A 13-year-old enjoyed three-week Army career

June 18, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the 50th anniversary of Jackie Sauerhoff's glorious induction into the U.S. Army, maybe the country could take modest notice. This guy's military record is a dandy. True, it only lasted 20 days and never got past basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., but it's the thought that counts.

Around Pigtown, Jackie's home turf, his gesture was always considered the stuff of great patriotism. He was 13 when he enlisted, and 13 when honorably discharged. According to Army records, he was 5 feet 3 and 108 pounds when he enlisted, and the same at departure. He always figured he was outweighed by his gear.

He also figured he was part of a grand family tradition, considering that his father, Elmer Sauerhoff, lied about his age and served in World War I at 16, and then served in World War II at 41, with a wife and 10 kids at home, then served in Korea in his 50s, and then tried to enlist for Vietnam in his 70s.

"Yeah, the whole family did our bit," Jackie was saying yesterday. He's still living in Pigtown, 63 years old and retired with a couple of disabilities, and chuckling slightly at his Army record, such as it was.

It's coming up on 50 years since he and a buddy were walking along Calvert Street, by the old central Post Office, and an Army recruiting officer stepped through a doorway and pitched the joys of military life their way.

"In those days," Jackie said, "recruiters got paid $25 a head, which was big money back in 1948. They told me about this later on. So they were looking for anybody. And we're walking up the street when this guy says, 'Hey, kid, you want to be a soldier?'

"I told him, 'Well, I'm playing hooky from school right now, so I'll probably get a beating when I get home. So I might as well go in the Army.' "

Thus began three weeks -- July 7, 1948, to July 27, 1948 -- in which Jackie Sauerhoff and the U.S. Army crossed paths. He had a couple of pals forge his mother and father's signatures, ZTC and reported to Fort Holabird for a physical.

"Nobody questioned me," he remembers. "A few days later, they put us on a bus to Fort Jackson, S.C., and as we were driving through Baltimore, I saw my father coming up the road. So I ducked down. My folks didn't know where I was. They thought I ran away from home. But I just wanted to do my part. I had two brothers in the Navy, and of course, my father served. So I felt like I wanted to go. I had patriotism in my heart."

He'd grown up surrounded by military folklore. The father, Elmer, having served at 16 in World War I, enlisted with the Seabees after Pearl Harbor and spent three years in the South Pacific, leaving his wife and 10 children behind on McHenry Street in Pigtown.

When Elmer Sauerhoff shipped out, he told some of his boys, "They're trying to take our country. We have to fight."

His departure became a rallying cry. Mayor Howard Jackson showed up at the family home, with a photographer at his side, for a picture of the Sauerhoff family gathered around the kitchen table. The photograph ran in newspapers all over America and served as inspiration for a country trying to rally itself into a terrible struggle.

Also, the photo brought backlash -- a letter from Chicago, with swastikas on it, saying, "Hitler's ten little pigs. We're going to kill every one of you." The FBI guarded the house for a week, until Elmer Sauerhoff heard about it and sent a letter home saying, Get rid of the FBI, the Sauerhoffs weren't afraid of anybody.

Later in Korea, Elmer took part in the Inchon landing ("Wasn't much to it," he told his family), and at the height of the Vietnam War went to a Marine recruiting station and volunteered. He was past 70. The Marine sergeant took him out for a shot and a beer, and then took him home.

So Jackie Sauerhoff, in the midst of such family history, found himself at Fort Jackson 50 years ago at 13, wanting to do well but facing a few slight problems.

"My backpack weighed as much as me," he said yesterday, laughing at the memory. "I couldn't hold it up. Then I hurt my knee, and they put me on KP, and finally this lieutenant looks at me one day and says, 'Son, you don't look 17 to me.' The next thing I know, they're in touch with my mother, and I'm getting shipped back to Baltimore with an honorable discharge."

In Pigtown, he was a hero. The Army said he was the youngest fellow ever inducted, and set up a trip to Washington. At the Capitol, he met President Harry S. Truman and shook his hand. Later, when he was grown, Jackie served in the U.S. merchant marine. In 1974, the Joint Veterans Committee of Maryland gave him its Patriot Award, for "profound dedication to the American way of life and love of country."

There's no denying that. He just decided to express it a little too early, 50 years ago.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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