The Army Secret Economy Story
A true story about my going in the army and how I found out about the crooked dealing going on.
Written 01/2010 and rewritten 01/07/2016 Unedited
In 1961, I joined the Army Reserves in New Haven Connecticut.
I was ordered to Fort Dix New Jersey to do my eight weeks of basic training, and the Army’s travel orders were as follows.
I was to leave New Haven by bus, and go to Penn Station in New York City, where I was to again transfer to another bus going to the reception center at Fort Dix in New Jersey
I decided to leave a day earlier, and stay overnight in New York City, I wanted to be sure that I had plenty of time to catch the bus to Fort Dix. God knows I should be late for my induction into the Army.
Before I left my home town of New Haven, I decided to stop by and see my cousin Allen.
My cousin Allen was renting an apartment with one of his friends that we called Bobby Orange, it was located just off State Street in New Haven.
At the time, I was twenty two years old and my cousin Allen was about a year younger. We were both working part time at the same gas station on Whalley Avenue in Westville Connecticut.
Allen and I were both good buddies, as we both liked to fool around with hotrods together but Allen was a bit more of a liberal free spirit than I was, he was more into what we called the hippie movement, and I was the more of the conservative type.
As I remember, when I walked into his third floor apartment, my cousin Allen was fully in his “Hippy Mode”, he had dimmed lights and a psychedelic light machine going with some sort of a strobe light set up. In the dim light of the apartment, the contraption splayed moving rays of colored dots all over the apartment walls and ceiling.
We spent an hour or so talking before I left for the bus station, that’s when my cousin Allen offered me a hit on a marijuana cigarette that he had. This is a subject which he denies to this very day.
Because I had never smoked marijuana before I was kind of hesitant to try it but I was pretty sure marijuana was all a bunch of nonsense and nothing was really going to happen if I did try it, so I took a puff or two.
When I eventually woke up, I was sitting on a bus in Penn Station and had just arrived in New York City, please don’t ask me what happened in between, but I can only assume my cousin must have dropped me off at the bus station in New Haven.
It was about ten in the evening when I awoke, it was just as the bus arrived at the station in New York.
I double checked my travel voucher to verify my bus ride to Fort Dix New Jersey, but that bus didn’t leave until eight on the following morning. I knew I would need to find a hotel somewhere near the bus station for the evening.
As I left the Bus Station, I was carrying my small suitcase, and I found myself walking up a dark street with few neon lights, at first it didn’t bother me as I was so sure I could easily find a hotel along the way. But that street was pretty dark, and I thought of how stupid I must have looked, I was sort of like a country hayseed walking along carrying my little suitcase.
Everyone, including my mother had always warned me about walking around New York City at night, plus my own common sense told me that I didn’t want to attract any muggers. So once I got to thinking about it, I started walking faster, I walked as fast as I could, almost running past all the dark alleys along the way. My hope was that I could see bright neon signs that were coming up far ahead of me, but now beads of sweat were now forming on my forehead, and that’s when I first heard it, it was a loud “Meow”, just like a cat, but it was coming from someone walking fast, and right behind me. So I walked faster towards the neon lights up ahead and finally, thank god, there it was, a big white neon sign that said “Hotel”.
At that point I couldn’t have been happier, so I made a sharp turn into the open doorway under the hotel sign and walked up a long flight of stairs to a set of swinging doors that had the bright red word “Hotel” painted on them, and no one was following me.
Inside, the lobby it was pretty smoky and dingy, but there was a young desk clerk and he asked me how many nights I would be staying. I told him it would be only be one night, so he asked for two dollars cash in advance. At first I was hesitant, but then I reasoned he didn’t know me, so why should he trust me so I gave him the two bucks. Then I got to thinking, the price sounded too cheap, even for 1961. But I was happy to pay him, and that’s when I think my heart rate started to slow down.
The lobby of the hotel was dark and the air was thick with cigarette and cigar smoke, the whole place had the smell of stale beer. I think that’s when I realized I had checked into a flop house. As I looked around, no question about it, some guys were sleeping in chairs, I was in a hotel for bums.
I was given a room key and the desk clerk pointed to a concrete stairway to get to the next floor where my room was located, he said.
Once I found my room, I looked everywhere, but couldn’t find the light switch.
