Back to the jungle for the 25th Infantry Division
By William Cole | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: February 20, 2014
What's old is new again for the 25th Infantry Division.
With the Iraq War over, Afghanistan rapidly winding down and a refocus on the Pacific underway, "Tropic Lightning" Division is returning to its jungle-fighting past to sharpen skills eroded during a decade of fighting in the Middle East.
Schofield Barracks has plans for a Jungle Operations Training Center on Oahu and is running a seven-week pilot course on its East Range and in the Kahuku Training Area.
Longer term, the Army hopes to re-establish in Hawaii some semblance of the training that went away with the closure of Fort Sherman's jungle school in Panama in 1999.
"We as an Army have really gotten away from operating in the woods," said Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Wall, a training supervisor at Schofield's resurrected jungle training center.
"We're used to seeing our enemy from 300 to 400 meters away (and) in an urban environment — not understanding that in this type of (jungle) environment, that they can be 5 meters away from you and you won't know it," Wall said.
The Army opened a big jungle warfare training center in the Kaaawa area in 1943 after battles at Guadalcanal — where the 25th Division earned its "Tropic Lightning" nickname — showed a real need for the specialized training.
Comedian Bob Hope paid a visit to the Pacific Jungle Combat Training Center in 1944, firing a belt-fed machine gun from the hip.
During the Vietnam War, meanwhile, jungle training was conducted at the Special Asian Warfare Training and Orientation Center at East Range and Kawailoa Training Area.
"Mostly for us, when you are a young guy 20 years old, a lot of it was fun," recalled Dave Cox, who went through that training in 1965. "(It was) pretty rigorous and totally new to me, anyway, and I think probably most of the guys I was with. We had never experienced anything like that before."
Along the way, some in the Army now are learning that the old ways were the better ways when it comes to jungle training.
The cadre, or training instructors, have adopted old-style black Vietnam-type nylon and leather jungle boots, which they say grip better in the mud, drain and dry better, are easier to clean, and hold up better than the suede desert boots that are issued now.
"These (older-style boots) seem to be the most reliable, and the cheapest," said Wall, 34, who went through a two-month jungle warfare instructor course run by the British military in Brunei.
Wall and the other cadre also wear woodland camouflage, which the Army ditched in the mid-2000s in favor of a grayish camouflage that was supposed to do better in the urban environments of Iraq — but doesn't do so well in jungles.
The Defense Logistics Agency gave the 25th Division about 17,000 woodland uniforms, valued at $1.2 million, that otherwise would have been disposed of.
As part of the first iteration of the renewed jungle training, about 800 soldiers are part of Task Force Cacti, which is focused on the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, but also includes helicopters, artillery and engineers.
Companies rotate through the course, spending 21 days each sleeping, eating and operating in an austere jungle environment.
Live fire is conducted on Schofield itself, and the course culminates with a company-level field training exercise at Kahuku, which has a series of jungle huts. Other soldiers role-play as the blank-firing opposing force.
The new training is a clear indication the Schofield soldiers — now out of Iraq and mostly out of Afghanistan — are refocusing back on Southeast Asia.
"They've always been the ones that were relevant in a jungle environment," former U.S. Army Pacific commander Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski said last year of the 25th Division.
Trainers here are being sent to jungle schools in Brunei, Australia, Malaysia and Okinawa, Japan — some of the countries that U.S. soldiers train with in the Pacific.
At least nine countries that the Army trains with have jungle environments and jungle training centers.
"We looked at that (and asked), how do we re-establish that skill here for our soldiers so we can more effectively operate and partner with these countries?" said 25th Division spokesman Lt. Col. Derrick Cheng.
A 2013 RAND report said that under the current largely "benign" conditions with little risk of a major interstate war in Southeast Asia, the Army's role will focus on supporting defense reform and modernization, helping nations address nonconventional transnational threats, and balancing increased Chinese "penetration."
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Abu Sayyaf and New People's Army are some of the groups that the Army is worried about, but the jungle training can help in humanitarian assistance operations as well, officials said.
At one field training class at East Range recently, about 35 support company soldiers learned about improvised explosive devices and — in a throwback to Vietnam — "tiger traps," "Malayan gates" and "punji pits," simple booby traps that use bamboo spikes to injure troops walking by.
Bryan Callahan, a civilian trainer, said the demonstration was more for "historical purposes," but he added that the traps are a cheap and effective way to hinder a unit.
"Punji sticks are not a huge practice currently, because there's just not a (troop) footprint in the jungle like there used to be in places like Vietnam," he said.
In another class, soldiers were taught about ground-marking signs of a person lying prone, and how to spot discarded items that can be clues to the enemy's presence.
Warrant Officer 2 Philip Kaye, a member of the Australian military, led an exercise in a small, muddy area of woods where seven military items were placed. Schofield soldiers, standing in a row, were given two minutes to try to spot them.
One of those items was an AA battery.
"What else can the enemy use batteries for?" Kaye asked.
"IEDs" (improvised explosive devices) came back the chorus.
"Well, that's something I'd be worried about if I'd seen that," Kaye said.
During earlier validation of the training "lanes," soldiers waded through chest-deep water, climbed and descended steep gulches, and moved through dense foliage.
"Anywhere we are going to operate is going to have jungle environment in it," said Lt. Col. Ryan O'Connor, the 25th Division's lead for jungle training.
That unique environment requires unique tactics and "just some practice that we are very much out of," O'Connor said.
Getting that training "was the (25th Division) commanding general's intent in standing this course back up, (and) all of this is paid for out of the division's budget," he said.
Requests are being made to Army headquarters for funding to operate the center and someday bring in soldiers from outside Hawaii for training.
The goal, for now, is to get all 25th Division soldiers through the jungle course, with one held per quarter, O'Connor said.
Kaye, the Australian trainer, noted that in East Range, the "vegetation doesn't give a true indication of what it's like in a primary jungle." But it is possible to teach the basics, he said.
Nor are there poisonous snakes or spiders, oppressive humidity, or jungle cats to contend with.
Still, the foliage was dense enough for the Army to open the Pacific Jungle Combat Training Center in September 1943 with a big camp in Kaaawa and jungle training in Kahana and Punaluu valleys.
"A valley of fertile farmland, and conversely of typical lush tropical vegetation, not unlike that of jungle areas in the Pacific, was selected by Lt. Gen. Robert C. Richardson Jr., then commanding general, United States Army Forces, Hawaiian Department, as the area in which the troops would train," an early history states.
Two years later, about 312,460 troops had completed the course, according to the report.
In 1942, the Army opened the Ranger Combat Training School at Schofield, using some of central Oahu's junglelike terrain to teach stream-crossing, demolition, and the use of special tactics and weapons.
More than 20 years later the division found itself preparing for Vietnam at the Special Asian Warfare Training and Orientation Center at East Range and Kawailoa.
Cox, who trained there in 1965 with the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, before heading to Vietnam, remembers being taught how to make mongoose stew.
"A lot of the guys didn't like it," the now 68-year-old Texas resident said with a laugh. "I thought it was wonderful, and so after we made it, we got to go through and sample it with canteen cups and they'd give you about a third of a canteen cup. Well, I actually ended up with two full canteen cups because the other guys wouldn't eat it."
Some Schofield soldiers went to Vietnam on "shotgun" 90-day deployments to act as helicopter door gunners, and Cox credits the information they returned with and the jungle training for helping soldiers stay alive.
"It was because of that training that we had kind of a leg up when we got to Vietnam," he said. "It helped us an awful lot."