Thursday, March 28, 2013

Private Schwartz Takes Command

Readers of the comics know Private Beetle Bailey as a soldier who often is on the receiving end of his sergeant’s wrath for dodging work. Private Schwartz was an adroit work-avoider with whom the geezer served in the U.S. Army in the late 1950s.

Beetle Bailey and Schwartz had one thing in common—neither ever advanced beyond buck private, the lowest rank in the army.
Schwartz might have designed a broom assembly line

Beetle apparently has failed to earn even a single stripe during his long cartoon career because of inept soldiering. Schwartz never rose above buck private because he was a conscientious objector.

I don’t recall Schwartz’s first name, and with good reason—I never used it. GI’s in the 1950s seldom referred to fellow soldiers by their first names unless they were the closest of buddies. I was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, assigned to the Artillery and Missile School for 22 months, and only remember addressing two pals by their first names in all that time. Schwartz and I never became “old army buddies,” although we lived in the same barracks room with about 25 other men for more than a year. Nevertheless, I was reasonably well-acquainted with Schwartz.

Private Schwartz was a New Yorker who had a master’s degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a fast-talking charmer who managed to wriggle his way out of disciplinary actions, although he was questioned about shirking his duties numerous times. Those of us who tried to stay out of trouble by doing our jobs fairly diligently marveled at Schwartz’s ability to drop out of sight for hours at a time and yet usually stay in the good graces of his superiors.

What was a conscientious objector (CO) doing in the army?  Mature adults are familiar with the COs who were morally opposed to serving in the military. When conscription was in effect, throughout much of recent American military history, COs were drafted along with other young males and assigned to alternative civilian duties, usually in health care fields. A little known fact is that many of these COs volunteered for arduous nonmilitary duties to prove they did not lack courage. For example, several hundred fulfilled their service obligations doing tough work for the U.S. Forest Service as smoke jumpers parachuting from low-flying aircraft to fight fires in remote areas during World War II.

Schwartz was among a different group of draftees who objected to using weapons but were not opposed to serving in military units that did not have combat roles. Our unit’s mission was training, not fighting. Schwartz served as sort of a general flunky. He helped the unit carpenter on occasion, kept the grounds around the barracks clean, and handled various other menial jobs assigned by a sergeant responsible for building maintenance.

Our unit did have weapons locked up in an arms room. The rifles and pistols were signed out to men required to guard prisoners or the payroll (I got both those assignments occasionally) or to stand guard near missile sites. Schwartz was exempt from those duties, as was another CO whose sole responsibility was to run the unit coffee shop. Apparently, part of the army’s handling of the non-combat draftees included a policy to never promote them.

Schwartz and our coffee shop operator were the only two buck privates among the 850 men in our battery, one of the largest artillery units in the army. Everyone else outranked them, including several hundred master sergeants who had key roles on instruction teams or in administration. A lieutenant colonel commanded our unit.

Schwartz displayed the kind of creativity shown by Private Bailey in the cartoon reproduced here shortly after our commander got a new superior officer—a “full bird” colonel named Hardman. He lived up to his name. Col. Hardman decided almost immediately that everything about our unit was sloppy, and we needed to shape up or face unpleasant consequences.

The shape-up orders came quickly, and all sorts of actions followed. Every decrepit wall and foot locker in the barracks was repaired and painted a uniform green. All the cots and lockers were rearranged into precise order. We started having daily formations at sunrise to count heads and weekly spit and polish inspections with everything we owned on display.

Just when things seemed in order, Col. Hardman told our commander he had two weeks to get every boot and shoe out from their usual resting places beneath our cots and into proper “military display” positions. The ultimatum included no advice about what proper military positions for shoes and boots were, or how to create them. About 300 single men lived in the barracks, so a lot of footwear was involved.

Several meetings in our commander’s office produced no useful ideas. Then Private Schwartz came to the rescue. He devised a plan for a combination foot locker and footwear display stand that could be positioned at the foot of every cot. Schwartz talked the unit carpenter into making a prototype. Our commander approved.

The building maintenance crew and a few special recruits went to work in the basement. They produced ten display racks in their first full day of labor. Having 290 more racks ready for Col. Hardman’s inspection 12 days away appeared to be a pipe dream.

Two days later, a happy unit commander appeared in the Sergeant Major’s office where I worked. “Sergeant Wesner,” he said to the top kick, “your men are doing a helluva job on this display rack project. They’ve got it whipped. Col. Hardman is in for a surprise.”

I sneaked down to the basement a while later to see exactly how any crew could have an impossible task “whipped.” There was Schwartz sitting in a swivel chair supervising three specialists, four privates first class, two buck sergeants, and his own supervisor, a sergeant first class, as they sawed boards and assembled display units in perfect order, one after another, in a line around the room. A completed unit was carried to the next room for painting at ten minute intervals.

Everyone was hard at work except Schwartz. After all, he had set up an assembly line, and would anyone expect Henry Ford to labor on his own lines? Private Schwartz clearly had assumed command of the display rack operation, and no one was disputing his authority.  Schwartz was honorably discharged about eight months later, still without a single stripe.


PiedType said...

Great story! That MIT degree was bound to come into play at some point.

Bruce Snook said...

Thanks for sharing your “Private Schwartz Takes Command” piece. Very good! I never served in the military, but was a CO who did two years of Civilian Alternative Service at Mercy Hospital in Benton Harbor so I have some familiarity with the topic.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

I had a friend whose husband was a CO. He flew helicopters and retrieved wounded people. He never carried a weapon. Another CO I knew was a Navy corpsman. There are plenty of jobs for COs that don't involve killing. Only about 10% of military ever see action. Dianne