It was the Spring of 1942, and the world was full of uncertainty. War was raging in Britain and the fields of Europe, but was just becoming a reality in the United States in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.
Except for the realization that sometime in the future we would be called upon to play our part, my best friend, Marvin ‘Bud’ Marks, and I continued to be schoolboys. In addition to our regular after school jobs selling women’s shoes at Leeds, a shoe store on Main Street in Stockton, we, like so many other patriotic kids, worked in defense jobs in the evenings. In my case, I alternated between the Port of Stockton, where I helped load and unload cargo, and the Flotil Cannery, where I assumed many roles. However, during the summer when school was out I worked at the shipyards. First at Colberg’s, and later, when they began building at Pollack’s, a larger yard, I got on as a pile driver-carpenter’s helper. This required me to supply the men who were lining up the piles and nailing the guides in place. I brought them their supplies and drinking water, walking on very high catwalks. When my mother got wind of what I was doing, I found myself back selling ladies’ shoes at Leeds.
One summer, a ranch owner in the Delta sent a request to the school for help from students willing to work in the fields baling hay and digging asparagus roots. The hay baling wasn’t so bad, although we didn’t even have the modern equipment that was available in those days. Instead, we worked with pitchforks, forking the hay into a bailer and tying the baling wire to create the bales. It was grueling work in the hot sun with no shade. We were happy when lunchtime came along so that we could eat the sandwiches our mothers had prepared for us, and even happier at quitting time, when the foreman told us to get on the truck to go back to town. In those days, you just found a spot on the bed of the truck and held on. We’d never heard of seat belts, although to my knowledge no one ever fell off. When we got home, a hot shower was a real luxury. I’m reasonably certain that the migrant workers who sweated alongside us did not partake of the same luxury.
If we thought baling hay was dirty work, our next job – digging out old asparagus roots on a ranch in the Delta – proved to be even dirtier. The peat dirt was so fine that it got into and under our clothes, causing unimaginable itching. Speaking of the peat dirt, it caused no end of problems for the city because it was so fine it came in through windows which weren’t as weather-stripped as they are now. It created a layer of black, sooty dust on everything that wasn’t covered.
Housewives and those who wore white clothing complained about it, as did the chamber of commerce and real estate people. It became a stigma for Stockton. Many plans were hatched including the planting of tree barriers against the prevailing wind. Farmers were affected as well, since much topsoil was lost to the wind each year, just as in Egypt on the Nile. A solution was finally found, though it took some time to take effect. When it did, the production of white asparagus was discontinued and the problem was solved. (Note: For asparagus to be white instead of green, it must be kept out of the sun with mounds of loose peat dirt. This loose dirt is what blew into town.)
Time passed. The breath of the draft became hotter and hotter, leading most all of us boys in school to search for a way to forestall the long arm of Uncle Sam. This led Bud and me to a school assembly where the Navy and Marines presented a plan offering deferments to students who would join up in exchange for being allowed to finish college before active duty. After listening to the speeches we decided to join the Marine Reserves. We thought it a sound plan. We figured the war would be over by the time we finished school so why not have the distinction of enlisting in the most daring branch of service? The catch was we were underaged. Our parents would have to sign an approval, which they would not. So now we two brave prospective Marine enlistees, having already begun to brag, were left without a military affiliation and still subject to the draft. Then the Army came up with a reserve program promising to let recruits finish college before active duty. It lacked the glamour of the Marines and the crisp whites of the Navy, but it was a hedge. Our folks couldn’t refuse this time because eventually we were going to be drafted. Enlisting in the Army seemed a safer alternative than the Marines.
We joined the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps (ERC) in our sophomore year, feeling secure in the knowledge that we would be able to graduate before actually going on active duty. However, about three months after we joined, we received our marching orders. The Navy and Marine Corps allowed their enrollees to graduate in most cases, but the Army had reneged.
We were greatly disillusioned but I and the fifty seven other members of the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps gathered on March 16, 1943, with friends and family, in front of the College of the Pacific gymnasium. Two buses waited to take us to the induction center at the Presidio of Monterey.
