One thing special about military units is tradition. I believe, however, that my unit in Germany, 2/59th Air Defense Artillery, had traditions above and beyond what is typical. In my many years in the Army following that first assignment, I never experienced another unit that had quite the same. There were some similar traditions, but never the extent and number of unique unit customs.
The first tradition I will discuss is saluting. Even non-military readers will understand that saluting is a tradition unlike any in civilian life. Many units take that to another level and 2/59 ADA was one of those. The junior Soldier initiates the salute to a senior officer. In the 2/59 ADA, the junior Soldier would initiate the salute and state loudly, “Hot Shot!” The senior officer returned the salute and replied, “On Target.” It was a great tradition within the unit and very often officers would scold a young soldier who failed to abide by the traditional greeting.
Besides saluting, one of the first things we learned about in the unit was the “Hot Shot Board.” The legend was that the unit was such an elite unit that it could reject any new second lieutenants who were not up to snuff. I don’t recall the “punishment,” but I do remember the story was that anyone who failed the Hot Shot Board was either sent to a less desirable unit in Germany, or even sent back to the States! The Board typically took place within several weeks of a new lieutenant’s arrival. This was to allow the newbie to get some sense of the unit and its great lineage. The Board was convened by the Battalion Commander (a Lieutenant Colonel) and conducted by senior First Lieutenants in the unit.
As the more skeptical of you may have guessed, this entire debacle was little more than a initiation stunt where the new lieutenant was debased and made fun of, all for the pleasure of their new peers. The Commander’s involvement led to a degree of credulity that was hard for a newbie to rebut. Therefore, most new lieutenants looked toward the Hot Shot Board with a great deal of angst and trepidation. The real key to “success” was to get the new lieutenant so worked up that he could hardly sleep or eat or do just about anything. Ultimately, it was a right of passage, much like a fraternity initiation. It is definitely not allowed in today’s Army, but it was riding high in 1985!
For my Board, I was teamed up with another second lieutenant who arrived around the same time as me. I knew him from my Basic Officer Course, so it did help to ease the pre-Board jitters. The Board started with some seriousness, but quickly turned into a exercise of the two of us marching around the room with our hats over our faces (to mimic the use of a gas mask), while “tooting” our horns and calling out instructions to each other. It must have been awfully amusing to everyone in the room besides the two of us. Not only was I relieved to be ultimately let in in the gag, but I admit that I became a chief tormentor for many poor lieutenants who followed me.
Similar to the Hot Shot Board was the tradition at the end of one’s tour of duty with the unit. Upon someone’s departure, we held a formal “hail and farewell” ceremony. As part of the ceremony, the departing officer was inducted into the “Ancient and Honorable Order of the Oozlefinch.” The Oozlefinch is the unofficial mascot of the Air Defense Artillery. It is a fictional, featherless bird that flies backwards and carries the weapons of the Air Defense Artillery. As part of the induction ceremony, an officer stood while a fellow officer read a scroll that depicted the accomplishments and achievements that merited membership in this great Order. It most often included some of the most notorious and/or embarrassing events that occurred during the person’s tour. While it could be quite personal – and often extremely exaggerated (or even blatantly false) – these stories were regaled in a funny and endearing manner. They were truly a highlight of unit activities.
A corollary to the Oozelfinch was the monthly award of the “Black Helmet” to someone during the monthly hail and farewell. This was a special award granted to the biggest screw-up during the month. Sometimes it was a huge screw-up and sometimes it was a minor infraction. It was always, though, a hilarious affair. Like the Oozelfinch stories, these were very often extremely embarrassing events. Some were based upon mere stupidity and some were cases of flat-out insubordination. The real point (in my opinion) was to provide a learning opportunity, particularly for young officers, to learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of their peers. Though embarrassing, the presentations were conducted with sufficient humor in order to allow the recipient an opportunity to save face. The most hilarious Black Helmet lore during my time in 2/59 ADA was that one lieutenant seemed to win the award time after time. Pretty soon, it was almost a given that 1LT Dave Shublak would do something to keep the rest of us from getting recognized for whatever dumb deed we did that particular month. Or, as we used to say, Dave had an uncanny ability to steal defeat from the jaws of victory!
Most of our hail and farewell events took place after work at the Officer’s Club. More accurately, by the time we arrive in Germany, Officer’s Clubs had become passé; therefore, the club on O’Brien Barracks was a Community Club. Our Battalion Commander, Jack Costello, was not a big fan of this. He (rightfully) felt that Officers needed a place to blow off some steam that is not in front of the Noncommissioned Officers and Soldiers. This was especially true when we made fun of ourselves during awards like the Oozelfinch and the Black Helmet. LTC Costello ultimately worked out a deal with the Club manager that gave officers exclusive access to a private room in the Club.
