In his latest “Dear Grandson,” Stan Gerding tells the story about joining the Navy during the height of the Vietnam War.
I graduated from high school and started at Southern Ohio Business College in downtown Cincinnati taking their Business Administration program. There were many courses offered in this program, English, Spelling, Math, and several facets of Accounting, Basic, Cost, Tax, and Corporation Accounting. Overall, this whole program would take about a year and a half to complete. All the courses were easy, just time consuming, but we had plenty of time in class to work on and finish projects. I was glad for this, because I could continue my work at Kroger’s meat department.
I also wanted to tell you that not only was I paying room and board at home, but I paid for my clothes, gas, insurance, tuition, and whatever other expenses I incurred. I felt very independent, but I know my parents kept a watchful eye on me. I guess for some reason I gave them the impression that I needed watching.
I was working between 40 and 50 hours per week and especially loved the overtime. I didn’t go out much, occasionally on the weekends I would take in a movie or hang out with some of the guys that attended business college. Some of the guys were high school classmates that also went to this business college.
There was always a lot of conversation about Vietnam and the draft and our worry that if we missed class they would drop our names to the draft board. I did not want to get drafted and wind up in Vietnam fighting for the Army or Marines, we were hearing that there were too many Americans dying or being wounded. This seemed to consume our conversations daily and we all were talking about joining the Navy on the buddy plan. Join as a group and then go to boot camp together, this seemed like a great plan.
One day, all of us went to the federal building to visit a Navy recruiter and they were as nice as pie with us. They made it all look so easy and fun, and I am always one to have fun. I couldn’t wait to get on a ship, see the world, and have a girl in every port. All of us were going to finish school at around the same time so it made sense to do this buddy program. The recruiter told us there were no guarantees for jobs in the Navy and we would have to do what the Navy proposed.
On Friday, December 16, 1966, we all swore in to the Navy’s 120-day delay program. Which meant swear in and leave for boot sometime in April 1967.
There was always a lot of conversation about Vietnam and the draft and our worry that if we missed class they would drop our names to the draft board.
All of us were done with the structured part of our program and we were now in the final stages of the accounting phase where all of us worked independently from each other. We would work on this study in the classroom, but each of us had a different project so that we couldn’t work on them together. If you had a problem or a question, there was an instructor in the classroom at all times. Some of us were quicker than others and with me working so much at Kroger I was a little slower than the rest because of my attention deficit, I was constantly tired. I wasn’t behind, I was still on pace to graduate by April.
Some of the guys finished before me and decided not to wait and went on active duty in the Navy. A couple went in February and a couple went in March. I was last to go, and I was scheduled to leave April 11th. I graduated from the Business college on April 4th and had exactly one week to leave for Navy boot camp. April 6th, I received my draft notice in the mail. They wasted no time to come for me, but I had already sworn in to the Navy and there was no draft for me.
My last week at home was filled with visiting family before I left. On Tuesday, April 11, 1967, my dad drove me over to the federal building in Cincinnati and when I looked at him to say goodbye, he shook my hand. My father never did that before. Hell, he never hugged any of us or told us he loved us. We knew he did, I think, but never said it.
I got out of the car and headed for the recruiter’s office. No buddies to go with, all by myself. Before no time, I was on the bus headed for the airport. There were two other guys going Navy with me, but when we sat on the plane, they sat together, and I was by myself … lonely.
We flew into O’Hare and, no sooner were we off the plane, there were Navy guys there herding us to the buses for Great Lakes Recruit Training Command. I was just trying to keep up with all the others and not able to think about being alone anymore.
The bus ride was about an hour long and when we got there it was already dark and there were Navy guys standing there awaiting our arrival. When we were departing the bus, these Navy guys were hollering all kinds of orders at us and telling us to get into some kind of ranks, like we knew what they were talking about. One of these guys was walking up and down the columns of men and constantly shouting at every one of us, asking where we were from.
When he got to me, I answered, “Kentucky.”
He stopped and turned around and came back to where I was standing and said, “And you’re wearing shoes?!”
More later, Grandson.
Stan Gerding is the author of the book The Nam “Doc” A Navy Corpsman’s Story.