We were fifty-eight future soldiers, kicking and screaming on the inside, not only because we had been betrayed, but also because we were going from home and safety to who knows what. As we prepared to board the two buses that would take us away from all we were familiar with and drop us into the unknown, a pall hung over the crowd of fellow students, family members and friends. They had gathered to bid us farewell and good luck. Everyone in the crowd put on a smiling face and tried to act bravely, but as soon as the buses began to move out the crowd fell silent until, in a show of bravado, the college band took up the beat and played the patriotic melody of “Over There”. Of all the tunes they had to choose from, the one they chose conveyed all the horrors of going overseas to battle.
We were off to begin our great adventure. Aboard the buses, we looked back on the crowd of well-wishers and realized that all the cheering was a cover for the tears which were soon to flow. A newspaper article the following day describing our departure noted, “The Corren kids, so proud of Mel, each wanted the last word.”
We were on our way. Following a quiet and apprehensive bus ride we arrived at the Presidio of Monterey where, amid much confusion, we stripped, were examined, shot up with preventatives and introduced to the most important phrase in the Army – Hurry up and Wait.
That first night in the barracks, we shared and ate all the goodies our parents had sent with us, talked about old times, discussed our hopes for our assignments, and finally, those of us who could, fell asleep.
The next day was filled with aptitude testing of every kind. We discovered the testing had nothing to do with the duty to which we would be assigned. Finally, on departure day, we were awakened by the blast of a bugle. For the first time we were introduced to what we would come to accept as part of Army life — “Sweating It Out”. Bud and I were disappointed to learn that we weren’t shipping out together, but bravely bid each other goodbye and boarded trains going in different directions.
I had been on a train before, but never a Pullman Sleeper. Now, as a guest of Uncle Sam, I was on one, going all the way across the country to a place called Aberdeen Proving Grounds, near Baltimore, Maryland.
Bud went on to Fort Leonard Wood in St. Louis Missouri, and later to college in the Army Specialized Training Program under the auspices of Uncle Sam. From college he was transferred to the Medics and shipped overseas to England, where he met relatives and remained until the end of the war.
Although apprehensive on the train to Aberdeen, I was also quite excited. I believed – quite prophetically – that this was the beginning of a great adventure in which anything could happen. I wasn’t disappointed. On the second day out, we all lined up at the bathroom door with the first case of the GIs (gastro-intestinal distress) any of us had ever experienced.
A few days later, after a million clickety-clacks of our rail car and an interminable number of card and dice games, we arrived in Baltimore. We had several hours between trains, so we went to the YMCA where we all enjoyed what later became known to us as the four S’s: sh-t, shave, shower and shampoo. I remember to this day the feeling of that warm water after those days on the train, and I’m often reminded of that sensation when hearing or reading about victims of deprivation, such as prisoners of war or holocaust victims.
The Basic Training Area of Aberdeen Proving Grounds – where I think they sent me to prove that almost anyone can become a soldier – was a dismal place, made up of long, olive drab, tar paper-roofed two-story buildings without trees. Not a very welcoming place, although that first night I slept so soundly that the morning found me late for reveille. Struggling to pull my pants on, I ran to join the ragtag bunch of civilian-dressed soldiers already standing at quasi-attention on the parade grounds.
My first impression of the top sergeant was that he seemed quite friendly as he immediately engaged me by asking if I liked water. When I answered yes, he informed me, with an abrupt change of voice and demeanor, that I was on latrine duty for the rest of the week. That was my introduction to my first sergeant and things went downhill from there. That’s not to say he wasn’t on my side. He constantly reminded me that he was my best friend and was trying to teach me how to stay alive, against all odds.
Mel Corren was born in Stockton in 1924, attended local schools, served in Europe during World War II, and after returning home joined his family’s furniture business, M. Corren and Sons. In 1961 he and his brother Hillard opened The Brothers, a home furnishing/design studio, which ran until they both retired in 2000. Mel, his wife Harriet, their two sons, two grandchildren, along with their respective mates, make up their far-flung family. His literary accomplishments are the memoirs “I’ve Live It, I’ve Loved It” and “Schoolboy, Soldier Boy”, both on Amazon, as well as a collection of short stories. At 96, he remains active in civic affairs, including his ongoing advocacy for the revitalization of Stockton’s historic downtown district. Mel was honored as Stocktonian of the Year for 2015.