Once we read "Final Mission," Irv's amazing story of his B-17 being shot down over Germany, we had to hear the rest of the story, so we asked him if he would go back and trace his entire exprience--as well as he could--during World War II. He agreed to try, and this is the first in a series of chronological pieces that cover the rest of Irv's war. We hope you enjoy it.
“Off we Go...”
by Irv Pliskin Irv is on the bottom right.
We stared at each other. Where in the world was Pearl Harbor? Some of the older guys were going to rush down to the recruiting station on Monday morning and sign up. The draft had already been in place, and they were just sitting around, waiting for their number to be called. Now their waiting was over. But for me, I had some time to wait. I wasn’t l8 so I was not old enough to enlist, and would not graduate from high school until June.
The next morning, all three thousand plus students in the high school came to assembly. There we listened to the loud-speakered radio speech by the President. December 7, 1941 was truly the day that would live in infamy. What FDR had failed to say, was that it was also a day that would change and challenge everyone’s life, permanently.
I registered for the draft in July after I turned l8. There was no hesitation, no wavering; I as an American had to fight for my country. That was the only thing to do. By this time I had graduated from high school and was working in Manhattan in the famous garment district pushing a hand truck through the jammed streets delivering piece goods to dress manufacturers. It was a job, but nothing one would consider for lifetime work. There was no money for college, and I thought I would wait before I enrolled in one of he city colleges. Night school did not seem to be an option at that time.
By mid-September some of my friends were getting their draft notices, and I felt that mine would be coming soon. I didn’t want to be in the infantry. I wanted to be among the nation’s finest, the 'cream of the crop' and FLY. At that time, the publicity generated by the Army Air Corps centered on the aviator’s unique experiences, and it proclaimed, loudly, that the most talented, the best and the brightest, the most gifted young men in America were in the Air Corps. That was for me. I didn’t think I had sufficient talents, but by George, I was going to try.
In early October, I signed up for the Army Air Corps entrance exams. These tests were given in New York City at a huge gymnasium-type facility above the waiting rooms at the famous Grand Central Station. There may have been as many as a thousand guys taking the test the same day I did. It was a sea of aspirants.
They tested everything, as I recall. Verbal skills, math, history and much, much more. The timed tests took hours. When we were finished we were directed to wait while the tests were graded.
They soon started calling off names. Man after man stood up and was directed to a special room. Each time they called a name, my heart grew more bleak: these were the guys who passed, obviously.
When they were about l0% of the men left, a soldier came out and said, “If we haven’t called your name, you are the people who have passed the written tests to be an aviation cadet. We’re going to call your names now. Go in that room for your physical. If you pass that you’ll be sworn in.”
I left Grand Central Station that afternoon walking on air, literally. I was among them! I had to get out of there before they realized they had made a mistake and included me. I was going to be one of the best and the brightest. Irv Pliskin, the overweight, klutzy kid who had had academic problems, had passed the nation’s toughest enlistment tests and was slated to become an Aviation Cadet! My enlistment papers in my pocket, I rushed home to tell my folks that I had passed, and like my older brother, Bob, was going to get a chance to be an Aviation Cadet.
I was, of course still in civilian clothes. By now people were looking at me strangely. What is that strong, strapping young man doing out of the service. Is he a draft evader, or something? Was he some terrible kind of shirker with a fake punctured ear drum?
My orders arrived in December. I was ordered to go to New York’s Pennsylvania station for shipment to my first post: Basic Training at Atlantic City, NJ. The Air Corps had taken over Atlantic City, which had been one of America‘s most exclusive resort areas, and converted it to a basic training center for future Aviation Cadets.
The train was to leave New York at 6 AM. If I took the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station at 5 AM, I would be just fine, time wise. I declined my parent’s offer to drive me to the city. Instead, my younger brother and I walked through the sleeping suburb up to the railroad station. I don’t know what we talked about. Neither of us had any idea of the enormity of the journey I was about to take.
I was wearing Bob’s best suit and overcoat. I had a small bag with my toilet kit and a pair or two of underwear, my address book plus l0 books.
It took several hours, most of the morning, to go from Penn Station to Atlantic City less than l00 miles away. The train load of raw recruits sat on sidings, jerked and pulled and finally came to the destination. I don’t remember much conversation. It was early in the morning; we were upset, frightened and uncertain. I remember it was very cold. January is not one of Atlantic City’s best months.
