We salute veterans this week. OIB has a couple of extraordinary vets with local ties to highlight starting with David Ellis Adams Carson, retired chief executive officer of People’s Bank, now called People’s United Bank awaiting federal sign-off of absorption by M&T Bank. That’s another story.
Carson, who resided in Bridgeport for nearly 20 years, built Bridgeport Center, the elegant corporate home of the bank that added style to Downtown. He retired from the bank just over 20 years ago. He enjoys the immigrant experience traveling across the Atlantic from England as a boy, settling in New York, a trained actuary from Michigan, insurance executive then head of the largest bank based in Connecticut.
Now 87, he still keeps an eye on things Bridgeport. In spring 1957, he got the call to serve his nation. A basic question: what did you do in the Army? can achieve all kinds of responses, but so few as Carson. His response is: “I tested the detonation accuracy of hand grenades.” Talk about an actuary assessing risk.
What follows is an excerpt from my book Bow Tie Banker chronicling Carson’s life. The Private Carson chapter covers life in the Army, grenades and race relations while he was stationed in Georgia.
For a time, it seemed David would get off the hook. The Korean War was over. This was a peacetime transition. During senior year in Ann Arbor, a lot of students seeking protection from the draft had hurried to the altar. Others had entered the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which required active duty after graduation.
Entering college at 17, David was too young for ROTC. Applying to the Naval Officers Candidate School was popular, so David did that and was accepted for the class scheduled to begin in June 1955. But at that time the system no longer needed lots of officers. The Navy rejected David because he had been asthmatic as a child. So when he was summoned in the early spring of 1957, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Walking into the recruitment center in Manhattan for a daylong physical brought David to the attention of the attending doctor.
“You seem healthy. Is there anything you want to say?”
“Navy OCS turned me down because of childhood asthma.”
“When was the last time you had asthma?”
“When I was 12 or 13-years-old …”
“So, you’re over it.”
With the wave of a medical hand, David was cured. David Ellis Adams Carson was now 1A. He reported to Fort Dix, N.J., a sprawling military complex 60 miles south of New York City
that served as both entry station and basic training facility. David endured the standard processing examinations, physical, uniform-fitting and head-shaving. The recruits were then flown to Fort Benning, GA, assigned to Company C, 9th Infantry Battalion, located at Harmony Church. It was here that Army Rangers were trained, about 12 miles into the Georgia boondocks, and a world away from the comforts of the main post. Harmony Church was a culture-shock existence of swamps, snakes, sand, spit and sweat. It was also summer in Georgia–when daytime temperatures refused to dip below 90.
The humidity and heat whacked the shipped-down Northerners. One third of the company caught pneumonia.
“Okay, how many of you have college degrees?” snapped the training officer. David, unsure if a degree was a blessing or a curse, watched a knee-jerk response of hands and elbows cut through the air. Never one to show eagerness, he watched quietly, perhaps reflecting on his grammar school days when his English accent stood out. Even though David’s accent now blended better
with Americans, he kept his mouth shut.
“Okay, you’re on KP duty. Go to the kitchen!” the sergeant told the college graduates. God forbid that the Army be seen as “soft” on white recruits with degrees. It was common in those days for training divisions to receive enlisted men’s paperwork several weeks after arrival, so David’s pedigree wasn’t checked. He became one of the “’cruits.”
But the Army’s mantra, your rifle is your friend, was taken seriously by David, and he earned early recognition for rifle hygiene. That first Saturday, during morning inspection, the sergeant announced that the man with the cleanest rifle would win a one day pass. Private Carson, it turns out, had the cleanest rifle. Standing dumbstruck, in the back woods of Georgia, with only a few dollars in his pocket, he wasn’t sure what to do or where to go.
“What are you standing around for?” the sergeant barked. “Get the hell out of here. These guys are gonna have a miserable day learning how to clean rifles.”
The private hopped on a bus, explored the main post and the city of Columbus, returning after dinner. Thereafter, Carson conscientiously continued to avoid standing out. He saw sergeants pick on privates who made wisecracks and those who appeared to curry favor with senior staff. His survival skill was silence. And he learned his rifle skills well enough to earn a sharpshooter medal on the M1.
One recruit, in particular, was an early-day version of Eddie Haskell, the conniving friend on TV’s “Leave It To Beaver” series. Eddie constantly played up to sergeants by reporting small infractions among his mates.
Staff had their own way of dealing with these brownnosers–let the barracks deal with it. “You ought to take care of that guy,” one sergeant said to a group of privates.
They did. One night the weasel was taken out in the woods. He showed up the next morning with cuts and bruises.
“Gee, what happened?” some wondered. Eddie Haskell was like a casket falling out of a hearse. He said nothing.
