A Look Back: The Pay Officer

Above: Company B, 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry

The Pay Officer

Article by Tom Rozman

The pay officer is a duty that has pretty much disappeared from the current establishments of many armies with the advent of the electronic accounting and exchange systems of today. The duty nevertheless illustrates some aspects of the leadership mechanism in the company size unit.  From time to time to the present establishments, duties and tasks along these lines present themselves to the company grade officer.  Though these duties may not at first be perceived as an aspect of leadership, they are an element of the leader role in a company that is perhaps more important than we realize on several levels.

The following vignette revisits a pay officer in performance of this duty in a more difficult environment than normally encountered at the time.  It explores the leadership aspects that were in play.

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Per 2nd Infantry Division regulations the company pay officer, a 1st lieutenant,  donned his Class A uniform.  This would not be the most comfortable uniform for the long day ahead with the full skirted blouse, tie and low quarter shoes.  Under arms this was an even less handy outfit.  It was 0430 hours.

The lieutenant had to walk the quarter mile to the company’s Quonset hut barracks from the Bachelors officer’s quarters.  Once in the company he had to draw an M1911A1 pistol and a full magazine of ammunition at the arms room.  He would then rendezvous with his driver and accompanying non-commissioned officer, all armed, dispatch a company M151 ¼ ton truck (jeep) and drive to 2nd Division Finance.  There he would draw the company’s payroll.  Though the Army was encouraging soldiers to adopt direct deposit to a bank soldiers still had the option of direct pay in cash.  The amount would be over $20,000 in bills and change, a significant amount of money at the time.

With other assembling pay officers from across the division the lieutenant moved through the security check at finance and to the finance clerk he was directed to.  He counted out the company’s payroll verifying it to the company roster.   The roster and the payroll matched.  Finance had done a good job.

The lieutenant had been a company pay officer several times previously but at Ft. Hood, Texas for larger mechanized infantry units.  The payrolls had been somewhat larger.  The experience of traversing the open areas from 1st Cavalry Division Finance to the cantonment area of the company in an open jeep seemed a risky business on a huge open post like Ft. Hood. But the pay officer, his NCO and driver resolutely executed the duty. No incidents had occurred though incidents had developed elsewhere—one pay officer had been found murdered at Ft. Benning, Georgia.  On the paydays at Ft. Hood all soldiers had been in the company area allowing for the pay to be issued with return to finance by early afternoon and verifying accounts soon afterward.

At the time, the Army was beginning its campaign mentioned to encourage soldiers to move to the direct pay to their bank system accounts.  But the culture at the time for many was to be paid in cash.  Within a few years, direct pay would be mandatory but for the moment the pay officer in an old Army institution, continued to perform his duty come what may.

The 2nd Division being in Korea, a forward deployed Army formation, payday could be a challenge for a pay officer.  It would prove the case on this payday.

After verifying the payroll, the lieutenant returned to the company’s jeep and the two other members of the pay team, the driver and the NCO guard.  They drove back the several miles from division to the company.  The mess hall Quonset hut structure was the largest covered and out of the weather space in the company and with its tables and chairs the ideal facility from which to pay the troops.  Tables had been arranged and other personnel were present for the various pay “contributions and deductions.”

The lieutenant was set up and ready to pay by 0900.  All men in the company and on details that had to be cycled into the payline had been paid by 1530.  The pay team then moved back to the division area in the company pay jeep to the Division Aid Station operated by the 2nd Medical Battalion, a small hospital in effect of some 15 beds in a Quonset hut building. A company sergeant who had fallen into one of the three foot deep stone lined drainage ditches in the company area was recovering from a staph infection.

The sergeant was paid and the pay team departed Camp Casey on Highway 1 south heading for the MASH at Camp Red Cloud, Uijeongbu (4077th MASH (Mobile Auxiliary Support Hospital)–the actual MASH unit depicted in the movie and TV series) where another soldier of the company was hospitalized.  It was 1630.   The team covered the 12 or so miles in the open jeep and reached the MASH.  The soldier was paid and the team was on the road to Seoul by 1730.

The jeep then drove the remaining 12 miles at regulation speed in an open jeep to Seoul.  A company soldier was in hospital at the 120th Medical Evacuation Hospital in Yongson.   Due to a delay in route the jeep did not arrive at the hospital area until 1830.  The pay officer was not able to pay the soldier until 1930.  Due to the timing of the curfew that applied to vehicle operations heading north the pay team would  secure their vehicle and weapons and billet in Yongsan overnight returning north to Deongducheon the next morning.

On return to the division area the team made its way back to Finance and reconciled the pay account.  All was in order.  The team returned to the company.

The jeep was returned to the motor pool where the operator performed after operations checks and all weapons were returned to the arms room.  An extended payday came to a close.

Perhaps one of the most important events in a soldier’s normal routine, payday was in these times a critical function of the Army system.  The officers detailed to the pay duties had a day that was manageable but warranted care in that management.  And it needed to be done well and properly.  Screwing it up not only had ramifications for the officer but could have a negative effect on the soldiers of a unit.  An efficient well done payday, though something of an ordeal, particularly for the officer, was nevertheless a thing of orderly beauty done right.  When well performed it signaled to the soldiers that their “house was in order” a powerful reinforcement to their morale.

As a leadership exercise there were several levels at work on payday, but the most significant, some officers assigned the duty were greatly affected by the idea of hauling around big bundles of cash in an open jeep.  For some pay officers the psychological burden caused a few interesting situations.  The pay officer had to steel the mind to the duty and carry it out and do it well setting the example in front of the pay team and in the pay line.   A shaky pay officer was not a thing of beauty or something that reinforced confidence among rank and file.

