Chapter VII • Beetlemania
Sweet Success • The Albert Sweet Story
Chapter VII • Beetlemania
The way I entered the army was interesting. When you’re drafted, you get what’s called an AFQ test, which stands for Armed Forces Qualifications. And I scored very high. It’s an IQ test. I was asked if I knew what the Army Security Agency was. They were the organization that won the war for us by cracking the Japanese and German codes. The commander explained to me what it was and asked if I wanted to join them. I said, “Great.”
The United States Army Security Agency had been formed toward the end of the World War II in order to gather intelligence information on the Germans and Japanese. It lasted until 1976 when it was merged with the Army’s military intelligence component. Those who scored especially high on their AFQ entrance exams were considered excellent candidates for the program. During the Korean conflict, the ASA had its sites set on infiltrating the Russians who were controlling the northern portion of Korea. Al had been promised that he would be allowed into the program, which required signing up for an additional year of service above and beyond the two years he was already committed to. It never occurred to him that he might have trouble obtaining the proper security clearance…
They made me sign up for a third year and made it sound like it was no big deal. After I did, I got called in by Major Floyd who said, “I really feel sorry about this. I know you told us that your mother came from Russia. They should have never accepted you because she could be held hostage, or you yourself could be a security risk.” That was the lowest point for me. Here I’ve got to now serve an extra year and it looks like I’m going into the infantry.
The infantry was not where Al wanted to be. Images of being on the front lines of the Korean battle for three full years began to flood the mind of the young newlywed. Would Al have to go through what his father experienced?
I remember my father telling me about when he was in the Polish Army. He said, “If you were sixteen and in the Polish Army, and you were Jewish, you were thought to be nothing more than cannon fodder.”
Feeling a bit guilty over what happened with the ASA, Major Floyd decided to help Al out, and suggested he forward a letter describing his past work experience at OK Radio to the commanding officer …
He coached me by having me write a letter to the Adjutant General’s office explaining that I was newly married and that I gave up a good job, which at my age was very impressive. He was pretty sure he could get me into the OCS. I wasn’t too crazy about going into the infantry, but because I had experience with the maintenance and repairs of television sets while in New York, I was selected into their radio repair school. I got lucky and scored at the top of the class.
Al was immediately shipped off to Fort Benning, a U.S. Army post headquartered in Columbus, Georgia where, for the next ten weeks, he would receive training at the Army’s Infantry radio mechanic school.
I brought my wife over to Fort Benning in Georgia where I was stationed. It was going to be about a ten week situation and we hadn’t really had any kind of honeymoon. We didn’t have a chance to be with each other, so I sent for her. Unfortunately, Diane just couldn’t adjust very well to being there.
We had these black beetle bugs all over the place, even inside our apartment. You’d go outside for a walk and hear this “crunch, crunch.” That didn’t bother me. Where I grew up, we had cockroaches in our apartment. But they didn’t eat much, so it was ok. Anyhow, it freaked her out and she found she really couldn’t get used to it. She was only eighteen and a half. She tried her best. So we agreed that she should go home. It wasn’t that we weren’t getting along; it was just that we were in a neighborhood that happened to have a lot of bugs.
Before heading back to California, Diane got another taste of what it was like to be in a southern state during the early 1950’s. She was on her way back to the base in their two door coupe, when she saw a young Black woman who needed some help…
It was raining one day and one of the Black maids was walking home from where she worked. Diane stopped the car and said, “Come on in and I’ll take you home.” The girl pushed the seat forward in order to climb into the back and Diane said, “It’s ok, you can sit in the front.” The girl replied, “If I sit in the front seat, and somebody sees us, we could both end up dead in this car.”
That really struck home because we had Black people in The Bronx and we didn’t treat them the way people did in the South at that time. You’ve got to remember that this was when we had black restrooms and white restrooms; black entrances to stores and white entrances to stores. I mean, it was so offensive to me. We had Black kids in the Army and they were no different than me. Looking back, The Bronx had been a good place for me to grow up.
With his training at Fort Benning behind him, Al was now ready to be shipped off to war. But where would he go? He was hoping against hope it wouldn’t be Korea. And for once, having a last name like “Sweet,” which started with the letters “Sw,” would prove to be a blessing. Apparently, the new recruits were being sent off to Korea in alphabetical order…
Normally with a name like “Sweet,” which starts with “Sw,” all through school, you’re at the end of the line. This time I was at the end of the line for people being transferred to Korea. So I didn’t go to Korea. I wound up in Germany. And that was a real break.
The work was a piece of cake and I ended up becoming a real hit with Lt. Castillo, the company commander who was a terrific guy from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was one of the most decorated heroes of World War II. I had a lot of visibility because of some of the work that I did. I was asked to train with the NCO’s (non-commissioned officers) where I was taught anti-tank and mine warfare. I just seemed to get one break after the other.
Before being shipped off to Germany, Al had been making only $97 a month while at Fort Benning, while Diane received an allotment of $132 a month. “Surely there must be some way to supplement one’s income,” he thought to himself. So it was only a matter of time before Al’s entrepreneurial spirit began to take over…
While in Germany, I got a great idea about how we could make some money. First, meals in the Army on Friday consisted of fish, and nobody liked fish. Second, nobody wanted to pull KP duty. But I figured out a way to make some money, hire Germans to do the KP duty, and give the troops what they wanted to eat.
So I talked the company commander into giving me the corner space of the motor pool. We had our own woodwork shop. So we built a little snack bar. I made friends with a local German bakery. I’d go into town and they would have big packages for me which included these wonderful sweet rolls. I’d make another stop at a butcher shop where I’d get salami, ham, and cheese. So we’d make and sell these sandwiches.
Before you knew it, I was making a lot of money with the snack bar. There wasn’t any rent to pay or labor costs. The sandwiches had a 90% profit margin. The commander was very impressed that he got an honest count. A portion of the money that was earned went to hire the Germans to do KP duty, carpentry, and miscellaneous repairs. Still, I had no serious plans to stay in the military because the military is not for entrepreneurs.
With his time in the military coming to an end, Al was more than anxious to get back to his wife and his career in California. Nevertheless, he was able to look back upon his time in the military with great fondness.
I ended up doing the full three years. I became an expert rifleman while doing the radio stuff, so that was pretty good. I got promoted to Private First Class, then Corporal, and before I left, I became a Staff Sergeant. And that made me feel real good. I never thought I would like the Army, but I enjoyed every bit of it.