The entire battalion stood at the ready on the decks of APA-249, USS Francis Marion, dressed in full battle gear, preparing to go over the sides, down the nets, and into the Higgins boats bouncing and rolling in the choppy water below. The mission was to enter Fort Sherman Jungle Warfare School with an amphibious landing onto the beaches of Panama. But the sea raged that day and the weather was foul all morning. We held our places at the disembarkation stations, standing by.
Sometime late in the afternoon, the clouds cleared and the word changed with the weather; toss off those bulky life jackets and move toward the helo-pad on the fantail.
We deployed, climbing into ‘the Frogs,’ the big double-bladed CH-46's. The amphibious landing became a vertical insertion. The change didn't matter. In fact, I liked it better. I'd done both many times before and flying was the way to go.
We descended on the Panamanian LZ in short time. US Army Special Forces instructors, the 8th Special Forces group, paraded about, green berets cocked on their heads, waiting, like jockeys anxious before a race. We landed. They busted us into small platoon size units and hustled us off through a maze of jungle trails.
Before we had time to think, we were issued machetes and swallowed up in a project of hootch construction. We chopped thick limbs, tied them with vines and built platforms ten or twelve feet up in the trees; a village of Tarzan-like houses, complete with thatched roofs made of split palm fronds, materialized within a few hours.
Darkness fell early beneath the double jungle canopy. But we were done and squaring away by the time people started breaking out flashlights and setting up watches.
We ate cold rations that first night. Even so, morale was high. We hollered from hootch to hootch and made stupid Tarzan yelps at each other.
I wrote up a watch list for my squad and passed the word to each man about the assignments. The first to stand watch was PFC Walter Crawley, a slow, deliberate farm boy from Monks Corner, South Carolina. He was my buddy. I told him when to begin. He scratched his head.
“Let me see if I understand you,” he said. “I really want to get this. You want us to stand fire watch? Out here in the jungle? Fire watch?”
“You got it.”
“You know, Will,” he said, “we just ate cold chow ‘cause they won’t let us build no fires? Now, what does a fire watch look for when there ain’t no fires?”
“Try snakes, or muti-legged creepy fuckin’things,” I said, “use your imagination.”
Crawley clicked on his flashlight and shone it up in the trees then down in the undergrowth. He moved to take up his post. “Any particular kind of snakes?” he mumbled, stumbling away. “I mean, back home we got old barn snakes, but they don’t eat nothin’ but the rats and such. My daddy never wanted us foolin’ with them…”
I slipped quickly asleep.
Then, a little before dawn, I awoke to urgent shouts and wild screeches. Bodies were falling from the trees. I looked out. One Marine, e-tool in hand, lunged backward, head first, pinwheeling, swinging and kicking and falling into the absolute darkness of the jungle floor. I heard bone-crunching thuds and heavy rolling in the blackness below. Branches snapped and tree limbs cracked all around me. Cries of panic and terror pierced the night. We were hit! But by whom?
“Monkeys! They’re fucking monkeys!” someone yelled in a stupor. “We’re under attack by fucking monkeys!”
We had weapons, M-14’s, but only blank ammunition. Some Marines opened up anyway, hoping to scare the apes away. But it didn’t work. The monkeys attacked en masse. It came down to hand to hand, e-tool and rifle stock to head bones and teeth. Guys were swatting monkeys and decking them out, but we were taking losses, too. The monkeys were vicious, biting, tearing and ripping flesh. Two squads on my right flank had to withdraw. We had men down. We had casualties.
“Corpsmen up,” someone yelled. And someone else. And someone else. “Corpsman up!”
The monkeys repossessed their trees and established their defensive position. They shook the branches, then settled down. They hooted some. I shined my flashlight across the tree line at them, pausing, spotlighting them. They lounged, legs dangling in the tree limbs, lazily. It was over in a flash, or seemed to be. Big, ugly, hairy, fucking creatures. Calm now, like house pets. They had what they wanted.
“There’s one of them mother-fuckers right there,” Crawley said, shining his light, surprise in his voice. “And another. Holy shit, Will. It’s a fucking zoo. And I never thought about watching for monkeys. You never said nothin’ about that.” Crawley crouched on one knee, his e-tool in one hand, flashlight in the other, both held tensely, at the ready.
“Let’s get a corpsman over here, goddammit,” someone cried.
Disorder continued through the rest of the night. Then finally, light broke through the foliage and the monkeys left without notice. I looked up, they were gone and dawn arrived.
Total casualty figures seemed high. Two broken arms, one fractured collarbone, a mangled foot, two sprung wrists, and twelve individual monkey bite lacerations. The twisted wrists, and monkey bites were only walking wounded. They were treated by the corpsmen, patched up and returned to duty. Those with bites began a treatment of shots, as well.