Fortunately the bright light in the hallway showed through the big holes in the room’s door and I saw a pull cord hanging from a bulb on the ceiling, there was no wall switch.
At first I was concerned, and a little scared by the lack of privacy due to the holes in room’s door. I thought someone could easily be looking in, so I tried to plug the holes with bits of rolled up paper that I ripped from my hotel receipt. As I did this, I got to thinking, what was I possibly afraid of, if someone wanted to peek in let them do it. I was only going to be in the room a few hours until morning, and I had no intentions of even taking my clothes off.
The next morning, when I woke up, there was sun light coming in from under the window shade, and that’s when I up to see what a real dump I had slept in. I went into the bathroom only to find an old scratched up porcelain sink, and a toilet that appeared to be a style from the turn of the century, it had its water tank hanging up on the wall with a pull chain.
I left the hotel, went back to the bus station and caught the bus to the Fort Dix reception center, along with about sixty other new recruits who were also waiting there, they were all carrying their suitcases and bags of their belongings just like me.
At Fort Dix, we were all ushered into an empty barracks with long rows of unused bunk beds, with its mattress rolled up.
As we all waited for someone to tell us something, we all were sitting on the edges of the steel bunks smoking.
As I looked around everybody seemed a little nervous, and I think that even guys that never had smoked were smoking.
I sat alone and tried to listen to some of the conversations. That’s when I realized what a real mix of odd ball people I was there with, some said that they were army reservists like me, some were enlisted guys and some were guys that had been drafted against their will. I even overheard some older guys that had been in the Army before and were now re enlisting.
I studied their faces and there appeared to be quite a few guys that just looked like they were trouble makers. It was no secret that in the 1960’s, rather than put young criminals in jail, the judges made them join the army, so I knew that some of the guys there must have been sent here by the courts. But after thinking about it awhile, I was sure that some of the others guys that were looking around might have thought the same about me.
As we all sat there, some still sitting, some now standing, no one knew exactly what to do, so eventually small groups started to gather together.
I was sitting on the edge of a bunk smoking a cigarette, when two fellows walked over and sat across from me and asked to bum one. They both spoke with heavy Brooklyn accents, I was actually expecting them to start trouble with me at any minute.
One of them was about my size and had dark hair and a dark complexion, I thought he looked to be Lebanese or Egyptian. The other guy was smaller and had wavy blond hair and an angular face and his upper lip was curled like he was angry and looking for a fight. As we talked, it turned out that both guys were best friends from Brooklyn New York, and they had both been drafted together. They said they had never met a foreign person from Connecticut before, and they had never ever been fishing, hunting or even in the woods. But it turned out both guys were really friendly, and we talked and talked trying to find something that we all had in common. The more we talked the more I liked them, so I suggested we get together after our tour of army duty was over. I said I would come and visit them in Brooklyn. Both of them looked at me in a f funny way, and then one of them said he didn’t think the army was for them. I had no idea of what he meant, but I was to find out later exactly what they meant.
Eventually, after we all took lots of written tests, we were then loaded on buses, and taken to a supply warehouse where everyone was given a hand full of loose fitting military clothing, a hat, a duffle bag, and a pair of boots. Then carrying all our junk we were bused to our new home, it was at one of the basic training company areas at Fort Dix.
In our basic training camp at Fort Dix there were over three hundred of us. We were placed in the five barracks by alphabetical order. Each barrack was an old two story wooden building that had upper and lower bunks for sleeping about eighty guys, forty on each floor. I knew which barracks my new friends from Brooklyn were in, but we were always so busy training, we rarely ever saw each other again.
After a couple of weeks, as my squad marched by one of the barracks, I saw my dark complexioned Brooklyn friend in a second floor window, he was sitting there watching us, and he had dyed his hair purple, after that, I never saw him again.
They said his blond Puerto Rican friend was found down in the bathroom fishing with a string in one of the toilets. They were both dismissed from military duty as “Unfit for active duty” and I never saw either of them again. But in a way, I had to admire how they both play acted their way out of the army, and I now knew just what they meant when they said the army wasn’t for them. They were already planning to get out of the army long before I ever met them.
After eight weeks of basic training and taking lots of tests, I was hoping to become a military truck mechanic, so I was excited when one morning our drill Sargent asked if anyone knew how to drive a big truck, we thought it was our big chance and they needed a driver, so several of us raised our hands, and we were all given brooms, to sweep down the company area.
