by Corporal Ret. Frank Reid
This article is part of the Canadian Military History Colloquium Web Series, created to provide an online space for papers which otherwise would have been presented at the 31st Canadian Military History Colloquium, if not for this year’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Frank Reid is an author, a playwright and an expert public speaker on the topic of the Cold War years 1975-1979. Frank got his education from the military who sent him at the age of 21 on a Peacekeeping tour to Cyprus just months after the Turkish invasion of the island. There, on the “Green Line”, Frank learned very quickly to keep his head down while the Turkish and Greek soldiers shot at each other or anything that stood between them. Following this little escapade, Frank was posted to Europe in a Mechanized Commando unit whose job it was to defend against any future Communist invasion. Frank has been married for 43 years to his magnificent wife, Rejeanne. He has worked for the last 17 years of his professional life as an Executive Search Consultant for a large multinational organization. Now retired, Frank spends most of his time writing, working with a PTSD veteran group, and public speaking engagements.
Germany was a wonderful experience for a young man. I had been in Europe for about one year when the Platoon Sergeant came up to me and asked if I would like to go on a Commando course in France. I was thrilled at the prospect. Off we went to the Vieux Brisach, on the French-German border. Brisach in December was not the Cote d’Azure! When we arrived, the fog was rolling in thick. We were set up in old wooden shacks, 1940 vintage, where you could feel the wind blow. The little wood stove we were provided with did not produce enough heat to keep us from freezing.
On our first morning, at 06:00, the course began. We were in open competition with the British, the Americans and the French. In our teenage minds, we expected to be the best. To my dismay, I was about to go through extreme height training. Height has never been my forte. I will climb as high as a step stool but do not ask me to go any higher.
The course was run by French trainers who were the cream of the French Army. Only the best of the best became instructors. In this day and age, we are very conscious of workplace safety. This course was not about safety; no WHIMIS training required. The instructors’ only mission in life was to run us relentlessly. They were very successful in this endeavour. The end result they were after was to break the weak and make the strong excel.
The instructors started us easy, according to them. Our first exercise was to climb the fortress wall at Brisach. There has been a fortress there, in one shape or form, since the 17th century. The current fortress was old and foreboding looking, crumbling apart in some places. We had to climb up at the corner of the fortress wall. We dug our fingernails in till our fingers bled. We grappled to find toeholds with our heavy combat boots.
The first wall was 40 feet high. We reached the top, drenched with sweat. I thought to myself “Wow, I made it. First assignment accomplished.” Was I ever wrong!
We now had to cling to the top of the wall with our hands and shimmy along, sideways, the length of the wall, about 50 feet. Three feet down from the top of the wall was a small, ornate outcrop, just wide enough for a toehold. Inch by inch, foot by foot, we crept along, hoping nobody in front would panic and stop us. What a sight we must have been! A sad line of young terrified soldiers in drab green combat. It was now 08:00 on a chilly, damp day. The wall was slimy and slippery, covered with moss and dew. No net, no strap, no rope to help you should you slip and fall. Thankfully, we all made it to the end of the wall with a sigh of relief but, this was only the beginning. We were now at the top of the wall where we were given a rope with a metal clip at the end. We were instructed to tie it around our waist. We were told this was our umbilical cord for the remainder of the course. And now, off to the next assignment.
The inside of this particular part of the fortress was about 80 feet wide. Attached to the opposing walls and 30 feet from the ground, was a set of cables, about 4 feet apart horizontally; one cable to hold on to and the other to walk on. These were big, black cables about one inch thick. They looked like they had been oiled frequently over the years, no doubt to help keep them from rusting. In my mind, I could see these cables covered with skin bits from the fingers of thousands of frightened troops who had crossed them before us. The wire is 30 feet above the ground and our safety rope is only 5 feet long. The problem with that was if you fell, the rope would save your life but could cause grave injury.