Broken bones were returned to the ship and I never saw those Marines again; never took time to think about them, either. Wewere hustled into formation and marched away.
We trudged down a jungle road. I hadn’t noticed it was even there the afternoon before. We came to a small clearing where wooden bleachers had been erected. A thatched cupola made a sort of instructor’s stand or stage in front. We took our seats murmuring, still a little spooked from the middle of the night assault and the resulting mishap tally. We all looked a little dazed. I felt hungry too; a hot coffee would have been good. But there was no time for that.
A tall Special Forces instructor stepped onto the stage, grabbed our attention and held it tight.
He said, “You, gentlemen, have just learned when and how to compromise with an indigenous population. Those apes you confronted last night live in this jungle. They own this jungle. This jungle is their home. You have discovered they are quite capable of defending it when they choose. I suggest you take a lesson from that. But, more importantly take a lesson from this:
“What you men confronted last night was nothing more than the unexpected. Listen to me, Marines.Marines. The jungle is the unexpected! Over the next two weeks I shall prepare you to operate in this and any similar environment. I am tasked with simplifying for you the nature of this jungle and, therefore, the nature of the unexpected. When you complete this course, you will pack with you one simple understanding. Response is always preceded by stimulus. The unexpected will generally appear after you ignore this simple fact. Ignoring things, people, will get you toe-tagged and body bagged.
“Now, I have my orders, gentlemen. I intend that you stay alive and healthy long enough to slay at least a few of our adversaries in South East Asia. After that, you may die if you choose. But to accomplish my mission, which by the way, is now your mission, you must learn to neutralize the unexpected by foreseeing the inevitable.”
The Special Forces sergeant popped a CS gas canister, tossed it on the deck in front of the bleachers and walked casually off to the side.
“Gas, gas, gas!” a Marine yelled in the precisely proscribed procedure.
I ripped out my gas mask, slapped it on and pulled down the straps, above, below, the sides. I palmed the face, cleared the breather.
We stampeded out of the bleacher area, a wave of muffled snarls moving with us.
“These beanie-headed sons of bitches are crazy!”
”That’s some hostile shit, man, ain’t it? Ain’t it?”
“Did you see what that army bastard did?”
We scattered around the area flapping our arms to blow off any residue, making sure no gas was captured in the folds of our utilities.
A teary-eyed, mucus-filled chaos ensued for twenty minutes or so. Then, the CS gas dissipated and the instructor called us back to order.
“All right. Let’s school circle right back where we were,” he shouted. He secured his mask, snapping up his leg satchel. ”Let’s move it, men.” He pumped his arm up and down signaling the double-time.
We herded back to our seats and settled down. The instructor picked up in a matter-of-fact tone of voice.
“Now, you Marines who got overrun last night are already behind in this program. The time allotted for shelter construction is over. So tonight, when you return to your base camp you will construct your hootches anew, and on your own time. Now I understand you MarinesMarines all stick together. So, maybe some of you ‘haves’ can do something about these ‘haves-not’.”
He gazed at us intently and in silence for a long moment. Then, pointing as though at a spot in the air between us, he shouted, “This is the beginning, troops. This is no time to be behind!”
The sergeant took his leave and walked off. The next word was hollered out: “Platoon sergeant, take charge of your troops. Fall them out over there in formation. Prepare for morning chow.”
The bleachers emptied. We moved toward the designated area and milled around trying to herd up for chow.
“I think it’s an army thing,” Duchamp said, obviously persuaded. Lance Corporal Raymond Duchamp, a short, wiry Cajun from New Iberia, Louisiana, normally smiled a lot. He seemed concerned, now though. We were buddies, too. To him the Corps was a great adventure. PFC Walter Crawley, who always scratched something, was scratching his nose this time and standing next to Ray, nodding his head in agreement, convinced too.
“An army thing?” I said. “What’s that mean?”
“Yeah, you know. These Special Forces types, Will. They got a hard-on for sea soldiers. You know they knew about them friggin’ monkeys all the time. Sumpin’ tells me this place is going to be a mutha’.”
As it worked out, Duchamp was right, as he usually was; he had an especially keen shit-detector, which he said he’d acquired hunting alligators up in the bayous and swamps of his hometown turf. I trusted him completely. And, this time he’d sure called it dead in the X-ring.
Fort Sherman had been preparing troops for Vietnam since the early sixties, or even before. They had it down to military science.
A normal cycle conducted training in three stages; individual warrior skills, small unit tactics, and company size maneuvers. Individual warrior skills. That’s where they got me.
