JUNGLE EXPERT SCHOOL IN PANAMA
It was a sunvabitch; other than being shot at,
Vietnam wasn’t so bad! See that badge?
You EARNED it!
It was September, 1966.
I got my orders to Nam on July 4th (how patriotic is that?)
and was given thirty days to clear post, go home and tell family
goodbye...perhaps for good.
Lo and behold, in the mail
was a set of orders to report to Ft Sherman, Canal Zone, to attend Jungle Expert
School. This, I guess, was to
acclimate you to the wonderful tour in Vietnam that you were about to
experience. Had no idea what to
expect. Leave your pens and pencils
behind; this was something different.
arrived in Panama on Sunday evening; we were housed in very old wooden barracks.
The group of men going through this training with me came from all sorts of
units, jobs, and backgrounds. If
there was a common thread, I didn't find it.
We were going to do "jungle training" for two weeks, complete
with a 24-hr E&E (Escape & Evasion) exercise, to include "enemy
combatants" who would be turned loose to seek us out and take us to a POW
camp. You were warned that you
"had better not get caught" because you can expect to be treated
roughly. After all, you are a POW.
Meanwhile, you were warned not to engage in brutal fighting to get
away...in other words...the captors could hurt you, but you couldn't hurt them.
There would also be many graded exercises during the two weeks.
You could "wash out" and not get your coveted Jungle Expert
patch. (But you were going to Nam anyway!) I knew the definition of
"monsoon", but I was never in one; had no idea what they were like.
We were told that, tomorrow morning, a monsoon would start.
But training would proceed anyway. Well,
that's the military manner. Made sense. Until
you experience the monsoon first hand.
After chow, we line up in
formation. Meanwhile, the rain
started. Did I say rain?
How about "the rainSTORM" started.
An NCO is our first instructor; his subject is teaching how to tie knots
that may come in handy in the jungle. We
stood "at ease" while the Instructor droned on, demonstrating how to
tie various types of knots. There is
just one problem here, folks. IT'S
POURING DOWN RAINING AND YOU'RE GETTING SOAKED.
Our Instructor was so accustomed to this situation; he just went on with
the lesson. Guess what?
In a monsoon...the rain doesn't STOP!
You had better get used to it now, cause it ain't gonna let up.
After an hour of constant
rain watching someone tie knots, I wouldn't remember how to tie my boots.
You have to get used to getting soaking wet and thinking "nah, it's
not really raining". If you
asked beforehand that I could have gotten used to training in the driving rain,
I would have said, "No", but I found out differently.
And so it went; all the
classes held outdoors in the driving rain. We
took turns wringing a chicken's neck, being taught how to cook snakes for meals,
which plants were edible and which ones to avoid.
We were seriously warned to avoid, at all costs, "the black
mamba". This was the biggest
and baddest snake of the jungle.
But all that was the "polite" stuff.
We all had to do the famous "slide for life" whereby you
started at the top of a steep hill, grabbed on to a handle and pulley, and slid
down at break-neck speed to a tree across a river.
Some NCOs were stationed at the bottom to tighten the ropes at the exact
time you were about to splat yourself into a pancake
against a tree. But, that wasn't the real
danger. The real danger was
NOT bringing your legs into a horizontal position underneath you, otherwise your
body would twist and turn and be sliding down out of control.
You could break several miscellaneous bones in the process. Actually, it
was fun if you were in good physical shape to stretch your legs out horizontally
and hold them there. In fact, there
are several parks today that offer a version of this stunt.
But...here's the stupid kicker. Who
the hell would be carrying ropes and pulleys in the jungles of Vietnam where you
are expecting combat to break out at any moment?
It wasn't meant to teach you to cross rivers in a jungle.
No, it was meant to see just how much tolerance you had for fear of your
life. There more tests like this to
come; in fact, it may have been the very intent of sending you here.
The Chagres River played a
major role in the Jungle Expert training course.
It was a very wide, swift and deep river running through the training
area. You would cross it many times
in various ways before you left. It
was almost guaranteed that you would fall into the Chagres eventually and lose
"points" on your final score. The
third of three exercises was almost a certainty that you would drop in the
river. The first exercise was three
ropes extended across the Chagres; one at the top, and two below.
This one was easy; you held on to the rope over your head and put your
boots on the bottom two ropes. Then,
you walk across with the overhead rope keeping you balanced as you moved your
feet forward. Piece of cake.
The second exercise was only two ropes; one above and one below.
