Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Army I Knew: Panama Part 4, or, The Wild, The Innocent, and the Howler Monkeys

I mentioned in the last post that I wanted to tell the story about the howler monkeys.

It was late in the afternoon of my relatively brief active-service career. Whilst children may set to tormenting the cat infantry battalions try and find ways to get their young first- and second-termers to "go career"; re-up for a long term assuming they're any good. The dirtbags are welcome to take three and out; the guys who look like they might make good senior sergeants get offered treats - cakes and ale, or, in my case, NCO schools.

Other than Panamanian jump school that was pretty much all USSOUTHCOM had to offer. We'd been to the Jungle School at Fort Sherman - kind of a gag, since we all lived in Panama so getting our "banana boat" patch wasn't exactly a thrill. Everything else was a TDY school - in other words, we'd have to actually fly away somewhere and live there for a while and the Army would have to pay for it - and the Army of the late Eighties wasn't okay with that.

So I was offered a slot at the lowest level of the professional noncommissioned officer school system; Primary Leadership Development Course, PLDC, then taught at the NCO Academy at Fort Sherman.

Let me back up here for a moment.

The U.S. Army has had pretty twisted relationship with formal schooling for sergeants.

Prior to the Sixties there really wasn't any. You learned to be a sergeant like you learned any other trade; by apprenticing under a master craftsman - a platoon sergeant when you were a young stud, then a first sergeant when you were a platoon daddy. When the Army created the "Super Sergeants" - sergeants major - in the Fifties they were expected to be the master of all masters, the big Daddy Rabbit to all the little bunnies. It didn't turn out that way - the star warriors turned out to be fixated on haircuts and whose company area wasn't policed tightly enough - but that was the idea.

Well, Vietnam kind of fucked over the U.S. Army's sergeants. The best of them got tired of spending every couple of years getting shot at by angry Asians and got out. The remainder...well, they weren't the best of them.

As officers often will, the officers that ran the U.S. Army assumed that if you have a people problem that you can fix it by throwing "education" at it. So beginning in the late Sixties the Department of the Army began tinkering with the idea of a school for sergeants to unfuck their NCO problems.

To make a long story short, by the time I got in in 1980 the Army had a three-level NCO school system - but one that was actually divided laterally within the Army, as well.

When you were a corporal (or a specialist 4th class) you went to PNCOC; the Primary NCO Course. IF you were a "real" soldier - an infantryman, artilleryman, or a tankerish sort of guy (that is, had an armor or cavalry MOS).

If you were a support puke, a REMF, an ash-and-trash in-the-rear-with-the-gear type you went to something called PLC, Primary Leadership Course. Because you weren't a noncommissioned officer, right? You were some sort of "specialist", not a hard-stripe, ass-kicking sergeant.

As I remember this nonsense continued up the next step; there was a BNCOC for combat-arms guys and a BLC for the soft-stripers. You went there as a buck sergeant or a specialist 5th class to move on up to E-6.

Finally the segregated drinking fountains stopped at platoon sergeant, and all the E-6s, hard- and soft-stripe, went to ANCOC.

By the time I made E-5, though, the Army had rethought all this separate-but-equal schooling along with the whole idea of "soft-stripes" above the troop level in general. One aspect of it was the conversion of everyone above the grade of E-4 to a hard stripe. I've written about this; I really liked being a Spec-5, having an "umbrella for my bird", of being able to tell the First Shirt when he came mooching around the barracks late on Friday looking for a "...hard-charging NCO for a simple, easy little detail tomorrow morning..." that I wasn't an NCO but, rather, a sort of uniformed consultant, a military frittilary whose job it was to add a soupçon of tone to what would otherwise have been a vulgar brawl.

The other was the merging of the NCO Schools. PNCOC and PLC were the first to merge into PLDC. BLC was then disappeared in favor of BNCOC. By the late 1980s everyone, ladidadi and everybody, went to PLDC if they wanted to get, or keep, their stripes.

