Somewhere in the Night-

20 Jul

a mostly true story of a madhouse field ‘exercise.’

At that time Infantry ‘live fire’ exercises at night were field training for unpolished officers. In the first of three notably awful (awesome) attacks, (March 1943) a thousand of us scrambled up a broad slope in total blackness, shoulder to shoulder like the Brits at Breed’s Hill or the Scots at New Orleans. We threw potatoes and pretended they were hand grenades. We and they were hurled back. At two shrieks of a whistle, we charged again with fixed bayonets (in scabbards.) It was deja vu 1917. The ‘enemy’ lobbed ‘Glorious China’ three inch firecrackers and we retreated in all directions. No one was hurt. No one was disciplined. No one learned anything, not even ‘We won’t do it like that again.’

In the next ‘lesson,’ a demonstration assault on a road junction, we lost our platoon leader. He funneled us into a ravine spotted with quarter-blocks of low-yield explosives. They were wired and buried to simulate mortar blasts. The ‘roadblock’ defenders had no idea we were there and tossed small charges into our crowded company. Several flares were also fired, revealing the debacle. Headlights bloomed from a hundred cars. The attack was cancelled, so was the Lieutenant. That event taught us about chain of command, information failures, presumption of planning and preparation and how to obey brainless orders without question. Six or a dozen of us were briefly hospitalized. I flew about fifteen feet.

A week later, we marched again, clean and crisp, out of our whitewashed main gate into Pandemonium III. An arriving busload of civilian PX and laundry workers jeered and waved small flags. We broke into song and jogged as ordered. The sun was kind. The earth was dry. The lessons of Intelligence, Communications, Command and Control? Never heard of it. We began as a three company force with our “A” Company leading. Two days later, we three shabby platoons staggered into our Company street at sunrise as those same laundry workers cheered.

Our commander sang German marching songs. He was a former paratrooper, schooled in the Fallschirmjager. Seventh Fleiger Division. We liked him, but damage to his legs and feet meant he’d never serve beyond our training camp. He completed our mission, refused to leave his men and brought us home proudly. But his bloody leggings had to be cut from his feet.

A night assault is usually a last throw of the dice. It is doubly wrenching after two days of aimless trudging on twisted ankles over unpredictable terrain amid rolling thunder and lightning. We carried the added burdens of ignorance and incompetence. The first stage of the plot, after a routine five mile road hike, was a basic floundering through miles of scrub pine and wetlands. We tramped about well into the first night, undetected and in platoon size units which began to lose touch and faith at nightfall. No smoking, no talking, no horsing around and no fires, flares or radio. Also, no blankets or food.

On our first day out, the field kitchens failed to find us, but our cook, with foresight had given us cold and congealed fried egg sandwiches. On the second morning, the field kitchens found the two lost companies, but not us because we weren’t lost. They ate French toast with thick sliced ham and honey grits under a canvas tent fly. Miles away, we ate one slice of white bread doused with black coffee in the rain. The cook wagons rolled off under a barrage of obscenities. Our officers seemed well fed and usually were.

We dug in and sulked through the day and night. Mosquitoes had a harvest. For some of us malaria followed. We smoked which was better than starving to death. Some of us ate the eggs and the runs hit us quickly and hard. At dawn, while doing laundry, someone screamed, “The peccaries are coming …”We believed the Peccaries were a local family with long rifles, still chafing from the Interstate Wars. They are of warthog breed, small, quick and ugly with mean, curved tusks. They hate people and everyone else. We sensibly gave way and stood still as they moved through, snorting and nosing about – we lusted for warthog stew. The hogs checked in periodically, wandered around, judged us harmless and ate the castaway egg sandwiches, waxed paper and all.

It rained for the whole day. We old timers could handle rain. One trick was to tighten the neck of your poncho, put it on your head and squeeze your helmet on top of that. That worked while you were standing asleep in one place. While on the move, you would peek out into the black, often finding no one there. You followed the sounds of the ‘drums, guns and discontent’ and believed without seeing. You conquered mud, exhaustion and despair by denying them and thinking of the girl back home. The obscene mind pictures caused sweats, and seldom worked.

Our objective, the ‘enemy,’ was a Ranger Training Company, a respected special force, then and now. The enemy’s job was to humiliate us. They didn’t.

In the plan for the final stage of P-III, at first grey light, we were to slog through some black bayou backwaters filled with rotted vegetation, gelatinous floating algae, tall dead cypress trees, grasping vines and roots and every kind of crawling, slashing, slithering terror. It was a primordial world, not for humans. A tyrannosaurus lived there. Nature magazine featured pictures of such bayou water-worlds at dusk. Peaceful, silent, deadly and awe-inspiring. I cringe at the memory.

We had saddled up just before nightfall and started our final approach. The other companies were to be on our flanks one hour before sundown and we would proceed together through the razor sharp swamp grass. Together we would assail the quagmire and attack on a broad front. That’s easy. Every Infantry unit should do it, once. We arrived near the water’s edge, exhausted and bitten, in the dead of night to await the full force; no canoes, mercury lamps or Mercury engines. No sunshine or moonshine. The locals who lived in shacks on the oak hummocks lit candles, made wild animal sounds and knew we were there. No shots were fired, not even in fun.

