My Brief Military Career
By Erwin (Irv) Lesser

In the summer of 1948, after my sophomore year of college, the U.S. Congress passed our first peacetime draft. One of the clauses in that bill was that men who were members of the National Guard and any of the military reserves at the time that President Truman signed the bill into law would be exempt from being drafted. I felt that I would be certain to be drafted, since my age was perfect for that and my health was good. There were a few days between passage of the bill and Truman’s signing it into law, so during that time I joined the 235th Field Artillery Observation Battalion in Philadelphia, where I lived. Since I was majoring in psychology at Penn State, I was placed in the medical unit of the battalion.

We had weekly drills at the armory in West Philadelphia and then a two week summer encampment at Indiantown Gap, somewhere near Harrisburg. It was kind of fun, something like playing soldier. When September came, and I had to go back to Penn State, which is in the center of the state, I was given permission to drill weekly with the local Air Force National Guard unit in State College. This worked out fine and the next summer, 1949, I was back in Philly and again went on the two week summer encampment. In the fall I went back to State College for my senior year and again drilled with the local Air Force National Guard unit. I toyed with the idea of requesting a discharge, since there weren’t many people being drafted, but I decided not to, since once I finished my three year enlistment I would be draft exempt.

So I continued in State College and graduated on June 12, 1950. The next day I started Graduate School. A couple of weeks later North Korea invaded South Korea. Every day I would run down to the radio station to see on the teletype what National Guard units were being called up. Finally, I saw the 235th FAOB. I filled out a form asking to be deferred because of my studies, but I never heard anything about it. (I later learned there was no record of my having filled it out. I suspect it was filed in the circular file.) I arranged to temporarily withdraw from Graduate School, having accumulated 10 graduate credits.

In Philly, I attended whatever drills were being called and, being a member of the medics, I helped administer the various shots we all required. In September, we all went to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. We were then composed of four companies and a medical detachment, with about 200 men. I was then a Private, E-2, with a monthly salary of $80.

In the medical detachment, we had very little to do, so I was often placed on KP. Draftees were gradually bought into the battalion and I was made a temporary platoon sergeant to teach them drilling. It was kind of fun, since I used games to help the draftees learn. Wisconsin, especially Camp McCoy, gets pretty cold in the winter. We had a rule that we didn’t have to stand reveille when the temperature was below minus 20º. There was one week when we didn’t stand reveille at all until Friday, when we were called out. We all kept saying, “They’re making a mistake, they’re making a mistake,” but that didn’t help. We later learned it was -35º that morning. Camp McCoy was about 110 miles northwest of Madison, and often on weekends I would hitchhike down there and stay at the ZBT fraternity house. I was a member of that fraternity and they treated me really well.

We gradually got our 1000 men and in January, the very day that basic training started, I was notified that I was being transferred to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. Thus, I went through my military career without ever having basic training!  Fort Ben, as it was called, had been closed since WWII, and was being cleaned and fixed up preparatory to its becoming the Army’s financial center.  I was assigned to the base hospital, where my duties consisted primarily of scraping the old peeling paint off the walls. We had a contingent of about 12 or so, none of whom I was interested in being friends with. We were just 12 miles from Indianapolis, so on weekends it was easy to go to town. They had a very good servicemen’s center there and I enjoyed the city.

But the work was very dull and boring, so I went to the Master Sergeant and said to him that people get very anxious when work is too hard or too easy for them, and I was wondering if there was anything else I could do besides just peeling and sweeping the paint chips. He made me company clerk and I set up the hospital’s filing system. There’s an Army manual for everything! During this time I now dressed in Class A uniform instead of the fatigues and I felt like a real person.

After about a month and a half, in March, 1951, I was suddenly transferred to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, about 30 miles south of Indianapolis, where I was assigned to the base hospital. This was a rather large hospital with a large psychiatric unit, to which I was assigned. They had a bunch of psychiatrists, but the psychological section consisted of just one man, a Master Sergeant. He had been an infantry Captain during WWII, and when the Army reduced the number of men, he decided to remain in as a Master Sergeant. He had a Bachelor’s Degree from a small college in Wisconsin and had learned how to do some of the psychological testing.

The graduate  courses I had taken at Penn State in the summer of 1950 were on psychological testing, so when he checked me out I passed with flying colors and I was permanently assigned to that unit. The work was quite interesting. I did psychological testing and wrote reports on the men who were patients in the psychiatric unit and I attended the case conferences with the psychiatrists and my Master Sergeant. He and I also attended a class on Fridays at a hospital in Indianapolis with an excellent psychologist, where I learned to give the Rorschach (inkblot) test.

