It was triggered by my making the Dean’s list at Stanford (The wrong one – Dean Winbigler suggested that I take a year off before returning to get my GPA back on track …).

Father was livid at the news, and dictated that I choose between completing my military obligation or attending school in France under close parental supervision. Universal conscription was still in force in France, and I would have to go into uniform eventually in any event, so that seemed the better option. Furthermore, De Gaulle had returned to power a year earlier, and was threatening to cancel about 40,000 student deferments to so that fresh troops could be thrown at a stubborn Algerian guerilla war; it seemed my goose might be cooked in that fashion anyway.


Summer in the Atlas Mountains. As quartermaster, I had to carry a loaded ball-point pen at all times!.

Basic Group

My basic training class in the Tank Corps. The beret is good head protection inside a turret. I'm the guy in the center with the shiny forehead.

That is how I found myself, in Mid-November 1959, on the train to Rambouillet, an hour’s ride west of Paris, to join the 501st Battle Tank Regiment – a prestigious unit since it had once been commanded by DeGaulle himself, in his Colonel days.

We were equipped with M47 Patton tanks (50 tons, 90mm Long Gun, 4-inch thick steel armor and fun to drive). I endured the usual humiliations of basic training, but found a lot of comfort in the camaraderie of the barracks. I retain fond memories of lengthy field maneuvers on the eastern plains of France, punctuated by various escapades and pranks. I worked my way through driver, gunner, driver instructor, gunnery instructor to Tank Commander, then Platoon Commander with the glorious title of “Marechal des Logis” (literally, Marshall of the House - old cavalry traditions never seem to die).

This all culminated in a Bastille Day Parade in July 1960 down the middle of the Champs Elysees, where I subversively munched on a fine salami sandwich, as I was invisibly hunkered down inside my turret. I watched the president, stiff at attention on the review stand through my periscope!

I was sent to Algeria in January 1961: it started with an interesting troop ship adventure across the Mediterranean, followed by a truck ride up into the Atlas Mountains, where I found my new assignment: 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Infantry Regiment. This was another elite unit with a rich history of colonial battles, staffed almost exclusively with professional military, most of which had seen action in Indochina and, in some cases, in WWII. Not only was I the first conscript they had ever matriculated, but in addition I had to live down my Cavalry/Armor background.

Ninety percent of the 8th Company, to which I was assigned, was black Africans, most from Ivory Coast and Upper Volta (now known as Burkina Faso). The emblem of the unit was a full-maned lion's head superimposed on a sextant, and our motto “Fier et Fort, Grogne et Mord” (Proud and Strong, Growls and Bites).

The strategy had evolved to where units such as mine were scattered throughout Algeria, each one anchoring a particular sector of a grid. We were to get to know the locals and to prevent any mayhem from happening. Our base, in a hamlet named Marguerite (a name changed since then to an arabic one, I'm sure), on a ridge overlooked the Zaccar pass, a significant bottleneck for both the main inland east-west highway as well as the railroad.

Almost every night, one or more platoons would head out into neigboring ravines and draw, either to set up an ambush ot simply to patrol, looking for trouble. I had the distinction of being, of all the troopers and non-coms, the most highly educated. This earned me the responsibility of all of the administrative chores for the unit, in which I was a combination paymaster, supply officer, armorer, and chief accountant and record-keeper. In addition, due to special training I had received, I was the unit's demolition expert. In recognition of all that, I carried a relatively light patrol/ambush load.

The big pop song hit in France that year was Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien" and I think we must have played that single 45-rpm record several times a day. Now, if I hear the song, I am naturally transported back in time and space to the Atlas mountain range in North Africa, with a rush of associated memories!


A retired M47.


This is what an honorable discharge looks like.

One sticky moment came in April 1961, at the time of the “Generals’ Putsch” in Algiers, when the military command decided to repudiate the French Government. Our orders came to close the pass to the oncoming 2nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. Our commanding officer decided to play both sides, so we went through the motions of blocking the pass, but essentially waved the guys on through – and these were the most experienced and toughest shock troops in the Army of France, on a par with the Foreign Legion. And we were going to stop them?

During the final months of my tour of duty in Algeria, the unit moved to Miliana, a town of about 900 souls. The quarters were better, the community had a few services to offer, but the nighttime activities continued at the same tempo.

I was in Algeria for the final 15 months of the conflict, departing just 10 days prior to start of the negotiated cease-fire – all in all not a bad time to be getting out of the way. I wore the uniform for 28 months (846 days to be precise), and in hindsight, aside from the lack of independence, it proved to be a good time. While in Algeria my Company had a complement of 120 men, of which we lost nine, plus a like number of wounded.

Within three weeks of turning in my uniform and basic kit, I was back on campus and registered for Spring Quarter. The military experience had of course completely altered my attitude toward academics, and the work/play ratio immediately became the reverse of what it had been. Dean Winbigler welcomed me back with open arms, knowing that I was unlikely ever again to have a GPA problem!