When I was in college, as I’ve written before, I was in Air Force ROTC. Upon graduation in 1964, I got my commission as a loo-tenant, and I served four years on active duty.
I chose the ROTC route to avoid being drafted as an infantryman, sent to Vietnam, and probably shot. I chose Air Force ROTC to please my dad, who had been a career Air Force officer.
As military training goes, being a Rotsy cadet was pretty mild stuff. It amounted to a few extra hours of classroom training every quarter (called military science and air science), and we wore uniforms on Saturday mornings and learned to march properly.
We cadets even had an hierarchy. The more gung-ho among us became the higher-ranking cadet officers. They could, but usually didn’t, lord it over their underlings.
Gung ho was never in my nature, but I had a good record. I graduated as a cadet major and, to my great surprise, as a Distinguished AF ROTC Cadet. Just thought I would mention that.
On the whole, ROTC was not terribly demanding. It was sort of a sideline, a little extra duty to the main task at hand, which was steering a course through college.
Usually, the idea of military training evokes different images altogether — boot camp, drill sergeants, aggressive physical training, forced marches.
ROTC was more gentle than that. With one exception.
During the summer between our junior and senior years, we cadets were sent away for four weeks of special field training that was almost, but not quite, real boot camp. Call it Boot Camp Lite.
It was STU. The AF ROTC Summer Training Unit.
In my case, STU was held at McCoy Air Force Base, Orlando, Florida. Yes, summer in the mosquito- and cockroach-infested jungles of central Florida.
In mid-June 1963, the STU commander sent out a form letter to the mothers of the cadets, including my mom in Georgia…
Dear Mrs. Smith:
Cadet Walter A. Smith has arrived safely at McCoy Air Force Base, Florida, for participation in the AF ROTC Summer Training encampment.
The Summer Training Unit is composed of 150 cadets representing colleges and universities from all over the country. We have a staff of 10 officers and 3 non-commissioned officers who have responsibility during the encampment for executing the training program. The training will be rigorous.
The program includes aircraft and aircrew indoctrination, flight safety, aircraft equipment and armament, maintenance, survival, defense, and the normal military type functions which are part of day to day operation.
The cadet’s day begins at 0445 hours (4:45 A.M.) and he will be in bed each evening at 2100 hours (9:00 P.M.). His room will be inspected daily, and he will be required to keep it absolutely spotless and immaculate.
We sincerely believe that Walter will benefit greatly from his training here.
It’s true, I did benefit greatly. But when I think back on the experience, the negative lessons seem to emerge first.
For example, I got a taste of how life would be as a low-ranking, wretched foot soldier. I learned with certainty that life as an Air Force officer was by far the better choice.
The 150 cadets formed six flights of 25 each — a flight being the Air Force version of a squad. I was in “A” Flight. Our training officer was Captain Hansen, and we called ourselves Hansen’s Aggressors. A for Aggressors, get it?
We were housed not in an open barracks, but in dorm-style rooms with two beds each. My roommate was Bill Tweedle, a jolly, likeable fellow from The Citadel.
As promised, we were awakened each day at 0445 hours and formed up for a session of vigorous exercises. The culmination of the session was our daily one-mile run. We ran as a unit, in formation. Double time, ladies! Hut, two, three, four, hut two, three, four!
After the run, we had about 15 minutes to shower and dress. Then we fell in again to march to breakfast. Everywhere we went, we marched in formation, usually double-time.
All of our meals were square meals, meaning they were eaten military-style — back straight, eyes straight ahead. You were expected to scoop something from your plate, raise it to mouth level, and pop it in without looking at it. Cage those eyeballs, mister!
After breakfast, we prepared our rooms for inspection. We had been advised to bring duplicates of all personal items — toothbrush, toothpaste, and the like. That way, fresh versions of everything were on display for the inspecting officer.
The lectures and other activities began at 0700 hours. Most of it was quite interesting.
We toured the flight line, the aircraft maintenance shops, and assorted base facilities. We were set loose to explore the inside of a KC-135 tanker and a B-52 bomber. It was very cool to sit in the pilot’s seat of a B-52.
We had marksmanship training on the .38 Smith and Wesson Special, which was the official handgun of Air Force officers at the time.
