Read Part I of this series to get caught up.
Things in the Fort Sherman jungle continued at a lesser pace for the next week or ten days. Reilly’s boys managed to destroy one more company in a single action and basically traded off themselves more or less one for one for an equivalent of a company. The Jungle Operations Training Center cadre was becoming rather annoyed with Reilly, for his insistence on “fighting” to win rather than playing die-in-place training aid.1
The cadre had a point or, rather, two of them, there, too. One was that he and his ad hoc company were supposed to be die-in-place training aids. Yes, even if no one admitted that was the mission, that was the mission. The other reason, one far less defensible, hence not directly stated, was on the order of, “You’re making us look stupid, Lieutenant, hence undermining the school. And we don’t like it a bit.”2
Reilly’s position was also not indefensible. It amounted to: “You guys have been giving out patches that say ‘Jungle Expert’ for decades and it’s all bullshit. Nobody is going to become a jungle expert by anything this school or any school can do. I’ve been practically living in this crap for about 4 years now and I’m just competent, but hardly an expert. Nonetheless, people are going to look down at that ‘Jungle Expert’ and fool themselves about what they do and do not know. And that’s going to get American soldiers killed someday.”
Relations thereafter were somewhat strained, to be sure. Reilly wouldn’t bend much, hardly at all really, and the school couldn’t give him an order to simply take a fall. Thus, they took to micromanaging him to an extent: “Lieutenant, have twenty men at this place at this time,” that kind of thing. This was the major part of why the “kill ratio,” barring that one smashed company,3 dropped to about one to one.
It was not, however, destined to stay that way. The final exercise for the rotational unit was a battalion deliberate attack on a “fortified” position, the old Camp Piña4 area5, on the south side of the Chagres River, just off the road that ran from Gatun Lake down to Piña Beach.6
The “fortified” is in quotes because it really wasn’t. What it was, though, was an old temporary infantry camp, probably never too solidly constructed anyway, where all the buildings had been torn down years before, leaving some foundations, some scrap, some detached chunks of concrete, and the concrete half-moon cut out shaped holders for large fuel and water tanks.7 Those were about at fortified as the place got. Still, it was already mostly overgrown, with a broad clear area to the south running down almost to the Chagres River, and the trees provided quite a bit of cover and concealment, both from above and on the ground.
The cadre, not being too damned thrilled with Reilly by this point anyway, gave minimal notice of the need to defend the camp. He was able to assemble about forty men, or a few more, and to get that one cohesive platoon from 4th Battalion, 10th Infantry moving from the area he’d given it to control, basically defined by the Chagres River on its southern bank and in a square the northeast edge of which was centered on the ledge from which the platoon had ambushed the landing craft. The delay in getting the platoon moving was from the fact that it was already spread out all over about twenty or twenty-five square kilometers of jungle and had to assemble itself before it could move. By that time, the rotational battalion had already passed by and was moving in a column of companies north, paralleling the road to Piña Beach, on the east side of that road.
4/10’s platoon didn’t know that the rotational battalion was ahead of them until they blundered into it and launched a hasty attack on its tail. Surprised by this, that company, which might have been C Company, 2/17th Infantry, turned around and tried to defend itself from the platoon attacking it. Of course, in the jungle, it is very hard to tell much visually because, even though not much besides big, thick trees grow at ground level, there are a lot of them. In any case, that company was pinned for a while.
The platoon called Reilly and reported what had happened. “Perfect,” he answered. “Now break contact, cut to the west, across the road, and follow it to the base camp. Fast, because if you hit their tail, their point is about three klicks8 northwest of the ones you hit, and will be on me in a few minutes.”
As it happened, though, this didn’t quite come to pass. The trailing company did stop, apparently for a while. The middle company allegedly stopped, then went on for a while, then stopped, then went on. The point company, possibly on orders, likewise slowed down, though it didn’t stop. I think – think, not sure – that that point company got worried about what was or might be behind it, and so kept an eye to the rear that should have been aimed at the front. In any case, they were about a third of the way into the open area – which is to say one whole platoon was in the open area – when Reilly ordered, “Fire.”
