A tough “Son of a Beach”: Manpower or training?

As WWII veteran George Butenschoen tells me again and again, “it was something far different than you ever saw.” He refers to my time-in-service in the Army and in Iraq. That distinction might be obvious to anyone with a vague idea of the length or the intensity of either the Iraq War or WWII. But when Butenschoen talks about contrast, he refers to an entirely different concept of war.

Today, service members volunteer in a highly trained, yet smaller military force. Seventy years ago, it seems things were just the opposite

Yesterday was the first day I met Butenschoen at his apartment in Summit Place Retirement Home in Bellingham, Wash. Butenschoen and his daughter reached out to Western Washington University, where I study, a while ago in an attempt to find a student to compile a memoir or some recollection of his experience during WWII. It’s a project I’m very excited to continue working on. 

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(George Butenschoen is seen with his crew on LCT 221, aka “Son of a Beach.” Butenschoen is in the middle on the bottom. / Photo courtesy of George Butenschoen)

Butenschoen joined the Navy and provided logistics and transportation operations on a Landing Craft Tank, an amphibious assault boat. He was assigned to the boat with 10 other men shortly after completing basic training.

“How did you get that job? What was your official title?” I ask.

“Gunner’s mate,” he said. They put a hundred new seamen along a wall and had 10 officers come over and make their selection, he said. He barely knew what he was getting into when they picked him.

“What did you train for during basic?” I ask.

“I did a lot of running and walking.”

Butenschoen was 22 years old in 1942, pumped fresh out of the Navy’s basic training and put on a boat that he would spend more than three years in.

The lack of training he described almost seemed a little ridiculous. People often describe modern Basic Combat Training in the Army as easy, but I remember it being pretty extensive. Sure, physical fitness was easy enough, but four straight months of 20-hour days is tough for a kid. Combine that with classes, training exercises and the stress of being away from home and you can have yourself a grueling experience. Needless to say, I left basic with more to say than Butenschoen did.

But Butenschoen joined the military when there was no “all-volunteer force.” It was all about manpower. It’s a choice between two options that still gets tossed around in the U.S. Congress today: draft or no draft. That decision has some obvious economic pros and cons, but at its core it provides the military with with either a large number of service members, or a small number of highly trained service members. Back in Butenschoen’s time, the Navy put you in a suit and your new skipper would ask you where you’re from and what you did. If you happened to be a young farmhand with knowledge about tractor engines, you were likely to get picked as a crew member on an LCT manning a 20 mm cannon.

It was a different time, Butenschoen tells me.

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