Rebecca West: Words & Music

Basic Training

by Bob West

The days were hot and the nights were chilly. It was October 1951 and I was in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. It was the first time I had ever been out of Dyer County, Tennessee. It was my first time away from home. And I was learning to be a man.

I mentioned earlier that the Lord had used my friend Milton Cook to talk me into leaving home and joining the Air Force. It was also at this time that I began using my full name. My father went by his middle name, Alton. I went by Alton too -- Alton, Jr. I don't think I ever knew that my first name was Robert until it was revealed to me on my birth certificate when I enlisted. After that, some people who knew me as Robert called me Bob. I liked the name Bob and began using it myself. Later the Lord would let me know that Bob is the name He had given me many years before my birth.

Photo Bob West with AF serial number

At Lackland AFB we slept in tents and got up before dawn for roll call and calisthenics. Then we marched to the mess hall and ate breakfast. We marched everywhere we went, and sometimes we marched just to be marching. One of the first things we needed was our uniforms, so we marched for what seemed to be miles to the clothing depot where we were measured and fitted for our fatigues (work clothes), dress uniforms for both summer and winter, and shoes. All this was packed into our duffle bags, which were loaded on a truck to be delivered to our tents. After that we marched some more.

I don't remember all that we did at Lackland. I think it was mainly orientation. After ten days our "Flight" (class) was bused north all the way across the state to Sheppard Air Force Base at Wichita Falls, where we were assigned to barracks instead of tents. We would finish out our eight weeks of basic training there.

There were 75 men in our Flight, mostly from southern and western states, but also from states above the "Mason-Dixon Line." It may have been the first time some of them had been away from home too. I remember more than one of them saying to me something like, "Hey 'Reb' (short for 'rebel')! How did you like that whipping we gave you?!!" I replied, "You were not in that war, and neither was I. That war ended almost one hundred years ago!" Gradually that kind of talk ended, and soon we became good friends regardless of race or background. We had plenty in common.

We were in classes watching training films or listening to lectures when we were not marching or learning to be a sharpshooter at the firing range or marching or learning to put on a gas mask or marching or learning to stand up straight and salute or marching or other drills or exercises or trying to stay awake during more lectures and training films and so on.

Partial group photo of Bob and AF classmates

Photo (cropped to fit) of some of the Air Force recruits Bob trained with.
Bob is the sixth airman from the right on next to the last row.

During those eight weeks of training, we were not allowed to leave the base, which was okay with me. They kept us busy from the time we woke up until bedtime, at which time I was exhausted and all I wanted to do was sleep.

Before basic training was over, we were asked to select a career field. I said that I was an artist. The career assignment clerk said, "We don't have artists in the Air Force. We will train you to be a clerk-typist." And they gave me orders to enter the Air Force Clerk-Typist Program at Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico. That is where I would spend my next three months.

Alton West bio 1950
Airman Robert A. West, Jr.

At first the idea of getting my clerical training at a university was exciting. I imagined that there would be girls in our classes and on campus. But that did not happen. In fact I don't remember ever seeing any of the civilian students that were enrolled at the university. Air Force students lived in barracks and ate in the mess hall at an old National Guard Camp up in the mountains and were bused the seven miles to and from the school. Our classes were in a building which was separated from the part of campus and facilities used by civilian students.

We even had our own first aid facility, which is where I spent two or three days when I had pneumonia.

Each Air Force class had 25 students. We were taught military correspondence, filing, typing, special reports and documents, and other business administration courses. The training lasted three months. There were enough students enrolled so that each week there was a class graduating and a new class of students arriving to take their place. Each graduating class of 25 would have 25 new location assignments to choose from. The student with the highest grade point average would choose from the 25 available new locations. Then the next highest grade student would select from what was left, and so on through all 25 students.

When it came time for me to graduate, there were five stateside assignments to select from. All the rest were assignments in Korea. An assignment in Korea meant you would be going into the middle of the Korean War. Since my grade point average ranked me as seventh in the class, I thought I would have to go to Korea. But some who had higher grades than mine must have selected Korea, because when my turn came I had two stateside choices, one in Montana and one in Florida. I chose the one in Florida, MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

I would go to Korea later.

Bob's Highlands University Certificate

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