Larry Chatman had just married his wife when he got a draft notice in 1959.
“I wasn’t too keen on that because we were just getting started,” he said.
Not wanting to be disgruntled about joining an infantry unit, he talked to an Army recruiter. Chatman scored high on tests and was told he could choose what he wanted to do. That’s when the recruiter told him about the Army Security Agency that would allow him to work with diplomats in embassies around the world. Chatman thought it sounded like a good opportunity.
The first day of basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in January, he was one of three men the sergeant picked to be on kitchen police. This meant he reported at 4:30 a.m. to the kitchen where the men there called them names all day. He finally left at 9 p.m., still wearing civilian clothes, and decided he never wanted to be on kitchen police again.
He was finally assigned to regular barracks. The men were asked who wanted to be a squad leader.
“Nobody raised their hand,” he said.
He volunteered to be the squad leader not knowing what the role entitled. Chatman was now in charge of 20 men to “keep them shaped up.” He ensured they were making their beds a certain way, cleaning weapons and waking up on time.
Fort Leonard Wood is located in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri.
“It was unbelievably cold and snowy. It was a bad winter – unusually bad,” he said.
About half the men in his platoon came down with pneumonia and had to go on sick leave. Once a soldier went on sick leave, they had to restart basic training.
“I know I probably had pneumonia,” he said.
He started basic at 185 pounds and lost 20 pounds by the fourth week, but he did not want to restart basic training.
One of the men who got sick was the platoon leader.
“The lieutenant came to me and said, ‘You’re going to be our new platoon leader,’” Chatman said.
When Chatman graduated, he was in charge of 80 men.
“The hardest part of being in the military was basic training,” he said.
After basic, Chatman went to school in Fort Devens in Massachusetts. He found out that Army Security Agency was actually Army Intelligence.
His wife decided she was going to Massachusetts with him and found a place to live right off base. His wife got pregnant and gave birth to their first son, Scott.
Chatman originally wanted to go to Europe, but when he graduated, his whole class was assigned to Korea, Okinawa and Japan. He graduated at the top of his class, meaning he could choose where he wanted to go.
Chatman chose south Japan.
“I looked it up and the weather was pretty much like the Carolinas, you know, nice and warm,” he said.
He was assigned a small town called Saitozaki in a fully guarded compound and found a little house in town. He moved into the house with his wife and son after living in the barracks for six months. Chatman rode a bike that he refers to as “the family car” a mile and a half to work each day. They had no TV or radios.
“It was like going to work,” Chatman said. “I’d come home and I’d be able to live with a wife and little boy. And then I go to work the next day.”
The shifts were on a rotating schedule. Chatman worked 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. one week, 4 p.m. to midnight the next and midnight to 8 a.m. the third week with two days off in-between.
“You never got used to anything,” he said.
His wife gave birth to their second son, Greg, in Japan.
“It was really nice. There were several of us who had our families, so we made a lot of good friends,” Chatman said.
Chatman joined a basketball team that won the All Japan Championship two years in a row and played fast-pitch softball.
To this day, Chatman cannot tell others what he did at the compound and could go to jail if he does.
When he returned home with his family at the end of his term, he did not have a job and the separation pay from the Army wasn’t enough. He eventually became an insurance investigator for 15 years in Illinois where he was transferred seven times around the country in those years. He studied and read books to pass the real estate broker’s exam and retired after a back injury in 2000.
Chatman joined the McFarland Lions Club to meet new people in 1974. He became the head of the club three years later.
Chatman planned to accompany one of his friends from the Lions Club as his guardian on the Badger Honor Flight.
“Two weeks before we were supposed to go, he passed away,” Chatman said.
Chatman kept thinking about the flight and finally applied with encouragement from others.
After two years of waiting, he got to go on the Badger Honor Flight on May 18 this year.
His oldest son, Scott, accompanied him as his guardian.
“When we pulled in on the tarmac, there was a water truck that was spraying over the plane as kind of a welcome salute, and the grounds people were all they’re waving flags,” Chatman said with tears in his eyes. “We go in the gate and there were probably four to five hundred people there.”
Police escorted the veterans to different memorials, such as the Tomb of the Fallen Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Memorial. On the way home, Chatman was given letters from 70-80 people that he knew, did not know and classes assigned to write letters. He was greeted by family and friends upon his arrival home.
“It was one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve ever had,” he said.
Chatman encourages all eligible veterans to go on the Badger Honor Flight.