There's no doubt that the army goes a long way in turning a civilian into a soldier. It teaches him skills, supplies him with the latest combat equipment, then gives him the time and place to become familiar with the two. The army even goes as far as attempting to instill strength, discipline, and an ability to think quickly under harrowing conditions. But, through my experience, I've learned that the qualities that will save your ass when faced with the hell of war are qualities developed long before Uncle Sam comes knocking at the door.
Those qualities can make the difference between whether you fly home in your uniform or are shipped back in an aluminum box. And if you make it home, those qualities can make the difference between whether you live again or simply exist. Those qualities find their origin in your upbringing and your heritage. For me, I see the seeds of my personality being sown as far back as the 1800s with the birth of my paternal grandparents.
Robert Alan Cornett was born in 1878. Robert was a salesman with a gift of gab and was loved by everyone, including Helen Talent, the nurse he was to marry. Though he was known as a nice guy, a "lifelong drunkard" may have been a more fitting career title. Because of my grandfather Robert's alcoholism, Grandmother Helen basically functioned as a single parent to my father and his sister from their birth on. She was officially left a single parent when Grandfather Robert abandoned her completely, leaving her to deal with their children and the Great Depression on her own. His drinking would eventually land him on the streets and out of my father's life. Before the age of ten, my father had to rely on his own wits, skill, and instincts for survival, a habit that deepened when Grandmother remarried to a man who was mentally abusive to her and to her children as well.
His dysfunctional upbringing and the absence of a strong fatherly presence led the empty boy in my father searching. He landed in a military summer camp, CMTC (city military training camp). It was offered for thirty days each summer and gave my father a much-needed sense of belonging. His positive experience in CMTC resulted in my father's joining the Boy Scouts. There he was able to find the structure, morals, and the father figure every boy needs. There, too, he found his mentor, retired Lieutenant Colonel Scott. Between the colonel's guidance and the Scouts' standards, my father flourished. He eventually achieved the highest honor in scouting, that of Eagle Scout. My father had discovered his niche, an outside source of direction and belonging, and a pattern was established, one that would be transmitted down through the next two generations.
The lack of a healthy atmosphere at home combined with my father's great success within the structured and disciplined world of the Scouts made the military an obvious and enticing place for him to seek his future. As millions of other men did in the forties, my father joined the army to fight the Germans, Italians, and Japanese. With that act, he gave birth to a tradition of military service for the males in the Cornett family that followed him. My father qualified for officer training and graduated from the officer basic training course at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1942. From there, he was assigned to an infantry unit in Oregon, but he eventually made it to France and to his first taste of combat as a platoon leader of the 90th Infantry Division.
For several years, my father utilized the instincts and self-reliance cultivated during his youth to avoid death, capture, or injury. But time and circumstance caught up with him; in 1945, an injury had him on his way to England with a wounded hand. By the time he had recovered from the wound, the war was over, and he was discharged with the permanent rank of master sergeant* and assigned to the 2d Philippine Scouts. Soon, in the Philippine Mountains, he was hunting and killing the Communist-rebel Huks. Eventually, an encounter with a regimental commander who had known him from the Big War resulted in an offer of commission to second lieutenant. But the job at hand was essentially unchanged: for another six months, he ran the hills and jungles, digging out the Huks.
That successful stint of combat was ended when my father was sent to Japan for more surgery on his wounded hand. Though my father had chosen a rough and hard career path, it seemed to be working for him. The strengths he'd cultivated throughout his youth had served him well while he was still wet behind the ears. And now, the instincts and skills acquired from combat experience were in place. Those skills, combined with fate, would help my father to survive the challenging missions yet to come.
When the Korean War broke out, my father, by then recovered from the second surgery to his hand, was assigned as platoon leader to Company K, 34th Infantry, 24th Infantry
Division on 15 August 1950. K Company was one of three companies that occupied several important hills close to the Naktong River, which ran through Pusan, South Korea. My father was responsible for seventy-nine men, few of whom had actual combat experience, and a company commander who refused to leave his tent. The only contact my father had
*A common practice since World War II; when officers with commissions in the reserves elected to remain in the downsized army, they frequently reverted to permanent senior enlisted positions.
with his commander was a handshake through a tent flap. My father reported to his platoon and immediately realized he was taking command of a poorly led unit. Recognizing the disarray of their position, he started making things right. Adding and rearranging defensive fighting positions, he beefed them up by adding sandbags, placing them in fields of fire for his machine guns and BAR men. He met all the men in his platoon, and made sure they knew who he was and what he
expected of them. He did what all good infantry platoon leaders do: he led the men. Feeling good about the job he had done, he went to the commander and asked him to inspect his defensive positions. The commander said he was too busy checking out the other positions but would inspect my father's area the first chance he got. The positions were never inspected, and the company commander left his tent only once, to return to the rear and out of the army.
Excerpted from Gone Native by Alan Cornett. Copyright © 2000 by Alan Cornett. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.