Biography of John D. Chepetz
CCCMan, Company 2323, Camp SCS-5, Sligo, PA
This is the year 1937 and school is over for me. With positively no college money being available, in fact, I don't know of one person from my street that entered into college. It is usually enlisting into the services or leaving town.
This is depression time and things are really rough. If you are on poverty level and meet certain qualifications, you can enlist into Civilian Conservation Corporation (CCC). In order to be accepted, one had to be 17 years of age and weigh no less than 107 pounds and I only weighed 97 pounds. My mom went to the bargaining table with the enlistment officer at the Town Hall and with her begging and pleading, they finally accepted me. He remarked to my mother if they failed me at the induction center she shouldn't come back and blame him.
While in the CCCs my name was Cheppic, an error, my real name is Chepetz. John D. Chepetz, CC3196020. I enrolled at Fort Meade, MD, on October 15, 1936.
I was told to be at the Johnstown train station at a specified day and time and an officer would be there to greet me. I had no transportation so I allowed myself plenty of time and I arrived at the station hours before time. I hitchhiked most of the way and walked the rest, the distance was approximately 22 miles. At the scheduled time I was met there along with a few others by an army officer. Our destination was at an induction center near Harrisburg. There we received our physical and uniforms and the stay was a week or so. The building that we were housed in was bitter cold and unheated. I remeber when I awakened in the morning, you could count the frosted nail heads on the floor. From there I received my orders to travel to my permanent location in a small town called Sligo, PA in Clarion County. I was assigned to Company 2323. My Camp was Soil Conservation Camp 5, or S.C.S. 5. My Commanding Officer was 1st. Lt. Ira W. Grande, Eng-Res. The Camp was located right at the borough line of Sligo.
We arrived there by truck about fifteen of us and we went directly to the mess hall and were told to line up. The camp leader, Joe Long, introduced us to four green uniformed foremen and when the one foreman picked out the biggest lad, I immediately knew it was a draft pick. Each foremen picked his choice down to the last lad which was me, all 98 pounds! This was about the saddest moment of my life because I didn't think I would be accepted. Mr. Hottie, a rather small man himself, looked at me sadly and said, "Come with me sonny" and there I knew I was accepted. As it was, it turned out ok because Mr. Hottie's crew did all the tree planting, trench digging and putting up fence.
The first and second days we were given a tour of the place and were given our final physical shots. We were assigned to permanent quarters and taught how to make a bed; very much like the army style.
Every morning we were awakened by a bugle call at 6:00 a.m. sharp. We had a full hour for washing, making up our beds and had to be ready for breakfast at 7/7:30 outside the kitchen for roll call. After roll call, we had 15 minutes to police the whole camp area. At 7:45 the trucks were all lined up to take us all to our work sites. I was told that our crew was the best crew to be assinged to. All the big lads were chosen for the lime quarry; they referred to that crew as the "Chain Gang". The work was hard and dirty.
Our job sites were in 20 to 30 miles radius of Sligo. They were all farm land. Our work was mainly tree planting, fencing, trenches, trails, dams, small bridges, clearing farm land, and the lime quarry.
My first day was planting trees. We were paired off and the head lad dug a small hole with a mattick and I followed planting the seedlings. After the first long row we exchanged positions. This was very systematic as all the lines were marked and spaced evenly and there was a marker for every tree. It was common to plant around 500 seedlings in a days work. My foreman, Mr. Hottie, approached me privately one day and admitted to me that he had no choice but to pick me at the draft but did say that I turned out to be the "king of all laborers". Mr. Hottle. He was a small man in size, 5'5" around 120, a civilian and a local farmer by trade. A very kind and gentle man.
My stay with this crew was short. I was approached by the mess sergeant and he asked me if I would be interested in a cooks job. I said I would be interested but knew nothing about cooking and he said he would send me to a cooking and baking scool in Maryland. I said, "When do I start" and he said, "Tommorow at 4:00 a.m. and you will be instructed for about a week before going to school". I remember I didn't sleep that night.
The Cooking School that I attended was located at Fort Mead Maryland. They drove me by truck to the train station. It was an Army Technical School, a Cooks and Bakers School, operated by the Army. The Classes consisted of about twenty of us.