Despite it all, it seemed like a fairly simple exercise. Feet on slippery bottom cable and hands holding top cable. The first soldier went on and the bottom cable started stretching. As more and more soldiers climbed on the cable, it continued to stretch. I gingerly stepped on the cable and waited for a second. Nothing happened. I was still up in the air. I inched along but, with the added weight, the bottom cable stretched even more. I was already stretched to the limits, being only 5 feet 8 inches tall. I looked back. The last people were now on the cable. The front people were almost through. I am not usually a very religious kind of guy but, at this point, I started praying. Finally, I was at the end. Everybody made it. Another assignment completed. The French Army had mastered the art of cable stringing in any way imaginable, as I soon found out with our next challenge.
By now, we were tired and sore and ready to quit. The French instructor was not interested in our whining. He herded us along to our third assignment. Running down from a 50-foot tower, at a 45-degree angle, were two cables, side by side, about one foot apart. Our challenge was to crawl on our hands and knees from the top of the tower to the ground. Again, no safety net. The trick here was to put each foot on the inside of each wire and exert outward pressure to keep the wires as taut as possible; if not, they would start to vibrate a little and this could have nasty repercussions. The process was extremely slow. The right hand and the right foot had to move at the same time, slowly inching the hand forward while dragging the foot at the same time and keeping the wire tight. The process was then repeated with the left hand and foot. I felt like a horse in a slow-motion sulky race! You had to keep this alternating process until you finally reached the ground with a sigh of relief.
The next day, the instructors moved us to a small area which had been especially prepared for the tank exercise. The purpose was to get us over our fear of tanks. Let me pause for a moment to explain a few things. The French soldiers on this course were conscripts. The French instructors literally treated them like dogs. If they did not follow instructions, they would be punched, kicked or whatever else was needed to make them follow orders.
Back to the tank exercise. The French instructor lined us up beside the course and told us to watch the demonstration carefully because it would be our turn next. The French instructor motioned for the tank to move forward and grabbed one of the French conscripts. This kid looked like he was about 12 years old and terrified. The instructor told him to lie down in front of the tank; which he declined to do. The poor kid became the recipient of a swift punch to the side of the head after which he obliged and laid down, feet first, in front of the tank. The tank slowly rumbled over him. “Oh, lovely”, I thought. I was hoping the tank driver had more than a couple of weeks training and was not suffering from the shakes caused by a drinking binge the night before.
For those of you who never had the pleasure of having a 35-ton steel beast with metal tracks run over you, I can assure you this is not something you soon forget. My turn came. I laid down, motionless. I could hear the tank rumbling down and getting closer. The cement underneath me was vibrating. I heard the driver changing gears as he got closer. I saw the gun barrel inching slowly right above my head. Amazingly enough, I was not scared, just mesmerized. Then came the front of the tank. Suddenly, the sun was blocked out, or it would have been, had it not been such a miserable rainy day. I stared up and saw the welding underneath the tank. The tracks moved along at a steady pace, about one foot on each side of my body. Tank tracks are amazing things. They grab onto almost any surface to move the vehicle forward. They are also very effective at crushing bones and flesh that get in their way. The smell of diesel was overpowering. I finally emerged from the darkness, still in one piece!
I got up and started to walk away. The instructor called me back. I was not done! I now had to sit in front of the tank. As the tank moved forward, I had to let it push me down. Again, the tank rolled over me. Once the tank had moved away, I quickly got up and, again, started to walk away. Again, the instructor called me back. I now had to stand up in front of the tank and let it roll over me. The instructor had a big smile on his face. I stood in front of the tank, arms stretched out in front of me. This was more difficult than the other two exercises. You had to let the tank push you to the ground. In doing this, the tank would move your arms upward and you ended up with your arms above your head while lying on the ground. It reminded me of my mother making apple pies where she would drape the top crust over the rolling pin and unroll it on top of the pie. I was the top crust, the tank was the rolling pin and the ground was the pie! If you jerked and moved your arms in the wrong directions, they could easily get crushed under the tank tracks. Needless to say, by the end of this exercise I was hoping I would never see the underside of a tank again.
