Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Army I Knew: Panama

In the middle Eighties I was getting bored with the Army, where I was, and what I was doing.


I'd been at Ft. Bragg since the early part of the decade, and had been at the 82nd Airborne for most of that time. I'd roamed around Area J playing medic, jumped onto Sicily DZ with the rest of the battalion,
(and even the 3rd Brigade from time to time; I never saw a Division-level mass tactical jump and, so far as I know, there has never even been one since something like 1944, probably because to jump the whole Division with artillery and the band and everybody would have taken every single transport aircraft in the Military Airlift Command...)
been to Egypt and even frolicked through a splendid little sort-of-Special-Olympic-war in Grenada
(where hardly anyone got hurt and everybody got medals just for showing up)
and, frankly, was developing a very pronounced been-there, done-that attitude.

I needed to change my scenery.


In the U.S. Army this isn't all that simple. You can't just send your resume out to other units looking for a better gig, it's kind of frowned on. Your options are pretty much limited to 1) waiting until your enlistment runs out and then re-enlisting for a specific post or unit somewhere, or 2) putting yourself down on a list as willing to accept a "levy".

A levy - in the Army of 1984 - meant that if the Army needed bodies somewhere you could be sent to that somewhere.

When you placed yourself on the levy list you got to state your "choice" of where you'd like to be levied to. This was fundamentally no different than publicly announcing that if you were to be selected by the Army to be paid to have sexual congress with someone you wished to have said congress with (insert name of fantasy object here) and just about equally effective at gaining you the object of your desire.

As I recall, my three choices (in order) of levy destinations were: Japan, Germany, and Italy.

I got Panama.


What I didn't know - because I was too stupid and self-centered to bother to look around and find out - was that the U.S. Army was in the process of reconfiguring its units assigned to Southern Command - USSOUTHCOM - which at that time was still home-stationed out of the Army posts located in what-had-been-until-1979 the Panama Canal Zone, a strip of honest-to-Jesus-God-Bless-the-You-Ess-Ay that ran right across the nation of Panama and enclosed the canal itself, the defense posts around it, and even the drainages of the waters required to operate the locks.

(See the yellow on the map above? Those were roughly the military posts around the Canal when I arrived in 1984. The Army had Fort Sherman and Fort Davis on the Atlantic side to the northwest, Ft. Clayton and Ft. Kobbe southwest of the Big Ditch on the Pacific side to the southeast. As I recall Ft. Gulick had already been abandoned as had all the former coastal batteries such as Fort Randolph and Fort Grant - nice slide show of images of the old coastal gunsites and their post-handover conversions here, if you're interested - and a number of other service installations such as Albrook AFB on the Pacific side and Coco Solo Naval Base on the Atlantic Side)

Oh, and speaking of oddball Panama stuff...here's kind of a fascinating little site all about the "Coins of Panama" which include a ton of military "tokens" (a sort of scrip that seems to have been common in Panama during the pre-WW2 era) along with some very cool photos of the old installations. A bit of a fun fifteen minutes for a slow evening.

To give you a quick bit of background on the place I was going - the Big Deal was that the U.S. was in the process of turning the Canal and all its appurtenances over to the Republic of Panama.

I suspect that practically nobody today - outside real tinfoil-hat Teatards and related paleoimperialist National Greatness "conservatives" - remembers the Carter-Torrijos Treaties of 1977, but back in the Eighties the Treason of Turnover was a huge big fat hairy deal. Carter was still a dirty word in the former Zone and in the lexicon of the Reaganauts and their even-more-whackadoodle compatriots on the loony Right.

Every Bircher and lapel-flag-waver hated that we had "given" the Canal and all its appurtenences to the dirty greasers with the burning intensity of one thousand suns, conveniently ignoring that "we" had strongarmed the thing away from said dirty greasers back in T.R.'s day and that, in an anticolonial time, the notion of trying to cling to a piece of extraterritorial real estate reeking of Ragtime Era colonialism just wasn't really sensible.

Yeah, like that made a difference. Even back then, arguing sane foreign policy with radical reactionaries was like trying to teach German irregular verbs to a cat...

