Photo courtesy of The Old Cowboy Archives
Escape and Evasion
Today is Independence day 2016…and the wife is held captive in the hospital and it is a rainy day and funny thoughts run thru your head…thoughts of independence and its costs and the many who paid the price over the centuries. Maybe because of a recently watched PBS special on the D Day invasion the other night.
It has been many years ago now…..but Baby jim was once a government issue ground pounding infantryman. This was during the Viet Nam unpleasantness where our government sacrificed over 56,000 brave young warriors and injured many thousands more and then after years of failing to proscecute the unpopular war, abandoned it by fleeing. A political failure and not a military defeat.
By the grace of god, or the ineptitude of the department of defense, Baby Jim was never sent overseas. He has often thought that perhaps he was supposed to accomplish something in life but so far has no inkling of what it is. He fought the war mostly in Colorado at Fort Carson in various capacities working at a battalion headquarters. The people around him were mostly either fixing to go to Viet Nam or just coming back from Viet Nam or national guardsmen finishing out their six months of active duty in avoiding the war…National guard was popular back then as not many guard units were sent to Viet Nam….unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The National Guard and higher education were very popular.
But our mission here is not political commentary…..Rather it is to attempt to share a humerous and memorable event that occurred during that time in the life of our Hero.
Baby Jim received his basic training at Fort Dix New Jersey during January and February of 1969. The most fretful thing about that was the cold and snow…The day Baby Jim qualified with the M16 was the day of a blizzard….Side note is that our company was among the first to be issued the new M16. On our second day we were issued brand new M16s and spent the morning cleaning off all the cosmolene they were packed in…..the best explanation is that they were packed in grease…..”That is not grease trainee…It is Cosmolene….and you will remove it until the weapon is pristine.”
The unit shot M16 for a while almost every day….Baby Jim was a fair shot anyway and got to be pretty good with the M16….then came the day to qualify…this day had been delayed for our Hero because of a couple of broken metacarpals in the right hand but that is a whole nother story…Baby Jim was delivered to the range to qualify with assorted other misfits and the sick lame and lazy. The regular company training staff was judged and evaluated on what they turned out, but being in a makeup group no one cared how you fared. That day it was snowing. Targets were popup targets at ranges from 25 yards to 300 yards. You shot what ever you saw pop up…there was a corporal sitting on a stool behind the shooter scoring hits…the only problem is the only targets that could be seen in the snow that day were the 25 yard targets….the rest were obliterated by the snow….the corporal who was freezing his butt off sitting on that stool kept saying “SHOOT” . Baby Jim reponded “At what Corporal? I can’t see a damned thing.” Coporal says just shoot dammit, You will pass. Baby Jim shot and he qualifed as a Marksman which is average shooting and he knew he was an Expert.
When Basic was finally over, a whole mess of newly minted soldiers left Fort Dix in another big snow storm and all were dressed for the weather in class A uniforms and big heavy overcoats. This was about the first week of March. When the plane landed in Lake Charles Louisana and it was 85 degrees and the corn was knee high. We were bussed to Fort Polk Louisana, then known as “Tigerland” . It was the training center for Jungle warfare….wading around in the swamp with snakes and gators and sweating your butt off 24 hours a day. At Tiger land the troops had barracks but seldom saw them. All training was done in the field and this included camping….Baby Jims Equestrian friends sometimes wonder why he has no enthuiasm for “camping”. Tigerland had every species of venomous snake in the United States and there was no shortage of them. Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, Cottonmouths, Coral Snakes and even little Pigmy rattlers. Everyone saw so many snakes that stepping over a snake got to be no big deal. Tigerland had gators. Tigerland had mosquitoes the size of humming birds…..truly a pleasant place to enjoy living in perpetually wet conditions carrying everything you owned on your back. Then there was the continual reminder that “This is a day in the park compared to the Nam” delivered in all seriousness by guys who had survived it.