Next, we had the pleasure of climbing to the top of trees, some as high as 70 feet, and sliding down to the ground while attached to a cable by a steel hook. The speed of descent was phenomenal. We had the choice of landing in two different ways. You could either roll upon impacting the ground or you could start running as soon as your feet touched the ground. Being that the ground was rather rocky, I opted for the latter. Needless to say, I never ran so fast in my life! I did not realize the speed at which I was going to land when I picked that option. Some guys, who could not run as fast as me, ended up tripping and falling. One soldier suffered a mild sprain but was able to finish the course. Despite the injuries, everybody thought this was a fun game. We certainly learned otherwise. Half-way through this exercise, one of the French instructors who was standing on the platform at the top of a tree, fell and broke his neck. There was no second chance for him. His life had been cut short. He was supposed to wear a harness for safety reasons while instructing the recruits but he had decided not to hook himself up. The mood was somber after this incident. The trainees who had not completed the exercise yet treated this obstacle with much more respect.
Our next challenge was to rappel from a 70-foot-high platform. To get to the top of the platform, we first had to scale the 40-foot wall of the castle’s moat. Perched behind the parapet of the wall was the tower. We climbed the ladder to the top of the tower. The tower was crowned by a long wooden platform, which reminded me of a diving board, jutting over the wall. My turn was coming fast. I was at the back of the platform. The soldier ahead of me was at the front of the platform. Suddenly, without warning, he froze. He grabbed onto the rope for dear life. His eyes looked wild and demented. He screamed at the Instructor that he was not going. The Instructor stood facing him with feet apart and hands on his hips. He now proceeded to tell him, in a very calm voice, that he was going. Again, the soldier refused. At that point, the Instructor told him there was only one way down. I hate heights and I hated that panicking bastard for making me feel my weakness. I was hoping he would be going soon. My nerves were at the breaking point. Finally, he jumped!
Now, it was my turn. From the top of the platform, the instructor told me to take the rappelling rope. My left hand grabbed the rope above my head and my right hand grabbed the dangling rope and held it behind my back. I was facing the instructor, shuffling backwards towards the edge of the platform. The instructor told me to jump away from the platform and let my hands slide along the rope until I could see the wall, 30 feet below. I jumped. The 30 foot slide only took a few seconds but it seemed like an eternity to me! My boots finally landed on the side of the wall and I paused for a second. For the next 40 feet I had to make small jumps away from the wall while letting the rope slide between my fingers. My hands were burning from the friction with the rope.
I finally hit the ground. My hands were on fire and my legs were like jelly. The day was over and it was time for supper. My stomach was in a knot after this little exercise. I wondered whether I would be able to eat. Right after supper, we hit the sack, totally exhausted.
Our third day dawned bright, cold and clear. We expected the day to be a soft touch. The first part of the morning was spent sitting in a classroom, learning about foreign weapons and how to use them. After theory class, we went to the firing range until lunchtime; getting hands on experience with the various weapons. We were extremely lucky to have the opportunity to fire weapons from other countries.
From the firing range, we returned to the classroom. We were instructed to turn in the weapons. To our dismay, we were now ordered outside and told to get down in the push-up position. Oh! Oh! This did not sound good! The instructors emptied our rucksacks on the ground. We were told to stand at attention and then to strip. Nobody moved. We all thought we must have heard wrong. After all these were Frenchmen trying to speak English. But no, they really meant it. It was early December in the forests of Alsace and it was cold; about 5 degrees Celsius. We stripped down to our underwear. The instructors told us to put only our shirt and pants back on. Once this was done, they told us to take the laces off of our boots. We had to wear our boots without socks and without laces. We were freezing. Gone were my wonderfully warm long johns and wool sweater. No more luxury. This was a bare bones army.