This one was more treacherous; you had to hold on to the upper rope and
slide both boots across the lower rope. It
was very "doable", but at a much slower pace.
But then came the "killer"...just a single rope across the
river. Okay, pal...suck it up!
You now have to hold on to just a single rope while your entire body was
weighing you down, to include your M-14 rifle...as you went "hand over
hand" to the other side. Nope!
I didn't make it. The NCOs
had canoes nearby and plucked many a soldier out of the Chagres.
Most all the "fat boys" were dead meat; they had better swim
well until they were rescued.
Of course! What jungle course
would be worth a darn without the art of rappelling?
Well, if you had any agility, it was pretty simple.
You start at the top of a very high hill, hook yourself to a rope and a
"d-ring" and hop down the side of a mountain.
Again, if you properly extend your legs each time, you fall,
stab your boots into the side of the hill, get your bearings, and do it
again...and again...and again until you safely reach the bottom.
So...what's the challenge? The
"challenge" is to never look down; you'll liable to crap in your
fatigues and go into a a panic session. Oh,
yes! It happens!
More than one candidate "froze" and some very experienced
faculty NCOs actually went up and got them down safely.
They flunked the exercise, of course.
Oh...but there's more! The
sneaky sons-of-bitches who designed this "jungle expert" course had
you learn the basics of rappelling on a water-soaked mountainside that made it
very easy to "push off" and stab your boots into the next stop.
Piece of cake! But!
The course "for record" and making your official score was a
freakin' WATERFALL OVER ROCK SLABS! You
didn't have the safety and security of sinking your boots into the mud.
Noooooo! You had to bend at
the waist and have your boots hit a slab of rock with water running over it and
HOLD that position until you were ready to drop again!
Oh, the worst was yet to
come! Another "Chagres"
exercise was to swim across the river in teams of two with your gear.
The gear including two "half-tents".
You were taught how to snap them together, load all your gear inside, and
make it a cargo/flotation device. The
problem was "x" number of us were not good swimmers and crossing a
swift river like the Chagres would likely have saved some of us the trouble of
being sent to Vietnam; they could bury us there.
So, the game plan was to divide us into the "Swimmers" and the
swimmers would take the lead and the non-swimmers would provide the
"kicking" for all they were worth.
I thought this might be indeed the last exercise I would have to endure.
I kicked for all I was worth, but I give credit to my lead swimmer for
being alive to write this narrative today. It
was a very scary experience!
We were getting closer and
closer to the grand finale...the E&E exercise.
To prepare for that, they broke us into teams of four.
We were given a compass and map, a starting point and a partisan point,
and had to arrive at the partisan point in "x" amount of time in order
to get the necessary grade. Now,
this was a piece of cake if you had become accomplished with maps and compasses.
Having graduated from Field Artillery School, this course finally had
something on the training agenda that I could identify with.
Oh, yes...to make it challenging, the test was conducted in the dark of
night IN THE JUNGLE. Well, my
teammates were veterans of map exercises and we literally RAN the course and
found the partisan point pretty quickly. Unfortunately,
we came in 2nd because a team of Navy Seals beat us to the partisan
point. Being cocky smart-asses, they
said, "What took you so long?" To
which I replied, "Who are you kidding?"
You guys are breathing so hard, you just got here!"
That shut them up; they beat us by seconds.
ESCAPE & EVASION: This
was the centerpiece of the jungle training.
They turn you loose in teams to find the Partisan Point.
They give you a map and a compass. If
you want to eat, you'd better find it and kill it.
So, you run through the jungle, avoid the captors, and find the Partisan
Point. Just one problem, dude!
In addition to the ongoing monsoon, a major storm was heading our way.
It was a dangerous storm, with high winds and causing the Chagres River
to overflow its banks at every point.
they call off the E&E? YES!
But...only after they started the exercise and we were already
turned loose for 24 hours. This was
a major safety "f...up", let me tell you.
Getting the students out of the path of this storm, monsoon and the
dangers of a raging river could not be turned back.
We were in the thick of it..."tough
as they say.
I will never forget my
"personal disaster". The
night before the E&E, we were instructed to find a tree and sleep in it.
Well, not knowing a maple from a birch to begin with, I chose one whose
sap irritated my skin terribly! I
got virtually no sleep and I had to be alert and ready for the next 24 hours.