The Cooks and Bakers School was a big challenge for me and exiting. I really took it to heart and constantly took notes. The school was a two month course and after graduating, I immediately started as a third cook. In a very short while there was a transfer and I fell in as a second cook. I liked that promotion because it promoted me to an assistant leader which paid $6.00 more per month. Six months later there was another promotion and I was made leader (first cook) with another increase in pay; $45.00 per month which increased my monthly pay to $20.00 and the $25.00 to my folks remained the same. The money that my parents received was Gold Money. It was survival. I can't describe it.
I started a bank account at the town's only bank and having money in the bank for the first time made me feel super. I enjoyed cooking, we had on average of 200 lads to cook for. My day started at 4:00 a.m. and ended way after supper time when everything was all cleaned up and ready for the next shift. There was a stray dog that would hang around the back door of the kitchen and we got strict orders from the mess sergeant (a regular army man always drunk) not to feed the stray dog. And me liking animals, especially dogs, and starting my shift at 4:00 a.m. with the sergeant being sound asleep I would open the back door and sure enough the dog was there. I named him Charlie. I knew he hadn't eaten for two days so I gave him plenty, especially prok chops as I made them every morning with my breakfasts. Charlie was no dumb dog. He knew when I had my shift. On my days off, Charlie and I often took long walks in wooded areas right off the camp gorunds. During the winter months, we had a storaway in our barracks and all the guys accepted him. The mess sergeant couldn't understand why he had the whole run of the camp and how well fed he appeared to be.
My Mess Sergeant was a regular Army Sergeant, whose name is omitted for reasons to be seen. The sergeant was never a welcome sight in my eyes. Whenever he arrived in the kitchen we all got the jitters. He would call me over and say, "Chippie, what's in the oven for today?". I would think how stupid he made out the menu and replied "Roast Beef Sir!". With that, he would pull up his pant legs, lean over and open the oven door to grab a handful of aroma and say, "How many cans of tomatoes did you add to this pan?". Naturally as the menu called for four cans, I stood at attention and said, "Four Sir!". He would yell out and say, "What? Three cans would have been enough!". With that followed, "If you don't do your duty to please me, I'll soon get someone that will do it". By me and the other cooks cutting down on a lot of items, he had more in exchange for outside moonshine. He had a car and he was always running the extra food up to a town called Clarion, PA. We always had problems with our baking goods. He would drink half our extracts and refill them with water. He was always pointing a finger at us cooks just to make himself feel innocent. We were wise to him as all we had to do was to turn him in to the commanding officer but we didn't. I'm sure the Commanding Officer knew about the stealing, but the poor man was always under the weather.
Russell Harkins, a civilian from town, planned and bought the food and also made out the menu. I was the First Cook of the Company. My second and third cooks were older than I but they obeyed and respected me. We all worked hard, ate the best and had a lot of fun. Preparing three meals required a lot of work. Fast hustling to me was a big challange. I liked the CC's because to me it was like living a completely new life compared to my first 17 years of living.
My third cook was John Shinafeld. He was in his twenties and he always smelled from Noxema. He told me it was aftershave lotion. I don't know how he could afford it.
The discipline at camp was very strict, Army style. My discipline in the CC's was very much the same as my four years in the Army. Barracks inspection was a daily routine and quite often we would get outside inspections. They were always a surprise one. What I remember well was the Camp Sergeant, Joe Long. He was 6' 2" and over 200 pounds. He was a regular army sergeant. He would flip a coin on your bed expecting to see 2 to 4 inches of bounce.
Joe Gibson, a man in his twenties, was our bugler. He occupied the first bed on the east side of the barrack and I bunked next to him. His area was one big mess all the time. Joe and I became quite friendly and he wasn't one to launder his clothes. He asked me if I would do his laundry being that I had every other day off. I did his laundry with mine and he paid me $.25 a load. At 6:00 in the morning the alarm awakened him and he would step out the door and blow the bugle for revelry. Occasionally a voice would call out from the other end barrack and say, "Hey Gibby, it would sound better if you blew it from the other end!". His oval face would turn like a red beet and he dared the person that yelled out at him. This happened quite often and they really got on him. Being a bugler exempted him from going out for revelry with the rest. Everyone lined up for roll call.