And so it was that, in the late summer of 1987, I tossed my A-bag and battle-rattle into the back of a deuce-and-a-half heading northwest across the rutted highway that crossed the spine of the isthmus to attend that august institution of military scholarship, the 193rd Infantry Brigade NCO Academy Primary Leadership Development Course, Class 87-11.

I don't really have much to say about the course itself. It was just your generic Army "leadership" school, which means that the class material included some worthwhile notions, a fair bit of wishful thinking, and quite a bit of check-the-block flufflepuff that we warriors for the working day, proletarian scum that we were, memorized, recited, and forgot. Come to think of it, I can't remember any of the actual program of instruction other than the Brigade Song.

Which wasn't actually part of the POI, mind you, but a bizarre obsession on the part of the sergeant major who was the commandant of the whole magilla.

This joker had developed an obsession with military minutia as do nearly all sergeants major but instead of facial hair, or uniform insignia, or vehicle appearance (all of which I've had smages obsessed with) the Commandant was all wrapped around teaching us to sing the Brigade Song. It is a tribute to the man's obsession that to this day - nearly thirty year's later - I can remember the words to a fair bit of this musical atrocity.
"Our brigade serves our land,
Serving her Proud;
Bayonet Brigade, our flag will wave.
For our God and Country tell it out loud,
Our traditions we'll save!"
Every day at the noon meal we had to mark time in the chow line roaring out this ballad so that we'd be able to knock the critics dead at our graduation. Sergeant York help the student leadership if their tenure was marked with a substandard rendition of the 193rd Infantry Brigade Song; they'd have been better off caught sitting on a pile of Peruvian marching powder with a stack of kiddie porn.

The only two other things I remember about PLDC at Fort Sherman were the old-school tropical barracks and the saluting gun outside the billets.

The barracks were the only billets in Panama I ever encountered that really WERE old-school in that they lacked air-conditioning. They were still as they had been build back in the Thirties (or Forties), without windows of any sort. Instead the immense apertures in the exterior walls were filled with mesh screening as God and General Gorgas had intended, and the interior partitions were just that, partitions; cubicle-like half-walls with open spaces below the ceiling.

For those of us living in the 1980s this was like a ginormous electric fan; no matter how you looked at it, it either sucked, or blew. We hated the eternal humidity, we hated the constant stickiness and heat. My personal hate was the mildew. Everything mildewed, but especially any sort of slick surface, especially the spit-shined boots and low quarters we were required to keep neatly lined up underneath our racks. Every morning I'd wipe off the fine film of green slime that had accumulated overnight, pursing my lips and making little "eew! eew!" noises. Every night I'd do the same before laying down on the floor to sleep.

This wasn't because of the heat, but because it helped us "manage our time" better. Taking a half hour to make our bunks tightly enough to satisfy the cadre would have eaten into the little time we had to prepare for classes. So the very first night before the class officially began we made up our racks foot-bindingly tight and from then to the final night of the course slept on our foam mats and poncho liners on the floor.

The most ironic thing about this was that, for the first time in my almost-two-years in Panama, I actually got acclimated to the heat.

The last week of the course we had a storm sweep in off the Caribbean. For a full day and night it poured and the temperatures dropped out of the low nineties (with 100% humidity) to the middle eighties (with perhaps 60-70% humidity).

Wrapped in our thin poncho liners on a narrow foam pad over the concrete floor we froze. I woke some time in the early morning hours shivering and couldn't get back to sleep. Finally I raided my wall locker for the Goretex jacket I had never worn since the day I stepped off the aircraft at Howard AFB, wrapped it over the poncho liner, and was able to catch another four hours of sleep or so before first call.

The gun?

Our billets and the classrooms were on one side of the long rectangle of tropical barracks and associated buildings (store- and arms-rooms, originally, tho one of them had been converted to a small PX Annex complete with the usual barber shop and boot-shine stand) that formed the main "Fort Sherman" post area. The center of this rectangle was a huge grassy field that had presumably been the battalion parade field/PT area back when there had been an infantry battalion home-stationed there. Along one side of it, outside our billets, was a small brick platform that supported two flagpoles and one of those old M1 75mm light or "pack" howitzers that seem to have ended up all over the place as static displays and saluting pieces. You can just barely make out the flagpoles in this picture taken back in 1986. Trust me, the little cannon is down there somewhere.

