Remembrances: Chick Cecchini--Baseball, Spaghetti and Scotch Wiskey
Looking Back on Odd Twists of Fate
Right now, I find that I have reached the time in my life (as I suspect with most of us) that I'm doing some reminiscing about certain seemingly insignificant, and maybe even ludicrous, events in my life which became pivotal points sending me off in totally new and unexpected directions...opening new doors to my personal and military life.
BASEBALL. Yes, my 29 years of military life did start with baseball. Back in the early "30's" as a youngster I was a bit of a "jock" and not too bad as a hardball catcher on the team that won the Buffalo, N.Y. city championship in their 13-14 year old league. Later, I was catcher for the varsity team of a Buffalo high school. In 1938, when I was 17 years old, a next door neighbor, a 2nd Lt. in the 106th FA Regiment, NY National Guard Division, asked me if I'd like to play softball year-round for his battery in the Guard. They badly needed a catcher. I was interested but not sure what might be involved.
However, the next Monday (the Regiment's drill night just 2 hours a week) he took me with him "just to meet the guys. This included the 1st Sergeant of the Btry. After the quick introductions I found myself in the custody of the top kick who unexpectedly took me into his office, put an enlistment form into his typewriter and started asking me the pertinent questions. When he asked for my date of birth, my answer seemed to cause a glitch. He frowned when I said, "Feb. 8th, 1921". He repeated the question. And still again. Obviously, I didn't catch on. (How was I to know that you had to be 18 years old to enlist?) Finally, he said something like, "You said Feb. 8th, 1920 RIGHT?". I obediently signed and was enlisted in F Battery (155 mm Howitzers, vintage WWI). I started practicing with the team that very night. Thus began my military days.
I was lucky to be assigned as the Range Finder operator for the "battery detail". The section set up and operated the observation post of the battery commander (the forward observer concept had not yet been adopted). In the next two years I got really interested in Field Artillery, took correspondence courses and learned a lot about gunnery. My "B.C" (for you Infantry guys that's short for Battery Commander; the same as your Company C.O.) You all know that in 1940 the U. S. started preparation for a possible war by inducting National Guard Divisions "for one year of training" (ha!). That year started on 15 Oct. 40. The entire 27th Division, NYNG traveled by troop train to Ft. McClellan, Alabama. I was promoted to buck sergeant and, as an aspiring 3-striper, I studied the game of poker the entire trip. I paid a premium in tuition all the way because most of the older sergeants were far more experienced and sharper at the game than I'd ever be.
Some of you know from first hand experience in those early days that the Army and National Guard were very short of just everything needed; guns, ammo, clothing, shoes, mess gear, shelter halves - you name it. (I never did wear the WWI choke-collar jacket, wool breeches or used the wrap leggings I was issued. I simply bought what I needed at an Army-Navy Surplus Store. After all, I drew the grand sum of $54 a month as a buck sergeant and could afford it.) Those early days at Ft. McClellan were a bit primitive living but we worked hard at trying to make do. In fact, for the first couple of months the only hot water we had for our morning ablutions was heated in a large size GI can. My duties at reveille kept me from getting to that water in time for a hot shave. I got tired of shaving with lukewarm water. Then I noticed that the morning coffee (also in a huge GI can) seemed also to be steaming hot and available much longer. So, why not? I dipped my canteen cup into that hot coffee and from that time on I had perfectly satisfactory morning shaves. Did have to explain constantly how I came to have such a deep tan on my face.
SPAGHETTI. My BC called me in one day in late January of 1941 to advise me that the Army had just announced the start of an Officer Candidate School System and was inviting applications from active duty soldiers. The first class at the Field Artillery School at Ft. Sill, OK was to start on 7 July 41 with 125 slots from which 75 would be given AUS commissions as 2nd Lts. with an obligation to serve one year on active duty following graduation. The HQ 27th Division announcement stated that there was to be an open competition at each level of command, e.g., for Field Artillery, the competitions would be held at the Battery, Battalion, Regimental and Brigade levels, with two selections at each level going upward to the next level. Finally two from the Artillery Brigade would attend the first OCS class at Ft. Sill.
Now, I have to explain that when Christmas 1940 approached, all National Guard guys wanted to go home for the holidays. A troop train was arranged to haul almost all of regiment back to Buffalo, almost that is, as a security detail had to remain to guard the otherwise deserted camp. Being the only unmarried sergeant in Battery, I was "volunteered" to be in charge of the other 10 or so in my battery on this security detail. In the Battalion there were about 50 of us for this boring duty. (However, it did turn out that we had to respond to the call of a nearby U. S. National Park to help them fight a forest fire in the woods of the park. While it was exhausting work it turned out to be an exciting experience that bonded the men who together fought the fire for three days.)
