My War with the Army


A few year’s ago Arthur Lortie and I were trying to track down documents relating to Harry Harrison’s work on the comic strip Flash Gordon. We located some stuff in a special collection in the library at California State University, Fullerton. Among the documents Arthur also got copies of was the item below.

I checked with Harry this morning, and he said this was probably written while he was in the Army – “for YANK, the army mag; they rejected it. What an antique!”

This is probably one of the earliest examples of HH’s feelings towards the military to be set down in words – shades of Bill, the Galactic Hero and The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted.

So, probably for the first time anywhere, we present…

My War with the Army
Harry Harrison (c.1947)

So you say you’re going to join the army son, that’s fine mighty fine. A draftee? … oh, pardon me, a volunteer … you must be handcuffed to that MP by mistake. Oh, I see, their mistake, you were just living in that cave in the woods because you liked nature. The draft notices came after you moved into the cave… mail must have been kind of irregular up there.

I was in the army son, did you know that? There was no mistake, I volunteered. No sonny, it was not the war of 1812, this was the other war, the big war. I am sure your drill-sergeant will tell you about it. I was going to make the world a safe place to live in, yes sir, get rid of them Naziz and Japs and things. I spent my first day in Camp Underwater and that’s when I changed my mind. Oh, I still wanted to make the world safe, alright, but I thought I could do a better job somewheres else. I no sooner got home before they showed up and took me back to Underwater. That’s when the trouble started.

The way I see it, me and the army just got off to a bad start. We never seemed to agree after that, you might say I had a kind of personal war with the army. Why one Chicken Colonel even told me I was of more value to the enemy than two tank divisions. I think he kind of exaggerated.

After my first year I had only one good time, that was my first day, and I was goin’ down hill fast. I even made Pfc. once because the Captain wanted to have the pleasure of seeing me busted. Then there was the Looie who got a Section-8 because of me, he tried what he called “using logic”. He told me that I got my first square meal in the army, but I said it wasn’t true, I been in jail once and got a square meal. He kind of sweated and got a little pale at that one, but he were game. He said I got my first pair of shoes in the army, but when I wiggled my toes at him he kind of slumped off of the chair with his eyes open. Seems they didn’t have any shoes that were big enough for me, that’s why they always hid me in the boiler room during inspections. This Looie wasn’t much good after that, he got out a’ the hospital in a couple of months but he had the bad luck first day out of seeing me during drill. I never could quite get the hang of them things, and he came around the corner in his wheel chair just when the sergeant said, “Forward halt to the right flank salute… H-A-A-A-R-R-C-H!” I wasn’t the only one did wrong, no sir, but they was always blaming things on me. Things was kind of mixed up and the corporal broke his leg and my gun went off and killed the captain’s dog and the Looie’s wheel-chair got knocked over. That was the best thing that happened – killing the dog I mean. We been having goat for two months and was beginning to grow wool on the roofs of our mouths. The change of diet kind of helped. It could have been a bigger dog though.

Well, after they took the Looie away in his coat tied on backwards they was kind of bitter towards me. That was the only reason I went over the hill but they never did see it that way. It was a very prejudiced courts-martial and I got a year and one in Camp McBlackhole at Calcutta, Kansas. Just about the time I was getting good at lifting GI cans the year was up and they sent me to Snakepit Barracks in Texas. I could see they was still bitter because this place had what you might call a kind of unsavory reputation.

There was a big sign over the main gate, right over the heads of the six MPs with machine guns: SNAKEPIT BARRACKS, THE CAMP WITH A HEART. NO SOLDIER HAS EVER GONE OVER THE HILL FROM HERE! I was kind of bitter then, being younger, and I took this as kind of a challenge. As soon as the sun set I went over the back fence and lit out across the desert towards the mountains.

In the morning I was still tailing it across the desert, only the mountains didn’t look no nearer. I looked back and saw the first-sergeant on the roof of the orderly room with a telescope so I stepped out a little faster thinking how mad they would be at my breaking their perfect record. I walked all day and my feet was killing me, the camp got smaller but the mountains didn’t get any nearer. Now it was a matter of pride and I was going to go over the hill if it killed me and it almost did. The third day out I turned and started back, the mountains looked just as far away as they had the first day. It was six days after I left that I came back. I was on my hans and knees and my class-A’s had big holes in them and my tongue was trailing along in the dust. When I came by the orderly-room there was the first-Sergeant big as life and twice as nasty. It seems I had got a two day pass when I went over the fence, this was usually enough for the average dogface. When I was still going at the end of the second day he put me on the roster as having a five-day emergency leave. I came back one hour after the leave was up so I got a month’s KP for being late. They were right, nobody had ever gone over the hill from their and their record still stood. I found out what kind of heart they had too, that obscenity-obscenity sergeant made me sign a statement of charges for my class-A’s before he would let me near a water cooler.

I got kind of used to KP after this and they did too once they found out they could chain me to the sink. I spent the rest of the war there, kind of got to love that old sink and all those old pots and pans. I got a discharge about that time and came home. No son, it was not a dishonorable discharge, that’s not a nice thing to say to a man who’s old enough to be your uncle – don’t make that noise … I got my girl’s picture in my pocket. What was I saying? … oh yes, I got my discharge, wasn’t yellow either, fact is it was a medical discharge and I been living off my disability ever since.

Bullet wound, gas poisoning? …no son, nothing like that, fact is after all my KP time I got a medical discharge for dish-pan hands.

© Harry Harrison, 1947 & 2007

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