On January 10, 1962, I boarded a Lockheed Constellation airliner at Cleveland Hopkins airport and flew to Philadelphia with a packet of papers firmly in my grasp. The packet included the one-way ticket for the flight and instructions for reporting to the U.S. Coast Guard training facility in Cape May, New Jersey.
I was met at the Philadelphia airport by a Coast Guardsman who directed me and several other recruits toward a bus for the approximately 2-hour ride to the CG base. I don’t remember many details, except that we arrived after dark. We were shuffled into the reception building and handed our uniforms. The next step was to get the “skin-head” haircut, which took less than 5 minutes. Then we marched to our barracks where we made up our beds and stowed our gear. By then, it was time for lights out.
For the next three months, I learned how to march, make my bed, stow my gear, handle a rifle, and row a longboat. We also had swimming lessons and physical training. The chow was pretty good, and every night we slept more or less comfortably in our bunk beds.
Two months and 27 days later, I was considered a seaman apprentice, the next lowest rank in the Coast Guard. And that was the end of my active service. More about that in a minute.
For many years, I believed that I chose to serve in the Coast Guard because my draft number was coming up for service in Viet Nam. Just recently, I did some date checking on the Internet and discovered that I would have been drafted not for Viet Nam, but for service during the Cold War. America didn’t really become entangled in Viet Nam until August of 1964. For the record, I also learned that the period between 1953 and 1964 was the only time in U.S. history that there was a draft in place during a prolonged peacetime period. For background, go here.
So much for the accuracy of my recollections from 50+ years ago.
Today, we are facing growing global tension as our new President talks about getting more involved in destroying the radical Islamic terrorist movement known as ISIS. Sooner or later, he will probably call for more “boots on the ground.” What does that mean? Many more young Americans will be wounded or worse as they are pressed into serving his agenda.
Returning to my situation in 1962, I now realize that it was more likely that I would have been sent overseas to Europe rather than Viet Nam. But I do recall that I was not enthusiastic about military service. I also recall that I didn’t know one other person my age–from classmates in high school or college–who like me was facing the draft.
At the time, there was a program called the Critical Skills Program for potential draftees. If you were employed in a critical industry or had a critical skill, you were allowed to enlist in the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, or Coast Guard for a program of basic training followed by six years of reserve duty on an inactive basis. That is what I chose to do: enlist in the Coast Guard under the Critical Skills Program.
At Cape May, half my training company, Kilo Company, was made up of 21- to 23-year-olds with college degrees working in jobs considered important to the national defense. I had been hired upon graduation from Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University) to be the Engineering Editor for Foundry Magazine, the trade journal serving the American metalcasting industry. In that job, I reported on new technology foundries could use to make large and small castings for building airplanes, ships, tanks, and other war-fighting equipment. After my basic training at Cape May, I returned to Cleveland to work for Foundry Magazine.
We don’t have a draft in effect today, but all men turning 18 in America today are required to register so that our government will know who is available when and if a draft is reinstituted. For details, go here.
Hopefully, there won’t be a draft and large numbers of our young people won’t be permanently damaged or die in the service of America. But in these early days of the Trump administration, I worry that that worst case scenario may be ahead of us.