French OG page  


A Civilian in Uniform
by Jean Kohn

  Chapter 1  
  Chapter 2  
  Chapter 3  
  Chapter 4  
  Chapter 5  
  Chapter 6  
  Chapter 7  

A CIVILIAN IN UNIFORM By Jean Kohn (continued)


Chapter Two - Induction and Basic Training

I had wanted to join the Army, since I was motivated by my hatred of the Nazi Régime and the sense of shame that France had been badly beaten in 1940. I might have felt attracted also by the dream of glory which was then natural in young boys. Nevertheless I just waited for the draft to call me.

Thus I joined the army. We all had to take a physical exam in a building near Grand Central Station. Those who were sick or had other handicaps were classified as 4F (not fit for military duty). There was the old joke going around about that blind man who was classified 4F because his walking dog had flat feet!

In other words they took almost everybody. Americans are well fed from early childhood and actually very few boys were found unfit. On the other hand many persons in defence work were kept out of active duty as long as they were on the job, mostly in factories producing arms, ships, tanks, airplane etc...

But I was in very good health.

I was told to report for active duty some time in March 1943.

I first went to Fort Dix in New Jersey for induction. We received all our equipment and a big duffle bag with our name and serial number stencilled on it.

Jean Kohn 32 871 048 was written on mine.

We were also given shots for yellow fever, typhoid, and I don't know what else. Everybody was sick after that from the various vaccinations.

We were taught to stand at attention, march in steps, salute.

Then we all were loaded aboard a train. We didn't know where we were going because it was a secret.

In that train, a regular passenger train, we realized that many of us were not U.S. citizens: There were French, Spanish, Russian... all kinds of fellows. We thought that maybe we were going to be put into a foreign legion-type outfit. There were a few Americans which eliminated the idea of a special "foreigner corps." We just didn't know what was going on and the speculations on where we were going and what we would have to do were increasing as the train rolled on.

It turned out that it was just by luck that so many foreign born new soldiers were together. We were all from New York, many of us were foreigners, and we happened to have been drafted together at the same time. Everybody knows that the New York City population is made up of foreigners.

Our final destination was Camp Robinson near Little Rock, Arkansas. This was the place where we had what the Army calls: basic training. That Army camp was called a Replacement Depot. Its purpose was to train new soldiers to replace casualties - especially in 1943 when the Allies were fighting a difficult campaign in Italy.

I was a happy young soldier since we did a lot of exercise, we learned to shoot a rifle. I had wanted to be able to own and shoot a rifle because as a young boy I was deprived of any toy related to war. My father was very much against any kind of weapons. As said before he had fought during the First World War and being a "pacifist" he did not allow us to have any toy guns at home. Once, I managed to get one of those little wooden guns that worked with a spring throwing a wooden arrow with a piece of rubber on the end that could stick to a wall. I also played with a water pistol—but in that case it was my mother who was not too happy about the game—and for good reasons, as some furniture got pretty wet.

We had not been allowed guns at home, and there I was with a real war M1 rifle!!! You can imagine how happy I was. I was less happy when I had to learn how to clean it.

We were also taught how to march, how to crawl... the worst part was to learn how to make up a bed according to Army rules. I had never made up my bed. At home we had a maid. So I had to learn to tuck the sheets and blanket the "army way." I never did like to make a bed and to this day, when I am alone at home, I can sleep in a bed where the sheets are roughly pulled up together covered with a bed spread. This does not keep me from sleeping. But in the army, the bunks have to be perfectly made up. This is part of discipline.

I miserably failed on the first inspections. My bed was not made up properly and my rifle was found "dirty." I did not manage well either disassembling and re-assembling the rifle blindfolded as a simulation exercise for night duty.

Camp Robinson was headed by a one star general, a rather old man who had probably served during the first World War. He wore one of these wide brim hats similar to those used by boy scouts.

The first time we met him in a big auditorium, he impressed me by calling us "men." Nobody had ever called me "man."

On the other hand we also had to do all kinds of cleaning duties, one of which as KP—you know, kitchen duty.

The mess hall was similar to a restaurant. Early in the morning when we started this KP duty we used to find milk bottles at the door, exactly as at home.

The American Army does not cheat on food. We had all the milk, butter, bread we wanted. If a soldier is punished for any wrong doing, he is never put on bread and water. He may have to do double duty on Sunday for example, but he always eats the same food as the others. Food is not used as a punishing tool. Let us face it, it is seldom a reward. For a French boy whose mother was an excellent cook it was painful to see how our Army cook could turn a good piece of meat into an overcooked indescribable mash.