David met all kinds in the Third Infantry Division–Northerners, Southerners, middle class and poor, even hillbillies from Tennessee with gum disease so advanced that their rotted teeth were pulled and replaced with dentures. The Army has its advantages.
David was introduced to an Army 10 years after racial integration, in a state that loathed equality. Two sergeants, one black and one white, commanded Company C. The sergeant-messengers stressed parity. Common barracks, common shower facilities.
“On this base–the largest in the world–we’re all equals. Columbus, Georgia, is the past. The Army is the future.”
These words resonated even more when the uniformed company traveled as a group to Columbus to watch local minor league baseball in a ballpark where grandstand seating was separated by
color–whites along the infield, blacks along the stands in the outfield. David and his friends did not want to be removed from their dark-skinned Army buddies, so they sat at the edge of the color barrier, a move clearly recognized by the good old boys.
“You sleep with negrahs? How do you stand the stench?” queried one fan.
“In the Army, we shower every day. The Army issues the same soap, so we all smell the same,” David informed.
“You shower with them?”
For David, these were illogical questions. Since childhood, he had held an unpolluted view of race relations. His grandfather, Thomas Carson, had introduced David’s father to sailors from all corners of the globe, in a variety of shades. Similarly, Ellis had integrated the work force at the National Surety.
David’s first-hand experience at integration was at age 16 when he worked at a summer camp on the Housatonic River in West Cornwall, Connecticut. Sponsored by Trinity Church on Wall Street, the camp introduced country life to youngsters from Manhattan. Streetwise youth from the city leaped at the sound of squirrels scrabbling in the bushes and were unnerved by the darkness of night. David washed dishes and put the younger campers to bed. He also helped them clean up a baseball field and build a backstop made from trees cut in the woods.
Baseball was the favorite sport of the time, Jackie Robinson having broken the color barrier just a few years earlier. But old habits die hard for city youngsters. The kids shot craps behind the barn and wanted their money protected at night. This was David’s first experience as a banker. The accounts changed every day until one winner emerged.
The Army was a great learning experience. David embraced (his father) Ellis’ values and work ethic, while the spirit of basic training taught David to “disappear” into the team. Men who exercised independence were anathema to the military mind. The Army wanted a few good men to move into leadership positions naturally. And so, weeks after David’s arrival, a first sergeant pulled his records.
“Okay, you fooled me. You’re a college graduate and you received a perfect score on the OCS exam. You really should go there.” Then a smile cut across the sergeant’s face. “I see that
when you were processed at Fort Dix you said you wanted an MOS using mathematics.”
MOS stood for Military Occupational Specialty. David had known all along that he was eligible for designation as a mathematical statistician. Soon he was ordered to the U.S. Army Infantry Board in Fort Benning, the user-testing agency for the infantry.
Before the Army will buy any weapon, it tests it in the hands of average soldiers. The Army’s philosophy is that a GI can botch anything. As a result, all equipment must be foolproof. One of
David’s associates at the National Bureau, Ron Bornhuetter, had served as a mathematical statistician for the Small Arms Division of the U.S. Army Infantry Board from 1955-57. David was assigned to the same position. Ron returned to the National Bureau to the job David had left. The board was completing the user-testing of M14 rifles–to replace the M1s used since World War II–and in the process of creating competitive tests for small-caliber, high velocity rifles.
Meanwhile, David was handed a job that few men have undertaken: hand grenade tests. The testing was for a new fuse in which no grenade could explode in fewer than four seconds. David thought–what a novel credential this will be on a resume–hand grenade tester!
As the statistical expert, it was David’s job to figure out the timing on the hand grenades. So he and a few key men erected 20 sandbags, crouched behind them, dug a hole on the other side,
pulled a pin and dropped the grenade in the hole. Boom! With each explosion the hole grew bigger and bigger. David pressed the stopwatch on each toss and stopped it upon explosion. He jotted down information based on 100 grenade tosses, compiling timing on the fuses for average detonation.
This grenade stuff could get tricky. Part of the testing included throwing grenades against a concrete wall. One tester, a former baseball pitcher, threw a grenade that didn’t explode.
The standard protocol was to wait three minutes and then call a demolition crew from the Army Engineers. They would use a long-handled pole to place plastic explosives next to the grenade.
Everyone would move back 100 yards and then pull the trigger. On this particular test, the examination officer, Major Gustafson, had something else in mind.
“I want to know why that grenade didn’t go off. Come on, Dave, let’s go take a look.”
They approached the grenade, after 10 minutes, to inspect it closely. While the two men from the demolition team ran for cover, David, notepad in hand, and the major, examined the grenade.
They concluded that the throw was so hard that it knocked the top off the fuse before it could burn down to the detonator. David had unusual skills for an explosive specialist: he was curious and precise.