Caught like that the lane walkers assessed everybody in that platoon as a casualty, along with the company commander and his radiomen. Without direction, the next platoon duly fed itself into the open area. Yeah, you got it: another 100% casualties. About that time, and as the last platoon from the company was trying to charge across the body-littered open space, the platoon from 4/10 showed up, the platoon leader leaving his men to the west of the road and dashing across to find Reilly among the concrete “revetments” that had once held fuel tanks.
“Any contact on the way?” asked Reilly, loudly, over a machine gun beating time for the Spandau Ballet, at his feet.
“No, sir, but I think…I think they got separated…have a break in contact,” said the lieutenant from 4/10.
The last platoon of that company was dying in the open area and no one was taking their place at the moment. Reilly nodded, and said, “L-shaped ambush.” He drew a picture of it in the air with his hands. He pointed across the road. “You take your platoon to the high ground just west of the road!” An arm extended to indicate the kill zone. “Sweep the open area from there! We’ll kick their asses!”
“Yessir!” replied the lieutenant, with the gleam of a gleeful pirate in his eyes. And why not? After all, Henry Morgan had passed quite near the same spot, a few hundred years before.
The next company came and didn’t know it was an ambush. They weren’t surprised by the defense to their front; since the place was sprinkled with bodies (most of whom followed the rules and just cried “medic,” but didn’t pass on any intel). But when they maneuvered out into the open area and the platoon from 4/10 kicked in, they, too, began to join the ranks of the temporarily dead. Fast.
“Get a couple of teams out there to steal their ammunition,” ordered Reilly. “They won’t need it anymore. And bring a couple of thousand rounds of sixty9 to Four-Ten.”
And…“here they come again.”
The final rifle company did the same damned thing, and without any excuse at all that I ever heard of. They fed themselves across the open area, into an L-shaped ambush, and were duly massacred, the lane walkers assessing them as hit almost as fast as they tried to cross the opening.
With nothing left to shoot at, and no order to finish off the presumptive wounded, the fire slackened off. In the slack a helicopter set down into the open area, the notionally dead and wounded scrambling to get out of the way. From the helicopter emerged the rotational battalion commander, furious at the ground around him being almost completely covered with the bodies of his troops. You could walk from one side of the open area to the other, and for a couple of hundred meters from the road to the river, and never set foot on the ground.
Reilly’s troops must have been uncertain about engaging the helicopter, since only a few even tried. He never ordered them to, perhaps on the theory that, “This has got to be a painful enough lesson as it is. If it were real it would be a different story. As is; this guy’s humiliated enough…”
1 All those notional losses – Reilly versus 2/17th Infantry or 32nd Guards MRR at Fort Irwin – are quickly reconstituted in military force on force training. The whys of it are beyond the scope of this column but it does actually make a reasonable sense, so long as everyone understand that they would not be reconstituted in war nearly that quickly and so long as the pertinent parties are put through the drill of reconstituting them.
2 That “we don’t like it” wasn’t strictly true. The non-commissioned lane walkers apparently enjoyed the hell out of it; but the commissioned cadre whose OERs – Officer Evaluation Reports – depended upon a successful field exercise by the rotating unit didn’t.
3 The mortar team that was supposed to follow a set direction and distance, firing regularly and setting themselves up for an ambush, still managed to find the company looking for them before the company could find them. They mortared it and no one was dug in. “”Sir…we found the company that’s supposed to be looking for us. Can we mortar them?” “Yes.” “How many [notional] rounds can we use?” “Fuck ‘em, use it all.”
4 Spanish for pineapple.
6 That particular beach was the scene of one of the more profoundly moving religious experiences of my life. You see, as a buck sergeant, circa 1977, I was swimming there when a good sized shark passed by me at about arm’s distance. Religious? I believe I walked on water to get back to shore. Moreover, all who witnessed the events seem to have agreed on its profoundly religious nature since they all said, “Jesus Christ, Sergeant Kratman…”
7 I never saw it when built up and occupied, nor even a picture of it. However, it was contemporaneous with Empire Base Camp, which I spent many a scratching week at, so probably looked something like that. Good luck finding a picture of Empire Base Camp on line, either.
8 Military jargon for kilometers.
9 M60 machine gun, 7.62 blank, linked, in this case, but normally 4×1, which is to say four ball to one tracer.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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