There is always too much and waste is enormous—at least that was my impression. At home we never threw food away, not that we were poor, but this was the way we had been brought up. To this day I feel bad when I see food being thrown away. As young children we used to save chocolate aluminum wrappers to help feed Chinese children. We did not even question how these wrappers fed far away poor Chinese kids. We were diligent in making up a ball after eating more chocolate than we should have.

When my turn came to be on KP (kitchen) duty, I used to volunteer to clean the kitchen coal burning stove, a real dirty job. Every day the stove had to be left spotless at night. I volunteered to do this cleaning since the soldiers who cleaned the stove were let free early. Food was served while the stove was being cleaned. We came out of that kitchen really dirty with soot, black from head to foot. After a good shower, while the rest of the KP group was still busy washing dishes, floors etc, we, the stove cleaners, were free early in the evening to go to movies.

Camp movies were free. If we wanted popcorn, we had to buy it.

We all became friendly in that little platoon of mine.
Each one was recounting his civilian life. There were two distinct groups of draftees at that time:
-Young 18-year-olds like me
-Older men in their late thirties who had escaped being drafted for various reasons. As the War was dragging on with heavy casualties, the Government was raising the age of able men. They were drafted against their will I imagine. We, the young fellows, found ourselves alongside married men without children, who did not have a defence job and were often close to 40.

This group of "old" men was very unhappy to have been drafted. They use to gripe all day long. One favourite subject of complaint was President Roosevelt whom they hated and accused of having precipitated the US into the War—forgetting that Pearl Harbor had been the target of the Japanese.

Our platoon corporal was named Redpath—I often wondered if by chance he was Indian. My English was not very good—it still is not—but I had some notions of grammar. We were standing at attention one morning at 6:00 am, just out of the barracks when corporal Red Path looked at me and said:


"Yes Sir!"

"Close them doors!"

Of course, I said: " You mean... those doors??"

"No, them doors, and don't be smart!"

It struck me that many soldiers did not speak grammatical English.

Some of my new friends hadn't gone to High School, or even finished Primary School. I can still hear them saying: "I ain't,""Them guys,""I says to him," that kind of English.

I also learnt quickly not to contradict a superior, no matter what he said.

The "boss" was always right.

It also struck me to see how some people lived from what they told me about their life back home before being called by the Army. I had lived a secluded life in France and in the US in a typical upper middle class home. All of a sudden I was mixed with some people who had gone through a very tough time during the Great Depression. They had been hungry and did not have enough money to buy the bare necessities—clothes, shoes.

I came to realize how this other "half" of the population lived. It struck me then and there that should I come out of the War alive, I would try to finish college to get a good education if possible.

Much later—after the War—a graduate Forestry engineer in our office originally from Brooklyn would tell us about his dealings with customers using strangely enough for a college educated man such expressions as :
"I says to him" and "He says to me."

We trained for three months. I earned a rifle sharp shooter medal and I think a good conduct ribbon for being a good obedient soldier.

Most of the foreigners who had accepted to become US citizens were sworn within a very short time, maybe less than three months after induction.

On that great day we went to the District Court of Eastern Arkansas in Little Rock. We were all there together in front of a judge dressed in what I might call our "Sunday" uniform. We raised our hands and pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States. We signed some papers. Afterwards there was a kind of reception held in our honour by the local chapter of a group similar to the Daughters of the American Revolution—Helen Hawkinson-type women, middle-aged ladies—to me they looked very old, probably in their 40s, 50s... and with wide-brimmed hats, with flowers on top, who offered tea and cookies.

Can you imagine all that bunch of young soldiers with a cup of tea in one hand and a cookie in the other!! It was beautiful! The conversation must also have been peculiar between foreign born kids from New York and these charming "old" ladies.

They were very nice about it. They said that now we were U.S. citizens, and they were proud of us, and we were very proud too.

And why did they make us U.S. citizens? To this day I don't know. Maybe they didn't want to send a foreign citizen to fight overseas. In other words he would be protected by the laws of the U.S. if he were taken prisoner. I really do not know.

Two important things that would affect my future happened at that time: One day I was called to Headquarters. The officer on duty asked me :

"You speak French don't you? You're French?"

This information was on the various papers filled out at the time I was drafted. I knew Spanish also, and some German.

I was introduced to two officers. They didn't tell me who they were. I think they were infantry officers. They told me:

"You want to do something else than just being a foot soldier?"

"You want to be a paratrooper?"


