to soldier up to his expectations. It was tough.
After another month passed, even the diehards among us who vowed they would never soldier with a black man grudgingly agreed Sapp was one hell of a platoon sergeant.
It was right about that time we took a 25-mile hike out in the bush carrying a 60-pound field pack and lugging a 12-pound M-1 rifle. Hundreds of us in the battalion walked for hours in single file in the summer heat along a rutted road kicking up clouds of dust as we trudged along. When we reached our destination, our fatigues were covered with white, powdery dust. We could have been an outfit of “Pillsbury Dough Boys.”
There stood Sgt. Sapp looking like he just stepped off a page in “Esquire” magazine. He wasn’t even sweating . The sergeant reached in his back pocket, pulled out a clean, white handkerchief and wiped the white-powdery dust off his gleaming black jump boots. He was ready to march back to the barracks 25-miles away.
It was about that time we started hearing rumors Sapp might not be with us much longer. There was something he had to do that was more important than teaching a bunch of Southern white boys how to become men.
He called us all together and told us he wouldn’t be finishing the last two weeks of basic with us. A universal groan went up from every soldier in our platoon. His 60 converts were devastated.
The next day Sapp’s replacement arrived. As luck would have it, he was a white non-com. Each of us knew in our hearts no matter how good the new guy was he would never measure up to Sgt. Sapp.
He introduced himself. Then he told us the reason Sapp would not be with us for the last two weeks of basic. He was to be the guidon bearer for the U.S. Army Drill Team. He was the soldier who carried the little triangular flag atop a pike at the head of the Army’s precision marching unit.
The Army Drill Team was to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show the following Sunday night. It needed time to hone its skills.
On that Sunday night, every solder in the company crowded around the small back and white TV in the squad room. All 250 of us wanted to get a look at Sgt. Sapp doing his stuff.
When Sullivan introduced the drill team the TV camera panned across the front row of soldiers. There stood our Sgt. Sapp on stage ramrod straight in the front rank, right corner with the guidon in his right hand. As they flawlessly performed on stage, every one of us knew we had been taught soldering by a master.
A week later our company along with other soldiers from our battalion graduated from basic. Our platoon was judged best in the cycle so we were given the honor of leading the graduation parade. Bands play military music, flags waved in the breeze and we marched like never before.
In perfect step, row after row we moved with precision across the parade ground to Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I know we wouldn’t have been there at the head of the parade if we hadn’t soldiered with Sgt. Sapp, the best platoon sergeant there ever was.
D.O.B: 19 Aug. 1939
Hometown: Santa Fe, NM
Currently: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: 12 July 1958
Discharged: 17 Nov 1958
Unit: 231st Floating Transportation Company
Commendations: Marksman’s Medal,”Soldier of the Cycle” in basic.
Battles/Campaigns: “Cold War”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 23, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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