We route-stepped down the narrow jungle trail, one guy following the other, or some guys grouping together in twos and threes. We backhanded the pressing foliage when it got in the way, and strolled in an unhurried pace. People smacked at mosquitoes and grumbled about the duration of the classes.
We had about fifteen minutes before the next class began; the smoking lamp was lit so it was time to squeeze any cramped leg muscles and shake out the dead numbness in our asses. The last session had lasted over an hour and a half.
Raymond Duchamp was walking alongside me smoking a Camel and talking over his shoulder to Walter Crawley who took up the rear. Duchamp was animated, gesturing, and unusually serious. He was explaining what was happening right then in the Nam.
“See the Crotch is working exclusively up in Eye Corps. That’s what I’ve heard. Eye Corps’ where the shit’s the deepest so who ya think they gonna put there?”
“Mother Corps.” Crawley laughed.
“There it is,” Ray said. “Seems the gooners are coming across the DMZ in Divisional strength as we speak. Really! Right now they’re slipping whole Divisions down through the Z. They’re coming in one squad at a time and then hooking up at their rally points.”
Ray fished a crumpled letter from his pocket, straightened it, and slapped it against his hand. “Here’s the straight scoop,” he said. He turned the envelope left and right so we could see it, then slipped it away quickly as though it were contraband. He said, “I gotta letta just yesterday from my home boy. He and me got split up in California when he went to the Nam and I got orders for Geiger to do ITR all over again. Anyway, he’s with Three-three now. Or, he’s spose to be. He says he’s on the ‘Repose’ when he wrote. You know, that hospital ship that cruises the coast over there. Says he’s recovering from something called FUO.”
“What’s that?” Crawley asked. His eyes widened, he scratched his ear.
“Fever of unknown origin,” I said. I’d heard of it before. Vietnam had a serious problem with malaria. And, then there was this mysterious disease that was pulling grunts out of the ranks quicker than the enemy.
“Yeah,” Duchamp continued. “My home boy says the poop from S-2 reports two whole Divisions meandering their sweet communist asses into Quan Tri province. They been coming since February of last year. Can you believe that? Word is,” Duchamp lowered his voice, “it’s the three twenty-four B Division and the three forty-first. That’s classified, of course.”
“We need to look them up. Research their asses. Find out their history.” I said.
“Look ‘em up where?”
I didn’t know. I shrugged. Duchamp kept talking.
“Something is up big time, that’s what I think. I mean something is gonna be coming down soon. What is this, August? Hell, we’ll be over there by October. Bet on it.”
“You think we’ll all be going to Nam when we’re done here?” Crawley asked.
“Is pig pussy pork?” Ray said. “You know we are.”
“At least we’ll be together.”
“Don’t know about that,” I said. “We’ll get individual orders to WESTPAC. That’s what I’ve seen anyway.” I finished the Pall Mall I was smoking, field stripped the butt, lit another. We had time.
“Yeah, but maybe we’ll meet up over there. Hell, I like you ugly fuckers,” Crawley said, grinning. He shimmied his head and shoulders in his funny, countrified way. “We all’s become buddies with all this training together and everything.”
Crawley’s face turned pale for an instant. Why? Was he uncomfortable with the thought of reporting in to a strange, new company, ten thousand miles away? Hell, we all were probably, but it was the drill. Nothing was to be done about that. It was the inevitable next step.
“See what you got over there, is-” Duchamp hesitated, as though he wanted to squeeze his words to precision, then continued, “-is they use a kinda ‘as needed’ priority. If somebody’s just been in the shit, lost people and stuff, they send in the new guys straight to that unit.” Duchamp raised both arms in a question, then dropped them, smacking his thighs. Crawley studied the gesture intently, scratching his cheek.
Duchamp said, “Fill up the slots, ya see? Ain’t no cohesion in this New Corps no mo. Everybody’s just a numba. Out for his self. Fodder’s what we are.”
“A team’s what we are.” Crawley disagreed. He smiled a wide, toothy grin and snapped out his fist. Duchamp popped it coldly, giving the dap, but without enthusiasm.
“Body bag filler. That’s what my home boy says.”
“Jesus, Duchamp,” I said, surprised by all the gloominess, “Who shit in your mess gear? You need to see the Chaplain or something?”
“Ain’t dat, Will,” he said, “Ain’t dat.”
A voice hollered out to everyone ending the grab ass. It brought us back to the situation at hand. “All right let’s put ‘em out and fall-in in the bleacher area.”
A Special Forces instructor, wearing a sweatshirt and fatigue trousers stood fists on hips in front of the empty bleachers and began right away. He was hard-faced, and serious looking even from a distance.