We were loaded in trucks and dumped in various spots in the forest with no food or water. We had been given a one hour head start from a group of well trained French instructors who would be hunting us down. We had not slept right since we got here and we were a bunch of hungry, smelly and angry soldiers. Considering our current frame of mind, we would have dug their guts out with a dull spoon given the chance. Our instructions were to navigate to certain points on a map using a compass. Our group consisted of five people. After two hours of hard slogging through the woods, we decided to stop for a little rest. Forget the commandos looking for us! We saw them drive by on the road, in the distance, but they never ventured in the forest.
After a few minutes’ rest we set out for our first objective. We were told it was a place where we would find food and drink. Another two hours passed before we finally reached our goal. Behold! A veritable feast! We were facing a rancid pool of water about 10 feet across and a couple of feet deep. In the middle of this little pond, floating on a raft, was a cage. Inside the cage were two rabbits, alive and kicking. By the water’s edge, there was a chicken with one leg tied to a stake in the ground. We were also given a large, 45-gallon rusty drum, full of wood. The goal was to use the wood to start the fire but, with what? We found, placed among the wood, a box of matches but there were only three matches in the box. This could have been a comical situation were it not for the fact that evening was fast approaching and we had not eaten since 7:00 that morning. I guess you could say dinner was served, kind of.
We had no cutting or cooking implements and nothing to butcher our future dinner with. It was cold and the water was deep enough to make anyone think twice before getting wet, attempting to retrieve the rabbits. We stomped our feet in frustration. Once we regained our composure, we assessed the situation. It was not pretty. Three of the guys were city boys and did not know how to skin a rabbit or pluck a chicken, let alone kill them. Fortunately, some of us were farm boys. I was a chicken plucker from way back and one other had snared rabbits in his youth. Killing these beasts was another story. At least at the farm we had modern tools like axes and knives. Being the hero that I was, I decided to start the process by breaking the poor chicken’s neck. I slammed the chicken’s head against the steel drum. To my surprise, I decapitated the fowl. I then proceeded to pluck it clean. Since we only had three matches, it was imperative to make it work right the first time. The wood in the drum was damp and there was no kindling to start the fire with. We looked around and found a bunch of dry pine needles which we shoved in our combats’ pockets. We dug in the barrel to find the driest pieces. The five of us then gathered tightly around the barrel and put the driest pieces of wood on top of the dampish pile, keeping a couple of very dry sticks aside. We shredded the part of the map that we no longer needed and laid the pieces down on top of the dry wood. Very carefully, making sure to block the wind, we lit the first match and set fire to the map. We then ignited one of the dry sticks we had set aside. Soon we had built the fire to a roaring flame.
We forgot about being tracked and enjoyed the heat. While the three of us were yapping, the other two guys secured two long sticks which they used to drag the raft to shore without having to get wet. Someone soon took care of the rabbits. Using the sticks as makeshift spits, we roasted the rabbits and the chicken over the steel drum. Roasted meat with soot and wood ash as seasoning. Oh! Yum! One of the best meals I had ever eaten. Now replete, it was time to move on to our next objective.
Three hours later, at our final destination, trucks were waiting to take us back to camp. We finally got in the shacks around midnight. The smell of fresh coffee assailed our nostrils. We were lining up to get our share of the divine brew. The coffee pot was actually a great black cauldron, the kind witches used. When my turn came around, the witch in charge of the cauldron dropped the ladle to the bottom of the pot. The coffee was not steaming hot since we were still outside in the cold night air. Down went the hand of the witch to retrieve the ladle, dirty sleeve of the combat blouse and all. The French made the best coffee in the world, especially after the kind of day we had.