Most memorably, we had two days of survival training in the Florida swamp.
On the first day, we were taught how to construct a shelter suitable for the local environment. We were taught how to stay cool, how to stay warm, how to sharpen a knife, and how to build a rabbit trap.
We also learned how to chop open a sabal palm and extract the tender core — the heart of palm, aka swamp cabbage. I can still remember the taste of the instructor’s heart of palm soup, made with the local sulfur water.
That evening, the instructors gave each cadet his survival equipment: insect repellent, a rain poncho, a sheath knife, a folding shovel, two cans of survival rations, and a surplus parachute.
I ate one can of rations, cut up the parachute to make a hammock, nicked my thumb with the knife in the process, and slept soundly.
The next morning, we were awakened at 0445 hours for the usual exercises and one-mile run, this time through the swamp. After I breakfasted on the remaining can of rations, we learned how to skin a rabbit, how best to hold a poisonous snake, and other skills.
All of this was 48 years ago, so it isn’t surprising that many of my memories have faded.
For example, looking through my old STU “yearbook” recently, I read about a volleyball tournament in which A Flight placed second. I recall nothing about a volleyball tournament.
I also read that weekends were “open post” for the cadets — free time, no training. I remember nothing about free time on weekends.
Skit Night? No memory whatsoever.
What I remember is sweating all night in a silk hammock, and marching in formation, and running in formation, and eating square meals.
I remember our five-hour orientation flight in a B-52, and watching in amazement as the bomber was refueled in the air by a KC-135.
My proudest accomplishment at STU came a few days before the encampment ended. Captain Hansen informed us that A Flight had just completed its predawn one-mile run in four minutes, 43 seconds. Officially.
Have you run a mile in under five minutes?
As for my most vivid memory at STU, that came at the end of the first week, when my roommate, Cadet Bill Tweedle, was dropped from ROTC and sent home.
Tweedle — even the instructors called him Tweedle — was a large, loud, happy young man who lived life with a swagger. Tweedle dominated the room, but no one objected. He was too engaging, too entertaining.
Tweedle also was smart and competent. He quickly became the best known and best liked cadet at STU.
One evening, after the regular assembly at 1645 hours to lower the flag, Tweedle and I were in our room, getting ourselves ready to go to chow.
Suddenly, Tweedle went rigid. He stood beside the bed, frozen, his eyes wide and staring.
Alarmed, I rushed over to him. He began to gag, spit, and shake violently. I caught him, barely, and we both crumpled to the floor.
I had no idea what was happening. Trying not to get injured myself, I protected his head in my lap as he spasmed and jerked, foaming at the mouth, his arms and legs flailing wildly.
By that time, Tweedle’s eyes were shut tight, and his teeth were clenched. He was breathing heavily and jerking erratically.
As soon as the seizure started, I began yelling for help like a crazy person. Other cadets quickly arrived, but they just stood there, watching Tweedle writhing in my lap. No one, including me, knew what to do.
Then Captain Hansen rushed in. He told us Tweedle was having an epileptic seizure. He said the seizure would run its course, but we needed to be sure he didn’t swallow his tongue in the meantime.
He sent one cadet to fetch a broom. He told another to find a washcloth and roll it up tightly.
Using his fingers and the smooth end of the broom handle, Captain Hansen pried open Tweedle’s clenched teeth. He used the washcloth to pad the teeth and hold down the tongue. He told me to continue doing what I was doing.
Within a minute or so, the seizure subsided. Tweedle’s body relaxed, and he slowly came back to reality, sheepish and exhausted. He was fine. No injuries.
But Tweedle had failed to disclose his medical condition to the Air Force. He knew, and he told us he knew, that epilepsy disqualifies you from military service. He hoped it wouldn’t be discovered, and he guessed wrong.
The next morning, the cadets fell out for morning exercises without Tweedle. By mid-day, transportation arrangements had been made for his trip home. He gathered his things, said goodbye to a group of us briefly, and was gone.
After the STU encampment was over, the instructors stayed behind to grade us individually and rank the members of each flight from best to worst.
In A Flight, I was ranked number 12. Exactly in the middle.
Like I said, gung ho was never in my nature.