This is the Army, Mr. Jacobson
The first several months at New York University were interesting
enough, but English was the only subject that caught my full attention. Economics,
marketing, and related subjects left me cold. Law of Contracts was good, but I found
college life, or at least life at the college I was going to, quite dull. I managed to
fail over half my subjects the first semester and was placed on probation. In the spring,
I was much more successful and managed to fail everything but Business English.
My short life at NYU came to an end.
It was in 1941, during my bout with NYU, that my family moved to more
sumptuous quarters. One Sunday my mother, father, and I walked to 10th Street, just West
of 5th Avenue, and looked at a four-story brownstone. The brick and stone edifice was
beautiful. The neighborhood was beautiful. And the price was beautiful, too, only ten
thousand dollars. Dad suggested that we could live in the basement and the first floor and
rent out the three top floors to tenants. But my mother would have none of it: shed
grown up in a house in Indianapolis and didnt want the upkeep.
We finally settled in an area a little North of Greenwich Village
called Chelsea. It was an apartment on the seventeenth floor at 161 West 16th Street, at
the corner of 7th Avenue. There were only two floors above ours, one apartment to a floor,
but neither of those had terraces. Our new digs boasted the largest terrace of any
apartment in New York. It jutted out from the building twelve feet, was L-shaped, sixty
feet on the main side (outside the master bedroom, bath and living room) and forty feet on
the other, with a window on the short side right at the kitchen. It was a fair compromise,
since my mother occupied it for twenty-nine years.
The Attack on Pearl Harbor
That winter, something happened that was to change my life, and that of
most of the world. Europe had been at war since September 1939. The United States, though
involved in a lend-lease program to Britain, had remained on the surface committed to
staying out of the war and remaining neutral. Let Europe fight its own war it
wasnt ours and it wasnt going to be. We began to climb out of the long
Depression as more, and heavy, industry became involved in supplying Britain and its
Allies with vehicles, ships, and food. In 1940, we even instituted a military draft that
was a joke. The movie newsreels showed uniformed men in basic training carrying brooms and
sticks instead of rifles. There werent enough to go around.
One Sunday morning, shortly before Christmas, we turned our radio on
about nine a.m. and an announcers voice told us that the Imperial Japanese
Government had, early that morning, bombed Pearl Harbor with devastating results. It was
December 7th. A great part of our Pacific Navy had been destroyed. We didnt even
know where Pearl Harbor was we thought it was somewhere on one of a bunch of
islands called Hawaii. So my father got out our World Atlas. For the rest of the day we
stayed glued to the radio, unbelieving. President Roosevelt was due to address a joint
session of Congress the following morning.
My first class was at nine in the morning, but a fellow student had his
convertible parked on the street, with the top down, just outside one of the University
main buildings. His radio was turned on and a whole bunch of us crowded around to hear
that we were officially at war with Japan. I remember it was snowing lightly, but no one
paid any heed to it. After the Presidents speech, we all just separated and went
silently to our classes.
If ever a country was unprepared to go to war, it was the U.S.A. But we
hit the ground running. Perhaps because were a nation of rebels, activists, and
individualists who pride ourselves on those values, we were able to become a cohesive team
producing everything that was needed for our uniformed men and women, and doing it well in
an unbelievably short time.
When we have to be, were the most inventive people in the world,
probably because were the melting pot of the planet. Though we have our share of
"baddies," the constant infusion of new bloodlines and intermarriages have
created a very different human called, An American.
By the time the war ended, we had twelve million men and women under
arms, of all backgrounds, nationalities, and colors.
The spring of 1942, when I was thankfully kicked out of NYU, Dad asked
what I intended doing. I said I wanted to take a course in radio communications and
perhaps go into the Signal Corps. The course was government sponsored, the brainchild of
Eleanor Roosevelt. It was an eight-hour-a-day paid training course four hours of
class work delving into radio theory and four hours of practical shop, learning how to
build a radio from the ground up. After my first three months, I made a super-heterodyne
radio with a short-wave band. I plugged it in and turned it on. The tubes lit up and a
voice came clearly from the speaker. I shouted to the rest of the class, "Hey,
listen!" The room became quiet as we heard Winston Churchill broadcasting from
London. I had built a radio!
As I approached graduation for the six-month radio communications
course, I decided that I wanted to be in the Air Corps. The draft age was twenty at the
time and Congress was considering dropping it to nineteen, then eighteen. I needed my
parents permission to enlist, since I was under twenty-one. The thought that
Id have to leave home eventually and get into a uniform was something that had not
crossed their minds. When I told them I wanted to enlist, I got a definite "No."
"Okay," I said, "Im nineteen now, and the draft
will get me within six months. At least if I enlist, I can pick the branch of service I
They had no answer for that, so I got the necessary papers to take the
examinations as an air cadet in the Army Air Corps (the Air Force became a separate unit
of the military after World War II). My parents signed with some trepidation, but knew
they really had no choice. I went to the Grand Central Palace, a huge government center in
mid-Manhattan, for two full days of testing.
The first day was an eight-hour written exam, with a one-hour break for
lunch. The second day was an eight-hour physical with a thousand or so of us all lined up
with nothing but towels around our waists. I passed both tests, was sworn into the United
States Army Air Corps on December 1, 1942 and told to go home and wait for a call to
service; it would probably arrive in about six months. Camps and facilities were being
constructed at record speed, but inductions in certain branches were running ahead of
capacity. I completed my course in Radio Communications at the end of January, 1943. In
early February, I was informed by telegram to report for duty on February 21, 1943.
I was excited. My father was contained. My mother was edgy, though
trying not to show it.
On the morning of the twenty-first, with a small suitcase holding only the items
Id been told to bring, Mom and Dad walked me to the elevator. Dad shook my hand with
some determination and, I think, with pride in his eyes. Hed just missed the draft
in World War I by being two years too old. My mother, God bless her, hugged me and
didnt cry. Neither of them admonished me to take care of myself, only to let them
know if I needed anything.