JUNGLE SCHOOL

Someone decided that extra training would help protect the investment the army had in me so my orders for Vietnam provided for TDY en route to attend Jungle School. My orders sent me to Charleston AFB, South Carolina where people gathered from all over waiting for our transportation to Panama. Our main mission seemed to be to get as drunk as we could as often as we could. As an officer and a gentleman, could I have done less? I experienced one of the most embarrassing "put downs" in my life while waiting to board the chartered Braniff 727 to Panama.

 

I was still pretty drunk as I sat on the uncomfortable plastic chairs which lined the halls of the waiting room. When I saw a beautiful stewardess walking down the hall, I made the fatal comment. A word of explanation is in order before revealing my faux pas. Braniff had centered an advertising campaign around what they styled "an in-flight fashion show". The "show" was the may changes in uniform allowed by the spiffy new mix and match uniform the girls sported.

 

In my drunken haze I asked her if she was going to put on a strip show for us. Honest, I just forgot the right word. Maybe, just maybe, my words came out in a lecherous manner. At any rate she stopped in front of me, put her hands on her hips, and after a long pause said for the whole world to hear, "You must be a second Lieutenant." When the hooting and laughter subsided, I slunk on the plane, sat down and fell asleep. I was awakened by the clunk of the plane hitting the runway as it landed at Panama City, Panama. The Rest of the Story

 

The Jungle Operations Training Center is located at Fort Sherman in the Canal Zone of Panama. Fort Sherman is located at the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal, across the harbor from the city of Colon. It was a beautiful place, especially at night.

 

The best word for the setting was "romantic." That's romantic in the literary rather than the emotional sense. You could stand on the beach among the scurrying land crabs and see the ships, awash with lights, queued up at the entrance of the canal. Their lights blended into the lights of Colon, presenting a truly beautiful picture. What ports had these ships known? How many places were these ships going? It was a vision worthy of poetry. The literary world will be relieved to know that I resisted the urge after a few attempts at mental doggerel and went back to the club to suck up a few more twenty-five cent Heinekins.

 

After Ranger School, I did not find the training particularly hard, just different. What the hell ... we got three squares most days and usually got plenty of sleep, both luxuries to a Ranger Student. I learned my first jungle lesson at the initial class formation. When we saw it was raining we fell in wearing our ponchos. We were told to take off the ponchos and suffer the rain without protection. We soon learned that if we wore the ponchos we were soon soaked with sweat because of the humidity. It was much more comfortable to get wet and then air dry.

 

Classes ranged from typical army BS to informative and even entertaining presentations. The school prided itself in its bilingual capabilities. It billed itself as having the capability to present the class in Spanish. We students felt that the ability to present the class in English was the alternate ability. Most of the instructors were Hispanic soldiers and some were hard to understand.

 

One of my favorite classes was on how to trap a monkey. The basic idea was to stake down a container with a small opening and to put something attractive to a monkey in it. The monkey is supposed to stick his hand in the opening and grab the bait. If the opening is small enough he will not be able to remove his hand while it is balled into a fist grasping the lure. The monkey is too dumb and/or too greedy to let go. Voila!, monkey stew. The instructors kept repeating the phrase "Dee monkey she is a duuummb animmule." After a while we would anticipate the phrase and chant it in unison. "When dee monkey grab dee food, it do not let go. Why not?": "DEE MONKEY SHE IS A DUUMMB ANIMULE!!!"

 

My favorite class was on how to skin a chicken with a machete. The instructor was a bandito looking fellow with the obligatory mustache. His machete was very sharp -- he probably shaved with it. His accent was heavy but he was easily understandable. He started the class by grabbing a live chicken's head and twirling it above his head. After a few revolutions the body separated from the head and went flying. The headless chicken ran in a few circles, pumping blood into the air. The instructor cracked us up with his comment, "The cheeken, I think she is dying." No shit!!

 

The instructor grabbed the corpse in one hand and began flashing his big knife with the other. He began a running monologue which compared skinning a chicken to a strip show. The blade flashed and blood and feathers flew. He made about ten cuts in fewer seconds. The skin and feathers were largely intact. He put down his knife yanked on the chicken and said. " And just like the streeper, she does not show you what you really want to see." Just like magic the chicken was skinned, leaving a tuft of feathers at the crotch.

 

I have never seen rain like in Panama, even in Vietnam. It would rain so hard that you couldn't see past the brim of your hat. It would rain like clockwork in the morning and again in the afternoon in the rainy season. The duration of the downpours was partly a function of the time of year. When in the field we occasionally took jungle showers. We would strip naked and soap up. Once the rain abruptly stopped and we had to spend the rest of the day sticky with soap.

 

Another rain story occurred on a patrol. We were lead by some Special Forces guys who as events revealed were the SF equivalent of 90 day wonders. Part of the equipment issued for the patrol was 100 or so feet of rope. Instead of the 9/16" nylon climbing rope we were used to in anger School the rope man was given a coil of one inch manila. (For the uninitiated manila rope gets very heavy when soaked).