Eventually they really did send us to be tested and I obtained my military driver’s license. I didn’t know it then, but being a truck driver in the military was one of the best things to have ever happened to me.
After eight weeks of training, all my new friends were assigned to various military bases all over the world, except me, I received orders to return to Fort Dix New Jersey for six months of active duty, I was assigned to a motor pool as a truck driver.
Now back home in New Haven, where I came from, being a truck driver was not exactly considered a lofty position, however, in the army, I didn’t know it at the time, but you couldn’t find a better job.
It seemed like everyone wanted to make friends with a truck driver, because riding in the back of a truck was a lot better than marching all day.
As far as I was concerned, I found working in a motor pool to be loads of fun, I got to know how to drive a whole assortment of military vehicles, I drove everything from one quarter ton Jeeps up to five ton cargo trucks.
As an official driver for a motor pool, you were assigned daily to drive for whoever on Fort Dix needed the use of a truck that day, and because Fort Dix is run like a big city, everything has to be moved or delivered somewhere by truck.
One day my motor pool Sargent said his regular driver for the bakery detail was going on leave for two weeks, so he assigned me to fill in on his job.
I was expected to be at the Fort Dix bakery at five in the morning and pick up loaves of white bread to deliver to four different mess halls, which included my own mess hall.
Upon my arrival at the bakery I found five other truck drivers already sitting there drinking coffee and waiting for their breakfast, and sure enough, soon a baker came with a tray of unsliced hot bread right out of the oven. The loaves were so hot we had to bobble it from one hand to the other to hold it until it cooled down. I watched the other drivers, as they opened a refrigerator that was full of quarter pound sticks of butter.
I asked the other truck drivers where all the butter came from, and they said that one of the drivers, who was on the butter detail, he had brought it. Where did he get it I asked, and they said it was simple, the driver was delivering butter to several mess halls and he shorted each mess hall by keeping aside twenty sticks of butter from each, then he brought it here for us to use.
Wow I thought, that sounded easy, there must have been way over a hundred sticks of butter in the refrigerator and no one had ever missed them.
I knew each army mess hall had to feed a certain amount of troops, but they also needed a lot of extra food for soldiers that showed up for temporary duty, and they needed extra food to be able to serve seconds to the troops. So I reasoned no one knew accurately how much of any kind of food was being delivered or eaten. I reasoned that you would need a whole team of food counters installed at every mess hall to keep track of everything, now that was an interesting thought, so I decided to put it to a test.
At Fort Dix, I was housed was a large barrack that had about twenty small, two man living quarters in it, my head mess hall cooks also lived in the same building as I did. But for some reason all the head cooks who were always dressed in white kitchen uniforms, didn’t ever want to talk to us. They always acted like they were better than we were, and whenever we would pass each other on a staircase, they walked by without so much as a hello. Everyone I spoke to said, the cooks had a racket going, and they didn’t like regular soldiers nosing around too much. At the time I had no idea of what kind of racket the cooks were involved in.
The next morning the bakery, they loaded up my truck with bread to deliver to four mess halls, and as I made my deliveries to the various mess halls, I put aside a separate pile of twenty loaves off to one side, and I did it at each delivery that I made.
At the end of my delivery run I had about eighty loaves of bread left over.
Now that I had all this bread, I started to wonder what I would do with it all. Who the hell needs eighty loaves of fresh baked bread, and that’s when I started to think I had made a big mistake.
So I backed my truck up to the loading dock at my mess hall where I ate, and I boldly walked into the kitchen. The big burly head cook didn’t even appear to acknowledge that I was there, so I said, I have some bread for you, and then without even looking at me he had four soldiers go in my truck and unload all the bread.
I was afraid to ask him what he was going to do with it, and I never did ask him, but I did this same routine every day for the whole two weeks that I was detailed to delivering bread.
On the last day of my assignment, I told the other truck drivers at the bakery what I had done. To my surprise they all said they were doing it also, and they said truck drivers all over the base were doing the very same thing. So it appeared that removing cargo off their trucks was being done by all the truck drivers.
My motor pool at Fort Dix, was run by a tall black Staff Sargent named Sargent Kimbrough.
