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'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.


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!)


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...

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.

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.

FDChief said...

Ah! Finally one of the Moatengaggle shows up! By "better" I assume you mean "dinked around Panama for a couple of years making teensy little postage-stamp DZ jungle jumps", eh, Jethro?. Hey, at least you tried; you get a participation trophy for that!

The funny thing was that within the first year that I spent down at Kobbe A Company pretty much completely lost whatever unique character it had had when it was A/3/5. It was just a regular old paratroop infantry company, no better or worse than any other I worked with. Y'all did have a fucking wild man for a 1SG, tho, I'll give you that. But y'all got swarmed over by levies from Bragg and that was pretty much the end of the Moatenmojo...

Tom Kratman said...

No, that wasn't it. The 193rd, Airborne or otherwise, had a deep relationship, not with the 82nd, but with the 75th. For example, when you arrived there the Bn Cdr was probably George Utter (or maybe his successor). Before, Utter, though, the CO was Wesley Taylor, who went on to command 1st Batt and then the regiment. Before him it was Emory Mace, who went on to command the 2nd Batt. (And who remains my moral guide to this day. Whenever I have a moral dilemma, I simply ask myself, "What would Mace, do?" and then do the opposite.

Conversely, in, for example, B Company, 81-83, where I was a platoon leader and XO, about half the platoon sergeants and squad leaders came from one of the then 2 Ranger battalions, and a large percentage of the team leaders as well, along with non-trivial numbers of the troops. A Company was even more densely 75th than the rest of the battalion.

Now, me, personally, I always preferred the battalion I was enlisted in, 4/10.

Anonymous said...

I was there in 1968 when the 3/508 was reflagged to the 3/5. I was there when the original Montengators were named for A company. I went off jump status to get away from those assholes and went to B company. 90 percent were fresh out of jump school and didn't have a clue what it meant to be airborne.

Tom Kratman said...

"Un Bandido siempre es un Bandido."

Mark Thomas said...

Absolutely correct. I and many assigned to A 3/5 were former 75th. (83-85)Moatengators Rah!

Carlton Phelps said...

I was stationed in headquarters company, signal corp. Radio security and the company mail room were my duties. When we went in the jungle to play Army I was one of the few who carried live rounds, so I had an easier time than most. I travel around to all of the Army bases on both sides with Maj Lowery, headquarter's XO.
Lived in downtown PC with my wife and our daughter was born at Goregus(?) Hospital.
Stationed there 70-72.

David said...

Mission specific much? There weren’t (and aren’t) many Sicily, Holland, Normandy, etc. sized DZs to be found down there. At the squad level, we reigned supreme in our tasked mission.

David said...

Having served in 2nd Batt, the 82nd, Alaska, and as a Moatengator (85-88), you’re correct! We may not have been of much use in the Fulda Gap, but as light-fighters in the jungle, we were untouchable...especially in the late seventies through the eighties, as virtually all of our NCOs, from SSG to CSM we’re experienced Vietnam Vets, passing their hard-earned knowledge onto us.

henryb said...

Moatengator were and still are the best airborne jungle infantry in the world. Our esprit-de-corp is second to none. How many units have you served with that still jump together years after leaving the Army? Moatengators fill the skies of Texas every year in June and will be jumping as a unit again in this year in 2018. Sounds like you wished you were one of us based upon your comments. Also, you seem to know very little about the 8-11 second DZ. Everyone I've seen that came from Bragg were useless in the jungle and had to be retaught how to operate as a jungle trooper.

FDChief said...

Aww...c'mon, guys. Seriously?

A/3/5 was a bizarre little sort of Army joke. What the hell a single jump-qualified infantry company (in a leg infantry battalion...) would have done had any sort of actual fighting broken out in Central America in the Eighties is likely to have been something between "meh" (i.e. what the REST of the battalion would have done, without the parachutes) to "suicidal" (as in trying to jump into somewhere as a lone company).

I could have seen it had the "Moatengators" been, say, a pathfinder platoon in A Company. But having the single dinky little jump unit makes me, a military history buff who has always been kind of fascinated by the tale of airborne operations, scratching my head to figure out how the hell I'd have used the damn thing. In a genuine airborne operation it would have been lost in the crowd. In some sort of oddball little one-off company-sized operation it would have risked defeat in detail.

I'm certainly happy that all the former Moatengagglers still have fun recalling back when they were young, dumb, and full of cum. But the bottom line is still that the outfit was a military oddity before the 3/5-to-2/187 conversion and just-another-airborne-infantry-company afterwards.

Would the Moaters have been as bad-ass as they believed? Maybe. But when the time came, it was Charlie Company that got stuck into the Comandancia.

So we'll never know.

Para069 said...

My first duty station out of Infantry School/Airborne School was 3rd Platoon, A Company 3/5 Inf Ft. Kobbe Panama. 80'-83' I became a Moatengator. I had no idea what I was in for over the next two years! In 11 years of Army service (Active & Guard) and 27 years in Law Enforcement I never served with a better unit! Our CO sucked , but the rest of the leadership were men who shaped my life! My PL , 2nd Lt. Mulholland became I believe a 4 Star in charge of Special Ops Command. My Platoon Sgt , Tommy Heime is one of the finest men I have ever served under. Yes, we were "bad ass" and small unit jungle fighting was our thing! Large amount of Vietnam vets and many others were Ranger Batt boys, they always complained that this gig was suppose to be their easy break from the Battalion before rotating back and we were just as bad : ) . I later went on to serve in the 82nd and 20th SF then moved over into Armour and never found a bunch of misfits like my brother Moatengators!

Unknown said...

Lord what a dick. I was in 4/20 mech, also A 3/5 (ABN). Fine, you are entitled to your opinion. Bit your comment on Grenada being where no one really got hurt. Marlin Maynards freinds and family would disagree. He was shot to death there by Cubans along side a couple other Rangers. You sound just like the kind of guy that was a constant prick and bitched all the time.

FDChief said...

Look. Dead is dead. Dead in a tiny, geopolitically ridiculous piece of nonsense like Grenada is as dead as taking a bullet on Omaha Beach. I'm sorry for Maynards' family and friends; they loved him and will miss him. It doesn't make his death any more valuable or significant or important, any more than anyone who died over that piece of real estate to ensure that Princess Cruise Lines could stop into St. Georges and Virgin Airlines could land at Pt. Salinas.

And, actually, I was a pretty good troop. Kept my mouth shut, saluted and moved out smartly - just the kind of GI every troop unit loves, because we are ready and willing to die for our country.

It's only now that I'm old and curmudgeonly that I think that if anyone has to die for their country it's better to be the other fucker.