By James R. Van Liere | PREVIEW Columnist
After completing basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., I spent two weeks on leave in Kalamazoo, Mich., visiting relatives and friends, and it was now time to return to Fort Leonard Wood for specialty training.
Upon arriving at Fort Leonard Wood, I was informed that my duffel bag had been lost in transit, so all I had was a small carry-on suitcase with a change of underwear, a civilian shirt and pants, shaving gear and toothbrush. I was lucky to be wearing my Class A uniform, so I had no trouble getting back on the base. Unfortunately, I had purchased at my own expense a set of fatigues in order to continue my training.
Before I went on leave, I was told that I would be transferred to Fort Belvoir, Va., for further training as a combat engineer. However, upon my return to Fort Leonard Wood, I was informed that Fort Belvoir was filled to capacity and that I would remain at Fort Leonard Wood and be enrolled in an OJT (on-the-job training) program as a surveyor. I was quite disappointed at hearing this, but as it turned out, this was a pretty good deal.
Four of us out of our 60-man training platoon were assigned to a headquarters company attached to a division while the remaining 56 men were sent to signal school. They had to march 1 mile to and from school every day while a sergeant picked the four of us up every day in his own car and drove us to work. Our place of training and work was clear across the fort and it would have taken a half day to march there. I must admit, we had it pretty nice because we didn’t have to attend formal classes every day in a hot and stuffy old barracks. Nor did we have to march back to our barracks for lunch and then back to class and then back to our barracks at the end of the day. We had lunch at the division mess hall and the cooks, for some reason, took a special liking to us, so they were always offering us another steak or more strawberry shortcake.
Besides the four of us, there were nine regular Army men plus Sgt. Batson, who was the section leader for the surveyors. The assistant leader was Sgt. Sproul, who gave us a ride to and from work every day. Basically, our work consisted of doing the surveying for the fort by laying out new roads, training fields, even football fields, making small topographical maps and doing other small, miscellaneous surveying projects. We were quite lucky in another way because on our way out to our project for the day, Sgt. Sproul would stop at the post bakery, where he had a friend who was a baker. Sgt. Sproul would run in and get us a huge flat chocolate cake, lemon cake or some apple or cherry pies to take to the field. When it came to taking a break, we ate like kings, especially when we had six apple pies for 12 guys.
We had a few adventures while working out in the field. One day, we had to survey across a river and I was “volunteered” to wade the river with a stadia rod (a graduated wooden rod marked in feet and tenths of feet that was used to measure vertical distances by looking through an alidade, transit or level).
Because the river was about mid-thigh deep and I wanted to stay as dry as possible, I donned a pair of hip boots and waded into the river. Because this was early in our training, Sgt. Batson came out to the site to oversee our work. To ensure that I was holding the rod correctly and in the right places, he also donned a set of hip boots and came out to where I was standing. In the meantime, to avoid standing in deep water, I had found this nice 18-inch diameter by 6- or 8-inch high object to stand on. When he came out and stood next to me, he could see that I was quite a bit higher than he was and he asked me what I was standing on. I told him that I didn’t know, but it was nice and flat on top. He looked down, turned pale as a sheet and yelled “don’t move, you’ll blow us all to hell.”
It turns out I was standing on a land mine. He quickly waded back to shore and radioed in for a couple of demolition specialists to come out to the site as quickly as possible. Eventually, while I stood out in the river on that darn land mine too afraid to move so much as to scratch my nose, two men showed up after about 20 or 30 minutes. Luckily, I still had the stadia rod to hold on to, which helped considerably to keep me steady and not move. After getting outfitted in all their protective gear, the two men finally waded into the river to assess the situation. One of the men had on a swimming mask of sorts and ducked down into the water to take a look. When he came up he started to laugh. It turns out that the mine was a dummy practice mine, much to my relief, and wasn’t loaded with explosives.
So, I just stepped off and we continued with our survey of the river and the surrounding area. Of course, the dummy mine was removed to ensure no one else reported it and the demolition team would have to make a return trip.