Jungle Warfare Course, Panama 67

In 1967, soldiers that were going to go to Vietnam were often sent to the Jungle Warfare Course in the Canal Zone of Panama.  I think the Main post was Fort Clayton which hadn't changed since they built the Canal.  Large multi-story cement buildings built down  near the water.  I would have complained but with rum so cheap, I'm sure that not a lot of us noticed.  Rum and Coke was about 15 cents @ and for a dollar you could forget the buildings.

I was told by CAPT Kocsis that I had been selected to go to Panama.  I had no clue what to expect but I didn't have a choice.  I was scheduled to fly out on Saturday from Las Vegas for a class to start on Monday.  That Friday night I had my first date in a long time, with Barbara.  It was great to spend some time with anyone other than just the guys.  I am fairly sure we went bowling and I remember that she had a hop in her delivery.  I promised to call her when I got back and then I was off on my adventure.

We flew to Fort Jackson, S.C. and were put up in barracks like the one's we had at the Reception Station.  Terrible but I didn't have the money to do anything different.  They gathered us all up on buses and drove us to Atlanta to fly to Panama City.   I remember it was a Pan Am flight and they had some of the cutest stewardesses of any airline.  They all wore short skirts and looked great.  The flight to Panama was not terribly long but we did have to fly out into the Gulf of Mexico to not fly over Cuba.    Landing in panama was like taking a step back at least 30 years (or more)   We were loaded on non air conditioned buses and driven clear across the ismus to Fort Clayton.  We were along the canal a lot and then near the big lake on the Rio Chagras.  All over the hill sides there were what I would call tar Paper shacks but they all seemed to have a TV antenna.  

Once we found out bunks and got our gear together we went to the O Club where it was air conditioned.  I found that all of the Candidates that I went to OCS with were sent to Fort Clayton and one of my Platoon mates was the club officer.  2nd Lieutenant De La Rosa was tall fellow and he bought us our first drink.  I'm sure that they made it all back in the rest of the day and the next weekend.  At 15 cents a drink we all enjoyed it.  

The next morning we went down to the supply room and drew our weapons for the field exercise.  I swear my M14 was so rusty that I could not make the bolt work.  I broke that weapon down and cleaned it for an hour or so and got it where it would kind of work.  I should have realized that with the humidity at about 100% and the coolest temperature about 80 things would mold and rust and mold and rust....   Right before I left Fort Irwin, I borrowed a knife called a lineman's knife.  It had a blade and a screwdriver. blade.  It was made for soldiers.  It was so rusty by the end of the first week that I could not open it.  I just threw it away.

When the instructors gathered us to go to the field, we were standing in line.  Most of us that were not going directly to Vietnam had on State side fatigues and normal boots.  Little did we know...   One of the guys right in front of me put his rifle over his shoulder at sling arms.  the keeper wasn't fastened enough and his rifle fell right on my big toe.  I had just grown out about half a nail from losing ot to smashing my toe and a couple of days later the nail fell off.  Thank god in that heat and crud it did not get infected.   Abot two miles from base camp, my hat blew off and I spent the next week without a hat.  Somewhere about the middle of the week the heel fell off my boot and boy did I look like a sad excuse for a soldier.  

The course was a series of events that each person completed as an individual the first week.  We repelled down a water fall, did the slide for life across the Rio Chagres, made a raft with a poncho and floated our gear back across the river, and built a hut using the plants and one with out poncho.  There was a night compass course and  many patrolling classes.  We ambushed half of the guys and got ambushed by them. There was one course that I loved.  It was a "Target Detection course where we were given a face shield and BB Guns.  We moved down the trail and identified what we saw to the lane grader.  The BB Gun we had was the same one I had as a boy.  I knew that if you held down the trigger and used the pump action slide you could keep firing until the gun was empty.  About half way down the course I saw something move and I knew it was an ambush.  I opened fire and hit that guy about 10 times as they yelled "check fire, check fire dammit."  I got about five extra points for seeing the sniper and taking aggressive action   As we exited the course,  the instructor then deducted five points for not telling him about a machete stuck in the tree at the start of the course.  

