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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: she’d grown up in a house in Indianapolis and didn’t 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 wasn’t ours and it wasn’t 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 weren’t enough to go around.

Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor Poster

48 in. x 70 in.

One Sunday morning, shortly before Christmas, we turned our radio on about nine a.m. and an announcer’s 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 didn’t 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 President’s 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 we’re 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, we’re the most inventive people in the world, probably because we’re 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 I’d 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, "I’m nineteen now, and the draft will get me within six months. At least if I enlist, I can pick the branch of service I want."

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 I’d 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. He’d just missed the draft in World War I by being two years too old. My mother, God bless her, hugged me and didn’t cry. Neither of them admonished me to take care of myself, only to let them know if I needed anything.

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