Don't ask how I made it, because I don't know.
storm was bad! The rain came down
harder than before and actually DISINTEGRATED
the map they gave us! It
became a sloppy mess of melted
pieces of paper from all the rain...we could not use it.
Thus...my team relied on compasses.
don't have much recall about the E&E other than being extremely tired and
hoping we would end this damn exercise. The
School staff had
already convinced me that the usual "stateside safety" procedures
don't apply to jungle training; if you don't survive this training, maybe
Vietnam isn't for you. (Hah!)
I do recall that we spotted the "enemy captors", as we were
running along, but there were on the opposite side of the Chagres River.
So we smiled and gave them the finger. The only thing I remember is that
we reached what we thought was the "Partisan Point" at early daylight.
All we saw was a large bamboo pole sticking above the flooded area which
was supposed to be the shore of the Chagres River.
It had a thin pink ribbon tied to it.
So, we said, "This must be it. We're
Minutes later, along comes an LST. Now...can
you imagine a gigantic bastard of a ship heading right for you?
They dropped the plank and we came aboard.
That’s when they told us they tried to stop the E&E, but it was too
late. Thanks a lot, you worthless
piece of s---t! Oh...by the way...congrats on the effort to mark the Partisan
Point. You outdid yourselves!
Thus, it was time to pack
your bags and baggage after washing the scum from your body from being out in a
jungle monsoon for two weeks. My
team was greatly exhilarated to have finished this bullshit alive and well, but
we didn't feel too kindly toward the command and staff of the Jungle School.
They, in turn, didn't give a shit either.
We certainly earned our Jungle Expert patches.
They had an aircraft
waiting to take us directly to Vietnam. How
convenient. But, at the last minute,
we get an announcement saying that some Infantry Battalion had a higher priority
than we did. They got the plane; we
got an additional 30 days leave and a new Port Call to Vietnam. Oh, my...as if
that really hurt my feelings!
Goodbye, Ft Sherman!
Goodbye, Canal Zone! Hope to God I never see you again!
As we gathered in an auditorium to get our Jungle Expert diplomas (for those who passed, that is), the officer in charge made a stunning announcement: "One Team has not returned from the E&E exercise; we have no contact with them and don't know where they are". A powerful hush fell over the auditorium. These A-holes played fast and loose with this training, but we never believed that a whole team would be lost and nobody knows what happened to them. Well...there's nothing to do but hope for the best and get this program over with. So, they start calling out the names of the graduates in alphabetical order. We approached the stage and filed across to get our diploma as in any graduation. Not a sound was heard; we were in shock.
Suddenly, the door at the
right side of the auditorium at floor level burst open!
Four men who were soaking wet, muddy, with beards and looking like they
spent a really bad night in the jungle entered.
We all stopped, stood up and gave them loud cheers and applause for their
return. This class didn't end in
disaster after all.
As of early January, 2018, I researched the list of graduates and learned for
the first time that the very individual that I arrived in Pleiku with in 1966
was a member of that Jungle Expert class. His
name is Frank Herbick; he served as an FO with the 2/9th.
In fact, we both shipped out to the field
new Forward Observers on the same
day. But here's the kicker: Frank
was one of the four men who were "lost" and came bursting through the
door on Graduation Day. He
says he'd rather forget about that.
Lt Ed Thomas comments:
I won’t forget it (Jungle Expert School) either, especially the night E&E through the Mangrove Swamp. However, many didn’t get the “Expert” patch. They just had it in their 201 file that they went and graduated (marked as "Completed").
showed up in VN with my “Expert” patch, but then with the fatigue change
being dropped in bags and nothing worn
on the uniform, I don't
remember having anything sewn on until I changed from butter bar to black bar.
I sewed that on even by hand a few times. I also made Captain
in VN and definitely sewed that on.
Lt Bert Landau comments:
went through Jungle School in May or June 1967 and then left for Nam
within two weeks of graduation. I
remember a few things about the "adventure."
among them was swimming naked across the Chagres River. It was raining
heavily that day [and every other day I was there] and we had frequent views of
the ships traversing the Panama Canal - also known as the Chagres Rivers
for nearly the entire length. As we gathered on the river bank before the swim,
the instructors showed us the powerboats in the water.....with machine guns
mounted on the bow. There were 4 or 5 of them. The instructor informed us that
the river was filled with crocodile and caiman
- both of which eat people and snack on little things like fingers and
toes.....or any other smallish things left dangling enticingly in the water. Did
I mention that we were swimming naked?
