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Memories of a Special Forces Soldier
8th SFGA - Panama.
Home Before Special Forces 10th SFGA 8th SFGA - Panama.


The 8th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was located at Ft. Gulick in the Canal Zone. Prior to relocating to Florida, the Southern Command was located in the Canal Zone.  In addition to Ft. Gulick, the 8th had detachments located at Fort Randolf and Coco Solo Naval Base.  The Jungle Operations Training Course was conducted at Ft. Randolf, and the SCUBA/SAR Team was located at Coco Solo.  These were all on the Atlantic Side of the Isthmus.  Ft. Davis was the major installation on the Atlantic side and it housed an Infantry Batallion.  Ft. Gulick was the home of the School of the Americas, which also later re-located to Florida. 

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When I arrived in Panama I was assigned to Detachment A-21 (SCUBA).  The detachment Team Sergeant was MSG James Campbell. SSG Glen Oehms and SP5 Ken Brower were the engineers.  SSg Darby was a Radio Operator and SFC Richard Reiley was the Intel. Sgt.  We conducted training in Special Forces Underwater Operations, as well as SAR (Search and Rescue).  MSG Campbel attended the USAF SAR Course and our course was modeled after it.  The high-point of the training was "Rough Terrain" parachute jumps.  These jumps were conducted in the jungle.  We also conducted water jumps using SCUBA gear.    Det. A-21 was the designated SAR team for SouthCom and we were on stand by for the Apollo Flights.  In the event of an emergency landing on land in Latin America, A-21 was designated as the first team deployed on SAR operations.  In addition to training, we were active in Civic Actions programs.  One was to go to various villages in Panama, and "blow" chanels throuth the reefs so they could get fishing boats into and out of the rivers.  We also swam the recreation areas of Gatun Lake to locate, mark and remove stumps to a depth of six feet.  I got a lot of practical work with underwater demolitions while in Panama.  We also participated in Field Training Exercises and Mobile Training Teams as did all of the operational detachments in the Canal Zone. 

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Team Ldr, CPT Abott, Co. CSM Lewis, SFC Terry, Co Cdr LTC Korcek and B-Team CO MAJ Bell.

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Being single, I lived in an abandoned sea-plane hanger at the Naval Base of Coco Solo.  This is where the SCUBA equipment and classrooms and team room were located.  There was a brindle mutt named Sarge.  I inherited him since I lived on the site.  Sarge became my constant companion and swim buddy.


Sarge was a true member of the team.  Every morning at 0530 he was outside, in formation ready for physical training (PT).  He loved to go on the runs with us.  If there was a day off or some other reason to miss PT he would get upset.  He was a little aggravating on runs.  He would run ahead, stop and mark his territory, catch up, and run ahead again several times during the runs.  When we conducted training, he kept the stragglers in line on runs.  I had to keep an eye on him since he was subject to bite a slow student right in the ass to speed him up.


I had a Fiat 850  Spyder.  He always rode in the passenger seat, sitting upright and alert.  Sometimes it seemed I was his chauffer.  If I had a passenger, he would have to ride in back.  The co-pilots seat was Sarge's.  His name was fun to play with.  At the PX  I would yell: Sarge, get your sorry ass over here!  You should have seen the looks that got.


As a member of the SCUBA team, Sarge loved to swim.  I used to go on a one mile swim at Gatun Lake and he would follow me.  He knew his limitation and would turn around about mile out.  One day some busy bodies came up in a boat and accused me of abusing my dog.  They picked him out of the water and he jumped right back in as if to say: Buzz off!


I spent a lot of time diving for lobster in Limon Bay.  Sarge would go into the water and swim around, following my bubbles.  When I surfaced he would be right there with a smile.  On some operations where we traveled by LCM (a small Army Landing Craft), he would be the first into the water as soon as the ramp was dropped.  He would test the current and test for sharks.


We once had a change of command on the team.  We were standing formation in the humid heat, listening to our new Captain explain how things were going to be now that he was there.  Sarge sauntered right up to the Captain and proceeded to barf on his boots.  He expressed exactly what we were all thinking.


There was a leash law in effect at Coco Solo, but Sarge thought he was immune.  Occasionally someone would complain and the Shore Patrol would pick him up and keep him in the lockup overnight.  In the morning they would bring him to the team and say he may want to lay low for a while.  He ate well in the lockup.  The SPs liked him too.


When I left Panama I wanted to bring Sarge back to the States but the time and money were out of our means.  Im sure he adopted another team member and continued to lead a good productive life.



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Sgt. Terry and the Pirates


One of the more interesting operations I participated in was in support of the OAS.  An operation was conducted to test the coastal defenses of Columbia.  I was assigned as a radio man aboard a boat which was to penetrate the coastal defenses and pickup mistrials from Columbia.   The boat was an old WWII PT Boat which had been converted to a pleasure/fishing boat.  The super structure was done over and the engines were replaced with Diesel Marine engines.


