After serving two years in the Navy as a Corpsman aboard the USS Haven, stationed in Long Beach, California, I was given orders to report to Field Medical School at Camp Pendleton, California for training as a Combat Medic to be assigned to a rifle company with the US Marine Corps.
I couldn't believe it! I had signed up to be a Navy Corpsman and without any choice in the matter, here I was, in the Marines.
I was issued a full Marine Corps Sea Bag and put through a very vigorous six weeks training in field medicine under combat conditions, and the proper care, cleaning and use of a 45 automatic pistol. It was one of the toughest physical ordeals I have ever experienced. Upon graduation I was transferred to an advance company of Marines at Camp Margarita. This was a clerical error. New combat medics were usually assigned to Marine companies who were recently out of boot camp to ensure they would learn the basics. Probably some clerk corporal who saw that I had two years of service already, just assigned me to the advanced company based on my time served, rather that experience.
The first two weeks were kind of easy. We just marched around the grinder and lie in our bunks, and shot the shit. Not so bad, I thought to myself.
Then one morning we were ordered to fall in on the grinder (concrete drilling area), without our usual field packs. We were loaded onto trucks and taken to an airport. We were each given a parachute to put on and told to board a troop transport plane.
I was really getting worried. "What the hell is going on?" I asked the Marine next to me.
"Don't worry doc, we always chute up when we board planes, safety regulations, besides, we can't be doing much, we don't even have our field packs". He replied. This eased my mind a bit. After about forty minutes flying, the Sergeant Major got on the squawk box and said, "Now Hear this, you lucky guys are about to participate in the USMC Survival Training Program.
You will be issued a compass, map, one book of matches, one bag of raisins, a bag of coconut, and two pepperoni sausages. You will be dropped into Cleveland National Forrest. You will then proceed to make your way back to the base, 80 miles to the Northwest. You can pair up, form small groups, or go it alone, that's your call. You must survive on what you can find and forage.
After two weeks, trucks and helicopters will pick up those men who have not reported back to the base. Incidentally, I recommend you proceed with stealth. There are trained commandos wandering around down there who, if they catch you, will take you to a POW (prisoner of war) Training Program that will make this exercise look like a Sunday picnic.
You are being given the chance to test your metal against Mother Nature and her elements. Good luck men! Doc, I see you have your hand up, did you have a question?"
"Yes, Sergeant Major," I said. "I think there has been some kind of mistake made. I have never been trained in parachuting; I don't think I am supposed to jump without training, am I?" I could hear laughter from the Marines around me. "Nice try doc," The Sergeant Major replied, "if you can do all that medical stuff, there's nothing to jumping out of an airplane. Gravity does most of the work, just stay close to the men doc, they'll take care of you."
These remarks enlisted more laughter from the rest of the guys. I couldn't believe this was happening to me. I knew I wasn't supposed to be doing this, but I was helpless to stop it.
After a few minutes we were each issued our survival packs and started filing down the aisles toward the jump door.
I was scared shitless! As we got close to the door, I asked the Marine in front of me, "Where is the rip cord? What do I pull to open the chute?"
"What?" He said. The noise from the outside, coming from the open door of the plane was so loud; we could not hear each other.
Suddenly I felt a hand on my chute pack. "Enjoy the trip doc, just stay close to the guys, doc, you'll be all right!"
It was the Sergeant Major. He was loving this! I can still see the grin on his face as he pushed me out of the plane. Nobody had told me the wire we hooked our chutes on to when we lined up to jump was called a static line and would automatically open the chute. When I hit the cold wind outside the plane, I remember frantically looking for a cord to pull to open my chute. Nothing! I literally pissed my pants. After about 10 seconds my chute opened.
It felt like I was being pulled upward, but it was just the change of my descent speed. I was thinking instead of a quick death, I was now going to slow agonizing death. Too make things worse, all the marines were drifting in one direction, and I was drifting in another! I felt like a leaf being blown in the wind.
"Just stay with the men, doc". I could hear the Sergeant Major's words in my head. I was like some kind of cartoon character, running in mid-air trying to join my company. "Hey guys, wait for me"! I never did catch up with them. They went down on one side of a ridge; I went down on the other.
As I continued my descent, I could see the ground coming up fast. I tried to remember the old John Wayne movies, I had seen as a kid, football shoulder roll, bend the knees, what was I suppose do? It didn't really matter.
I was slammed sideways into the side of a steep cliff, I then proceeded to go asshole over elbows over rocks, bushes, cactus, and you name it! When I finally stopped rolling down the mountain; I was completely tangled up in my chute ropes.
I had countless abrasions, laceration, punctures, and contusions from head to foot! I just rolled up in my chute and lay there for about 30 minutes, moaning. I truly believe to this day, that the only reason I hadn't broken any bones was due to my gymnastics training in school.
