Thursday, August 24, 2006

Giants of the Jungle

In a previous post, I mentioned stopping on my way to Vietnam, to participate in jungle survival school, in the Philippines. I want to tell you more about it, even though it's not at all surgical.

Before heading off to the great war, I'd spent three months in San Antonio learning to be a doctor for fliers, at flight surgeons' school. Much of it was fun and interesting: I learned about the physiology of flight, about baro-trauma, about particular afflictions that affect one's ability to operate aircraft. Playing soldier, I learned to fire an M-16, went up in an altitude chamber (note: gas expands at altitude. Colon gas.) I found out what hypoxia (low oxygen levels in the blood) feels like; how you can be completely gorked out from lack of oxygen and believe you are functioning just fine. Showing how tough we were (or ought to have been) we went into chambers filled with tear gas wearing gas masks, and were made to take them off. Then, while choking and coughing and nearly blind, we rammed toothpaste-like tubes with needles at the end into our thighs, squeezing saline (in lieu of atropine) to practice saving ourselves. Over half the guys couldn't do it: push in a needle through dirty pants, no alcohol wipes? No way! Pussies. I was the only one headed to Vietnam: I had no problem. Later, we used parachute trainers, and fired and rode ejection seats up a Disneyland-like tower.

I got onto a Pan Am (note to young readers: it used to be an airline) plane at Travis AFB, dressed in my starchy khaki uniform replete with shiny silver bars on my collar. Cheery stewardesses smiled us all the way to Clark AFB, where I disembarked a couple of weeks before Christmas, onto a steamy-hot tarmac, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. After waiting in several lines, showing my orders to several people who actually did seem to know what they were doing, I found my way to a bed, with plans to begin survival school the next day. Went to the officers' club, where I heard a guy sing "I be home for Chreeesmiss..." After a mostly sleepless night and a ride in a beat-up bus with GIs of various services and rank, I stood in a group of men at the edge of dense tropical jungle. Within three days and two nights out there, we were to learn everything needed to forage and hide, escape and evade an enemy -- not to mention snakes and big bugs. Divided into groups of eight, we headed off in different directions, each with two instructors: an Air Force trainer, and a Negrito genius.

Legendary for the help they gave the Marines during WW II, the Negritos are a pygmy race who populate many of the Philippine Islands. Their chief, we were told, is the only person on the planet not in the US military who is officially entitled to wear the uniform of an Army general. After spending two nights in the jungle with one of their tribe, I have no difficulty whatever believing the several stories I heard of their military prowess. To wit: it's said that during a terribly bloody battle in which Marines where trying to take a strategic hill, they were pinned down for days and taking huge casualties inflicted by machine gunners dug into foxholes further up the hill. At some point the Marine leader was surprised by the arrival of a Negrito leader who offered the help of his men.

The Marine, skeptical but desperate, probably said something like, what the hell, do whatever you want. Next morning the Marines awoke to silence. They crept up the hill, encountering no resistance, eventually making it up to those foxholes, in which they found the enemy gunners, decapitated. On another occasion, a base commander was approached by a Negrito leader who offered to take over security: the base had had a huge problem with thievery and other crimes. The commander wasn't interested, but finally agreed to a challenge: if your men can keep my men off the base tonight, and away from the flight line, I'll forget it, the Negrito man offered. But if we manage to get there, you agree to hire us. Deal, said the commander. He doubled security that night. They heard a few noises, fired off a couple of shots, and kept the base quiet. Next morning the commander and the Negrito leader met. "Guess you lose," said the commander. "Not so fast. Check the shoes of your guards. Every one has a mark on it. Go down to the flight line. Each plane has an X painted on the side." And it was so. And I believe it.

I believe it because I watched my guide, four feet tall and so at one with the jungle that he practically disappeared into it before my eyes, produce fire and water like magic. I saw how he knew where to find food, how to move through the underbrush without leaving a trace; knew which plants stopped bleeding or cured headaches. With a homemade knife and a length of bamboo he produced fire in less than two minutes: slitting off a thick piece of bamboo and then a thin one, he made a bow and string. Another rod of bamboo was carved off and place in the bow in such a way that it spun like a drill as the bow sawed back and forth. The end of the rod was poked onto the remaining bamboo, on the surface of which the guide had carved up a bunch of curls, still attached, like the pubic hair of the Jolly Green Midget. Rowing the bow and spinning the rod, puffing breath onto the curls, he made smoke appear and then fire, in seconds. None of us came close to making a serviceable bow, let alone fire. Later, he showed us how to recognize a particular palm; how to lop it off about a foot above ground, and scoop out the center. Next morning, a gallon of fresh and filtered water filled the bowl. He dug taro root, chopped it up, put it and some water into a section of bamboo from which he'd cut off a trap door and re-attached it after filling the hole. Buried under the fire, it cooked into a (marginally) palatable meal.

Rustling sounds in the jungle kept me awake most of the night. Rats, we were told, were everywhere and had been known to gnaw on fingers. Who knows what else was out there?

Next morning was instruction in E and E (escape and evasion). Find a leafy branch to use as a broom, back your way into underbrush, sweeping away your tracks as you do so. Cover yourself with vines. Negrito kids were hired to find us: we had special dog tags that we had to give them when discovered, and they turned them in to exchange for food and candy. Eventually everyone in my group was found (we were told the kids never failed) but I was the last one. That, despite the humiliation of backing my way into underbrush, sweeping away my tracks like a pro, backing deeper and deeper until I'd showed my camouflaged ass, like a hippo in reverse, to a bunch of instructors smoking and chewing the fat by their jeeps on the road on the other side of the brush. Oops. See ya later.

There were no failing grades. They showed you stuff, you took it in and hoped you'd never use it for real. We were given radios and taught to guide a helicopter to our position in heavy jungle, unable to see it but hearing the sound. Talked them to our position, had them lower a "tree penetrator" (a cable with a heavy bullet-shaped device at the end.) Flaps folded down from it to make a sort of seat you slid under your thighs, then rode the thing up and out of the jungle into the chopper. Scary, but somehow reassuring when I managed to do the whole drill, scrambling into the pounding machine high above the trees.

On the final day, we learned what was known or surmised about POW camps. We saw devices. We read a letter that a prisoner had managed to get to his wife despite the censors: it said, "If he paints the house, tell old Roger to use real enamel." Not knowing anyone named Roger, she'd turned it over to the military, who recognized an acronym. Do you? Tales were told, pictures were shown. I guess the point was to make sure we took seriously the idea of avoiding getting caught. Pretty grim. Suffice it to say, I think surviving that environment isn't a matter of what you're taught: it's about who you are. I'm glad I didn't have to find out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Torture," right?

I went through USAF flight surgeon training in 1982 and did all the fun things you mention except jungle survival was in Panama by that time. I flew mainly tankers and air rescue.


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