each had to construct a ball using our shirt as the outside of the ball and a
bush inside to keep the ball in roughly a round shape and give it a little
buoyancy. All of the rest of your clothes and boots went inside the ball. The
instructor informed us that, if we lost the ball in the swift current or if
it sank, it might be a day or two before we got any replacements. Thinking of
that natural barbed wire stuff that grew everywhere in that jungle, losing my
clothes was not a pleasant thought.
the water was easy enough and I'm a pretty good swimmer but I hadn't gone very
far before one of the power boats revved its engine, surged ahead and the guy in
the bow suddenly cut loose with an M-60 MG at "something"
in the water apparently coming towards me. The other boats began firing, too but
at other targets. I hoped, anyway. I
swam faster now! As I pushed the ball in front of me across the river, I could
hear the M-60s firing from several places sporadically. As I neared the shore on
the other side of the river, I turned around and could see the splash as bullets
hit the water but the water was so damned muddy that I couldn't understand
whether the guys in the powerboats could see any of the crocodile or caiman. I
was pleased to have all my bodily parts still with me as I stumbled ashore. I
think everyone made it safely. We got dressed in our clothes and boots.
having arrived on the other side, we now had to get back to the other side. That
was cause for the "slide for life." Before swimming across the river,
I had seen a thick rope suspended between two giant trees on opposite banks.
It's purpose suddenly became clear. On "our" side of the river. a
metal wheel or pulley was mounted on top of the rope with a rope harness
dangling beneath it. The instructor was quite helpful in telling us how we
were going to climb up about three or four stories on to a platform, slide
into the rope harness and then the platform supervisor would push us off. Easy,
was still very early in the morning and a lot cooler than it would be quite
soon. The coolness caused the rope between the trees to be extremely tight. It
hardly showed any 'bow' all the way across the Chagres River, it was so tight.
And wet with rain.
would travel across riding on that pulley....with a downslope on the rope and,
just before we hit the platform and tree on the other side, there were four guys
holding a rope 'brake' to stop us gently. The 'brake' was really a slip knot on
the big rope across the river that, when four guys pulled the 'brake' to tighten
the knot on the main rope, we were assured of a safe stop. At least that was the
demonstrate how the system worked, the main instructor on the ground selected a "volunteer"
from our group. The volunteer climbed up the makeshift ladder nailed to the huge
tree and mounted the platform. The platform instructor helped him get into the
harness and, when the main instructor waved his arm, the volunteer was pushed
must have been a lot more downslope than I had estimated because the volunteer
gained speed quickly! The metal wheel riding atop the rope was going fast enough
that it kicked up a tall "rooster tail" of water from all the rain -
probably more than 10 feet tall - as
it raced towards the opposite shore.
it kept getting faster and faster.
were all staring raptly at the spectacle unfolding right before our eyes and the
main instructor was facing us, describing what we were watching. Just as he
described how the braking system would safely "catch"
before hitting the tree, we could see all four men pulling mightily on the rope
pulley and 'volunteer' crashed through the rope brake as if it didn't exist and
the whole thing crashed into the big tree so hard that we could hear it all the
way on the other side of the river! Horrified, we watched as the volunteer slid
almost bonelessly out of the harness and then on to the platform. It would have
been might bad if it had just ended there but, not, there was more. The
volunteer fell through the hole where the ladder was mounted and crashed all the
way to the ground.
never saw him again and none of the staff would discuss the incident. But
picking another volunteer was impossible until one of the staff tried it and
successfully made it across the river.
Nothing else was remotely as exciting after that, even the E&E course.
Lt Bob Patalano comments:
arrived there on the 1st Saturday of June 1967 for 2 weeks of
training. What I remember most was that a war broke out around Israel in
our first week
of training, and ended before our training
did. (The 6-day war). Many US soldiers of Jewish background applied for
leave-of-absences to go to Israel, but the war ended before the requests could
learn a lot from my training in Panama. And I’ll admit, “snake” meat
was surprisingly good. So was the live chicken that I had to carry all day in my
backpack, then kill and cook it for supper. . .during a torrential downpour.
good old days!
Bob Patalano, A/2/9Arty 67/68
Lt Don Keith comments:
certificate shows a Graduation Date of 16December66.
all in Class A uniforms, short sleeves, and standing on parade field in
front of the barracks was a US Army solider Panama to greet us. We
all stood in formation. The wind
started to pick up and a huge black cloud was forming and it was coming right at
us. One of the group spoke up,
"Sergeant , make it fast for that looks like rain". He
smiled, waited a few moments as the wind and a huge rain hit us, he then yelled,
"Welcome to Panama". As
you recall, all or most of the instructors were from Panama.
