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The Army way

The Army way

By RICHARD B. TOBIAS, M.D.

1 Bn 393 Medics


     Unemployment was still rampant in the United States in the early 1940s, but the developing wartime economy soon corrected that. In fact, shortage of eligible workers led to increased female employment and Rosie the Riveter. The opening of a government facility — Army camp, Naval camp, whatever — predicted prosperity to nearby communities, as well as obvious conflicts. The government was, to be honest, a ruthless competitor; local restaurants, for example, would lose key personnel including cooks when federally-run employee cafeterias on government installations paid more than the ordinary economy could stand.

     Similarly, laundry facilities competed for employees between established companies and military enterprises. Federally funded outfits invariably had the upper hand with newer machinery and higher pay scales. Post Exchanges hired clerks from local stores, camp-run bus shuttle services lured experienced drivers from civilian schedules. Almost invariably the government programs won out.

     Local chambers of commerce weren't as active then as now, and such competition generated much ill will between town and camp. Fort Dix tried to correct any inequalities by seeking prevalent local payscales in civilian facilities and relating them to military offerings, with some transportation incentives factored in. Cooperation was difficult to arrange, but the town-camp competition did improve in many ways.

     Unimproved however was the civilian propensity for capitalizing on servicemen's needs and desires. Local restaurant prices went up because of increased military business, irritating previously loyal civilian customers. Barbershops approximated GI haircuts in somewhat more comfortable environments at higher than Post shop prices. Drinking establishments particularly had little difficulty competing with Officers' and NCO clubs, and many were less than honest in prices and quantities. The lowly GI had little recourse or defense, but then again he needed little.

     But the playing field leveled off as time went on; the local economy adjusted to government competition, and all — even the military personnel — profited to measurable extent. Often the two choices were take it or leave it, but at least there was a choice. Wartime prosperity and boom-time took over, even the civilians never had it so good.

     Worse, yet to come, would be the chaos of government bases closed with the loss of civilian employees' jobs but that eventuality was ignored in the rush of wartime necessity.

     The Army-civilian competition surfaced in many ways, with many problems and, hopefully, an equal number of solutions. From personal experience, for example, still at Fort Dix.

     As an Army port of embarkation installation, Dix saw to the final equipping of all troops shipping out. Frequently post personnel knew more about who was headed where than even the top brass involved. The skis, parkas, snowshoes, and toboggans issued early 1943 troops weren't destined to Iceland, as rumors were encouraged to believe, but were jettisoned halfway across the Atlantic as the troops' African destination was revealed.

     Post medical supply had as one of its responsibilities replacing or supplementing civilian eyeglasses with those suitable to gas mask use. Eye exams were conducted almost around the clock, the new prescriptions transferred to standard order sheets, then forwarded daily to lens grinders and spectacle manufacturers. The finished product then returned to Dix, rarely a bit late, requiring dockside distribution rather than careful optometric fitting — a vital step in the replacement process!

     The problem: an almost 25 percent error rate in transcribing optometric prescriptions to the order forms. As usual, the sticky problem was made mine the day I checked in to Supply. First off, personnel turnover was high because of the exacting demands of the job on clerk-typists; second, the error rate forced supervisors to bear down on accuracy; and third, the result was a slowdown of a pressing necessity.

     By sheer dumb luck, I never learned touch-typing. My two index fingers were adequate to keep up with my fumbling brain, anything faster would create more problems than tolerable. But the Dix clerk-typists were hired on the basis of typing need (and accuracy, of course), which turned out to be the big mistake. Typists aren't conditioned to use the top row of keys — the numerals — all that much, thus the error-rate. The problem solved?

     Negotiating with the civilian supervisors, I replaced spots left by voluntarily-relocating typists with newly-inducted GIs whose abilities were limited, like mine, to two-finger hunt-and-peck fumbling. No typists lost their job. They merely retreated to the post's steno pool for reassignment and, we hope, more comfortable jobs. With an all-GI staff, the transcription error rate fell to less than five percent because the draftees had to watch which keys they hit rather than rely on unaccustomed training. That simple. Then, as is the Army's custom, I was yanked off for another assignment. It had to do with indoctrinating a cadre of 50 registered nurses to military matters. Fun and games? Not on your life! But that's another tale.

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