The days followed with pretty much the same scenario: physical training day in and day out until one morning, about 5:00, we were awakened by a French Sergeant. Our next task was to learn to make individual rafts out of tin cans, ropes, other bits of junk and two 6-foot-long poles. We all thought this would be a piece of cake. We should have known better. We actually had to use this wonderful masterpiece of engineering to get across a very cold, wide and deep lake. This made us much more conscious of doing an excellent job if we did not want to end up in the soup. I got down to business. I took the largest square tin cans I could find. These cans were one-foot square. They already had their press-on tops fastened on. Since these would give the raft its buoyancy, I tried to get cans with no holes and no dents. Not an easy feat! We were supposed to lash together the cans with plastic ropes and tie the outcome to the wooden poles. Needless to say, slippery plastic rope around tin cans did not make the tightest, waterproof raft.
Finally, my raft was done. What an amazing contraption! I was then instructed to get going across the lake. I put my raft in the freezing cold, brackish water. I then put my foot on the raft and pushed down in the water to see how well it would hold. Seemed stable enough, I thought. The French instructor said the best way to get across was to lie flat on the raft rather than sit in the middle. In doing so, the weight was more evenly distributed and made the raft less likely to capsize. I took off my jacket and left it behind, on my rucksack. The layers under my combats should be enough to keep me relatively warm until I got across the lake. I lied down on my wonderful floating device. To my surprise, it held up! I put both hands in the icy water and started paddling across. Less than halfway across the lake, the effect of cold water against tin can and plastic rope started to rear its ugly head. One of the cans broke loose and, instantly, my raft was gone. I swam back to the starting point as fast as I could before my water-soaked layers of clothing and my water-filled boots dragged me to the bottom of the lake. I am not a good swimmer and I could see myself sinking to the bottom of the lake. Nothing like adrenalin pumping through your veins! I must have broken a swimming record on that day; well, my swimming record anyway.
When we first got to the lake, the French instructor had built a big fire in one of the 45-gallon drums. Now I knew why. Hypothermia was setting in. I stripped off my wet clothes and grabbed my jacket and my rucksack where I had a set of dry combats waiting for me. All in all, I did not feel so bad. About half of the guys failed miserably. Time to go back to camp for a warm lunch.
The afternoon was to be fairly challenging. We were taken down to the gym where we would be taught boxing or how to get mangled in three easy lessons. Another student and I thought if we did not want to get killed, we better get in the ring together. It was only a five-minute round. We figured we could dance around; throw a few pathetic punches and it would all be over. Unfortunately, once we got in the ring, our bloodlust got the best of us. The ring was completely surrounded by soldiers screaming and yelling “hit him, kill him” and all sorts of kind words. We were both as solid as rocks. The other student was 6 feet tall and over 200 pounds, me at 5 foot 8 and 190 pounds. We started dancing around like idiots, throwing small punches that would not hurt a 10-year-old. During our pugilistic effort, all of a sudden, the other guy threw me a slightly harder punch to the jaw which took me by surprise. Being used to street fighting when I was a kid, the old reflexes took over. I threw him a right hook which drove him backwards in the ropes. He looked at me with a dazed look on his face. And so, our fight was over in less than 2 minutes.
The next morning, we awoke at 5:00 after a restless night and very little sleep. We went to the mess for breakfast which turned out to be sausages, eggs and toasts. This was the best breakfast we had had since our arrival. We all became very suspicious. Why were we being fed such heavy breakfast?
After breakfast we marched to a desolate open field and waited. Apparently, choppers were coming to pick us up. Up until this time we had worked in the relatively warm part of the training area, down by the French-German border. That was all about to change. We waited and waited in zero Celsius temperature. Finally, about lunchtime, a number of choppers arrived and we loaded up. I cannot find my way out of a wet paper bag but my sense of orientation is pretty good. I was sure we were flying north.
The ride took 45 minutes. Mountains were now looming on the horizon. The instructors could not have ordered a more miserable weather forecast. As we came close to our drop off zone, high in the mountains, we could see the snow swirling around outside the helicopter windows. Visibility must have been no more than two feet. I hoped the pilot was experienced! He was going to be in need of all his faculties.