And my job was to arrive at the motor pool after breakfast, and then sit in the driver’s lounge waiting, it was right outside Sargent Kimbrough’s office.
As soon as there was a need for a vehicle somewhere on the Post, Sargent Kimbrough would dispatch us drivers, one by one.
Now Sargent Kimbrough was a pretty savvy Staff Sargent, and he knew everything. One day he crooked his finger and called me into his office. He said that because I was doing a good job he was going to assign me to a section called “Condiments”. He said it was a cushy job with little work involved, he said it was run by a buddy of his.
I found out that Condiment’s was just a small wooden warehouse building, with three soldiers working as laborers to load and unload trucks. The Condiments building had a small tiny office with one Staff Sargent in charge.
The job of Condiments was to deliver specialty meats like bacon and liver, and also all kinds of real condiments like salt, pepper, sugar and lots of other things. But most of the time, I could see that everyone just hung around a pot belly stove doing nothing.
Every morning the Staff Sargent would ride up front with me, in my truck, but once we were all loaded up with meat, he would get in the back of the truck, staying there, as I drove to all the Fort Dix mess halls unloading the meat. At first, I assumed he was counting and checking his paperwork to make sure we were delivering the right quantities to the right places. But after several weeks my curiosity got the best of me.
There was a canvas window in the cab of the truck, if I rolled it up a little, I could see what was going on with the Sargent in the back of the truck.
So the next morning we were going to pick up a load of sliced liver, and as usual the Sargent rode in front with me until we loaded up, and then he got in the back of the truck for the ride back to the mess halls. When we stopped for a red light, I looked in the roll up canvas window.
There was the Sargent, he had every mess halls shipment opened up and he was removing sliced liver from each of them. He was making up a separate load of liver, and just as I watched him, he looked up and saw me looking, but he didn’t say anything.
The following day was Sunday, and after breakfast I returned to my barracks for a nap. I was napping on a lower bunk on the second floor of the barracks, when I was startled to wake up with a soldier sitting on the floor next to me. I immediately recognized him as one of the gay soldiers working as a laborer in the Condiments warehouse. He said, “Sorry to wake you, but the Sargent sent me over with a present for you”. I looked and he had sitting next to him two big number ten cans of sugared fruit pieces used for baking minced meat pies. The soldier said, “The Sargent wants you to have them and he wants you to know if you need any steaks to let him know”. Steaks, what the hell was I going to do with steaks, I was living in a barrack and at my mess hall I could eat all the steaks I wanted, so I told the fellow, please tell the Sargent I don’t need anything, but thanks anyway. When I woke up again the cans of candied fruit were still there, so I brought them to my mess hall head chef and gave them to him, he took them but never said a word to me.
In the morning the Sargent at the Condiments building called me into his tiny office. He said that if there was anything I wanted to just let him know. He said he always made separate packages of meat every trip we made to the base butcher. He said that he gave the packages of meat to his wife, and she sold it to other soldier’s wives. He said all the Staff Sargent’s running the various base warehouses were doing the same thing. He said, he thought the military knew all about it, but just sort of overlooked it. That’s when I realized that there was a whole secret economy going on and it was going on at every Army base, and no one ever talked about it, and now I was part of it.
One day, as I was going up the stairs, to my room, the head chef was coming down, he looked at my name tag and he asked me if I was going home on leave. I was shocked, it was the first time a chief cook had ever spoken to me.
I told him I was leaving Friday night and heading for New Haven Connecticut. He said, “Stop by the kitchen before you leave”.
I did go to the kitchen on Friday afternoon, and the head chef ushered me into a back storage room. He said, “Help yourself to anything you want here, it’s all extra stuff”, and then he left me.
On the shelves were every kind of canned military food you can imagine, it was all the stuff the truck drivers had been stealing and bringing them. I realized that these cooks must have been running a side business selling food at the government’s expense. They even had my two cans of candied fruit on the shelf there.
I saw big number ten cans of lard, coffee, grape, strawberry and apple jam, There was so much canned food that it was mind boggling, and I couldn’t even imagine if I took any, what my mother would do with it, the cans were so big.
I think the cooks and everyone else on the base were selling the food to stores or restaurants in the local towns around Fort Dix, and I’m pretty sure it’s going on every military base in the world.