Fidel and his rebels had been trained in weapons and tactics by another Cuban they found living in Mexico, Alberto Bayo. Born in Cuba and educated in the United States and Spain, Bayo had been a leader of the failed Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. He then emigrated to Mexico where he operated a furniture factory and instructed at a military academy in Guadalajara. Most of the Fidelistas he trained were killed on landing in Cuba after their harrowing voyage on the cabin cruiser Granma. Thus, the surviving Fidelistas had to train the peasants recruited by Celia Sanchez before they could be trusted to engage in battle with President Batista's forces. Although many of these peasants had engaged in guerrilla actions with Cuba's Rural Guards, they had no training or experience fighting as organized fire teams, squads, or platoons.
When our buses arrived at Fort Gordon, Georgia, the gate was locked. A sergeant opened it with a bolt cutter and we may have been the first Basic Trainees on the post since Korea. Although the Army's Signal School was still in operation at Fort Gordon, the barracks that we arrived at that day looked like they hadn't been used in decades. Dust and dirt coated everything and the interiors of the barracks were dimly lit by what little light could penetrate the film on the windows.
There were four two-story wooden barracks buildings assigned to our company, two on each side of a one story office – the orderly room – and a one story mess hall. Our commanding officer (CO), Captain John Sevcik, and his cadre were waiting for us as we arrived. There was surprisingly little shouting as we were told to drop our baggage by the buses and gently herded into crude ranks and columns surrounding a wooden platform that we would later learn was the PT Tower – where a sergeant would stand and lead us in the Army's Daily Dozen stretching and bending and strength-building exercises.
The CO stood on the PT Tower beside a console stereo system. It was playing the Ballad of the Green Berets which was popular until the war became unpopular. The company First Sergeant and other non-commissioned officers who were to become our training platoon sergeants, stood in front of the PT Tower staring back at us. They looked as curious about us as we were about them.
The CO introduced everybody and gave us a brief overview of the program that was laid out for the next eight weeks. He assured us that he and the cadre had just one objective, to provide us with the very best training possible. He sounded sincere enough to be believable.
We were divided alphabetically by last name, into four platoons. Thus, I found myself alongside a few other trainees who would be alongside me all the way to Infantry Officer Candidate School. We were assigned to the first platoon and introduced to Master Sergeant Dunn, our platoon sergeant, and Staff Sergeant Gore, his assistant. Strange how I can remember these people so clearly more than forty years later. They told us to grab our baggage from where we had left them next to the buses, now departed, and meet them at the first barracks building.
It's important that you understand that I was totally unprepared for all that happened during those eight weeks of Basic Combat Training. My father had avoided service during World War II and Korea, and his surviving brother, who I barely knew, was significantly older, and he had served as a Dough Boy during World War I. The Army he had served in bore no resemblance to the one I found myself in. Thus, all I knew of the Army came from World War II propaganda films and documentaries as well as Beetle Bailey Comics.
My first surprise came during my first meal at the mess hall. The Mess Sergeant tolerated no nonsense whatsoever. However, I came to discover that he was determined to feed us as well as possible. Luckily, I had been cooking for more than twelve years by this time and recognized that the food was excellent. The grumblings from the other trainees surprised me until I realized that they were used to eating whatever their mothers put in front of them and that is what they expected. I, on the other hand, used table condiments judiciously to adjust flavors. The basic ingredients and cooking was just fine to me.
One thing that everyone appreciated was the plentiful supply of fresh milk. I suspect that everyone else was like me. We had grown up drinking it. Indeed, my mother frequently told me that our milkman (yes, we had milk delivered to our home in those days) wept when I left and she reduced the deliveries, and then rejoiced whenever I came home on leave.
Our first lessons on that first day came in the barracks. How to make a bunk that would pass the sergeant's critical inspection. How to sleep head to foot to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. How to keep our areas clean. Our personal effects were divided into two groups, those that had to be displayed and those that could be locked away in our footlockers. Funny, we were issued an old fashioned razor that had to be kept scrupulously clean. It held a double edged blade and had to be disassembled to replace it. I believe it may have dated back to the Spanish-American War. We were also given a gift pack from Schick and for many of us, we began using that brand for many years thereafter.
We used the remainder of the day, well into the evening, cleaning our barracks building. Each platoon also contributed men to a work party to help clean the orderly room. By the time we went to bed that night, no one had any problem sleeping. Unfortunately for a few of us, that sleep would not be undisturbed. At least one person on each floor of each building had to be awake at all times to watch out for fires. Remember, as I mentioned before, our living quarters were real firetraps.