Years ago, area man one of first to be drafted


September 14, 1990|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

JOSEPH E. Howell got up early on Nov. 25, 1940, and trotted over to Baltimore County Draft Board No. 1 in Catonsville. They gave him a token for the No. 8 streetcar and sent him downtown to the Court Square Building.

Howell was on his way to being one of 158 Maryland men inducted into the Army on the first day of the first peacetime draft in American history. Eventually 10,110,104 draftees were inducted into the Armed forces in World War II.

He was traveling light. He had his hat and overcoat and his wallet with his draft card in it.

"And that was it," Howell says. "They took us down in the basement and examined us all day long."

He was poked, pinched, prodded, measured and found fit. His waist size was 32 and his hat 7 1/4 . His waist is 38 today.

"My hat size is still 7 1/4 ," he says. "My head didn't get any bigger."

He's 71 this year, and he still looks fit. He's a stockbroker and a vice president at Legg Mason in Towson.

He turned 21 on Aug. 20, 1940, just three weeks before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act on Sept. 16. FDR had put into effect the first compulsory military service bill since World War I, and the first ever in peacetime. The 50th anniversary is Sunday.

The United States was already late: Nazi Germany had smashed through three-quarters of Europe and the American army still had less than 200,000 men.

Poland had been overrun by the Nazi blitzkrieg a year earlier. France had fallen. Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway and Denmark had been invaded and lost. The British Army had been evacuated in disarray from Dunkirk. The Battle of Britain was at its height and London was writhing under the "Blitz."

In the United States, the first men registered on Oct. 16. In Maryland, 241,875 men between 21 and 36 signed up; nationwide 16,500,000 men registered.

Joe Howell got No. 158.

On Oct. 29, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson drew capsules from a huge goldfish bowl in the first national draft lottery. Roosevelt read out the first number: 1-5-8.

"They were working very quickly," Howell recalls, during an interview in his office.

He'd been working in a gas station at 33rd Street and Greenmount Avenue -- at an Esso station that's now Exxon and is still there -- and going to night school at Johns Hopkins %J University, studying business economics.

His mother called him at the gas station on Saturday to tell him he had gotten his greeting from the draft board, and on Monday he went into the Army.

About 8 p.m. on Nov. 25 Howell's examinations were over, and he was put on a train to Fort Meade.

"When we got there," he says, "they gave us coffee and doughnuts and examined us again to make sure we hadn't caught anything on the train."

They issued him a steel cot and mattress, sheets and blankets, pillow and pillow case. He went to sleep in the permanent barracks on the parade ground. The regular Army soldiers had been moved out of those quarters and resented it.

The next morning Howell had emphatic proof he was indeed in the Army.

"I remember a cannon went off at 6 o'clock in the morning right outside my window," he says. "Believe me, you wake up in a hurry. You're wondering what's going on."

Joe Howell was now AUS33002016. He can still reel it off. Nobody ever forgets his serial number.

But he didn't feel particularly patriotic.

"You move along with the process," he says. "You're drafted; you go. Things just move one after another. There wasn't a lot of feeling involved. We were not going to war. I was reluctant to leave my job and family and school.

"It was a little bit like drifting in a rubber boat. You just move along with the current. I was only going to be in for a year. The saying was, 'Goodbye, Dear, I'll be back in a year.' It turned out to be five years and five-and-a-half months."

But he felt he was fortunate, even though he went in early and stayed long.

"My brother was in a much shorter time and he was killed," Howell says, the memory still obviously powerful and painful.

His name was Charles Edward Howell Jr., and he joined up later than his younger brother.

"He volunteered," Howell says. "He was a pilot and he was shot down and killed in the air war over Germany. He was the pilot of a B-17. He kept the plane airborne until everybody got out. And it was too late for him."

The Army assigned Joe Howell to the Headquarters Battalion of the 99th Field Artillery at Edgewood Arsenal, the pack-mule artillery. The mules carried 75-millimeter howitzers, a short-barreled cannon.

"They needed tall men to load the mules," Howell says.

You loaded the mule from the rear, he explains, so you had to be tall to lift the cannon parts over the rump.

"I was a city boy," he says, looking at pictures in a scrapbook his sisters kept of his Army life. "I never saw a horse or a mule. I join the Army and they have me cleaning out the back feet of horses and mules."

"Until Pearl Harbor, all I did was lead a mule," he says. Then in April 1942 he was sent to officer's candidate school and came out a second lieutenant.

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