 

The mission called for us to cross the "rock cliff" area. It was a cliff-like area a few hundred feet high, covered with dense jungle. Instead of a single cliff, the rock cliff area consisted of several traversable ledges, a series of terraces to the top. The trick was to find a place where you could climb from one ledge to the next level. Our 40-man patrol, after being lost for several hours, found itself stretched up the face of the rock cliffs in an elongated formation along vertical cliffs and horizontal ledges. And then it started raining.

 

We're talking rain!! The rock cliff soon turned into a series of waterfalls. We were in danger of being washed off the ledges. Our best option was to climb out of the cliff area as best we could. We groped along blindly, holding on for dear life. All went well until the point man said he couldn't find a way to the next ledge. Oh shit! We sure as hell couldn't back down the cliff. Our fearless leader had a brilliant idea and called for the rope to be passed up. Over the roar of the rain I faintly heard the words, "the rope, the rope, the rope" passed along from man to man like a echo in the dark. When no response was forthcoming, the patrol leader repeated his command with greater urgency. Once again "the rope" echoed through the rain. I heard the astonishing reply, faintly at first but with increasing volume as the message was passed along. "He threw it away, he threw it away he threw it away"

 

Our rope man decided that the rope was too heavy to carry so he chucked it. A fine fix. Ranger Ron to the rescue. I was near the point so I hollered back for some of the rangers to pass up their sling ropes. (Many rangers carry a ten foot section of climbing rope with which to fashion a rappel seat..... OK, we really carried it to look cool). Another ranger and I tied a few together and managed to tie it to a tree to help us climb to the next ledge. Between the ropes and the vines we made it. It was kind of exciting climbing through the rushing water. Soon after we all got to the top the rain stopped.

 

Rappelling was old hat to a ranger, but I saw a new twist at jungle school. We were doing the body rappel through a waterfall. A normal rappel would have been fun, but the body rappel was more like torture. In a normal repel, friction through the snap link painlessly and smoothly slows your decent. In the body rappel, the body replaces the snap link. The rope is wrapped through your legs, along your back, over your shoulders and across your chest. (Don't try to figure it out). You brake by tightening the rope over your body.

 

The dilemma is whether to drop fast and brake in one painful motion or to inch along in a lesser degree but a longer duration of pain. I chose the former and made it OK. Those of us who had completed the event gathered at the bottom to watch our comrades suffer. Hearing a scream, we locked up. One of the guys was creeping down the cliff screaming all the way. A closer inspection showed that his trousers had ripped and the rope was sliding through the cheeks of his butt. We all grimaced and suffered vicarious (but infinitely more tolerable) pain. The body rappel was definitely a pain in the ass.

 

Although Jungle School was easier than ranger school, it had its moments. When our morale was at its lowest we could always count on CPL "Arry" (Harry) Craig of her Majesty's Green Howard Regiment to cheer us up. The British officers were a rowdy group who could sing some of the grossest songs I ever heard, but Arry was a character straight out of a Kipling poem. His Cockney accent was a source of amusement for we colonists. One morning in particular comes to mind. We woke up in our "bohios", sheltered hammocks hanging over a swamp. We were wet, tired and generally miserable. Arry sensed that we were ready for the poem that he frequently regaled us with. Soon his cheerful voice was heard all over the encampment:

 

"Little bird up in a tree,
Cannot piddle cannot sing,
Fock off koont."(sic)
The slide for life at Jungle school was really something. It crossed the Rio Chagres, a deep, wide, slow moving river that flowed from Gatun Lake to the ocean. It was a briny river that occasionally hosted sharks. One bank was at sea level but the other was about one hundred feet high. On the top of the high side was a huge tree. The traverse went from in the tree, across the river to a tree on the low side. It was downright scary.

 

Students would put their arms through two loops of one inch manila that were secured to a pulley attached to the main rope. At the other end, two sergeants braked you through the friction of two prussic knots (ranger talk). When your pulley hit the prussic knots, they pulled on their ropes and tightened up the knots, gradually slowing your ride. If you pissed them off they could pull on the break ropes hard and you would come to an abrupt halt.

 

We started the slide with a demonstration on the low side. Instructors showed us how to hook up and jump off the tree. They directed our attention to the top of the tree for a demonstration. Instead of a person, they sent an ammunition box full of dirt down the slide. The damn thing stopped in the middle, at least 100 feet above the river. We could all see the same happening to us. After several attempts to shake the can loose an instructor rode a pulley down to the ammo box so his pulley dislodged the jam. He was tall, skinny and naked. He had a typical army suntan, white as a ghost, except for his arms, neck and head. Just before hitting the can he jerked his pulley forward and let go falling into the water. The ammo can broke loose and both pulleys completed the traverse.