The middle weekend of the course, we were taken back to base camp and I spent the entire time trying to get over the prickly heat that wearing state side fatigues gave me.   The PX had kind of a clothing sales store in it and I bought a set of jungle fatigues, a hat and a pair of jungle boots.   Oh yes, and a giant bottle of calamine lotion. I found that if I coated myself with iot and stood in front of a fan the itch and pain went away.  I also found that rum also helped if worn on the inside.   By Monday morning, we were all ready for anothe3r week of fun in the jungle.  We were taken out to a new place and we were given a set of orders that we opened only when we accomplished a task.  We had a meal that the cadre fixed that ws nothing but what there was in the jungle.  It gave about half of us diarrhea and the only ones that escaped that were the one's that didn't eat.  The rest of the meals were C-Rations we found at the end of each task.  For a week we patrolled across Fort Clayton and slept where we stopped.  The next to the last day we were told that we had to complete an escape and evasion course with seven of our classmates.  We were told to move down river and given two places where we met the friendly troops.  All along the route there were aggressors from the cadre that would tru to capture us and for each time we were captured we would have points deducted from our overall score.  At that time, I had about 1750 out of 2000 points and if I didn't get caught more than 5 times I would have enough points to wear the Jungle expert badge.  

My group looked at the map and realized that if we went along the river, there was only about 35 yards between the mountains and the river.  The team of Navy Seals there for refresher training just made a raft and floated down the river and didn't get caught.  We decided that we would turn the course into a mountain exercise and climbed up the cliffs.  We managed to go along the cliffs and drop down by rappelling into the safe zones to check in when we needed to.  That worked for about half of the way.  It was slow and hard but we didn't get caught.   At the midway point, we saw that the path along the river went inland about a half a mile to go around a swamp.  As we scouted to see what was along that path, we heard the aggressors capture a group ahead of us by about 100 yards.  We decided that cutting across the swamp at night was the best way and didn't get caught.  That swamp was so vile and mosquito ridden that no matter how much repellent we had on you couldn't breathe through you mouth without eating a dozen or so of those damn insects.  We completed the course and were given a rubber raft ride back to the main base for the Graduation.   We all took long showers and right after lunch and a nap we were taken tot he parade grounds and the honor graduates were announced.  I didn't make that list but I was on the list of Jungle Experts.  

On the flight back to the Atlanta Airport from Panama City, someone brought out a bottle of rum.  I thin it was about $2 a quart and we drank more than one using all the coffee on the plane.  We the started to drink cokes and when that ran out, we drank water.   We were way too tired to be rowdy, just a bunch of drunks that smelled like rum and calamine lotion.   

We got to the Atlanta airport about five hours ahead of our flight scheduled to take us back to Vegas.  One of the guys from Kansas City mentioned that he sure would like to fly back through Kansas City and see his family.  I was pretty sure that a delay in route from Saturday to Sunday would be OK so I also went down to the ticket agent and we worked on our tickets.  If I flew standby from Atlanta to KC, there was enough money in the ticket to fly to Wichita and back.  Works for ME!  As the plane was loading, the ticket agent said that there were no more standby seats except for first class.  Crap....   But the stand BY upgrade for first class was only a couple of dollars.  I upgraded and ate a steak and had free drinks while my buddies sat back in the main cabin eating sandwiches. 

I got to Wichita and was met at the airport by my sister.  She told me that our Grandmother had died last week and they wanted to ask the Red Cross to send me home for the Funeral.  They decided  to let me stay in the course ad I had missed the funeral.  Oh well, 

When we got back to Fort Irwin, we checked in with out units.  We were told to get our gear together and we were going out to the field for a week.  We geared up and went out to the field training exercise.     About late Thursday, I started to run a fever and when we drove back to base about 3 AM on Friday I was inside my sleeping bag and so sick I don't remember being taken back to my BOQ room.  Sometime Saturday one of my friends came over to check on me and I was rushed to the Hospital,  I didn't have a clue what was wrong or where I was.  I had literally came in from the field and got in be boots and all. 

After about a week in the hospital One of the Doctors came to see me.  He said they had tested for everything and they could not find anything.  He said if I was anywhere in the desert, he would say it was Dengue fever but you only get it from mosquitoes in the tropics.  I told him that I had just spent two weeks in Panama,  He removed the isolation sign from the door and I got sent back to my BOQ the next morning. 

I called Barb and she sounded pretty cold.  She said that I promised to call her when I got back.  I told her that I had been in the field and then the hospital and she warmed up.  We made a date to go to Disneyland that weekend.  Trust me when I say I rode nothing that went fast or in a circle.  No Mad hatter spinning tea cups for me.

I managed to date Barbara and convince her to marry me before I went to Vietnam.  We were married on 11 Feb 1968 in the Chapel of the Bells, Las Vegas, NV.  Somehow we have been married 44 years in a couple of weeks.  Still love her today.

I managed to survive dengue fever and while it did knock me for a physical loop, we got ready for deployment and got on board the USNS Geiger in Long Beach for the trip to Vietnam.  That story tomorrow.

Charter Member of the sick Lame and Lazy Platoon at Fort Irwin.


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