William Opferman

William Opferman

By Christine Baldwin, AFRH-W Librarian

William J. Opferman enlisted in the Army in 1948 at the age of 18.  At that time they were looking for qualified people for the Army Security Agency (ASA), which called for Signal Corps training.  He qualified, and was trained to be a radio operator at the Signal School at Ft. Monmouth, NJ.  In 1949 Bill was sent to Japan to serve in the Occupation, in the 304th Signal Battalion in Yokohama.  He soon discovered that his favorite duty in the Army was Guard Duty.  So Bill decided that he would consider the Military Police as an MOS.  He met a man wearing the crossed pistols of the Military Police Corps and asked about the possibility of joining his outfit.  The man said, “We’re the guards of General Walker, the Eighth Army commander.  We’re not going to be MP’s much longer, because General Walker wants his guards to be Cavalry.”  Bill was accepted by the 502d Armored Cavalry Reconnaissance Platoon and trained to be a machine gunner and assistant driver in an M-24 light tank. The main job, of course, was guarding the General, his office, his family and quarters, and the Eighth Army headquarters.  The “502 Recon” remains in Bill’s memory as the favorite of all the assignments he had.

In June 1950, the North Korean Communists, supported and accompanied by Russians, invaded the free part of the Republic of Korea.  The Eighth US Army, with the support of the United Nations, was immediately committed to the defense of the ROK.   The Eighth Army Headquarters was never fired upon except by airplanes and artillery, but some of them were once ambushed by Chinese Communist troops in North Korea.  After they had beaten the North Koreans, and the Russians had turned over control of North Korea to the Chinese, the army was outnumbered and beaten, but not enough to surrender, and a stalemate developed.  An effort was begun to communicate with the enemy to discuss a peace agreement.  “Our delegates were to meet theirs at Kaesong, near the border” Bill said.  Both sides were to approach the meeting place unarmed, under white flags.  As Bill’s unit was approached, their convoy was stopped by a road block, and Chinese soldiers with submachine guns stepped out of the brush on both sides of the road. Bill thought they were about to be killed or captured, but then he looked up and saw an enemy cameraman cranking a big movie camera with reels on top.  (They later learned that this was a ruse to show the Communists and their sympathizers pictures of US troops surrendering to the Chinese).  Naturally the officers were infuriated, and the meetings were postponed.  When they commenced, Bill and fellow guards would wait in the garden outside the meeting place. Their North Korean counterparts acted as hosts. They were civilized, but not cordial.  Their leader was a 19-year old girl master sergeant.  She spoke English well, and engaged in conversation, but when she disagreed with anything she would get up and stomp off in her big Russian boots.  One time Bill made a bet that he could get a smile out of this girl.  He can’t remember what he said, but she did produce a shy smile, and looked for a moment like a real 19-year-old girl.

Bill then went back to the States and returned to the Signal Corps, where he served at Fort Dix and Fort Monmouth, NJ.  He thought he would try civilian life, but it didn’t please him, so he re-enlisted.  Bill was a corporal then.  He tried to get back to Japan, but got “shanghaied” back to Korea, where he again served with the 304th Signal Battalion, but transferred to the 558 Military Police Company, where he was soon promoted to Staff Sergeant.  Next, he went from Patrol Sergeant to Desk Sergeant to Operations Sergeant to Military Police Investigator.  He got married in Korea, was promoted to Sergeant 1st Class, and returned home with his lovely bride. He was at Fort Dix for a while, as a Desk Sergeant and then was in the Armed Forces Police in New York City.  It was composed of Military Police, Air Police, and permanent Shore Patrol, augmented by Shore Patrol detachments from ships in port. They came under command of the Navy, and had an administration office at Brooklyn Navy Yard and a police office at another location.  Their police station was in the building of the 18th Precinct, NYPD and the main patrol area was the Times Square district, as well as Harlem, Greenwich Village, Coney Island, and some sections of Brooklyn frequented by sailors. It was an endlessly lively and interesting assignment.

During that period the Pentagon decided there were too many sergeants in the Military Police, and Bill was ordered to choose a “shortage branch” or be transferred to the Infantry. One of the “shortage branches” was Military Intelligence, so he thought that would be his choice as a last resort.  It did become necessary, and in 1958 he was sent to the Army Language School at Monterey, CA, then to a Military Intelligence unit in Texas, where he worked part of the time translating Russian books and documents, but most of the time in training our own troops in matters of intelligence.  The Army had a training vehicle called the Aggressor Forces, in which Bill was a Senior Lieutenant.  He wore a green uniform with red trim and used an artificial language called Esperanto.  In maneuvers, he would interrogate US Army POW’s that had been captured and teach them what to expect if captured by a real enemy, and what not to do.  

Next, Bill was set to Germany, where he had to learn German in a hurry. His job was to talk to people who had come over from the Soviet Zone. He worked closely with the German police, border patrol, customs, prosecutors, intelligence agencies, and other officials. It was pleasant and stimulating work. Bill had to leave Germany when his wife was sent to Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania.  At Valley Forge Bill was a Desk Sergeant and then a Provost Marshal Investigator (PMI).  He then became an apprentice criminal investigator in the CID.  While an apprentice, Bill had his first murder case, working with a Pennsylvania State Trooper.  Bill attended the Criminal Investigations course and Military Police Officers’ course at Ft Gordon, GA, and became an accredited criminal investigator and warrant officer.  Bill’s first CID assignment was as chief of a CI unit attached to the office of the provost marshal, 4th Infantry Division, Vietnam.  The provost marshal let him have a sergeant and a few patrolmen who he trained as Provost Marshal Investigators (PMI).  They were good men, and the arrangement worked well.  They worked 24-7 for a year, and solved many cases. Bill’s last Army assignment was at Fort Ord, CA, in the CID.  He retired in 1969, and became a Special Agent of the California Department of Justice, from which he retired in 1991.

 Bill knew of the Soldiers’ Home since he was a small boy. His great uncle, John J. O’Boy, SFC, QMC, was a veteran of the Pursuit of Pancho Villa, the Phillipine Insurrection, and WWI.  He died in the old Walter Reed Hospital around 1918 and is buried in Ft Meyer Cemetery.  He is believed to have been a resident of this Home. In basic training at Ft Dix, Bill’s drill instructor was Technical Sergeant George Mamula. He was dedicated to the Army, and wanted his trainees to be better than those of any other training company. He told Bill that if they retired, they could have a home at the Soldiers’ Home. Bill kept that in mind and when his wife was dying, she became worried that he would be lonely. Bill told her, "No I won’t. I’ll go to the Old Soldier’s Home.”  She didn’t believe him, but after he called for the papers and showed them to her, she said, "Now I can rest”, and she went to sleep. When Bill came here, he learned that Sgt. Mamula was a Resident, in Long Term Care.  He had lost his memory completely, and could hardly talk.  But over a period of time he recovered some of his faculties slightly, and, although disabled himself, he would wheel himself to exercise classes and try to encourage the other patients to participate.  Bill read a letter on the internet from a major who knew Sgt Mamula, and had visited him here when he could still talk.  The major had taken his basic training in the same unit as Bill had, at Ft. Dix, NJ.  He wrote that Sgt Mamula was his inspiration for choosing an Army career.