On this particular payday with so many to be paid and at four different locations, the situation made for a long day for the pay team.  But, thanks to the leadership demonstrated by each soldier of the pay team in his performance of duty, the team did its duty and did it well.  The company was paid, even the invalided soldier at the evacuation hospital some 50 miles south from the company’s location, reinforcing company morale and confidence in the company’s leadership and its commitment to the troops.

9 Comments

  • Mitchell MacLeod 13139

    May 7, 2019 at 10:17 am

    Remember the occasional pay parade early on in my military career but it was always executed by finance personnel, usually for field or sea pay when deployed. I also remember the Bank of Montreal, and then the Credit Union, coming down from the branch on base escorted by MPs twice a month to undertake any banking cadets required, setting up in one of the rooms off the dining room in Yeo Hall. Obviously pre ATM days!!

  • Tom Rozman

    May 7, 2019 at 12:53 pm

    Yes, enjoyed your comment and your recall of pre-ATM days brings up a different world, though at USMA while a cadet all pay was direct deposit. The direct deposit system was gradually being introduced across the Army but during early commissioned service we were still paying with cash in the units…the unstated point, company duty has some aspects that can be a different kind of leadership challenge that if not done well can have very serious effects. To illustrate, I was caused to be reassigned from a very happy duty as a battalion line company executive officer to a tank brigade headquarters company executive officer slot shortly after that company’s executive officer, while pay officer, discharged a round from his M-1911 pistol through the door of the COs office into the hallway where the pay line had assembled. Thankfully, no soldier was wounded. Nothing can be taken for granted by the leader.

  • Gerry Stowe

    May 7, 2019 at 3:53 pm

    Had the privilege of serving as Supply Officer in HMCS St Laurent 1969 to 1971. Since those days much has changed especially regarding security of cash. On one occasion I went with my P2Pw (Petty Officer 2nd Class Pay Writer) in my personal vehicle to pick up $800,000 in US funds, plus a $2 million Letter of Credit. No armed escort! The PO wore a Browning 9mm pistol, but he was not permitted to have the clip of ammunition – that was in my pocket, and we never answered the obvious question about loading the pistol and getting off a shot if we were accosted by a thief. However, I guess because sailors were such a common sight on Halifax streets, no one took much notice and we returned safely to the ship where I tucked the money in my safe.

  • Mitchell MacLeod 13139

    May 7, 2019 at 5:56 pm

    Tom, my pay at RMC 1977-81($365 gross/$180 net a month in 1977!!) was direct deposit twice a month, though we did get cash payments for settling claims and allowances on occasion. And yes there were negligent discharges witnessed during my career as well, some of them more notorious than others. I remember being issued a cash advance well into the five figures on two occasions, such was the trust placed upon mere Captains! The first was $20,000 I carried to Somalia for the recce in 1992 and the second $15,000 to travel to Zagreb in 1999 with a military parachuting team…in both cases I converted it to US dollar traveller’s cheques as I was about to carry all that in cash long term. I think I reserved $1000 for ready use, and in fact did need it on a couple of occasions.

  • Tom Rozman

    May 7, 2019 at 9:03 pm

    Gerry and Mitchell, this vignette seems to have touched a nerve. I know that in the day, drawing large amounts of cash as a company grade officer and in a barely armed status traveling distances of several miles or more in open vehicles when too many knew what you were about, did cause the thought of “would you make it to the end of the day alive?” You did your duty showing no such thought was on your mind, especially to lend confidence to your driver and NCO armed guard, without magazine in the weapon. In terms of pay and hauling cash, the full advent of guaranteed deposit was a wonderful thing…by which time I’d left the battalions for other duty for awhile not to return until a field grade officer.

  • Tom Rozman

    May 9, 2019 at 12:45 am

    To striking a nerve, posted the site for the article on a USMA Class Facebook site…a similar reaction…it seems we who pulled this duty never forgot it…

  • Richard Ekman

    May 9, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    I remember mostly that being the pay officer for B Co, 2/30th Mech Inf in Sweinfurt, FRG in the early 70s was counting out all the cash at least five times…in the dollars and the darned always brand new sticky deutchmarks (DM). And the DMs would seem to want to stick together real tightly. And as if that wasn’t enough, remember guys how you would have to have a specially printed page, for that day only, of the conversion rate of dollars to DMs? At the end of the day, paying soldiers and sometimes their Bonified dependent if the soldier was officially TDY or other , and acting as a conversion ATM for any Gi or American dependent. Because of the stickiness of the brand new DMs I and I know of other Pay Officers(PO) who had to make up some shortnesses, usually only in the DMs, out of their pockets. Good Grief, what fun we all had! Great Training on attention to detail and thoroughness!

  • Mitchell MacLeod 13139

    May 9, 2019 at 2:47 pm

    The military was always careful with safeguarding cash others less so. In my retirement I worked for a company(ATCO FRONTEC Europe) in Kandahar Air Base in 2009, which took delivery of more than US $100,000 one day. It had disappeared by the next morning along with the residual amount in the safe, the kind you buy at Home Depot for $200 or so, which had not been bolted or welded to the floor, or left in a area that was secure 24/7….the crooks simply picked it up and ran off with it exiting by a window. About four weeks later when they were draining a sewage pit for some routine maint they found the safe with the door burned off. Had to have been an inside job. And could not have happened to a better employer!!

  • Tom Rozman

    May 9, 2019 at 3:39 pm

    I like that part about making up shorts. In those days with two little ones and what lieutenants were paid, that was a scarier prospect than worrying about bad guys. At least I didn’t have to deal with sticky new DM bills. I guess the good news is that you may have benefitted a soldier family…not so sure about a private getting a bump up in those days though…