How hard was basic training back in WWII and Vietnam?

How hard was basic training back in WWII and Vietnam?

I can only speak for U.S. Army basic training taken during the Vietnam War.

I attended Army Basic Combat Training at Ft. Dix, N.J from 1 Jun 71 to 6 Aug 71. I was already physically fit from working in agriculture and was already a pretty good marksman so those weren't problems, for me. I can't say the same for others in my company. One ritual was that we had to complete 88 bars on the horizontal ladder before each and every meal. Those without calloused hands had problems there. Some real tough guys from the streets of Baltimore and Detroit left a lot of their blood on those bars until they developed the necessary callouses.

Physically the days were often exhausting from long hours and exertion but we almost all survived. I had few problems with the exception of the mile run. This wasn't what Hollywood shows you today. We never saw gym shorts and running shoes. The mile run was accomplished in combat boots, a steel pot, rifle and full field gear. I never was much of a runner. Every point I lost on PT tests I lost on the mile run.

As far as the mental part goes I had been coached by people who had taken Basic recently and I was ahead of the game there as well. Yes, the drill sergeants were in everyone's face at one time or another. Yes, they did their best to terrorize you; that was their job. It was their job to take you apart and put you back together the Army way. With one glaring exception they were all good people. Once they realized you were "with the program" they left you alone and focused on those more in need of motivation. The "glaring exception" is a story of its own; one for another time.

Before I make this sound too much like a Sunday School picnic I should point out that every person I knew had their own personal "Oh, shit" moment. Mine came the day we left the reception station and were taken to our training company. It was the first day of serious "in your face" confrontations. We were herded off the buses at warp speed lugging our full basic issue in one duffel bag and our complete issue of field gear in another. It was designed to be stressful. On second thought it was designed to be very stressful. One thought kept looping through my mind. It was "Oh my God, what the fuck have I gotten myself into?".

When I consider all the aspects of basic training, classroom lessons, endless hours of Drill and Ceremony (teaching us how to march), physical training, long marches, marksmanship training, training in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the UCMJ and many other modes of training the one aspect of basic that was truly miserable was the weather.

The first five days of Jun 71, in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, were cold; like 40° F. cold. Then the thermometer jumped to around the 100° F. and stayed there. We were served mandatory snacks of salt pills at every meal. Those who didn't partake regularly found themselves, after they woke up, flat on the ground. One particularly miserable day the powers that be, at Post Headquarters, determined that temperatures of 104° F. coupled with humidity approaching 100% were too severe and that training was to be stopped by 10:00 AM. I mean all training was to stop. This was the first time that we were to be allowed to do absolutely nothing while awake.

This created some big problems; problems that stymied many of our leaders. I should explain that Ft. Dix New Jersey is a very big place. Some of the rifle ranges were 13 to 14 miles from our company area. Often we were hauled to and/or from those ranges in "cattle cars", a 50 ft. van type semi. On this particular day there weren't enough cattle cars available to haul all the troops back to their respective company areas before the 10:00 AM deadline. I was a member of one of those companies stranded. This created a problem that the Army, in it's infinite wisdom, blew a gasket trying to solve.

Let's be certain that you, the reader, completely comprehend the depth and breadth of this dilemma.

  1. Weather conditions were evaluated to be so severe that the troops couldn't be expected to even operate a pencil in a classroom.
  2. Many troops, like my company, were more than 10 miles from their company area when the shutdown order was issued at 8:00 AM. Troops normally march at 3 mph. Without sufficient amounts of motorized vehicles to haul those troops they had to be marched home. 10+ miles divided by 3 mph is over 3 hours... well past the 10:00 AM deadline.

I'm sure many of you have already solved this conundrum. It's obvious that the solution is to leave those troops more than 10 miles away in an off-duty, relaxed status until motorized transportation was available. That may not completely satisfy the letter of the order but is does satisfy the spirit of the order.

Wrong answer! You're obviously not officer material.

As I pointed out earlier troops march at 3 mph. They can double-time, which is basically jogging, at about 5 mph. When troops are double-timed over long distance it's known as a forced march. 10+ miles divided by 5 mph comes out to approximately 2 hours. BINGO.... that's a valid Army solution. Force march troops in sweltering heat so they can meet the shutdown schedule. Don't forget that it's too hot to push a pencil.

Thirteen miles, double-time, temperature over 100°, humidity approaching 100%. I should also mention that we had spent the night at the range, bivouac as the Army calls it, so we were carrying full field gear at the time. An hour into the march most of the water was gone. At that temperature a quart of pissy warm water doesn't go very far. People started dropping and there were no vehicles coming to pick them up so we carried them. I wasn't a very big guy and I had a hard time carrying dead weight that weighed more than I did, but I could carry a shit-load of rifles so I did to make it a little easier on the ones who were carrying their buddies. That was the longest three hours of my life.

When we finally made it back to the company area everyone, without exception, was completely sweat-soaked from head to foot. The silence was eerie; nobody said a word. The exhaustion was complete.

Only the Army could come up with this solution. Force-march 200 troops almost 14 miles so they can relax because it's too hot to sit in a classroom. When our uniforms dried they were stiff and snow white. That was the salt they had been pouring into us for weeks.

How hard was basic training back in WWII and Vietnam? Sometimes a lot harder than it needed to be.


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