View Full Version : Okinawa's jungle training center defines tough for Marines

09-04-02, 09:16 AM
CAMP GONZALVES, Okinawa - Staff Sgt. Clint Thomas kept a steady pace up and
down the barely discernible trail, weaving through the trees and
ankle-grabbing vines until he came upon a group of Marines waiting for him
near a clearing.
"What kind of snake is this?" a Marine asked.
Thomas strolled up and peered at the foot-long serpent. It had red, yellow
and black bands running the length of its body, broken by circling black and
yellow bands about every two inches.
"I've never seen one like that before," Thomas said as he stuffed the snake
in a plastic bag.
A quick radio call to headquarters and the answer came back.
"It's an Asian coral snake," crackled the radio voice.
"Poisonous?" Thomas asked.
The reply was as chilling as it was short.
"Very," said the voice over the radio.
Minutes later, a white truck pulled up, and Gunnery Sgt. Richard Smith,
chief instructor for the Jungle Warfare Training Center, stepped out. He
smiled as he looked toward the small snake slithering in the bag.
"Yep. That's an Asian coral snake," Smith said.
"Gunny, if that bit me, how far would I get before I needed help?" asked the
Marine who once held the snake just inches from his face.
"Three, maybe four steps," Smith said.
Thomas is the assistant chief instructor at the Marine Corps' Jungle Warfare
Training Center on Okinawa. It's the only area left in the Defense
Department where soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines pit themselves
against sheer rock drop-offs, sweltering heat and plant growth so thick it's
tough to see more than 30 yards on a bright, sunny day.
Thomas doesn't take the jungle lightheartedly. He believes this is one of
the most inhospitable places on earth.
"If you don't understand the jungle, it can be as much an enemy as someone
with an AK-47," Thomas said. "Out here, you're not going to be able to drive
Humvees. People get claustrophobic because some of the bamboo grows so
The terrain is no joke. Patrols are considered fast if they cover 200 meters
in two hours. What looks like a hundred-meter pass on a map might actually
be two hundred meters down, another 20 meters across a stream and another
200 straight up. Tales of 120-pound packs aren't told around here. Gear
loads are quickly adjusted in the jungle.
"I never carry more than 35 pounds," Thomas said. "I put it on a scale and
if it's over, something's coming out."
Thomas classifies his jungle gear in two categories: "must-haves" and
"nice-to-haves." The nice-to-haves, he said, are usually the ones that weigh
the most. Lots of water isn't necessary. It's easier to refill at the
The jungle has a way of making things not work, he added. Radios that
transmit for miles on flat land have a tough time getting across the camp
here. Marines learn fast to construct field-expedient antennae, using the
trees to run wires and expanding their range. The few roads that do exist
are treacherous even for four-wheel drives during downpours.
"Nothing is guaranteed," Thomas said. "You've got to have the right
mentality. There is no end-of-the-exercise call until you're back at the
base camp."
The Jungle Warfare Training Center isn't impossible, explained Capt. Carlos
Barela, the center's executive officer. It's more of a wake-up call, a
what-to-expect tour.
"Out here, we train like Marines," Barela said. "There's no real difference
in the techniques or tactics we'd use anywhere else. It's the mindset. We
want to make the Marines comfortable living in the jungle. We're trying to
get them over being anxious about what's out here."
To do that, the center hosts several courses, including jungle leader's
courses, battalion-sized drills, trauma courses for medical personnel and
evasion and escape courses. Units deploying to Okinawa from California and
North Carolina routinely make training here part of their deployment plan.
It's a world away from the pine thickets of the East Coast and sprawling
expanses of empty desert of southern California.
"I'd say this is a pretty damned important place," Barela said. "This is the
only training area like this left. It's easy to take big armies clashing in
the desert. That's sexy, I guess, to see all that stuff blowing up in front
of you. It's not the same here."
The jungle is the domain of the small unit leader. Visibility is cut down to
yards - at night, to inches. Communication is troublesome at best; clashes
with the enemy are close and fast.
"A lot of our techniques we teach here come straight out of what Marines
learned in Vietnam," Barela said. "It's close terrain and close fighting."
Firefights in a forest can take place within 50 meters of an enemy force,
Thomas added. In the jungle, it's more likely to be 5 or 10 meters.
Thomas was fielding a Jungle Warfare Leaders' Course here in July. It's a
course designed to train platoon commanders and platoon sergeants in the
lessons they'll be drilling into their Marines in the coming months across
much of the same ground.
"The terrain's crazy out here," said 1st Lt. Vance Tyler, scout-sniper
platoon commander for 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. "You've got sheer
drop-offs, steep fingers and bamboo all over. It's horrible for noise
"Your stand-off distance is dramatically reduced," he continued. "You can
walk right up on somebody and not even know it."
Staff Sgt. William Terado, a machine-gun section leader for Bravo Company,
1st Battalion, 6th Marines said, "it's like taking a country boy and putting
him in the city. Nothing out here is like anything we've seen."
Concerns for unit effectiveness aren't just combating the enemy. Dehydration
in the extreme heat is a constant threat. Improper field sanitation and
"jungle-rot feet" threaten to demobilize every Marine.
"You could lose half of your unit in the first day, easily," Tyler added.
"This place takes a toll on you. You have to be squared away up top to
handle this."
That's the point, Thomas said. Instructors here aren't preaching anything
new or different. They're teaching basic techniques that, without a place
like this in which to practice, would atrophy.
"Marines have always known this stuff," Thomas said. "But we've got to
practice it, and this is the only place left where we can do it. Jungle
covers nearly half the world. Sooner or later, we're going to have to fight
in it."