All of us had been inducted on Dec. 10 of that year and were in basic training at Camp Chaffee, Ark. We had all come from Chicago, but we had not known each other prior to being sent to Arkansas. So, we had only known each other for about three weeks.
New Year's Eve was like any other day in basic training: No time off — just the same old grunt-and-groan kind of day.
We thought that, after dinner that New Year's Eve, we would at least be left alone and could go over to the USO club on base like we had done on Christmas Eve. That evening had been fairly pleasant, even though it was my first Christmas away from family and my future wife. We had a dance band and entertainers, and stood around a grand piano singing Christmas carols. The USO did a good job of easing our loneliness.
New Year's Eve was different.
The U.S. Army, in its ultimate wisdom, decided that we needed some harassment that evening instead of some fun at the USO. They decided that we should have a rifle inspection.
Each one of us had been assigned an M-1 Garand rifle and it was our responsibility to keep it clean. So, New Year's Eve was to be spent stripping down our rifles to their basic components, cleaning them and then reassembling them back into a serviceable weapon.
We did all this sitting on our bunks in the barracks — and when we thought we had a clean weapon, we had to bring it across the compound area to the supply room, where it was inspected by one of the company’s training cadre. They would inspect it, and either it was accepted or rejected. Invariably, they were rejected, and we were told to go back and clean them again.
This routine went on and on all evening. We knew our rifles were rejected even though we knew that they were spotless. Since the cadre had to be on duty on New Year's Eve, they were going to have some fun with all the new recruits.
We were not allowed to have radios in the barracks, so the only sounds were grumbling GIs and the metallic sounds of rifles being stripped down and reassembled.
As we got close to midnight, a deep baritone voice began to softly start singing Negro spirituals. The sound came from a young African-American I had talked to briefly on the train down to Camp Chaffee from Chicago. He lived not too far from where I had lived as a child on the south side of the city.
He had done a lot of church-choir singing back home. And that voice — it just had us mesmerized. It became stronger, and we never realized that midnight had come and gone as we cleaned our rifles and listened to that magnificent voice.
Our rifles were finally accepted, and we all went to sleep with the sweet voice in our ears.
It was years later after my discharge from the Army that I heard that voice again on the radio. I told my car companion, “I know that voice. It’s Lou Rawls, my barracks buddy at Camp Chaffee.”
Lou’s gone now — but every time I hear that voice somewhere, I remember that New Year's Eve.
— By Richard Hoffstedt, Tribune community columnist