A Soldier's Story

The Beginning

My career actually started in 1948 when I saw John Ford's cavalry classic Fort Apache. Near the end of the movie, a reporter makes a statement about a deceased officer being forgotten.  Viewed through a window in which appears the reflection of a cavalry column passing by, John Wayne (Lieutenant Colonel York) responds with "You're wrong there. They aren't forgotten because they haven't died.  They're living right out there, Collingwood and the rest.  They'll keep on living as long as the regiment lives...their faces may change, their names, but they're there.  They're the regiment, the regular Army—now and fifty years from now".  The impact on this 10 year-old was profound.  From that moment, I knew I was going to be a professional soldier—a cavalryman if possible.  Two friends and I formed a "Fort Apache Club."  We made a guidon and ran around the neighborhood in column.  We even built a fort with walls and a clubhouse inside.

What follows is intended to be an outline of my 22 years on active duty interspersed with anecdotes and links to pictures that made some of the many fond memories of my Army career.  For some reason the bonds I felt with the Army were much stronger than those with my family of origin—I can't really explain that, they just were.  The Army was as much my family as were my wife and children.

I joined E Company, 162nd Infantry Regiment, 41st Infantry Division of the Army National Guard in Eugene, Oregon on November 1st, 1954.  I was 16 years old, but lied about my age and my father facilitated the duplicity.  In February 1955, I transferred to the Heavy Mortar Company, 186th Infantry Regiment, 41st Infantry Division in Coos Bay, Oregon.  We went to summer camp at Camp Murray (Fort Lewis) Washington in June 1955.  I really loved the whole experience, particularly the firing the 4.2" mortars and other weapons.  A couple of weeks after our return to Coos Bay, four of my friends approached me at our next National Guard meeting saying they were "going RA" (Regular Army) and did I want to go?  They were going to enlist for the 3rd Armored Division scheduled to "Gyroscope" to Germany.  It sounded great to me and I immediately agreed.  Although I had just completed my junior year of high school, joining the Army sounded much more fun than going through my senior year of high school.  After selling my car and closing up all my loose ends, the recruiter called us and said Oregon's quota for the 3rd Armored Division was full so he'd either tear up our enlistment papers or we could enlist Armor, unassigned.  What the hell, Armor was the descendent of the Cavalry.   We did and eventually ended up in Alaska.

My only regret was having to tell my first love, Cleo, that I had joined the Army.  Cleo had been in Portland, visiting a relative.  Upon learning that I'd enlisted, her mother called her home.  I had earlier given Cleo the crest of the 186th Infantry Regiment, which she wore as sort of a fraternity pin.  When I saw her next I said, "I see you're still wearing my crest, well I'm going to get a new one."  She knew immediately what I meant and began to cry.  I don't think I ever felt worse in my life.

I took my basic training with Easy Company, 63rd Infantry Regiment, 6th Infantry Division at Fort Ord, California.  I found out soon enough that it was called Easy because that was the phonetic word for E, not meant to be descriptive of the unit.  Because of my National Guard service, I was sent through a local leadership course and made a squad leader as an acting corporal.  There wasn't any extra pay, but at least I got to supervise work details instead of pushing a mop.  I really loved the new experiences.

Three events stand out in my memories of basic.  The first occurred before we were even issued uniforms at the first morning formation.  Role was called and one of the guys either wasn't paying attention or was still asleep as he didn't answer when his name was first called.  As a result, he had to stand at attention and continue shouting out his name while the rest of us went to breakfast.  His name was Ellis, and I'll never forget it.  The second was the feeling that I had during bayonet drill.  I always got the feeling I actually wanted to kill someone.  Finally, I had an ingrown toenail surgically repaired and had to wear a big bandage without a boot on my left foot.  When the time came for the infiltration course (requiring crawling under barbed wire with live machine gun fire overhead), they wouldn't let me go through it—even though I begged them to.  I always felt I'd been deprived of proving my mettle.

The four of us buddies that survived basic training were sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at the Armor Center.  We trained on M47 tanks which were being replaced throughout the Army by the brand new M48 series.   We spent the first few weeks in classrooms, followed by training simulators consisting of fully operational turrets with viewing openings all around.  Civilian clothes weren't allowed in either Basic or AIT so we were in uniform everywhere we went.  The pictures below are of us wandering around Fort Knox.  Click on the thumbnails for a larger picture.

L-R Back: John & Ed Johnson; Front Phil Shellabarger & Max Whipps in German SP Gun

Phil Shellabarger, Ed Johnson, & Max Whipps in front of M4 Tank

Phil Shellabarger, Ed Johnson, & Max Whipps in French Renault Tank (WW I)

Max beside Renault

Finally, after about four or five weeks, we got to start training on real tanks!  Everyone is trained in all crew positions.  We started out on the driving ranges which were nothing more than muddy trails with nothing around that we could run in to.  There were a lot of very deep pools of muddy water and you soon learned to slow down before entering them.  Otherwise, the water would wash completely over tank drenching everyone, especially the driver and bow gunner (assistant driver on the M47).  Each day after running around on the muddy trails, we returned to the tank park where we spent an hour or so washing all the mud off the tanks so they'd be nice and clean when we took them out the next day!  Then came the real fun—the firing ranges.  We started small with the .30 caliber bow and coaxial machine guns and then the turret-mounted .50 caliber machine gun.  The .50 caliber machine gun was supposed to be an antiaircraft weapon, but they never let us shoot at any aircraft—oh well.  The day finally came when we started the 90mm gunnery ranges.  We'd already been taught how to carry the 90mm round with the palm of one hand securely over the primer in the base and the other around the projectile.  That was important because if anything hit the primer, it would go off.

The first time I ever heard a tank's main gun fire was right after I picked up a 90mm round to carry it to a tank.  I was in no way prepared for the very loud "boom" and only by a miracle did I avoid filling my drawers.  I gave thanks on the spot that I didn't drop the round.  On the second or third day, I was in the tank commander hatch when the tanks on both sides of me fired.  My helmet went flying into the air and I crashed on the turret floor. We didn't have ear plugs in those days, instead relying on wads of cotton stuffed in our ears.  My ears had a ringing in them for three days and I've been hard of hearing since that day.  The pictures below were taken on the gunnery ranges at Fort Knox.


John Johnson & Phil Shellabarger wondering where to put the big wrench

Laying out the 90mm Shot rounds (solid steel) on tarps.

Phil carrying 90mm Shot round Note: right palm covering primer!

           M47 tank firing

Crew returning from servicing moving target.

Cleaning the main gun before dinner

As our Advanced Individual Training at the Armor Center drew to a close we eagerly awaited assignment orders.  The Johnson brothers and I were selected to be retained to act as cadre to help train the next cycle; Phil was assigned to Fort Lewis.  Damn!  I didn't want to stay at Fort Knox, but very much wanted to go to Fort Lewis with Phil.  I got an appointment with the company commander and lied, telling him Phil and I were cousins and that it was very important to our families that we stay together (with Fort Lewis being closest).  I still feel guilty about that as lying is very much contrary to my nature.  Nonetheless, it achieved its desired goal and Phil and I were on our way to Fort Lewis, Washington where we were assigned to Tank Company, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.