The court martial took place in Fort Clayton, and I was sentenced to six months in the stockade. I was just grateful that it wasn’t a year and a dishonorable discharge, which it often was for similar offenses. I guess my military record up to that point was good enough to entitle me to the lesser sentence. Tried just before me was a small, eighteen-year-old named Badillo. After we were both sentenced, two MP’s took us by Jeep to the stockade in Fort Clayton, right across the street from the bowling alley. Thus began one of the stranger periods of my life.
Badillo and I were assigned to a large room behind bars which we shared with about twenty-five to thirty other prisoners. There were about thirty double decked metal bunks in this room which were riveted to the walls and partitions. Badillo and I slept in lower bunks, across from each other. During that first night I was awakened by a muffled struggle, and saw several men grab the struggling Badillo. I was warned not to interfere, and I didn’t. They carried him into the shower room where they raped him. I didn’t have to be told what had happened, but I knew. I also knew that this was something that you didn’t report to the authorities if you wanted to survive in the Fort Clayton Stockade. Snitching was dangerous.
Not everything that happened in the Stockade was as brutal as what happened to Badillo, although there were fights among the prisoners. After one or two of these, I was left pretty much alone. A year and a half of physical training and swimming six hours a day had done wonders for my physical condition. I was just too big, and it was considered wise to leave me alone. Pecking order having been established, my only real problem, other than being in a lock-up facility, was getting reading material.
Every week a little cart with books was wheeled into our communal cell, with titles such as “The Lou Gehrig Story”, “The Babe Ruth Story”, and similar sports-oriented books in which I didn’t have the slightest interest. The only books that were not about sports were a King James “Bible” and “Alice in Wonderland”. For awhile I read the “Bible”, but soon tired of that, and then began memorizing Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse. I can’t give a good reason for doing this, but it seemed like fun at the time, somewhat like lifting weights. Later a copy of Oscar Wilde also showed up on our little cart, and I decided to memorize “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Actually, there were no murderers among the prisoners. Most of the men were in the stockade for relatively minor infractions such as being AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave), petty theft, disobeying an order, fighting, or sleeping on guard duty, although as a group they were a pretty wild bunch, more interested in freedom than in rules and discipline, and at times, they could be dangerous, as the Badillo incident had shown.
Food was pretty much what it was in the regular mess halls in the Canal Zone, heavy on the milk and ice cream, and with more celery than I liked. There were rumors of saltpeter (and you know what that did to virile men) in the coffee, but no one knew anything for sure. Different was the juice served at breakfast. Instead of orange or grapefruit juice, we drank sauerkraut juice, and if we were somewhat sleepy before breakfast, that woke us up.
That seems a pretty harsh punishment for snoozing on the job. I would expected KP duty for a month or something.
What did you do during the day to pass the time ?
Sorry about not answering this sooner. I just didn’t see it.
Life in the stockade was never dull. I changed targets on the firing range, cut and edged grass and sidewalk with a machete, picked up palm fronds, I might even have done some KP, but I don’t remember it. And of course, there was time for reading, and I took time to memorize all the verse in Alice in Wonderland and also O. Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Goal. Our choice of books was pretty limited.
As to sleeping on guard duty, that is a pretty serious offense in time of war or on the battlefield. Here, in Panama, it was no big deal. Several of the other inmates were also MP’s from my outfit, and in for the same offense.
What does sauerkraut juice taste like?
That one is too tough to answer! I recommend that next time you buy sauerkraut (or make it yourself 😉 ) you pour off some of the juice and try it. It is refreshing!
What year were you in the stockade?
I was a draftee and a turnkey there from Dec 65 to May 67. The Stockade then wasn’t as you describe.
I remember a few fights, one spectacular escape, and lots of pills and pot. I partied with one of escaped prisoners in a bar near J&K streets. Yes, we put guys in that steel room and fed them cornflakes with water. But some of us would sneak them more food. The place was a game for us and the prisoners. Mostly we cooperated so we could get through it all.
I also didn’t find it all that terrible, although there was no partying or fraternizing with the MP’s who were our turnkeys. The prisoners made it tough on one another with pecking order fights, although I don’t remember any pills, grass, or anything else chemical. Because of my size (a trim 6’3”) I didn’t have any trouble, but the kid who went it the same day I did, for him it was a nightmare, being repeatedly gang raped.
I was there from the end of ’55 to March of 1956, which would make it about 10 years before you got there.
Thanks for reading the post.