I was still a Private, E-2. My Master Sergeant didn’t believe anyone should get a promotion until they completed a four year hitch. When he went away on a leave, the officers had me promoted to Private, First Class (PFC). This happened again a few months later and I became a Corporal. He took it well.

The psychological unit got a few more trained enlisted men, a couple of whom became my very good friends, as well as a Captain with a Ph.D. in psychology, so we were a pretty professional group.

In September, 1951, I was sent to the Far East. I think I was the one in the group who was sent because I sometimes questioned the Captain. I saw him again about 15-20 years later, and asked him about it. He denied it, saying he had put all of our names in a hat, but I still have my doubts about that.

Anyway, I learned that my best friend from the 235th was also being shipped to the Far East and we were able to go on the same troop ship together. We volunteered to be carpenter’s helpers on the ship, so we got a few privileges together. Once in Yokohama, I was given a carbine and sent to the firing range, but as soon as I got back I was notified that I was being sent to the Osaka, Japan, Army Hospital (OAH). 

When I arrived there, I found it was a large, 5 story building with a large psychiatric unit that had a decent sized psychological service. We had one officer, who had a Ph.D., and several enlisted men, one of whom was a Master Sergeant. He had a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna, and had studied under Freud. He had been unable to prove it, so he couldn’t be made an officer. He was finally able to prove it by finding his name in the Vienna newspaper of the day he graduated, so he was being made a Captain or a Major.

He had been teaching Abnormal Psychology in the evenings at the U.S. Armed forces Institute in Osaka, and he asked me if I would like to take it over for him, since he was being transferred away. I watched him teach one class and I immediately saw that I could never be as good as he. I also saw that they used the same text I had used in my senior year, so it wouldn’t be that hard. Actually, it turned out to be a fun experience.

Just before Thanksgiving, promotions from Corporal to Sergeant, which had been frozen for five years, opened up, and all of the corporals were given a time at which to appear before the Promotion Board. At my appointed time, I appeared in freshly laundered Class A uniform.  I saluted smartly and then had great difficulty in keeping from bursting out into laughter. It seems that the Secretary of the Promotion Board was a Major who was a student in the class I was teaching. I knew I’d be promoted. They first asked me if I planned to stay in the Army and I said “No, Sir.” They repeated the question and got the same answer. My roommate, also a corporal and also a college graduate, had discussed this and he had decided to say he would stay in. At the end of the interview, they asked it a third time. This time I replied, “No, sir, not as an enlisted man.” I left with a friend for a 5 day trip to Tokyo and when we returned I saw that I had been signed out as Sergeant Lesser. I later learned that this was sort of scandal at the hospital, since there were 50 of us promoted, of whom 49 were Regular Army and one (me)was National Guard. But that was OK with me.

At OAH we were doing a study of frostbite, giving psychological tests to soldiers who had been frostbitten (to see if there was any psychological component) and also to soldiers who had been wounded, but not frostbitten, who were the controls with whom to compare test results. There was not much fighting going on at the time so we had few wounded. It was decided to send a couple of us over to Korea to test soldiers still on the front lines who had not been frostbitten.

This Second Lieutenant and I were chosen to go over. He had a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Psychology and knew nothing of clinical testing. I had to teach him whatever he was going to do in Korea, but he was still in charge. We went over and he often let me know he was in charge. It was not a pleasant time. We would get men off the front lines, give them a battery of tests, and then send them back to the front lines. We were mainly with the Medical Battalion of the 7th Infantry Division and the 8076  MASH.

After a few months we were sent back to Osaka, and a month or so later I was sent back to the U.S. for discharge. In the summer of 1952 I went to summer school at Temple University and in September I resumed my graduate studies at Penn State, getting my Ph.D. in 1955. I had been able to convince the graduate faculty that my military experiences were the equivalent of the required one year pre-doctoral internship, thus losing only one year, instead of the two that I’d been away.

So what did I get out of my service? I think I got a lot. I certainly matured. I learned that I could handle many adverse circumstances. I learned to stand up straight, so that my posture is still very good. I became much more sure of myself in many areas, and this still helps me. It gave me the GI bill which helped me avoid financial problems during graduate school. Finally, it gave me VA privileges, which still saves me a lot of money on medicine and hearing aids. While I was sorry at the time that I had to go in, I think now that it was a very good thing.


This is being written at the urging of my neighbor and friend, Craig Hullinger. I hope you find it interesting.

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