Part of our job as future sergeants major of the Army was to provide a color guard for this set of flags. The drill was pretty simple: six bodies, two for each flagpole, a gunner, and the HMFIC, guard commander, NCOIC, whatever you wanted to call the person who was in charge of the whole farrago.

So every evening the color party would form up outside our billets and march over to this hardstand. The two pairs on flag detail would go to their flagpoles, the gunner would load a blank round in the cannon, and the NCOIC would stand in imperial dignity supervising his little empire.

The recording of the Panamanian anthem would play (a long brass band piece that had several wild trumpet solos in it; if you want to hear it there's a Youtube video here) and the soldiers at the pole with the Panamanian flag would lower it. Then the music for Retreat would play. At the end of Retreat the NCOIC would wag a finger and the gunner would fire the salute, then the guys on the U.S. flagpole would crank down the Stars and Stripes as "To The Colors" would play.
(I should note that this was always one of my favorite moments in the Army day. The old bugle calls are...well, everybody "gets" the National Anthem, unsingable old drinking song that it is. But "Retreat" and "To The Colors" are a sort of private Army thing, and everything on post stops for them. Cars come to a halt on the post roads, strollers stand still, and the high, clear, cold notes float out over the evening sky. There's even a perfect sort of ritual series of movements in coming to a stop, going to parade rest for "Retreat" and then coming to attention for the salute to the colors. Even more than Taps, to me this little ceremony always symbolized the peaceful ending of another duty day.)
After the last note of "To The Colors" the color parties would fold their flags, the gunner would fall in juggling his spent casing, everybody would march off smartly, and that was that.

Except the evening that I was scheduled to be the NCOIC.

Because as it turned out, one of my old battalions from Ft. Bragg was going through the Jungle School ("Jungle Operations Training Center", to give it it's right name) that cycle. I had wandered over and hob-nobbed with my old aid station pals the previous day and might have mentioned having the flag detail the next evening. And, knowing those characters as I did, I should have suspected something. But I was wrapped up in school business and failed to be as suspicious as I should have been.
The other fail was on the part of the guy detailed as my gunner. The drill is that he's supposed to look down the barrel of the saluting gun before locking the blank round in place. He didn't.

When I charged into my old aid station that night the guys swore, swore that the idea was that the roll of toilet paper was supposed to disintegrate into confetti to produce a sort of festive effect. They had had no idea that to keep the inside of the barrel from caking solid with rust in the tropical climate that the post maintenance people has slathered the inside with GAA, the thick grease the Army uses to lubricate pretty much anything. And it was this glop that had soaked into the roll of asswipe they had slipped just inside the breech in the predawn darkness, turning it into a dense, dank, greasy projectile.

The result was pretty impressive, in an utterly fucked-up, sword-and-sandal-movie, flaming-catapult-projectile sort of way.

My little detail marched out and took their positions. The brassy Panamanian anthem played and the stars-and-rectangles Panamanian flag came down. The bugle sounds of "Retreat" floated out over the warm evening, the traffic around us came to a halt in the golden sunlit street. I flicked a finger and the gunner pulled the lanyard...

...and a spinning wad of flaming bog-roll vomited forth from the muzzle of the little cannon and soared out across the parade ground.

I stared at the gunner and the gunner stared back at me, we both stared at the color parties who stared back at both of us, and the burning ball of shit paper hit the grass, bounced once, and rolled quickly to a stop, flames licking up from it rather cheekily.

It was the giggling from the JOTC billets that clued me to the culprits as I marched out across the greensward to stomp out the little flames slowly spreading away from the greasy mess. And they were still giggling when I burst into the JOTC visiting-unit aid station later. Apparently I had provided some serious quality entertainment and my old buddies refused apologize for helping me provide it.

Anyway, I promised that this one would be about the howler monkeys, right?