Every day we had revelry with Roll Call and then fall out and police the whole area. And then we would march in for breakfast in the Mess Hall. At supper time roll call again and into the Mess Hall. No trouble getting dishwashers, we always had the bad ones. If you got two dishwashing assignments in a row you were given one more free!
Being a cook we served excellent food. Over all the lads were satisfied. We served a lot of it, the guys were growing fast and always hungry. There were six cooks, three for each shift. First Second and Third Cooks were worked 24 hours on and twenty four hours off. The average meal was for around 200 lads.
Breakfast usually was bacon and eggs, toast, an apple or orange daily, all the coffee or milk you could drink.
Lunch was a lot of sandwiches for the crews going out. The most popular sandwich the guys called Corruption sandwich (Curator's speculation, maybe the lads were joking that the Mess Sergeant was corrupt and this is was making up the shortage!), it consisted of chopped spam, cole slaw, and mayonnaise. This sandwich was always served, and a lot of coffee.
At Supper time a good meaty full coarse meal was served. The guys were hungry when the arrived back at camp. I remember roasting a lot of roast beef most. Most of the food came from the local farmers. Sunday Meals were always special, usually steak and the works. Always ice cream. There was always plenty of food for Sunday. On Average half of the lads were out for the day. The towns people would take in a lot of the lads for the day.
After Supper the lads would get a pass and go to town for some fun. Going out to town we had a small shanty with a posted guard, one of our own, to check you out and in. 10 P.M. was lights out.
The town Sligo was just off the campgrounds and as for me, I never looked for anything exciting. The town was equipped well with about everything, including girls. We built an outdoor pool and handed it over to the towns people. For entertainment, there wasn't much the town had to offer. There was a movie theatre. The movie house was quite popular with 10 cents admission price. My Second Cook was seeing the ticket collector. There was also a drug store that sold ice cream and soda, etc.
The guys in my camp were a good bunch of hard working young men. Of course, we had a few bad apples and there was no time wasted: they were picked out and transferred or discharged. Our commanding officer, Lt. Grande, had a good reputation in town and he meant to keep it that way.
For our outdoor recreation at camp we built a ball field and it was always occupied. The post had a Recreation Room for lounging, reading, letter writing, a lot of card playing, and also a radio, which was quite popular. There were no snacks.
One of the other buildings at the Camp was the Dispensary. The regular Army was in charge of it. If a Doctor was needed he was called from town. If you needed a Dentist, he was in town at your own expense. I had a filling once and one extraction. I remember it being $6.00.
We had a year book printed with names and photos but I misplaced it somewhere.
After being in camp a short while, the average lad would have his favorite buddy picked out and that usually made the days more pleasant especially when going into town or whatever occasion. My best friend was a Ukrainian lad who spoke the language with me. He came from McKeys Rocks outside of Pittsburgh. He was very tall and heavily built. He watched over me and defended me like a big brother and no one would dare pick on me. The five dollars he received monthly was never enough for him and his parents were always sending him extra spending money. He had a girlfriend in town and practically every evening he went out. When I awakened in the morning there was always a few candy bars for me.
There was a limit of your stay in the CC's it was a two year hitch. You were an exception if you had extra to contribute to the post and you were given an additional six months. Of course, I was honored with the additional six months!
After serving my first year, I was granted a 30 day furlough. I packed my bag and felt bad leaving my Charlie behind. I walked though the gate and onto the highway and started hitchhiking because there was no other transportation.
This is the year 1938 and the highways were not too busy with car traffic. My distance from the post to my home was approximately 100 miles. Only God knows how many times I recited the Lord's Prayer as I prayed for a ride. I wasn't having too much luck. As darkness set in, I went off to the side of the road and slept under a tree overnight. I didn't sleep much if any at all. When daylight set in, I continued hitchhiking and with continuous praying, I finally arrived home. My parents were very surprised to see me as they were not aware of me coming home. I remeber the day I arrived at the camp. It was raining and as I walked towards my barracks, and who greeted me, dashing towards me through the mud was my dog Charlie! He made one big mess of me but I didn't mind. It took me a while to get him back to his normal weight.
I have my first twelve months in and an starting my second year; everything is routine to me. I started shaving for the first time and that made me feel like I was finally growing up.