When we arrived we were lined up at a very windy and cold train station, in rows, which was our first experience with military discipline. Dressed as we were in our civilian clothes, we were walked--none of us knew how to march yet--into a large produce shack and warehouse. There we were again lined up and were submitted to the most ignominious experience I had ever had in my life: short arm inspection.
We had to stand in the row, unbutton our flys--zippers were not in common use then--and expose ourselves to the inspectors who were looking for signs of venereal disease. To this day I do not know if that was done to put us in our place or for hygienic reasons. I believe that that inspection was designed for humiliation. My billet was in what had been a fairly regal hotel, the venerable Hotel Senator, just off 'the boardwalk' - now famous from the game of Monopoly. The upper and lower bunks in each hotel room would accommodate four men, and I was assigned to a room with a couple of boys from The Bronx and Ed Phillips who had come down from Portland, Maine.
Normally, we would have been issued uniforms the next day.
But, there were thousands of us, all potential aviation cadets, all called up at the same time, and the army didn’t yet have uniforms for us. We were to stay in our civilian clothes for two weeks, the same clothes we wore when we got there.
We had hardly gotten settled in, when they called us out, and started to teach us how to march and do close order drill. After an hour or so of that detail, we were lined up and marched to a barber shop. One of he popular men’s hair dos at that time was the DA (Duck’s Ass) look. Hair long in the back, treated with a pomade to look like the rear end of duck. That along with the infamous Zoot suit, made a fashion statement for a certain type of city-bred young man in those days.
The hair cut was a revelation. Not for me, I didn’t have any special tonsorial attachments. But to some of us it was a world shattering trauma. We sat in the barber’s chair for the 45 second buzz: a GI with an electric clipper ran it over the head from top to bottom, and in seconds we had a GI haircut: a little hair and lots of scalp.
It was amazing to watch some of the Zoot-suiter types actually cry as they were shorn and reduced to a military bristle cut. We started to learn to march, do close order drill, run in place, count cadence, sing off key and do all the other things recruits are subjected to. And we did them all in the clothes we had arrived in. Part of the time was spent in the famous Atlantic City Convention Center, where we took exercises and then took intelligence and placement tests. It took almost a month before we got uniforms and could send our, by then worn out, clothing home.
The standard theme of our non-coms was how useless we were. Every step of the way they worked to dehumanize us. We were people of no value, people who should have been flushed down the toilets at birth. Things like that don’t make you feel very good about yourself.
I was heartsick, lonely and probably pretty scared. I kept writing letters and cards to the girls back home . . . but no letters were sent to me. I heard only from my family. After a couple of weeks of no letters in my mail call, I took what little money I had and found a phone for a long distance call. I got my then 'heartthrob' on the phone and she immediately said,
“I don’t want to talk to you, you’re a nasty fellow.”
“Me? What did I do?”
"Those cards you've written to me and my friends, those dirty, dirty cards. You should be ashamed."
I was dumbfounded and distraught. I hadn’t done any such thing. I managed to convince her that I was innocent, asked her to send them to me, and she did. A few days later a batch of really nasty postcards and letters, signed with my name, came in a big envelope.
I hadn’t written them. I forced the issue, somehow to discover that it was the Bronx Zoot-suiters who didn’t like me (a Jew boy kike) didn’t like my books. (A Jew boy who reads) and didn’t like that I wrote lots of letters. They stole my address book from my foot locker and wrote the letters to the girls in the book. I didn’t know what to do or how to do it.
I considered going to the Lieutenant in charge, but that would be like going to God. Recruits do not talk to lieutenants. I finally decided to do nothing, and tried to fix the situation by mail with my friends back home.
I learned an important lesson, though. There is no one you can trust, really. And you have to make sure you leave no one an opportunity to do harm. Malice didn't stop when we enlisted; neither did competition. You had to tough it out , and like an army, protect your flanks.
Irv Pliskin is a retired advertising agency owner. He is a combat veteran of World War II and an Ex Prisoner of War of the Germans. Married, with three kids, and four grandchildren he devotes his time to writing flash fiction. He hopes, that someday, he may become the Grandma Moses of flash fiction. He lives with his wife of 57 years in Cherry Hill,NJ.