The worst part of being stuck there while all the others were home enjoying this special holiday with their families was all of our mess personnel had also taken off on that troop train. We were not eating very well, believe me. One of the guys doomed to eat in our temporary battalion consolidated mess asked me, perchance, could I make up a spaghetti dinner. I had to admit that I really could not but agreed to give it a try, as we were desperate. I phoned my sister back in Buffalo for a recipe; enough to feed about 50 healthy appetites. She not only mailed me a recipe for 50 but also mailed me some important ingredients she correctly knew I would not be able to find in the rural area of the Great State of Alabama. Happily, it turned out to be fairly edible...g ranted that we were all starving for something other than the GI issue ration prepared by the amateurs among us.
Now back to the OCS competitive selection for those two Brigade level slots. I had no problem being one of two from over 40 or so applicants competing at the battery level. Two of us passed on to the battalion level where it became much tougher. As the regimental level there were 10 of us left. Here I was sure that I had flunked, as it seemed so difficult. Somehow (maybe prayers) I was one of my regiment's selected two to compete at the brigade level. By time the final interviews and testing were to take place, we were on maneuvers in Tennessee.
Very early one morning I was rousted out of my sleep and told that I had to be at Camp Forrest the next day (maybe 50 to 75 miles away) to report in for the interview along with the eleven others). There was barely time to dig out my rumpled class A's from my barracks bag. The two of us were trucked of to Camp Forrest. By the time our driver found where we were to be billeted that night it was too late to get any kind of press for our uniforms. Bright and early the next morning after a very early breakfast we were briefed and told to expect that each of us would be "in the tank" for about 45 minutes. My fellow candidate and I eyed the others and immediately became uneasy as they all were in well-pressed uniforms and had had time to get haircuts and shaves. We looked like the dregs from some uncivilized place or other.
The briefing included an order that those who had been interviewed already were forbidden to reveal anything about the process or any of the questions. As each left the interview hall he went straight back to our billet. No conversation at all. As luck would have it, I was the absolute last one to be interviewed. When I entered the interview room, I face a line of field tables. Seated at the center one was a Brigadier General. He was flanked on each side by a full Colonel. They, in turn, were flanked by "Light" Colonels. Finally on the end flanks were majors, making a total of seven. Positioned directly in front of the center table, facing the Board Chief (the BG), was an empty folding steel chair- no doubt for me. I went to that spot, reported with the best salute I could muster under the circumstances and sat down in the chair as told. Then it began.
There was a constant bombardment of questions in no particular order. Most were technical, some on military organization, some on gunnery (thank God), a little on current events, and a few on military courtesy. About the time my 45 minutes were close to being up, the BG asked the rest of the board if there were any more questions. The major on the end of the line to my left spoke up, said he would like to ask just one question. (It was then that I realized he had not asked even one question during the full time until just then, doing nothing but staring at me the full time.) He then said, "Sergeant, your name sounds Italian, Is it?" "Yes, Sir, both of my parents came from Italy."
"Do you like Spaghetti?"
"Well, yes Sir." (What in the world is going on, I thought)
"Would you know how to cook a spaghetti dinner?"
"Yes, sir, I believe I do."
"Could you tell me the recipe?"
"Well, Sir, I would have to give you a recipe for about 50 people, is that okay?"
"Okay with Me. Go ahead."
So I recited the recipe my sister had sent me and as I did the major copied it studiously. Then I was dismissed.
That evening most of us ate supper together. We compared notes and impressions, as it was okay by this time. One part struck us all as bizarre. It turned out that the last questions each of us for each of us was to give a set of directions of some sort. Apparently this same major was tasked to invent for each interviewee some totally unanticipated request requiring him to spell out a set of directions. We agreed mine was the most unusual of all. Never mind, though, I ended up one of the two that day who got the nod for Field Artillery OCS class #1 to start on 7 July 1941. With no help from my sister this time I managed to be one of the 75 who were commissioned on 1 Oct. 41 as a Field Artillery 2nd Lt., Army of the United States.
SCOTCH WHISKY. Now we have to get me from my first assignment after OCS as a platoon training officer, later Regimental Small Arms Instructor at the Field Artillery Replacement Training Center, Ft. Bragg, NC to the point where the Scotch Whisky element of my story, i.e., comes into play. To do that we have to fast forward through my time as a test officer for the Field Artillery Board, Commander of "B" Battery and later S-2 of the 914th FA Bn., 89th Division. Finally after returning from Germany shortly after VE day, we had duty in France at Camp Lucky Strike or one of the satellite sub-camps.
