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.

We 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.

Rappelling?  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 "Non-Swimmers".  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.

So...did 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 shit", 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.

The 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.

I 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 staying here".  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.

Footnote: 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 Lt Frank Herbick; he served as an FO with the 2/9th.  In fact, we both shipped out to the field as 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").  

I 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:

I 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."   

Chief 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?  

We 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.  

Entering 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 caimanI 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.   

But, 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, huh?  

It 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. We 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 plan.  

To 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 off.  There 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.   

And it kept getting faster and faster. We 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" the "volunteer" before hitting the tree, we could see all four men pulling mightily on the rope brake. The 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.  

We 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:

I 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 be filled.

I did 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.

Ahhh, the good old days!

Bob Patalano, A/2/9Arty 67/68


Lt Don Keith comments:

The certificate shows a Graduation Date of  16Dec66.

We arrived 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).

{Webmaster Note. In September, 1966, you started with 1,000 points and could not go below 800 to get your Jungle Expert Badge.}

How you 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, that's 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.

We were 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 .

For 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 slippery 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 Vietnam village due to the possibility of booby traps, etc. 

Escape & 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 time 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 outboard 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.

I always 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.

Lt Don Keith

JUNGLE SCHOOL IN PANAMA: The Pre-Vietnam Course Structure

Maj Jerry Orr (dec) comments

I attended The Jungle Warfare Training in 1963 and went through a VERY well planned survival  program prepping me for Vietnam. The training, instructors and experience was top notch

We 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." Shit!!! They didn't mention that! 

Training was very rigorous, very educational of what to expect in the Jungle. We lived in the Jungle, made our on shelter ("BOHIA HUTS").  It took me and my partner 2 1/2 days of "Escape and Evasion" to get back to base camp. 

Top Notch Cadre and leadership instructors. 

Maj Jerry Orr

{Webmaster's Note: It needs to be made very clear that, in 1963, only Advisory Components (MAAG) were in Vietnam and we were not fully engaged in war in Vietnam until 1966. This means the program itself and the Instructors were more "safety-oriented"  and not "combat-oriented" than later classes.

Wish I could have been in Jerry's 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" exercise.}