But regardless, "Given back" we had, and even as the Army was preparing the instruments to transfer my ass down to the tropical paradise it was devolving its holdings in Panama back to the Panamanians and reconfiguring the Army stationed down there.

Y'see, starting back in the Sixties the Army had a full infantry brigade stationed in the Zone, the 193rd BDE. It was the full-meal deal; three infantry battalions (including a mech battalion, 4th of the 20th Infantry, at Fort Clayton) and an FA battery, engineer and MP companies, an aviation battalion, you name it.

That wasn't the end, either; the Army had pantsloads of ash-and-trash all over Panama, including a Special Forces battalion (3rd/7th SFGA) and, briefly, the "School of the Americas", although this rascal departed as I arrived taking with it its reputation as a place where you could get instruction on how to torture people you didn't like.

Or not - with the Escuela de las Americas, who knew? Like the snake-eaters, if they told you what really went on there they'd have to kill you.

The important outfit in all this congeries for me, anyway, was the infantry battalion stationed at Ft. Kobbe, on the southwest bank of the Canal on the Pacific - the Panama City - side.


Now at the time I put myself down on levy this outfit was the 3rd Battalion 5th Infantry. The 5th is a hell of an old regiment as U.S. Infantry outfits go. It dates back to before the War of 1812 and has fought pretty much everywhere the United States has fought.

Various Indian tribes, Mexicans, Southern traitors, Filipinos, Germans, Koreans, Viets, Iraqis, and Afghans...the 5th U.S. Infantry has gone to their exotic foreign lands and killed them all. For over 150 years the "I'll Try" boys played no favorites. If the U.S. decided you needed killing the 5th was on the job.

3rd of the 5th had been a straight-leg infantry outfit in Panama through the Sixties and Seventies, but in the Eighties the entire brigade was being converted over to a "Light" brigade MTO&E and the plan was to convert the 3/5th Infantry into an airborne unit.

Why?

Well, there had been a jump unit there until 1968, one of the 508th battalions. This unit was broken down into a straight-leg outfit and reflagged as 3/5th...but one company, A/3/5, was retained as an airborne infantry outfit.


These characters called themselves "Moatengators" and were, in my strictly personal opinion, in-fucking-sufferable. According to them they invented the airborne infantry, perfected it, and were its ultimate practitioners and as such the epitome of studly cool. I suspect that when the word went around that the Army was looking to reconstitute the 3/5th as the 187th Infantry (Light) (Airborne) the boys of Alpha Company figured that they were going to be King Shits of Turd Hill, the "original airborne" of Ft. Kobbe, Panama.

So it had to be pretty damn deflating when suddenly all these jokers from Ft. Bragg started to show up who seemed to actually know where the jump doors in a C-130 were and everything and who were less than impressed by a hundred or so tropical static-line hangers whose drop zone was about the size of a first-class postage stamp and whose idea of a "mass tactical" jump meant that you had another guy drifting around the sky within a couple of hundred feet of you or so.

And, as it happened, one of those jokers was me.


(Next: Paracaidista!)

8 comments:

Ael said...

Cliffhanger much?

FDChief said...

You have NO idea..! ;)

Brian said...

Oh my!
Can't wait for the next episode!

Lisa said...

I'm onto the next ...

rangeragainstwar said...

Chief,
Was it he 8th or the 7th grp?
In FRG we had the 509 which was mechanized and on jump status.
They were as you describe the Co of the 5th in.
jim

FDChief said...

3rd Bn. of the 7th SFGA, jim; I think the rest of 7th Group was under the flagpole at Bragg but was also tasked with Latin and South America.

The Wiki entry for 7th Group says "In May 1962, the advance party from Company D, 7th Special Forces Group departed for Fort Gulick, Panama, in the Canal Zone, to establish the 8th Special Forces Group. 8th Group was deactivated in 1972 and the unit redesignated as the 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group."

So by my time 8th SF was gone.

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled onto this and had a good laugh. In Alaska we had Charlie Airborne (the C Cos of each battalion were on jump status) and they were just as insufferable. They used to wear their "Arctic Paratrooper" PT sweatshirts out for nights in Anchorage.

Jeffro 2000 said...

LOL; I was a Moatengator you fucking POG. And I was in the 82nd and I was Infantry and you are god damn right we are better than you REMFs.