During all this training we were again shooting almost daily and Baby Jim had the opportunity to qualify as an Expert on the M16 Automatic fire range…the M60 Machine Gun and the 50 Cal Machine Gun. Our hero had landed in a company of darned good shots and as a company, set many range records with combined shooting scores. The Company commander had a good company and he loved it and treated the troops pretty good. Best Chow that Baby Jim ever had during his soldering time was at that Advanced Infantry Training company in Tigerland. Even in the field we had one hot meal per day and it was good. The world war II C rations were not especially good but most learned to survive on em…Made most of the company really appreciate a good meal in the mess hall when available.
Anyhow to finally get to the point of this excursion into third person narration, there was a particularly interesting night in the adventures of our hero.
Escape and Evasion. The talk of training from the time of arrival on base. It was designed to simulate avoiding the enemy and not getting caught or not dying trying. The whole platoon was basicly trucked in and dropped off at a location on what must have been a pennsula in the swamp in the dark. There was an alleged safe zone and anyone who could get to the safe zone was free. There was a light on a hill in the distance. There were other troops positioned to capture all the trainees. Very quickly there were sounds of struggle and crashes in the brush and yelling…those who ran in the opposite direction soon suffered the same fate. Finally there was a small group including Baby Jim who had wandered around avoiding capture and were actually getting near the safe zone…It was clearly visible and less than a mile away. But all approaches were cut off by a body of water about a hundred feet wide…even though all who were left had been in this swamp for about six weeks none recognized this water body. The team went upstream about a quarter of a mile and heard agressors ahead and the water seemed to be a small river. They backtracked and again heard agressors and the water was getting wider. Then there was the sound of people coming up from the rear…the small group saw one option….cross that water…Now our hero is not a strong swimmer and certainly not in combat boots…three fears were manifest: drowning in water of unkown depth or footing, being spotted in the open water and as a result being captured, and cottonmouths.
After a whipered discussion, all decided that the water was the only way out and thinking that all were in agreement Baby Jim headed in scanning growth on the far bank for the opposition. Thinking his compatriots were right behind him Baby Jim was happy to find that the water was no deeper than chest deep and the footing was not too sinky and not much current…about half way across and past the deepest part, now maybe waist deep, Baby Jim glanced back to see that he was almost alone…not a GI in sight but there was a gator….Our hero was inspired to continue on to the far bank. In the few seconds that seemed to be an eternity, the bank was secured and unbeknownst to him our hero was safe…there were no agressors on the far side.
Our hero gathered his wits and began to slink up the hill toward the light expecting to run into sentrys all along the way . If there were any he avoided them and detection. As he travelled he wondered about the fate of his companions..he had not heard any noise to indicate that they had become gator chow, nor had he seen any other sign of them after entering the water. Slinking around in a swamp for six weeks had taught enhanced skills of moving quietly and finally he worked his way to the edge of the clearing and saw some officers and senior NCOs sitting around a campfire and drinking coffee. After observing for a few minutes, Finally Baby Jim Stood up and stepped into the clearing, took a defensive posture, and surprised all in attendance. They were all taken aback because Trainees were not supposed to beat their escape and evasion course and Baby Jim had done it.
The Captain was there and he said “ Come over here young man and have a seat by the fire and a cup of coffee.”
A little while later some NCOs began reporting on how many had been captured….then more news of captures came in and finally there was a fire team from one squad that was still unaccounted for…That was Baby Jims Team…He just sat there and drank coffee not wanting to get his team caught. Awhile later another report that all were accounted for except one man and Captain said “Oh ,he is here.” and pointed to Baby Jim. The Range Officer and the range NCO were going off on their staff for letting a man get through. Finally someone asked how he got here and when he told them, they asked why he ventured into the water and Baby Jim opined that he thought the object of the exercise was to avoid getting caught. The water was the best option. Their response was that they never though anybody would be fool enough to come through the deep swamp without a raft or boat.
A while later everyone was reunited and debriefed….Baby Jims Team had been captured not too long after the adventure… Baby Jim asked why they had not come with him as all had agreed….they said that they were but all had been trained to leave a space between men and not get bunched up and when the second man went into the water he saw a gator and turned back and by then you were over half way. They all laughed and recounted that when Baby Jim saw that gator he “Crossed that stream like he had an Evinrude up his butt.” For the remaining time in Fort Polk, Evinrude was his new name.