Roughing it out, recoilless rifles, and the Army Reserves.
The road to becoming an officer in the United States Army was surely an uphill one. At Fort Benning, Georgia, that road was a heavily forested route protected by menacing sentries and vicious guard dogs.
Donald Burke had arrived at Fort Benning in February 1960 to take the Infantry Officers Basic Course, or IOBC. His path followed in the footsteps of his uncle, Paul Walsh, a soldier who fought and died in the Philippines in the Second World War. Burke had gone through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) during his four years at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by a six-week final course at Fort Meade in Maryland. Now it was time for the big leagues.
The Infantry Officers Basic Course required some “dabbling” in a variety of Army components, such as weaponry, prisoner of war (POW) training, map reading, and tactics. One of the most daunting parts was a survival program that dropped potential officers in a pressure cooker—a harsh environment behind enemy lines where, separated from friendly forces, the soldier relied on every bit of discipline and training.
In late March of that year, Burke and his fellow trainees were trucked out to a vacant road in the Georgia wilderness. A forested hill rose up before them like a wall of green. They were instructed to find sanctuary at some bleachers on Mope Hill, but Burke had never heard of the place. As he explained, “you don’t know where the hell you are.” They were dressed in full combat gear with steel helmets, their M1 rifles, canteens, ponchos, compasses, and a map.
The non-commissioned officers (NCOs) that supervised the trainees had strung them out along the road in groups of threes. Don Burke was teamed up with a guy from Massachusetts, his home state, and a baby-faced, red-headed fellow. Using a compass, they took some bearings—one from a distant water tower, the other from a highway—to get their position before trudging into the woods.
To complicate matters, NCOs were out there posing as the enemy. This was more than just an experience of “living off the land.” Anyone caught by the faux-goons found themselves in a prisoner of war (POW) camp full of enforcers and fierce-looking guard dogs. The captives were made to do push-ups while the dogs got in close. No man desired to face that kind of outcome. Only one guy found sanctuary at Mope Hill by blasting past his pursuers, and that man was ultimately drafted by the National Football League.
Burke and his friends weren’t so keen on eating bugs and berries in the bush. One of the surviving trainees had suggested that they bring some candy contraband into the woods. Don’s friend from Massachusetts bought some beef jerky and stashed it in his clothes. Burke strapped some candy bars and peanuts, nothing “fudgy or mudgy”, to his inner thighs. These were the last places where the NCOs were expected to look for smuggled items.
The trainees also knew that the program was scheduled to end around 0900 on the following day, at which point the exhausted troops could make it to a highway and go back to their bivouac area. “The time just dragged,” Burke recalled, and he and his comrades opted to “sit and shut up” in the woods until the last day. Their smuggled snacks kept their bellies satisfied, but of course, Mother Nature did not grant them any comfortable living accommodations. On the second night, the heavens opened up and drenched them. It was freezing in the woods. The trio sat in the bushes with their helmets and ponchos and simply absorbed everything.
One of the guys began to complain incessantly about their conditions. “Guess what I did?” he exclaimed to his confederates.
“What?” Burke asked.
“I just pissed myself.”
They demanded to know why he hadn’t relieved himself elsewhere. He replied that it didn’t really matter, what with all the water.
The sun came up the next morning, and the men decided to make a break for the highway. They avoided capture and an army truck showed up to bring them back to base. As a joke, the cooks at Fort Benning whipped up a hardly palatable meal called “shit on a shingle”, chipped corned beef mixed with flour, water, and butter and presented on toast. The hungry men ate their fill.
Burke and his comrades might have cut some corners in the Georgia wild, and although the NCOs probably knew about such loopholes, it was more important that trainees kept their wits about them. It was vital that a soldier knew the basics about map reading and survival techniques, and most critical of all, avoiding capture by the enemy. According to a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 130,201 military personnel were captured and interned in World War Two. Of that figure, 14,072 died in captivity. Burke’s uncle Paul Walsh was one of those casualties.
After Fort Benning, Second Lieutenant Don Burke was assigned as a platoon leader at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. Each infantry platoon contained three rifle squads and one weapons squad—forty-four men in all. Lt. Burke felt fortunate to have been given a platoon sergeant who kept tabs on the troops and advised his commanding officer.
“I had a great guy,” Burke recalled of his platoon sergeant, a good-looking and “very humble” sergeant. “I looked at him and said, I’m gonna be here for three months. Take care of me, will you?”
His platoon sergeant laughed. “Yes, sir!” The sergeants referred to their young superiors as “pups.”
One of his other responsibilities at Devens was to instruct ROTC trainees from Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern University. The class subject was the 106-millimeter M40 recoilless rifle, a very useful anti-tank gun. Such weapons were employed by the U.S. Army in various calibers in World War Two and Korea. One of the heaviest rifles, the three-inch M5, could penetrate nearly four inches of tank armor with a 15-pound shell at a thousand yards.
The smaller M40 could be mounted on a wheeled vehicle or tripod and was the perfect addition to any weapons platoon. At Devens, the rifle was demonstrated to ROTC students when a jeep-mounted M40 blew up a mockup of an enemy tank. In Don’s words, the 106-millimeter recoilless rifle would “blow your ears out.”
His platoon was part of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, nicknamed the “Go Devils”. On his first night on base, Burke was told to get into his dress blues and report to the infantry commander’s home for a social with the other new platoon commanders. Upon the colonel’s appearance, every visitor shot up at attention. “At ease, Go Devils,” said the colonel.
In August of 1960, Burke was assigned to the active reserves at the Boston Army base. He attended weekly trainings up in the city as well as two weeks in the summer at Camp Drum, New York. Burke had joined the Army between Korea and Vietnam. While the United States was not embroiled in any conflict at the time, there were crises around the world that could have sparked into major disasters. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, his reserve unit was mustered in “a legitimate call-up” for a possible deployment. Burke and his company found themselves at the Boston Army base in full combat gear to await transport. They did not know where or when they were going, but remained there from afternoon until midnight before they were dismissed.
After the Army, Don Burke became a salesman for Xerox Corporation. As luck would have it, Fort Devens became part of his sales territory, and he was quite familiar with the buildings around the sprawling base. “I sold a lot of machines up there at Fort Devens,” he remarked, “so I was fortunate to know my way around. I knew where all the decision makers were and who to speak to, so it was like picking cherries out of a cherry tree.”
Forty, George. U.S. Army Handbook: 1939-1945. (Barnes & Noble, 1995.)
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of the Assistant Secretary for
Policy, Planning, and Preparedness (OPP&P). American Prisoners of War (POWs) and Missing in Action (MIAs) (April 2006).