Okay. So, here's the thing. Part of the PLDC program of instruction - the "POI" - is a short field problem. It isn't really much, as field problems go, but keep in mind that everybody goes to PLDC; salty old grunt medics like yours truly, aviation electronics repair people, headquarters clerks...young men and women who go to the field fairly regularly alongside those who never went closer to the jungla than riding the post shuttle bus past little patches of scrub between the head shed at Fort Clayton and the Corozal PX.

So we had several soldiers in our PLDC class who had NEVER stepped off the pavement from the moment they hit the runway at Howard Air Force Base. Until they got out of the LCM into the JOTC training area for our little field problem.

I have to be upfront with you; I hated the goddamn Atlantic side jungle.

Panama is, as you can imagine, very different on the different sides of the isthmus. The Pacific side - which is where my post at Fort Kobbe and Empire Range, where we typically went to the field - is generally higher and drier. The jungle is thick, but it also tends to be dominated by wooded hillsides and the forest floor is actually relatively open.

The Atlantic side is a nasty low-lying thicket full of impenetrable underbrush dominated by the World's Most Worthless Fucking Tree, the black palm.

This living boobytrap is a horrible object festooned with three-inch spikes all around its trunk. Touching it - or, worse, running into it face-first as you might whilst moving through the jungle at night - is akin to shoving a fistful of needles into your flesh. Worse; the spines of black palm are brittle and will break off under your skin. One of the things I learned early on in Panama was how to remove black palm spikes from GI hands, arms, legs, and faces.

The Atlantic side is wild with these fucking things, along with every other jungle nasty.

Oh, yeah. And howler monkeys.
"When you travel to Panama, it is easier to hear howler monkeys than to see them. With their roars, they mark their territory and communicate with their troop, thanks to a distinctly configured upper airway that allows the species to project its booming voice long distances."
The howlers aren't really "nasty" (unless you happen to blunder into a treeful of them hootched up for the night, at which point you will likely be strafed with monkey shit) but they are hellaciously noisy. The booming sound of a howler is like nothing else you'll ever hear. Listen:

The howlers are another bug - or feature - of the Atlantic side. Their morning and evening howls are pretty much standard issue for field problems in the JOTC training area. You get used to them after a while, but their noises are still extremely bizarre.

As it happened I was the patrol leader for the first phase of the field problem. Our operation was a simple one; load the landing craft and putt around the Fort Sherman lagoon to the training area. Once there, we moved into the jungle and set up a "patrol base" for the night. I'd done this about a gajillion times one way or the other, so pretty much all I had a to do was make sure that I put some other field-experienced people in my squad and team leader positions. That worked slicker than water off a cat's ass, and by just before nightfall we were all tucked into a nice hilltop with our LP/OPs out and digging Ranger graves for the dark.

That was when the howlers started going off.

I was walking the perimeter checking that everyone had their fields of fire sorted out and were getting their positions dug when I noticed three bodies huddled together where there should have been two. When I got closer I could make out who they were: one was Sergeant Molloy, one of our Main Post commandos, a PAC clerk from the SOUTHCOM head shed at Fort Clayton, a pretty, dark-haired woman whose trepidation at venturing into the wilds of Panama had been evident since before we left the cantonment area, and two guys from my own battalion's antitank platoon.
The two guys were huddled next to the PAC clerk, their heads leaning in towards hers and clearly talking six to the dozen. The young PAC sergeant, on the other hand, was hunched down with her huge eyes gleamingly visible in the growing dark. I'm not the most perceptive of leaders but even I could figure out that some damn thing was going on.

I walked over and pulled SGT Miller - the TOW team leader - up and strolled him away towards the inside of the perimeter.

"Okay, big sarge," I said, trying to make out his expression beneath the camo facepaint and the bad light, "what the hell's going on over there?"

"Nothing, seriously, doc. Just talkin'."


"Ummm..." I gave Miller the stinkeye and he shrugged.

"Just remember, slick, I'm the one that gets to give you a gamma globulin shot in the ass every time we go to Honduras and think before you speak again."