“Your next class will be a hand-to-hand survival skill review. I intend to instruct you in the seventeen most proficient ways to kill your enemy with nothing more than your birthday suit. Now I want two things, gentlemen,” he shouted. We banged and slapped and shuffled our way into the bleachers. When things settled, he went on.
“I want two things. Listen up. Eyeballs and ears.”
“That’s four things,” Duchamp mumbled under his breath.
“Do we understand each other?”
“Yes, Sergeant,” we boomed.
The instructor began by explaining the need to be totally focused, completely concentrated. Then he kicked and gouged some invisible opponent. He jumped about the platform, throwing fists and elbows. He slapped, flipped, kicked and threw a pretend attacker. He shouted. He kicked serious imaginary ass by the counts. “One, two!” He took out a platoon, or maybe a company. Fists and feet. Feet and fists. Toes and heels. Palms and head-butts. He went on and on explaining each move. From behind. From the flank. Frontal assault.
All this hand-to-hand stuff was interesting, but come on. I was a mortar man. I couldn’t imagine doing any of this crap for real. This Special Forces snake-eater thinks we’re all Bruce Lee or something. What the shit. I’d just shoot the enemy or mortar his ass. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? I wouldn’t get in the situation in the first place. I stared down at my right boot. Somewhere I’d stepped in some kind of shit. I leaned over and sniffed. Dog shit. No, probably monkey shit. I wanted to get it off my boot. I angled my foot and scraped.
“Now, suppose, through no fault of the United States government or its extensive training programs here at Fort Sherman Jungle Warfare School, you manage to find yourself in the unenviable position of not having a weapon on a hot field of battle. Your enemy, being smarter, more conscientious and resourceful, does. What do you do, young Corporal?”
I looked up, pointed to myself.
“That’s right, you,” The sergeant said.
“Take his,” I said boldly.
“Take his! Excellent. Step out here,” he said. He motioned me to the center of the instructional platform and selected another Marine to join me.
He chose a big guy, a PFC, over six feet and at least twice my weight.
“Unscabbard that K-bar, Marine,” the instructor said to the PFC. “When I give you the word, I want you to put that K-bar here,” he pointed at my solar plexus, “and twist. This is a two-count movement. Do you understand?” The instructor hit me in the chest with the round of his fist and twisted. “One, two!”
“You, young Corporal,” he said to me, “will demonstrate the appropriate block. A four-count movement. Now watch. Eyeballs, men!”
“Take you position, Private,” the instructor said. He stepped up to the Marine and sharply blocked the K-bar with the knife-edge of his left hand. He caught his wrist, pulled him forward and drove his knee into his chest. The Marine dropped to his knees. The instructor finished him with a semi-simulated blow to the back of the neck.
“There it is, people. Quick and lethal,” he shouted.
“Get up,” he told the private.
The instructor repeated the movement again, slowly. Twice.
“One,” he blocked the knife. “Two,” gripped the wrist and pulled the man forward. “Three,” he shoved his knee into the assailant’s chest. “Four,” he chopped him on the back of the neck. He had my attention now.
The instructor stepped out of the way and said,” Now, when I give the word I want to see it. Prepare yourselves.”
The PFC took his stance, feet apart and leaning slightly forward at the waist. He towered over me. The sharp point of the K-bar was up and dangerous. The guy looked pissed at having just been slapped around. I took my stance.
He lunged forward. I snapped my left hand down hard to execute the block. Pain shot straight through my hand, my arm and directly into my brain. Sharp excruciating pain. Blood shot out of my hand. I jerked away and stepped back, but the guy came on to finish me off. Fuck! I did a right leg sweep, caught him just beneath the ankle of his left foot. He slammed to the deck.
“At ease!” The instructor shouted at the downed man. I grabbed my left wrist and stared in a stupor at the open gash in my hand. Blood spewed out. My mouth fell open in shock. I stood there holding my wrist not knowing what to do, not believing what had just happened.
“I’ll bet you are not thinking about your right foot now, are you, Corporal?” The instructor said, eyes glinting.
My right foot? Why would I be thinking– “No, Sergeant!”
He pointed to me as an exhibit. “This corporal, gentlemen, is now completely concentrated and totally focused.” The slack-jawed faces stared out from the bleachers, frozen.
“Now, get this man a Corpsmen,” he ordered. “And, let’s get the next two people up here.”
The asshole who had stabbed me got up and strutted back to his seat. He’d drawn blood and after the surprise wore off, I could see he’d enjoyed it.
What was it Duchamp had predicted about jungle warfare school? “A mutha!”
His Cajun shit-detector hummed on all cylinders.