Training for Vietnam Via Panama
Charles G. White

Before I went to Vietnam, I went to Panama for jungle training. Training in this new environment included jungle combat operations, crossing rivers and streams, building rafts, rapelling down water falls, survival techniques, living off of the land, and eating samples of monkey, snake, turtle, iguana, etc.

During the first night's exercises, I slipped off a hill and went flying through air, wondering how and where I would land. While flying through air, a tree limb caught my fatigue trousers, and completely ripped them from me. All that was left was enough fabric to make a usable breech cloth. That was bad enough, but unfortunately someone had told me that if I did not wear underwear, I would be less likely to get heat rash between my legs. So there I was -- naked from the waist down with all of the sympathetic viewers laughing their guts out. For the next few days until we returned to camp, I endured the jungle wearing my breech cloth. That would not have been so bad, if it had not been for those damned Panamanian mosquitos. Actually Panama was fun. If one grew up watching Tarzan movies as had I, it was a life's dream come true (except for the mosquitos which never seemed to bother Tarzan).

But the fun was far from over. We ran through the jungles shooting each other with blanks and BB guns. I recall getting a high score for my agile achievements in evading being shot and captured. I concealed from the score keeper all of the BB whelps that covered my back. Then there was the time during the next week that a guy shot me in the face with a blank about 12" from my face. I always thank God that I wore glasses. Since then I have never been tempted to wear contact lenses.

Because it rained most of the time, the nights were very cold. When we could not find a dry place to sleep at night, we slept in the mud while shivering due to the cold. I recall sleeping back to back with a buddy to help alleviate the chill. That seemed a little weird, but what the heck, this was survival training.

One purpose of this training was to acquaint us with the unknown elements of a jungle environment so that we would feel more comfortable in our soon-to-be surroundings for the ensuing year. This included walking through the swamps at night. I had brought with me the images of snakes from the old Tarzan movies. We learned that a most feared snake was the one-fanged "black palm." The black palm produced a nasty bite. However, we were to learn that the one-fanged balck palm actually was a palm tree with sharp needles that grew in the swamps. Those painful palm pricks led some men to believe that that had been snake bitten. It was a favorite newbie joke among the staff. Alec Wade and Howard Uptain were there. They undoubtedly heard about the dreaded one-fanged black palm.

Then there was the escape and evasion project. I suspect that some did want to endure the next 24 hours of hacking through the jungle with machetes searching their way through the maze of jungle growth that regenerated itself very quickly. They were captured and tortured. I was told that some were put in fear of their lives when the captors exposed them to the deadly banana tarantulas. Believing that we had become true jungle fighters, my team continued the escape and evasion endeaver, hoping to set some type of record. We came to a small river which, by crossing, we would save considerable time and perhaps gain an opportunity to be the big winners. This opportunity was thwarted by one member of our four-man team when he refused to cross because he thought the abundant number of iguanas were "gators." I never could understand why he thought those gators would hang around in the trees as did the iguanas. We considered taking him by force, and later wished that we had. As it turned out a team headed an artilleryman won that course, beating a Navy SEAL team (with whom I was impressed) that also was attending the school, but I was not a member of the winning team.

It was during the same period of time that I learned more about the Navy SEAL team. They would do anything to win. They cheated. When they came to a location which required a river crossing, rather than building a raft from ponchos as we had been taught, they had arranged for a local Indian to take them across the river in a canoe. The price: One (1) Rolex watch. I always wondered who paid for the watch. Most likely it was chalked up to a combat loss when they arrived in Vietnam. I suppose that I should not criticize them too much, because in Vietnam we were able to reconcile our records for lost compasses, etc. when we had trucks, tents, and bunkers blown up by enemy artillery and mines.

Finally we were off to the long awaited adventure -- Vietnam. After arriving in Dong Ha near the DMZ, I thought, "I have spent most of my life on the flat plains of West Texas. I always dreamed of those scenes in the Tarzan movies, Panama, and Vietnam, but here it is deja vue again -- flat boring plains." Fortunately, it was not long before I did get to see beautiful scenery and jungles, and I was sent to my unit. During the tour of my great adventure in Vietnam, I learned that mosquitos were the least of our worries. Those other worries are reserved for other stories.