Now, knowing that, they had
the advantage in the jungle. We were given an explanation of how the point
system worked in order to become a Jungle Expert. You
all started with 100 points and any exercise you failed to complete, points were
subtracted. You had to get a score of 80 to be expert, others just got the
term "Completion" on their record (201 File).
Note. In September, 1966, you started with 1,000 points and could not go below
800 to get your Jungle Expert Badge.}
lost points: one example was the assignment of taking a python snake and
wrapping it around your neck. Several of
the black solders said they would lose those points; no way were
they going to touch a snake, let alone be strangled by one. That
also came to eating a snake. When we
were told there were lots of snakes out where we we going, one grunt quit
on the spot. We were also told never never pick up a Fer De Lance. This was
known as the "2 step snake", one strike and you would walk 2 steps and
be dead. I never believed that, but
sure did not test that instruction. Well you know about assholes.
Later on, 2 guys came back on after seeing the python and said they
had captured a baby python and perhaps the school could use it in the snake
display. The instructor told them
to hold the head very hard. Then, he
took it from the guy and the shouted "You stupid F---K, thats a full grown
Fer de lance".
"SLIDE FOR LIFE": We went to the "slide for life" river crossing; the instructor warned us all about the danger of hitting the "stop tree" on the other side of the river. He had a stuffed dummy to demonstrate the slide. He explained that the knot at the end of the rope would stop the slide. He released the dummy, it gathers speed and hit the knot, but continued on and smashed into the tree. He then told us "it was the weight", as the dummy was 205 pounds. He would make adjustments to the knot. A guy appeared on the other side of the river, tied a second knot, yelled to send the biggest guy to try it out. They picked an overweight guy. The "volunteer" was saying he would not go but, after a while, he did. As he went down the slide, four instructors came out behind the tree, two on both sides with a stop rope. When they did that, it prevented you from hitting the knot and most importantly, the tree. We did pull up our legs to prevent hitting the bank as we were completing the slide.
told to build above ground sleeping platforms and to store the packs and stuff
you had for the night because feral hogs would smell food and charge into your
position. Another tale to scare us, I thought.
Until one night about 50 pigs came stomping in the area, you could smell
the foul odor of the pigs and hear the tusks hitting the uprights of
the sleeping platforms. On some of the trails, there were miles of
ants carrying straw and leaves crossing the trails .
rations, we dined on monkey, alligator and something called "coatimundi",
like a large rat. Learning to
walk around a night was an exercise of walking down a slipper trail of black
palm, which had spikes sticking out of the trunks.
If you reached out to get a footing, you got stuck and had to remove them
like a splinter. I do not recall ever walking around at night
in Vietnam on purpose. We did learn
not to touch any thing in a Vietmam village due to the possibility of booby
& Evasion: I was teamed up with a Navy Seal.
He was the team leader and wanted to be first to find the Partisan Point.
We did rappel off a waterfall. The best was the we heard a boat coming up the
river. We got in the river and had reeds that we used like a snorkel.
We were under water so clear, I could see the prop of the outbord
motor as it passed by. Hard to believe we had a non swimmer being held under
water by that Seal. He told the guy how to breathe in a course of about a
minute. We came in third.
had a sleeping position with some overhead protection from mortars in Vietnam.
These were the lessons from jungle school.
I have the Jungle Expert Badge on my dress blues.
You know me, of course. A show off and proud of it.
Maj Jerry Orr comments
attended The Jungle Warfare Training in
1963 and went through a VERY well
survival program prepping me for Vietnam. The
training, instructors and experience was top
did the "Slide for Life', made
our on floating rafts to carry our equipment across the Chagres
River, with snipers in boats along the way across. When I got to the other side
I asked why the snipers??.... then I was told "in case of Sharks."
They didn't mention that!
was very rigorous, very educational of what to expect in the Jungle. We
lived in the Jungle, made our on
It took me and my partner 2 1/2 days
and Evasion" to get back to base camp.
Top Notch Cadre and leadership instructors.
Maj Jerry Orr
Note: Wish I could have been in that class. Seems like the Instructors
weren't out to kill students back in 1963. But it does appear the Jungle
School had continuous, ongoing problems with the "Slide for Life"