Alan Siegel shared some of his experiences from his service in the US Army during the early 1960s—including meeting Elvis Presley and attending atomic weapons school—at John Jay’s Salute to Veterans celebration.


Alan Siegel’s Salute to Veterans Speech, November 13, 2014

“I grew up on Long Island in the 1940s and 1950s when the draft was part of our culture. Coming from a patriotic family, I took it for granted that I would serve in the military—and even looked forward to it.

When I attended Cornell University in the 1950s, all students were required to take ROTC for two years. Since the draft was still in force, I signed on for the additional two years so I could serve as an officer. The summer of my junior year I went to Fort Bragg, the home of the 82nd Airborne, for officer training. I was one of the few candidates that didn’t sign up for three parachute jumps to get my wings. I was terrified of heights.

My commission as a 2nd Lieutenant was awarded at graduation from Cornell. I was assigned to the US Army Artillery when I went on active duty despite my request to join the Quartermaster Corps. Active duty was deferred while I attended NYU Law School.

I took a leave of absence from law school in 1961 and was shipped off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma for artillery training. The American military was advising South Vietnam during this time, so there were 50 Vietnamese officers in our program. No one paid any attention to them until they won a volleyball tournament beating a team of college athletes including the captain of the Ohio State football team, who eventually became an All-Star defensive end in the NFL.

When my orders came assigning me to sit in the rain at Fort Lewis, right outside of Seattle, I volunteered to go overseas.

My father waved goodbye as I boarded a World War II troop ship bound for Bremerhaven, Germany in January. At the same time, Russia’s Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the earth and outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans about the accumulation of power in the “military industrial complex.”

I was assigned to an 8-inch howitzer battalion stationed at a German Kasserne in Butzbach, Germany—an agrarian hamlet 30 kilometers north of Frankfurt where the farmers walked through the cobblestone streets every morning behind their oxen.

Most of the officers were regular army who served in Korea and didn’t appreciate an Ivy Leaguer from New York who was sympathetic to the enlisted men.

The middle of Germany was inundated with US military, over 300,000 personnel—infantry, tank battalions, artillery and support groups—focused on defending the Fulda Gap from a Russian invasion. The Cold War was at its peak highlighted by the construction of the Berlin Wall and the dramatic tensions President Kennedy faced in solving the Cuban Missile Crisis.

 My responsibilities were diverse and demanding:

  • Serving as a forward observer to call in artillery fire from long range 8” howitzers. This involved field maneuvers where I lived in a tent on the firing range that attracted massive, fierce wilder schein (wild pigs) at night. Sometimes we directed fire from spotter planes, where I frequently saw explosions activated along the East German and Czech border as Germans tried to flee to the west.

  • Serving as safety officer during field maneuvers where I had to double-check the settings on the howitzers—frequently in the middle of the night—to ensure that artillery rounds were properly directed to targets.

  • Negotiating damages the American military caused on hamlets and fields from these maneuvers—where potatoes stored in the walls of houses were spewed out over the roads. This required lengthy meetings at local guesthouses as the local forest meisters mulled over maps pinpointing every tree, plant and structure in the community.

  • Checking the bars with the military police to ensure that the enlisted men returned to the base before the curfew. I was frequently subjected to abuse by enlisted men high on alcohol and drugs.

  • Attending atomic weapons school in southern Germany since we had the capability to deliver these deadly weapons, and frequently traveled the roads with them. We were poised to arm the howitzers for atomic delivery when the Berlin Wall was being built. While I was at school, one of the lieutenants tried to climb over the 15-foot wall after curfew and was shot by a Czech guard.

  • Defending enlisted men in summary court-martial. Since I attended law school and was sympathetic to the enlisted men, I handled over 100 of these administrative proceedings. I will never forget one case when a bartender was providing details of a fight in his bar. When I asked him what he did to stop the fight, he said, “I hit the more aggressive soldier with an oxtail.” I asked to see the oxtail. He replied, “It’s in yesterday’s soup.”

  • Traveling eight to ten hours in open vehicles—we were training for wartime conditions—to firing ranges on the Czech border with temperatures 10° to 20° below zero. My colonel frequently reminded me that if any of my men got frostbite I would be court-martialed.

I don’t want to suggest there weren’t opportunities to explore Germany and Western Europe.

  • I visited Private Elvis Presley, who was stationed in Bad Nauheim, a charming spa town near my base, and who lived in a small house with his mother.

  • I attended two Oktoberfests, one in Wiesbaden and one in Munich.

  • I charted the premium wineries in Germany on our artillery maps, visited most of them when I had time off, and became an expert on the German wines from the Rhine and Mosel regions. When I wanted to bring some cases from the vintners to ship home with my personal possessions, the owners told me not to bother. I could get the wine cheaper at Macy’s.

  • I bought a fabulous Pentax camera in the PX for $50 and hired the director of the photo lab at the base to teach me how to develop and print film and take decent photographs. I ended up winning a lot of awards from the photographs of 8-inch howitzers firing at night, which gained visibility for the unit and the colonel.

What did this add up to? What did I learn?

  • “Whatever it takes” was reinforced as my approach to life

  • Team work

  • Leadership skills

  • How much I loved this country

I will never forget the day I was released from the army. I volunteered to be a courier officer so I could fly home for the holidays. After flying all night with a cord tied to the documents I was responsible for and turning them over to the authorities, I set off on the bus from Fort Dix in New Jersey to see my father and sister for lunch.

When the bus arrived at the tollbooth on the NJ Turnpike, there was a terrible commotion. The bus driver then announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Texas.

As I reflect on the period when I served in the military, what disturbed me most was what would happen to the enlisted men when they finished serving their time. Most of them didn’t have an education or vocational skills. They didn’t have the opportunity you have at John Jay to get an education and build a career. Be sure to appreciate and take advantage of this opportunity.

I also look back on this brief era with a young, dynamic president who personified the values of citizenship, heroism and sacrifice. We need to reinvigorate our commitment to collective and individual responsibility and to the rebirth of authentic leadership for the country.”