Our young guys built a public swimming pool on the outskirts of town and after the big dedication, it was handed over to the town's people. It crowded up so that they put restrictions on the hours for the pool. Our guys were only allowed certain days and hours and we had a few trouble makers so our guys had at all times. We had a few guys that were banded all toghether and with that, there was added floor scrubbing in our kitchen and dining room; all wooden floors. I had an advantage over the other guys because I had off every other day. I met my very first girl at the pool site and she only lived a block away from the area. We had a very nice clean friendship until her father objected to us gouing together because he didn't want his daughter to be tied up with any of the CC guys. She relayed her father's message to m and we both felt very sad about it. I could understand because the camp was very transit. There were always new recruits coming and the same amount goning out. We cooks were always notified first about preparing for a new bunch coming in and preparing sandwiches for those going out. It was nothing unusual for a lad to be relocated two or three camps in a matter of one year.
Sundays were leisure days in the CC and just about every other lad had the day planned out. One beautiful day I had to work in the kitchen. It was a Sunday and the Sunday dinner meal was always the special meal of the week. The main course was usually steak or either roaster chickenor beef - the works! The meal included a block of ice cream from the local dairy. There was always plenty to go around because the dining room on Sunday was always half empty because the guys went out for the day. After the meal and all the cleaning up, we just sat around leisurely waiting to prepare the supper meal. This particular time, the camp sergeant and the commanding officer were present with us. As we gazed out the litchen window, we noticed a dozen or so of our guys congregated on a bridge about a hundred yards away. We watched and noticed that the guys, one by one, would enter under the bridge and exit from the other end. Then they would cross the creek and walk up to the camp grounds. As this was going on, the camp sergeant was writting down all the names. After about one hour of this session, the last one to exit from under the bridge was a young girl. The sergeant immediately walked through the whole camp area and sounded off in each barrack. We called for a roll call and had every one of the lads singled out and were immediately ordered to the dispensary for a wash down and a few days later, they were all dishonorably discharged. The reason for the general roll call was to let it be known about the serious consequences.
I don't know if I was ordered or asked to go on a special work assignment but I was picked as one of the cooks to travel cross country on a troop train. I had to cook for approximately four hundred recruits all whom were picked from the various camps. The trip would take about two weeks or so depending on the conditions. I boarded the train in Pennsylvania but I don't recall which station. The cooks were assigned to special quarters with an officer in charge. There was also a doctor, chaplin and a special guard for each train. We were located on the tail end of the train next to the caboose. We had two large box cars; one for all the supplies and the other was made up as a kitchen. We were equipped with four large gas stoves which were bolted down against the side of the wall and the entire car was neatly squared off like a complete kitchen. We had a special area where we stored our water in large tanks. With all the stopping and bumping we were constantly losing water and the whole area was a complete mess. The large sliding doors were continously open with special guard rails attached. As our garbage disposal, we just swept everything out whenever we had open area. Working in this kitchen with the beautiful open view of the cross country was just indescribable.
Water was our biggest concern. At certain intervals the train would stop for supplies especially water.
When we first started out, we had approximately 400 lads and as we journeyed, we kept dropping off so manywith each stop. And I will say one thing, it was one big working mess preparing three meals a day for 400 or so when we first started out, but as the journey progressed, the work load lessened!
The food that we prepared was placedin 30 gallon cans and it was dragged down the isles of each car. Each lad had his own mess kit and after each meal, the guys would form a line and walk into the kitchen. They would dip their mess kits in a large trash can filled with boiling water and alos the second for rinse. If you ever saw a mess, this was it! One particular day we had spaghetti on the menu and the water supply was very low. With cooked spaghetti you must rinse it well and with the water I had on hand, I did the best I could. It turned out gooey but when we added the sauce separate it really wasn't that bad. One lad did ask what the "stuff" was that we prepared; I don't recall how I answered him.
We had no refrigeration so naturally, we couldn't store any fresh meats in our supply car. We were well supplied with dried beef, some vegetables, plenty of oranges and apples and alos a lot of cookies.
The breakfast meals consisted of creamed beef on toast (toasted on one side only) and other mornings we had scrambled eggs. It ttok dozens upon dozens of eggs to fill four large poasting pans. The pans were 2' x 2' and 8" high! For lunch we made mountains of sandwiches and for supper we usually had casseroles and more spaghetti.