I was given the "delightful" job as mess officer for one-fourth of Camp Old Gold, to operate ten 2000-man messes and ten 200-man messes. Had to be prepared to serve two cycles of meals each day. There weren't anywhere near enough U. S. Army mess personnel in our battalion to handle this number of messes. The solution was to draw on the POW camp nearby (as they were being used to clear mine fields on the beaches, we had a very enthusiastic response when we did our screening for those with actual food service experience.) Fortunately we did find many qualified cooks and bakers in the POW camp. With just minimal supervision by our own mess personnel they did a fine job. Soon, we had a smooth operation going and I even had a bit of leisure time.
You may recall that our overall mission was to receive and process outfits rotating back from Germany, housing and feeding them while also preparing them for their homebound trip. As it turned out we even set up Service Clubs for their enlisted personnel. However, for a while there were not such facilities for officers. Later, an order came from Division HQ that we set up some Officer Clubs. Of course, there were no buildings or supplies for this purpose. A junior office in our 914th FA got the job of setting up the Club in our quarter of Camp Old Gold. A few weeks later, when asked for a progress report at one of our periodic battalion officers' calls, he admitted to no success, pleading that he simply did not know how to get started. Then I did one of those truly dumb things we all learned never to do. I volunteered to guide him since I'd already learned the ropes for the mess hall task. The battalion CO was no dummy. He quickly assigned the 2nd Lt. to me, putting me in charge of he project. (In addition to my other duties, naturally.)
It didn't take much doing to get POW's for constructing a rough finish "club" building. But then what is a club without some liquid refreshments. I asked all the officers in 914th FA Bn to ante up $10 each to give me some working capital. No problem. Besides, I promised to pay them dividends on their investment. The ace up my sleeve was one of our lieutenants (had been our ammo train commander) could find anything at any place. I gave him a bundle of French Francs along with free rein to find us a supply of the local Calvados (called apple jack here.) He did so we were off and running. Soon I was able to send him to Marseilles to buy a variety of liquors.
I had set a rule that allowed only sales by the drink. Whole bottles were not to be sold. We had no problem with this until one day, before the afternoon opening, we were visited by the aide to a two star general, the CG of an armored division. He explained that his CG would like to buy a bottle of Scotch Whisky to offer a drink to his hold buddies who had called on him while he awaited the trip home. The sergeant I had running the club told the aide that whole bottles could not be sold. The aide persisted and was referred to me. The lieutenant simply would not take "no" for an answer. At this point, I should mention that the "dividends" I passed out to my investors were in the form of bottles of Scotch Whisky, Bourbon, Gin, Beer, etc. As I was also an investor but did not drink liquor at that time I had saved a good supply of "Dividends". I figured the only way to get rid of the general's aide and still not break my "No Bottles Sold" rule was to give him, gratis, one of my personal bottles with my compliments to the General. He left happy. The next day, he came back and also the next! He had me cleaned out of Scotch Whisky when still again he came by. This time he was dressed differently. His outfit was on its way to the Port at Le Havre heading back to the U.S. I guess he sensed that I was expecting him to bum more Scotch from me. He quickly told me that was not so and added that the general was outside in his sedan wanting to thank me personally for my generosity.
Of course, I went out to meet the two-star. He was a very nice "old man". I say "old" as I was 24 and he was probably more than twice my age. He was seated in the back of a beautiful Packard Sedan properly painted OD, though; this was not a GI issue. No question, though, it had been "liberated". The steering wheel was on the right side, British style. He asked if I'd care to ride with him to the Port in Le Havre. I didn't know how to say "no" to a major general so I accepted. The conversation was along the lines of a fatherly figure talking to a son...my plans for education, work after separation, etc. It was quite pleasant. Then, along the way, I began to wonder how I would get back to Camp Old Gold. Oh, well, I figured I'd manage to hitch a ride back somehow. The Packard was driven along the pier right up to the gangplank of the troop ship. The driver got out, handed the keys to the aide who handed them to the General...WHO HANDED THEM TO ME! He thanked me for my Scotch Whisky Related Courtesy, shook my hand and proceeded up the gangplank. Straight to the top of the charts! Soon that Packard practically knew its own way to Paris and back.
Finally I also made the Paris trip in the Packard. I thought that I should at least see Paris once before shipping home. That was because orders had just come out to return me home for separation from the Army. Five of us, all Captains, made the trip on a three-day pass. Most of us visiting Paris went to see the sights, do some shopping and enjoy some of the nightlife. One of our five, however, came along, as he did not yet have enough points to be shipped home. Having been a senior accountant in civil life, he thought he might land an assignment in Paris to which he could be transferred until his points were enough to go home. Otherwise, he was due to be transferred to Austria for occupation duty. Having little to do during the day and being curious I tagged along with him.
