The hot summer of 1953 found us ROTC cadets from colleges all over the country housed in barracks at Camp Gordon outside Augusta, Georgia. During June and July young officers, some of whom served in World War II, tried their best to teach us how to become officers and gentlemen in the United States Army.
First Lieutenant Frank Mortimer pulled the duty of shaping up our platoon of cadets into officers and gentlemen. Lt. Mortimer wore tiny steel rim glasses that barely covered his dark black eyes. He stood no more than five foot six inches and was as lean as a sugar cane stalk. Lt. Mortimer’s jump boots, in which one could see his reflection, and the wings he wore on his chest verified he had completed parachute training at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Ranger patch sewn on his right shoulder told us he had signed up for rugged Ranger training in the swamps of Florida. Lt. Mortimer was all spit-and-polish. His stiff, starched uniform clung to him as though it had been painted on his scrawny body. Lt. Mortimer had found a home in the Army and resented those of us who were just there to serve out our time, then say goodbye to the Army.
Only years later would Camp Gordon attain the dignity of becoming Fort Gordon. In 1953 the wooden barracks built during the great world conflict with Germany and Japan provided only the basic needs. Each cadet had a bunk, foot locker, and a small metal cabinet for hanging clothes. We shared a latrine with some forty other guys. The privacy of college days lay behind us. These conditions caused some tempers to flare on occasion.
Many of my brother cadets grumbled about the chow at the mess hall, but I found the hearty food– day old bread, all the eggs, steak, potatoes you could eat, and unlimited milk– to my liking. Sure it was starchy, but being from New Orleans I thrived on starchy.
Camp Gordon, situated among the steep red hills and pine trees of northeast Georgia was not the most hospitable place for humans. However, this environment seemed to suit rattlesnakes well.
As one would expect summers were hot even–for us boys raised in the south. The summer of 1953 was no exception. Our fatigues, which were constructed of a fabric known as herringbone twill, were as heavy as the canvas of our pup tents. We were required to wear these garments during all training. Training started each day at dawn with the daily dozen exercises. The salt tablets we had to take regularly came forth in our sweat and caked on our fatigue jackets, rendering them stiff enough to stand alone. I anticipated that some of the Yankee boys from Wisconsin, Michigan, New York and New Jersey were going to succumb to the heat, but these fellows were tougher than I thought and they survived.
I got along fairly well except for a couple of screw-ups. I peeled many potatoes on KP ( kitchen police) duty for running a jeep into a pine tree on a night exercise and bending it up a bit. I peeled more potatoes for getting lost in the woods at night on a bivouac and falling asleep up side a pine tree. I peeled more potatoes for, as a lark, handcuffing a buddy to the center pole of a mess tent while on maneuvers, only to find that nobody had a key for the cuffs. But for the most part all of us came away from this experience with a better understanding of what would be expected of us as officers.
We boys from the south and our Yankee compadres got along fairly well despite the language barrier. I was bunked next to a young, brash fellow by the name of Regan, who called New Jersey home. A short, skinny, pale, feisty lad, Regan had a tendency to run his mouth when he would have been better off just listening. I just attributed this lack of social decorum to him being a Yankee.
Also in our barracks were three fellows who would become football legends. Bart Starr, Harlon Hill, and Bobby Bowden–all of whom came from Alabama. Of course, at that time we did not know that Bobby Bowden would become the Hall of Fame coach of Florida State and guide his team to 377 wins–with 33 winning seasons. We did not know that Bart Starr would play for the Green Bay Packers, who were coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi. Starr would become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all times. We did not know that Harlon Hill would become one of the greatest receivers to ever play for the Chicago Bears. They were just guys like us and we were all in the same boat at Camp Gordon in 1953.
After about a month of training in the hot Georgia hills, and some of us peeling many pounds of potatoes for our transgressions, it came time for our first leave to go into Augusta and raise a little hell. We were to leave the post on Friday afternoon and return the following Monday.
To this day, I don’t know what precipitated the argument between Regan and Harlen Hill. But late in the afternoon on the Friday we were to depart for leave, there came a hell of a ruckus in the middle of our barracks. When I arrived to see what was going on, I saw the five foot six, red-faced Regan, staring up at the six foot four Harlen Hill. They stood chest to belly while Regan shouted obscenities up to Hill’s dark angular face that revealed his Native American heritage.
Bart Starr and Bobby Bowden stood next to Hill and tried to defuse the situation. Bowden tried his best with his quick wit and compelling speech to calm down the situation. By breaking up the fight between Regan and Hill in the barracks and insuring that we all got leave, Bobbie Bowden showed the leadership skills that would serve him well in his illustrious career.
Harlon calmly took the verbal abuse and told his diminutive adversary, “ I don’t want to fight you here. It will get us all in trouble, but if you still want to settle this issue, I will meet you just outside the gate as soon as we are released for the weekend.”
After things calmed own, and the onlookers to the confrontation dispersed, I got Regan aside and told him, “Are you crazy, man? Did you see that man? He is built like an oak tree. He will tear you limb from limb if you try to fight him. If I were you I would go apologize to him right now.”
I never did ask Regan what the argument was all about. I assume he decided not to fight Harlon Hill, because Regan showed back up in the barracks the following Monday unscathed.