As many years as not, the Missouri River, the “Big Muddy,” floods. All the pictures of the floods and the sandbagging on the levees remind me of when I drew patrol duty on a levee on the Missouri River. It was in July of 1938, the summer after my sophomore year in high school. I was 16 and in the CMTC (Citizens Military Training Corps) at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. The camp was to last through the month of July.
The Missouri River ran along the northern and eastern boundaries of Ft. Leavenworth, and about the time the camp started that summer, the river was at flood stage. Several hundred of us recruits had been at Ft. Leavenworth only a few days when we drew flood duty. We weren’t even used to army life, the drilling and hiking, and we hardly knew each other. We for sure hadn’t yet learned much about soldiering.
They issued us raincoats, flashlights and mosquito hoods. On two nights they trucked us down to the riverbank to patrol the levees.
They stationed one of us “soldiers” every hundred yards or so on top of the levee. Our orders were to walk back and forth looking for any breaching of the levee.
It was nighttime, and there was no light but our flashlights. The next guy wasn’t close enough to talk to; the only company was the mosquitoes. Despite the heat and humidity everyone wore their raincoats, hats, and mosquito netting to protect from the swarms of them.
It was pitch dark. The beam of the flashlight was absorbed by the darkness, but I could see the edge of the river making little eddies a foot or two from my feet and only two or three inches from the top of the levee. When looking out as far as the light would reach, you could see the river moving heavily and ominously downstream with a kind of boiling movement of the surface. You couldn’t see the opposite bank, only the river rolling silently and menacingly along. I felt like the whole Missouri River was there at my feet — looking for a place to break loose.
It was humid and still, and it was steamy hot under that heavy raincoat. The levee was like an earthen dam, and the top was wet and muddy. It was all eerie and strange — walking on the slippery top and peering into the dim beam of the flashlight looking for water coming over that levee.
It wasn’t too clear exactly what we were to do if water did come over the levee. I am sure instinct would have taken over, and I would have yelled and run as hard as I could to tell someone the awful news. Thank God it didn’t happen.
The two nights passed. The only injuries were mosquito bites. The mornings after they let us sleep in a little, and then it was off to the drill field and to the rifle range to learn how to shoot our Springfield ’03 rifles.
Actually we did learn something from our flood patrol; we learned the way the army operated. You were given a post alone with not a clue about the big picture and no clear orders of what to do next. That was pretty much Army S.O.P. way back then, and I doubt if it has changed.