"Wellll...we're just explaining to Shannon about the Panamanian Womb Worm."

"The...the what?"

"You know that thing, doc...I thought everybody knew about that dreaded parasitic pest you find here in the Atlantic-side jungle, the one that invades the female reproductive system and lays it's eggs there? Right? The one that always roars before it attacks..?"

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Just explaining to Shannon that, like, the only safety from this horrible thing is to make sure there's something blocking its attack, like, well, you know, something there to keep the Worm out, know..."

I stared at the face opposite me in the darkness and shook my head.

"Look, Romeo. Here's what I know. I know I don't care so much that you're trying to use the goddamn monkeys to get into that poor girl's BDU pants. But I DO care that you're trying to use the goddamn monkeys to get into her pants on my watch. You want to get some sort of sad monkey tail off of that gal you need to wait until tomorrow when you, her, and the goddamn monkeys are the next patrol leader's problem. Goddamn. I'm shifting you two over to Blackie's position, and you send Blackie over to hers, and you're all gonna soldier on like good little soldiers and forget trying to get busy in my patrol base. You got me?"

The boys grumbled but complied, and SP4 Black, who was a nice shy kid without the slightest notion of using the local wildlife to con a frightened girl into slipping into his sleeping bag, laid down next to the young clerk to pull security for her while she slept.

Not that she DID sleep. I was walking the perimeter some time in the early morning hours when I stopped behind her and could see her head swiveling in the darkness like it was on gimbals. I knelt down quietly and hissed to let her know I was there; her entire body jerked like I'd touched her with an electric wire.

"You OK, Sergeant Molloy?" Her eyes in the dark were still as wide as searchlights.

"Yeah...but...the guys said...they said..."

"Look, sergeant, the guys were bullshitting you. They were trying to scare you into sleeping with them by telling you tall tales about the jungle. Those noises are monkeys. Just fucking monkeys. The worst thing they'll do is throw their shit at you. And sleeping with Sergeant Miller or Specialist Prosowicz ain't gonna stop them from doing that."

The two glittering eyes in her dark face seemed to grow brighter as they narrowed and anger replaced fear.

"Those...those...those bastards!"

"Yeah. So you go ahead and wake up Blackie and get some sleep. Got it?"

Even in the pitch dark under the triple canopy I could see without seeing it a look that boded Miller and Prosowicz no good at all. Somebody - two somebodies - were due for a solid kick in the nuts the next time they came macking on young Sergeant Molloy.

From somewhere on the slopes above us a howler monkey roared in the darkness
"Sing our song as we march along!
Looking good! Feeling strong!
Hup-two-three, we're infantry, One-Ninety-Third!
Cutting edge, Bayonet Brigade!"


Leon said...

I really appreciate these stories. Keep them coming.

FDChief said...

Well...we're coming to the end of my active service time. But I have some more tales from the Army Reserve of the Nineties and then the Army Guard of the Oughts. Dunno how those'll go over, but they're my stories and I'll keep telling them so long as anyone stops by to read them...

Ael said...

Love the stories, keep them rolling.

BTW. What is the difference between a war story and a fairy tail?

Ael said...

er tale.

BigFred said...


Brian said...

I well remember sleeping on the floor in my poncho liner, next to my perfectly made bed. We kept that up for a couple of weeks until they figured we would be more receptive to instruction if we had a bit more sleep, in a bed.

Love the story of the flaming toilet roll!

mike said...

Let those Reserve and Guard stories roll. Camp Rilea? I hiked around it once years ago in the early Oughts on the Fort Clatsop to Beach trail when I traveled down the 101. Sounded like all hell was going on inside the wire. Maybe that was you or your Minutemen raising cain.

Whale said...

Memories! When you get the chance to consolidate all of your Panama stories... I would love to read them. Started that tour in Alpha&Charlie 3/5 (Kobbe), went to HQ Co for a brief time, then to 193rd G2 (Amador). School of the America's and Empire for training of 'friendly' weapons familiarization. But spent time on both sides (as well as in the middle - Gatun) Early 70's.