Ken Busse and I were assigned the task to make our new club room unique and special. We got almost Carte Blanche authority to do whatever we needed in order to make an Officer’s Club within the club. We started by changing the lock on the door and assigning a key to each of the unit’s officers. Then it seemed to us that the room was lacking adequate space. After pondering the situation over a few beers, Ken and I had the bright idea that if we took out half the bar, we would have more space for the patrons. Besides, the bar was adjacent to the main bar in the outer room, so we figured the bartenders could use that space whenever necessary.
The bar ran across one entire end of the room, so there was some merit to our plan. The problem was that we had an extremely limited budget and using government resources was not an option. I swear it wasn’t the beer talking, but it wasn’t long before Ken and I were physically sawing the bar in half with a hand saw. Unfortunately, we did not have a very good plan on how we would properly finish the raw cut end. I guess we envisioned turning the removed end into a corner joint back toward the wall. Sure, an “L-shaped” bar! Once we had completed a relatively straight cut through the massive bar top, we recognized that we had opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box. How do we support the new corner point in the bar? How about the electricity and plumbing running through the middle of the bar? How would we finish the top of the bar to make it appear less of a hack job and somewhat “professional?” All these questions and more caused us to “close” the Officer’s area of the club for several weeks.
Somehow, we were able to rebuild the bar into something useable. It actually didn’t look half bad. We got some help from some guys who had some more general contractor knowledge than we did and surprisingly made it work. It turned out to be a lot more work that we had initially set out to do, but everyone – even the Battalion Commander – was appreciative of our efforts. Unfortunately, though, the concept of an officer’s only section didn’t last long. Before too long we realized that the Officers on the barracks preferred to take their business to the local German establishments rather than going to the Club. In retrospect, I suspect that is part of the reason why the Officer’s Clubs were phased out in the first place. Oh well, live and learn!
There were several other traditions in 2/59ADA that I’d better mention. These are typical for every unit in Germany, so not necessarily unique, but still a whole lot of fun. The first was the annual Oktoberfest trip in Munich. It often got ugly and always included an eventful ride home (usually on the train). It is fortunate that we didn’t lose anyone along the way, though I seem to remember that Shublak might have turned up missing for a day or two!
The other interesting and fun traditions were the formally organized Officer Professional Development (OPD) trips and the less formal unit ski trips to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The former were called “battle rides” or “staff rides” with purpose to visit and learn from previous Army campaigns or individual battles. In Germany we had a plethora of sites to choose. In my time with 2/59ADA, we visited and studied such sites as the Malmedy Massacre, the Battle of the Bulge, the Siege of Bastogne, the Maginot Line, the Nurnberg Rally Ground, and Dachau Concentration Camp. All provided interesting insight into our profession of arms and the horrors of war.
Ski trips were fun, but again, not necessarily unique events. The best part of them in those days was to experience the magic of the area around the German/Austrian Alps. Garmisch-Partenkirchen remains one of my favorite cities in the world, even today. In the mid-1980s, it was unique as the town had several hotels named after American Generals from World War II. They included The Patton Hotel, The Abrams Hotel, and even the quaint Von Steuben Hotel that recognized German General Baron von Steuben, who assisted General George Washington in the U.S. Revolutionary War. Also in Garmisch was a commercial movie theatre that showed first-run movies in English on weekend nights. That was a rare treat since there was nowhere else in Europe at the time to see first-run American movies (at least in English). It was at that theater that I had my first taste of the “original” Budweiser beer that was imported covertly from Czechoslovakia.
Finally, I can’t say enough about the experience of skiing the Zugspitze. The “Zug” is part of the Alps and is the highest peak in Germany. Prior to skiing there, my only experience was the various local ski locales in Minnesota where you skied about 5 minutes down the hill and waited for another 30 minutes to get back up the lift. On the Zugspitze, you could ski for well over an hour without going back uphill! I remember having to stop to take breaks before continuing down the mountain. Yes, you had a long trip back, but by that time you really needed a break.
Throughout all of the above, I learned to love Germany and gained great appreciation for everything that the Army offered to me. It would be many years before I really learned to love the Army, but it certainly got its start with the camaraderie and great adventures from my time with 2/59 ADA in Schwabach, Germany. I remember all of my friends and colleagues with great fondness. That three-year tour clearly left indelible impression on me and my life.