With the days passing by, things eased up quite a bit as we kept dropping off more guys, including some of our cooks. When we arrived at our destination in Alamagordo, New Mexico, we were down to about 20 guys, including myself (the last cook) and naturally, the officer in charge. There was a mix-up at the train station with the orders. Two army trucks were at the station to take the guys to their final destination and they lost sight of my commanding officer. They included me with the rest to get on the truck. The commanding officer, realizing the mix-up, had immediately called the camp site and explained. The trip up to this camp site was like traveling up Burma Road at least 40 to 50 miles up a winding dirt road. When we finally got there, they singled me out and immediately drove me back. This time I sat in the cab of t he truck which wasn't too bad comparing to going up. After a short visit to that camp site, I wondered how a secluded area like that was ever picked for a camp site because all I saw was "No Man's Land"! When we arrived back at the train station, the officer was there waiting and the train was held up slightly. He apologized to me and said the one in charge of the truck convoy made the error.
This trip was a very memorable time in my life. Working in the box car kitchen, and a very shaky one at that, I learned balancing and juggling real well in a must situation. You never knew what the train engineer was going to do next.
What was so beautiful about the whole trip was the gorgeous landscape from one state to another. We were always waving to people and at stops, people would walk over and chat with us, always asking where we heading for and where we were coming from. I felt so special wearing a high hat and white uniform. We stood out very special in an open baox car; the bystanders knew what we were.
The long trip back was in a regular passanger train. The two of us traveled first class. My officer complimented me very nicely about doing a fantastic job despite the conditions. With that, he reached in his wallet and handed me a five dollar bill and I thought that was so super of him as five dollars then was a lot of money. He rode with me for the better part of the trip back. He handed me my papers and ration money and told me I was on my own for the final trip and wished me luck. I dined like a king and the trip back just turned out beautifully. I did miss the open box car in a way.
At the age of 18, I thought this was a very challenging and dramatic experience. When I think back, my parentsweren't even informed about the trip.
When I Arrived at my camp base, my commanding officer asked to see at his offer. He greeted me very warmly and expressed his proudness towards me. He told me that he received word that we all did a fantastic job and he wasn't surprised because that's the reason he personally picked me for the trip. The only thing that truly greeted me back was my dog Charlie.
The next day I started back in the kitchen and it seemed so strange comparing the two kitchens. I stayed another six months and that ended my beautiful CCC career. I believe I enjoyed every day of it. I was honorably discharged on March 31, 1939 and my work was rated as Excellent.
I very much regretted leaving my dog Charlie behind. If I had transportation, I would have taken him back with me. My eyes teared when we parted.
With my bag packed and bidding everyone farewell, I felt a heavy sadness leaving with knowing I wouldn't be coming back. If there was no hitch limit, I would have stayed for who knows how long. I probalbly would have made a career of it!
Outside of my parents and bothers and sisters, I'm going home to nothing, work wise. I withdrew my money from the bank and hid the $90.00 in my shoe.
I'm out on the highway with my bag on my back for the last time. This time, my luck was better as I made it in one full day. I remember an elderly couple that picked me up. The lady asked me "Son, aren't afraid of traveling alone?" I replied, "No mam, God is with me". She said "Yes and God bless you and good luck for the rest of your journey".
As I completed my thirty month hitch in the CC's and am home again, I ask myself, "What now?". I'm 18 years of age and a little wiser from my camp experience. I've got quite a lot of new work knowledge in me and with absolute no industry in town besides coal mining, I think we do I go from here besides underground. I noticed that quite a few of my street buddies also spent time in the CC's and slowly, one by one, they are returning home like myself. We are back toghether talking about our past experiences trying to decide what to do from here on in. A few are leaving town and going out to the big cities ( New York, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago) and the rest of us are staying behind contemplating about going into the mines.
The experience I got from the CC's actually grew me up. I went in weighing 97 lbs and came out 150. I was well and strong enough to start working in the coal mines and after four years, I was drafted in the Army and served four years.
I crossed over to North Africa and into Sicily. I got bogged down with Malaria fever and sent back to North Africa at a hospital. From there I went back to the States.
Around ten years ago I drove past the old camp location. The Camp is Completely gone. It is now a beautiful housing project, it is now part of Sligo.
----- John D. Chepetz
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