We were to sail from Coco Solo Naval Station to Cartegena, Colombia.  The crew was Panamanian.  I didnt know much about who they were but got the impression that they were professionals in the art of smuggling.  We loaded up one afternoon at the deep water pier at Coco Solo.  Serge was helping supervise.  After a while I noticed that Sarge wasnt around. After a while I remembered that a Shore Patrol truck had driven by.  I liked in the water and, sure enough, there was Serge swimming around in the Bay which was about 15 feet down from the surface of the pier.  He had seen the SPs and jumped into the water to evade them.


We departed Panama after dark and proceeded south.  It was hot and humid and I slept on the fantail.  Unfortunately, I slept in the exhaust fumes and got a horrendous headache possibly Carbon Monoxide.  I was sick most of the next day.


We spotted several other boats and a few Colombian Navy ships.  The captain made no effort to avoid the other ships.  He said that to do so would draw attention to us.  Whenever in sight of other ships, he instructed us to commence fishing.


One morning, we were approached by a destroyer and told to heave to.  The Captain did so and waited for the destroyer to become dead in the water.  As soon as the destroyer was still we gunned the engines and took off at full speed.  The destroyer was perhaps slightly faster than we but we were close to the horizon by the time he got to full speed.  An all day chase followed.  It was hard to tell if the destroyer was gaining on us but it was evident that he would never catch us before dark.  About 1700 they cheated.  We were approached by a Colombian helicopter.  We continued to carry on and I raised a can of beer to the people in the chopper.  Then I noticed several rifles as well as a machine gun pointed at us.  I recalled how Colombians and Venezuelans had fired upon boats in the past.  It was over and we were escorted to the harbor at Cartegena.  The entrance to the port was beautiful, being overlooked by Henry Morgans fortress.


We had an officer from the 8th SFGA aboard.  They took him and the crew ashore for processing and dinner.  We enlisted swine were left aboard with our C-Rations and beer.  The next day we returned to Panama.


I was a little upset that we werent allowed to go ashore and explore Cartegena.  But I had participated in an interesting high seas chase.

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Prior to giving the Canal Zone back to Panama it was the focal point from which operations in the Carabean and Latin America were conducted. The Canal itself was no longer that important since most modern ships are too large to transit the canal.  The common means of moving material from one side to the other is by containers shiped by rail.  The patch you see, less the Jungle Expert tab, is that of the old Caribean Command.  In addition to Special Forces, there was an Infantry Brigade, SouthCom  U.S.Army South, Howard AFB on the Pacific side, the School of the Americas for training Latin American military, the Jungle Operations Training Center, The Tropical Test Center which developed much of the specialized equipment for Vietnam, Several Navy bases as well as many Signal Intelligence sites.

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The Panama Canal is,indeed, an engineering marvel.  This is not because of what I and many other envisioned.  Over 80,000 laborers lost their lifes constructing the canal.  That is equivalent to the KIA in Vietnam.  I had envisioned the Panama Canal as a big ditch across the isthmus.  Actually the cut was only about 1/3 away across, from the Pacific side.  The other 2/3 consisted of a man made lake: Lake Gatun.  There are three sets of locks; two on the Pacific and one on the Atlantic side.  The tides on the Pacific side can be 12-20 feet.  The first set of locks are to stabalize the elevation to the level of the Gamboa cut.  The second set of locks raise and lower shipping to the level of Gatun Lake.  The tides on the Atlantic side are less than 2 feet.  The only set of locks are to raise and lower ships from sea level to the lake level.  There are no pumps at the locks.  Everything works by gravity.  It is the 300+ inch per year rainfall which makes the canal operation possible.  Even so water conservation measures are necessary during the three month dry season.
     The Canal is no longer of the strategic importance as it once was.  Most of our present war ships are too large to transit the Canal.  In addition most modern cargo and tanker ships are too large.  A good portion of the goods going across the canal do so by rail.   

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For some reason, the rats in Panama were everywhere.  If anything edible was left in a rucksack, even crumbs, the rats would chew right through the rucksack.  I happened upon the perfect solution.  I don't know ehere he came from but a four foot boa constrictor took up residence in my room.  The ceiling was about twelve feet and he usually stayed on the pipes running along the ceiling.  I seldom saw him unless I was returning from a late night on the town.  He may then be on the floor but immediately retreated to his pipes.  I never fed the boa and I never had trouble with rats!

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One of the duties of Det A-21 was to conduct water jumps.  These included "Hollywood" and SCUBA jumps for training as well as water jumps for personnel with "profiles".  Below is a series of pictures taken on one of these operations. The Drop Zone was called DZ White and was located at the recreation area just above the spillway of the dam impounding Gatun Lake.

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