"You know, you make 50 bucks a month extra..." (Buck privates were only getting thirty two dollars a month at the time).

"Yeah sure!" I said, "But what does that mean?"

"Well, you know, it might mean you will have to jump behind the enemy lines and spy on the Germans."

Wooah!! Oh la la!! This I loved! Of course I wanted to!! First, I would get out of the infantry, because we were being trained to replace the casualties in Italy.

Even though I wanted to fight, I wanted to be able to defend myself. My father had told me "get out of the infantry, no matter what you do, because that's the worst and most dangerous."

So OK, I said "yes," thinking that being behind the lines on my own I could fight back and kill a lot of Germans. Why not?

And so they left and said: "You'll hear from us."

Before the War my father had taken my older brother and myself to an air show where the star attraction was an American flying man (homme oiseau) named Clemson. We waited and waited for the little plane that carried him to reach a very high altitude, so high we barely could see it. Then he jumped, extended his wings and flew like a bird. We were awed. As he finally came close to the ground, he opened his parachute. It twisted like a torch. He quickly opened the second one he carried on his chest. This second parachute became entangled in the first one. He fell and killed himself. My father took us back home quickly and my mother told him he should not have taken us to that kind of show. A little later I was in a famous Paris toy store. I saw a little figurine dressed as a parachutist with a parachute on his back. This parachute man was thrown in the air with a sling. A spring would push out the folded parachute from his back. It was supposed to open to the great joy of whoever was playing. I started to play "Clemson:" I tied up the parachute in such a way it could not open. Obviously the small toy parachutist would fall straight down. I was ahead of Charles Adams "Monsters Rally." I was still very much interested in parachute jumping. On another memorable occasion, my mother stopped us short, two reckless cousins of ours and myself, to jump from the roof of the house with an open umbrella. I guess it was written that some day I would jump out of a plane.

Going back to Camp Robinson, our training was being terminated. I had a good IQ—not that good anyway, I believe around 110 or 120, whatever. Instead of going to Italy to replace casualties, I was sent to what was called ASTP (Army Specialised Training Programme) to follow Engineering courses. The first stop was in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Oklahoma A & M (Agricultural and Mechanical College). I believe this University has changed its name since then. And we started to do some schooling in maths, physics, chemistry, and a little bit of English.

Then we were all shipped to our "regular university post," which in our case was Syracuse University! So, back to Syracuse! I couldn't believe it. I had left that University a few months before and all of a sudden I was back on the same campus. But this time it was not forestry, but engineering. The curriculum was extremely hard. I could not miss one hour. They used to cram knowledge down our throats.

While I was in Oklahoma we were invited by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Nice plump old ladies with wide brimmed hats exactly like those who had served tea and cookies in Little Rock.

You can imagine the way I spoke English at that time. It was heavy with a French accent, worse than it still is today. One lady said to me:

"You talk a little bit strange—are you a damn yankee?"!!

For her I "was" a damn yankee. She was from Oklahoma. And anybody who "talked strange" was a damn yankee.

I told her: "No, I am French".

She couldn't understand me. She was from Oklahoma!! I was from Paris.

It was summer time in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Air conditioning was non existent in those days—not only in homes, but even less in Army camps and barracks.

I had "suffered" from heat in June/July New York, but that was mild compared to the extreme warm weather in Little Rock and Still Water. The mess hall served gallons of ice tea and when we were on our own in the evening, we used to buy milk shakes, cokes etc...

At that time I found out about salt tablets to offset the loss of water. One thing is certain, the Army was looking after our health to make sure we would be fit for a good fight.

Anyway, back to Syracuse... We were following these tough courses. To me this was not only interesting, but it would eventually lead to becoming a commissioned officer.
I also thought I was not "wasting" my time.

One day the Captain in charge of our school called me:

"Kohn, Come here!"

"Yes sir!"

"You must know somebody in Washington!"

I said, "Oh yeah...not really"

Then I remembered... those two officers who had asked me if I wanted to be a paratrooper to fight behind the lines!

"Yes and no", I said, "I really don't know why they want me in the Capital."

I already felt I had to keep my big mouth shut—even before joining the OSS.

He said, "You're going to Washington."

"Wow! What for?"

He said: "I do not know but these are your orders! And you are travelling tonight, by Pullman."

This was already something because we had travelled by regular trains. Now I was going by Pullman with a bed and real sheets. Luxury. This sounded very good.

And so, on I went to Washington, to report to the address they had given me.

It was the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) office not far from the Mall.

Continue to Chapter Three




contact us