I had a decision to make. Should I climb back up the mountain to the top of the ridge and look for the troops or just try to make it on my own and hope I would run into them on the way back?
One look at the cliff I would half to climb helped me decide. There was no way I could make it up there, especially feeling as sore as I did. There was no doubt about it. I was on my own!
The sun was going down and I wasn't about to try hiking through the forest in the dark! I was glad I had my Unit One first-aid kit. Boy did I need it! I spent my last hour of sunlight, patching myself up, at least the wounds I could reach.
I then ate my two-pepperoni sausages, rolled up in my parachute and went to sleep hating the US Marine Corps and the Sergeant Major. I was awoken the next morning with the hot sun beating down on me and the clicking and buzzing sound of various insects flying around me.
My body was aching from my tumble down the hill; the parachute I had slept in was stuck to my cuts and abrasions from the dried blood. I was hungry, thirsty and mad! I had joined the Navy to sail the oceans blue, what the hell was I doing here?
I opened my map and located Cleveland National Forrest, then Camp Pendleton. It didn't look that far, the way the crow flies. What I did not account for was the up and down terrain which lay before me. Next I tried the compass. I had never used one but how hard could it be?
I saw the needle pointing north. Well, that's north, I concluded, I turned to my left, the needle didn't move, no, that's north. I turned once again, no, that's north. Oh hell, the damn thing wasn't working!
What I didn't know was this type of compass has a side button about the side of a pencil tip; you have to push on to release the compass needle. Go figure.
So much for a compass. I started thinking back to my Boy Scout days. "Moss always grows on the north side of the tree" - I had read in my Boy Scout Manual. OK, I'll just find a tree and look, simple enough. Actually, moss grows on all sides of a tree, so much for that theory.
I looked up at the sun and noticed it had moved from its earlier position. I knew the sun rose in the east and set in the west, "duh", so by the way it was moving, I could figure out north and south.
I then climbed a tree which, considering the pain I was in was no easy matter, and looked for a landmark on the horizon, which seemed to be northwest. I could see a funny looking range of mountains that seem to be right in line. I would use this range as a northwest guide on my journey back. Next item, breakfast! I had a small supply of Benzedrine (diet pills), in my first-aid bag, which I had purchased in Tijuana a few weeks earlier. I decided to conserve what food I had and had a Bennie brunch. Wow, that's better, and with my new found energy, started back to the base!
After I reached and passed the funny shaped, northwest mountain range, I found a small creek running in the same general direction and decided to follow it to maintain my northwest baring and my water supply.
After four days I ran out of Bennies and food. I was famished! I ate bushes, leaves and berries. Some tasted ok, some made me sick.
At one point, I heard a rattlesnake in some bushes nearby and instead or registering fear, my mind immediately said food! I found a big rock, killed the snake, skinned it, cooked it over an open fire and ate it. It tasted delicious! How quickly we return to our primitive instincts under the right circumstances. I continued following the creek and after a few days, it emptied into a small, cement, man-made flood basin. All the better, at least I would have a flat surface to walk on! I continued following the basin through a kind of agricultural area, which, unfortunately didn't seem to have anything eatable growing.
Finally I reached a road which, after another few hours led me to the Pacific Coast Highway, about thirty miles south of the base. I hitched-hiked back to the base and then reported to the Corporal on duty at the Company Commander's Office. It took me almost six days to make it back! The corporal on duty informed me, "Doc, you weren't supposed to be on this training exercise, in fact, you're not even supposed to be in this outfit. Somebody screwed up when they assigned you here. You're being transferred to Charlie Company. They are less advanced that our outfit and you will find it easier. By the way, where's your parachute?" The corporal asked. "Back in the forest," I told him, "what was I suppose to do, carry it back with me?" I answered sarcastically. "Don't be silly," he said, "the other guys chutes were collected by trucks when they landed. You own the Marine Corps $254 dollars for the chute, but don't worry, we will deduct it in small increments from your pay, better get cleaned up, no, you better get over to the mess hall before they close, bet you could really use a hot meal!" the corporal said.
I was feeling mixed emotions, anger for the SNAFU, a military term meaning, "Situation Normal All Foul Up" that had gotten me into this mess, resentment toward the Marine Corps and the Sergeant Major who allowed this to happen!
But deep down inside, all these emotions were overruled by a stronger emottion; a sense of pride that I could do it! I could survive in the wilderness with just my wits if I had to!
I ran all the way to the mess hall as not to miss the evening meal, completely pigged out, took a 30-minute shower and collapsed in my bunk. "Leave them alone and they'll come home, wagging their tails behind them."