 

Damn! That meant that we would have to go now. After seeing what had happened to the ammo can, most of had lost our enthusiasm for the event. The slide was voluntary, but you had to do it to receive a "Jungle Expert" designation. As I was young and foolish, I decided to give it a go. I made a big mistake -- I shouted RAAANNNGGGEEERRR!!! as I negotiated the slide. It was really beautiful and fun until I hit the bottom. The instructors having been deeply offended by my cry slammed on the brakes. When I hit the knot, my body stretched out almost horizontally and my legs slammed into the tree on the bottom. I was knocked silly. When the sergeant asked for my roster number, I told him he would have to wait because I didn't even know my own name. An exciting day.

 

One of the themes that ran throughout jungle school was that "The jungle is neutral". Don't believe that for a minute. The jungle is your enemy. It is full of nasty things that bite, sting or stick that are all out to get you. One of the nastiest was black palm. Black palm was a cross between a palm tree and a porcupine. It had quills growing in rings every few feet along the tree trunk. The quill slanted downwards. You could stroke them like a cat with no problem, but if you went the other way, look out.

 

The quills were extremely brittle and would easily break off in your skin. It was next to impossible to get them all out. Within an few hours, the wound would get infected and formal medical treatment would become necessary. One time I ran down a little hill. I was going to slow myself by hooking my arm around a tree on the bottom. Just as I committed myself to this course of action, I noticed that the tree was black palm and jerked my arm back. I knew that I was going to fall but figured that anything was better than the black palm. Thank God they didn't have it in Vietnam.

 

I had an interesting experience with army ants that sticks in my mind. After a class, we went to retrieve our field gear which we had grounded. A long trail of army ants about an inch wide and as long as I could see was marching right over my equipment. I was worried that if I tried to brush them off, I wouldn't be able to get them all off. I pondered the matter for a minute and then cut the column a few feet from my gear. The ants up front kept walking. A minute or so later the last one cleared my gear which I quickly retrieved. I proved that even a lot of ants couldn't outwit an infantry LT.

 

Our graduation exercise was a two-day escape and evasion (E&E) exercise. Early one day they turned us loose with the mission to link up with some partisans at a few checkpoints who would tell us where the next point in our escape route was. It was a beautiful day. We followed a jungle stream for half the day as it cascaded down the rock cliff area. A lot of the time we walked in the creek so we stayed fairly cool. We were careful to avoid "enemy" and hit the first two check points in good order.

 

The last checkpoint was a different matter. The damn thing was not where they said it would be. We checked and double checked our maps. We finally found it very late in the afternoon. I don't know whether the bad map coordinates were part of the problem or just poor map reading on the part of our instructors. We felt like we had been betrayed. We had until 1700 the next day to get to a point on the river which formed our right boundary. We were to be met by a landing craft which would ferry us to civilization.

 

It was getting dark and a large swamp lay between us and sanctuary. Decision time. Were we going to play the game and traverse the swamp or were we going to cheat and follow the well patrolled road. Of course we decided to cheat. (A group of our comrades with stronger scruples than us dragged in the late afternoon of the next day). We reasoned that since we lost about four hours through no fault of our own, we were justified. Besides, we were still escaping and evading.

 

Two four man groups started along the road in the failing light after wishing our comrades well. We were hurried on our way by some monkeys who wished us a raucous farewell. The two groups took turns on point as that was the most dangerous position. It was kind of like Russian Roulette. As luck would have it, the other group was leading when we ran into an ambush. The were all captured and put in a POW camp to be held until the end of the exercise.

 

We continued along, jumping in the ditch or running in the jungle when we saw lights. One time I ran right into a vine covered cliff which looked like a ditch in the dark. It was nerve wracking work. We heard some voices ahead and quickly melted into the jungle. Since we didn't want to get into the swamp, the only alternative was to go through them. One of the guys with us was a dorky cannon cocker so we formulated a plan which sacrificed him for the good of the group, creating a diversion so the rest of us could get by. He didn't figure out the hidden agenda until it was too late.

 

After a few hours we saw a fire where we figured the pick up point to be. A few minutes later we were on the LCI and cruising toward safety and a cold beer. We got to the club before closing and gathered to drink a beer to those of us who had been less fortunate, especially our brave artillery comrade. We were the second team in and the rest of the class straggled in all night and the next day.

 

We had a day of R&R in which to drink beer and chase the land crabs. The next day, we were scheduled to leave. I had about a week to get to Travis, AFB in California to catch my flight to Vietnam. I left Panama a certified Jungle Expert without a trace of guilt, firm in the knowledge that the jungle sucked.
Somewhere during all this I was promoted to 1LT. Talk about quick promotions. The quartermaster finish hadn't even worn off my 2LT rank. There was no ceremony because I wasn't assigned to a regular unit. I just pinned it on and started drawing a few dollars more a month. To be truthful, the speed of my promotion was more a function of the upsizing of the army and the casualties of the Vietnam War than a commentary on the quality of my performance. We used to jokingly say that the promotions were issued with the rations. Unknown to me, my exalted rank would have a major impact on my immediate future.

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