By dusk, we could see nobody in the deep growth. Our guides, who were to direct the meandering columns never came back. A few squads settled in for the night at Billy Bob’s Bar-B-Q on the highway. With four anxious hours to first light, we waited, listened, scratched, squatted and swatted. One hour to sunup, we were still alone. Our target waited, two hundred yards distant, across the lagoon. We heard them: laughter, bonfires, blinking cigarettes and a sad harmonica.

The crossing of Dreadful Swamp became a B-movie, called the Creature from the Blue Lagoon. I choke on the memory of the smell. There may have been a hundred of us on the final assault line. We stared through the kunai grass into the swamp gas, an undulating blue mist. Lowering moonlight filtered through the aged oaks. At a silent signal, we stepped into the slushy muck holding hands or belts, knowing we’d never come out alive. Some of us promptly fell face down. Vic Rothstien a part time Cantor and Chaplain’s assistant sang ‘Old Man River’ in his melancholy Paul Robson voice. It was comforting.

Phosphorescent things shimmered and swam toward us in the black water. Other things buzzed our faces, eyes and ears. Centuries old cypress trees, hung with streamers of moss stood bare limbed and luminous.

One of our men leaned against a denuded husk which collapsed into glowing tidal waves. The ‘enemy’ scanned the swamp with flashlights and decided it was nature at play and the Captain whispered, “everybody down.” We were already chest deep. Some of us had our boots sucked into the ooze. Several backpacks and at least one automatic rifle are still down there, somewhere.

Our final assault was a deathly silent, staggering, slipping scramble up the far bank. Then, a wild whooping arose as we charged through the Ranger camp, falling over sleeping people, tripping on tent pegs, blanket rolls and ropes, raising as much hell as we could. In minutes, jabbering clusters of us met at the far side; a rain swollen, garbage glutted gully, one of dozens of camp landfills. Peccaries lived there.

What should have been a well ordered withdrawal, ghosts in the mist, was a bedlam of unbelieving survivors, thrashing through old tin ware, construction debris, discarded bedding, canvas tents, paint cans and mess hall leftovers. With the nastiness concluded, we were to begin the painful and honorable procession home, unmolested. Instead, we were harassed by vengeful Rangers and enraged gnats. The Rangers threw mud clods and the gnats ate us alive. Some of us were captured and fed.

As we slogged toward camp the referees in their command cars forced us off the road into the drainage ditches. They were speeding homeward to hot baths, cocktails in the O.c. and congratulatory dinners. One rain-proofed officer yelled, “Well done, boys,” and we yelled back the customary sexual suggestion. “Daylight come and we want to go home.”

Because we had little experience with maps or compass reading, most of the force didn’t complete the mission. They gave up, hunkered down and radioed for rescue. I told our junior platoon officer we got to our line of attack by dead reckoning and dumb luck. He told me to mind my own business. Several platoons, with no one in charge, found a convoy of supply trucks, climbed aboard and went to Baton Rouge. They paid with a long march on the parade ground in full pack and overcoats. Officers observed and nodded, critically.

Our company came home with its pride intact, carrying our pennant, bug bites, tattered clothes and diahrea. The ‘exercise’ was successful according to impartial referees who saw almost none of what we did. The Rangers hadn’t expected us to come out of the quagmire, nor did we. Lessons were learned, particularly Murphy’s Law and the Law of Unintended Consequences. We learned that a Lack of Confidence might be a good thing and that Audacity, Pretense, Exuberance and Ignorance sometimes work fine when things go askew.

We brought pet leeches home and each of us wore a blazing belt of chiggers and ticks. There were scorpion stings, sawgrass gashes and surprisingly, no cottonmouth snake bites. One man, bitten repeatedly by tarantulas was hospitalized for gangrene. Small centipedes homesteaded in the hairy places of our bodies; Blue Ointment was prescribed. Our casualty report was lost and for the record, the mission never happened.

As we entered the company compound, each of us got a handshake from Supply Sergeant Jimmy Luria, and a slab of Kirkman’s Yellow Laundry Soap. The mid-day calm was shattered by screams from the showers. Hot water annoyed the grasping denizens. A week hence, on payday, the company suffered two cases of gonorrhea which cost us our weekend pass. The culprits could not explain and were belted and cast out according to traditional infantry law.

In time our companies moved out to their embarkations. New courses began. We never again saw, or noticed our itinerant ‘training’ officers. They may still be lodged in the mud, eaten by gators or trapped under cypress or mangrove roots. Those who were learning-the-business learned something. We rank soldiers did: ‘eat when you can, sleep when you can, smoke if it helps and carry dry socks, clean underwear and laundry soap for bug bites.’ Also, hide stolen food in your backpack.

The Kapitan moved up to Regimental HQ; he was a good guy: patient and rational and barely understood. He also had a soul saving sense of humor. By rumor, we learned of his family’s escape to America. Night maneuvers continued, but night assaults in the deep swamps were carried out in daylight, pretending to be night.

“Somewhere in the Night, Dooby, dooby doo.” (Sinatra?)

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