On the last day of our stay in Paris, he was sent to an interview by a major looking for accountants. This was a new outfit in the Army designed to do IBM-type machine accounting and catalogue preparation for all of the surplus military property being inventoried for sale overseas. Basically, this included all the equipment, food, clothing, etc. in the depots of our military forces in Europe, Africa and the Middle East at the end of the war. It turned out to be a huge job. Already assembled were about 500 keypunch machines, about 25 various machines; card sorters, collators, printers, etc., with 500 French keypunch operators already hired. Also civil service operators coming from the States to run the machines. It sounded as though this assignment might be too much work so my friend turned it down. Being lunchtime, the major invited us to join him for lunch at his hotel billet. This turned out to be one of the swanky hotels the Germans had taken over during their occupation of Paris. I couldn't believe my eyes or later my taste buds when we entered the hotel. The food, even though GI issued, was prepared by the French Chefs of the hotel. It was truly delicious. The major must have sensed that I was suddenly a prospect (actually my only real qualification was that I was a warm body who was interested). Without going into three more pages of detail, I can tell you, yes, I was the one who got the transfer to Paris. On my return to Camp Old Gold with the transfer orders in my pocket, I passed ownership of the Packard to my battalion C.O. (Smart Move) I went through the process of turning my job as mess officer to a replacement and after a few weeks returned to Paris. This time I was driven in a GI 3/4 ton truck.
I learned that my new organization was under the control of the Finance Department (FD) of the Army. Unbeknownst to me, though, was that I was also detailed from FA to the FD. That meant that I was totally under the control of the FD. The job was to be converted to a civilian slot a few months later. I was offered and took that job as a civilian (good pay, allowances and billeted at the same hotel I fell in love with, staying on for about 16 months. When discharged to take that job I was offered a Reserve Commission as a Major, which I took. I saved what money I could for living costs later while using the GI Bill for college. This outfit was soon place under the State Department control along with yours truly. Officially, I was a War Department civilian further detailed to the State Department. Really confusing. However, in March 1947, I resigned my job to go home to Buffalo to enter college.
Fate had other plans. As you might surmise, the disposition of all the military property in a war-torn area at attractive prices was a hot bed of activity. At times, a lot of eager money was passed under the table to eager takers to close a lot of special sales deals. What those of our employees who got mixed up in these shady deals didn't know was that the FBI had place several agents under cover of being ordinary salesmen in this organization. Suddenly, the ax fell. A big investigation took place. Some were prosecuted, many just sent home in shame. I had been a simple, dumb guy who ran the accounting shop and managed to stay clean. A congressionally directed audit by Price Waterhouse and Co. recommended that a complete reconstruction and audit of the sales records be made. The State Department's civilian Foreign Liquidation Commissioner was replaced by an Army Lt. General who soon replaced many key personnel. When his personnel chief was looking for someone to do the reconstitution and audit of the sales records, it turned out that my experience in the establishment of the organization plus my status as a Reserve Officer made it attractive to drag me back to active duty. Six months after leaving Paris, I suddenly found myself back on active duty there with a new assignment to be at least a year's work. The job took a year and a half. The down side was my immediate school plans went down the drain for a while.
There was a very bright side, though. I met Sjelja, the love of my life in February, 1948 and we were married there the following November. When we flew to the U.S. in May 1949, I was under temporary duty orders in DC to turn over the historical records of the Foreign Liquidation Commission in Europe to the National Archives. I visited the personnel office of Army Field Artillery. I asked what assignment they had in mind for me. Seemed great until it was discovered my records were tagged to show me on a detail with the Finance Corps. I begged the Finance Corps personnel officer to release me but they were short of people and would not release me. The best I could manage was an assignment in the Army Audi Agency. Again fate stepped in. I became ill, was hospitalized for five months, ending with a "Limited Duty" classification. There went any future I might have had with the Field Artillery. The Finance Corps offered me extensive education and training in accounting and audit if I would accept a permanent transfer to the Finance Corps. I accepted; one of the best decisions I ever made. I had a series of great assignments, interesting experiences and training. This resulted in a career I could never had anticipated as a "cannon cocker", love it though I did. This qualified me for a senior executive civil service job in Comptrollership within the intelligence field...a job I loved from day one in 1967 through to retiring in 1983.
How could I have even dreamed that giving away a few bottles of Scotch Whisky I didn't need would end up so well for me.