Where we landed looked like a moonscape; miles and miles of slag heaps half covered with snow. The wind was blowing hard. We were being pelted by icy bits that were neither snow nor ice. We formed into groups according to the country we came from: Canadians, Americans, British and French. By this time, it was about 16:00 in mid-December in the mountains. Darkness was falling quickly.
Our mission was to make a long-forced march down the mountain, over a variety of evil and slippery paths. The paths were steep and narrow with deep ravines on each side and no railings to stop us from falling to a certain death. The march started out nasty and just kept getting worse. The French recruits were conscripts with very little training. Only nine months from start to finish and then back to civilian life. One poor bugger collapsed in the snow and refused to move. The French instructor screamed and threatened but without getting any results. The instructor lived by the French Foreign Legion ethos “March or Die.” This seemed to drive him mad and he began to kick the poor sod who still refused to move. The instructor turned away and I hoped the medics would pick him up. The French instructors pushed us along as hard as they could. We were carrying our rifle and a backpack weighing 50 pounds. It was brutally slow going; a group of 75 soldiers trying to move down a very steep mountain path in complete darkness. I am sure it would have been a bizarre sight if anybody could have seen us. Each soldier kept a close eye on the soldier immediately in front of him. The visibility was so poor, we were lucky if we could see two feet ahead. This was not the time to get lost. Things got even slower when an American soldier slipped over the edge of a precipice and fell four feet to a ledge below. He badly sprained his ankle but at least he was alive! His comrades retrieved him and took turn helping him along. They were not going to allow him to fail at this late date in the course. It must have been really hard for them. It was hard enough when you only had to take care of yourself! The army always taught you that team work was most important and you did not leave a comrade in distress. We would have done the same if one of our buddies had gotten hurt.
Hour after hour we trod. At first light, we stopped. We had arrived in a kind of clearing which was flat enough for us to make camp. We all made hot coffee on the small burners each of us carried. We also had the chance to eat breakfast rations. The Instructors told us it was time to rest. All we had was four hours. We quickly pulled out our sleeping bags and slipped in, fully clothed with boots on. Our boots were so damp they would have frozen stiff if we had taken them off and we would never have been able to put them on when we awoke. Exhaustion was great and we fell asleep in a snap. I can’t vouch for everybody else but my sleep was deep and dreamless. When we awoke, our sleeping bags were covered with one and a half inches of fluffy snow. Thankfully, it was brutally cold and the sleeping bags did not get wet.
We started marching down the mountain again. Three hours on, the sun was now shining brightly and the snow had stopped falling. You would think we would be happy to see the sun but, our kit did not include sunglasses. The reflection on the pure white snow was painfully blinding. Nonetheless, we kept going.
We continued our forced march for another six hours, down the mountain. The silence was heavy. Everybody was concentrating on their own little world in order to keep going. The fatigue was so intense; we were all ready to drop. Suddenly, right around a bend, there was a clearing. Waiting for us were a bunch of two and a half ton trucks, ready to take us back to camp. Using the last of our strength, we climbed in the trucks. As soon as I sat down, I fell asleep and so did most of my comrades. I did not care how long the ride was as long as I did not have to move. I was awakened with a jolt when the truck stopped in front of the shacks. We were nicely told we could now take the rest of the day off!
The next day, the instructors told us we had to become proficient in the use of explosives and would be experimenting with C4. C4 is a wonderful little toy to play with. It is a highly stable explosive that is not affected by heat or shock; a rare attribute. It is a soft and malleable mixture of plastic and chemicals which can be shaped into any form so, you can blow up anything your little old heart desires. This particular explosive needs to be set off by an electronic detonator. The instructors explained to us how to handle this explosive. Each of us was then given a piece of C4 and assigned a target to blow up. Our targets were old wrecked tanks, no longer in use. The C4 was not sufficient to destroy them. I would only make a nice big bang.
That day I had noticed the French conscripts were absent. I asked one of the French instructors: “You have military personnel from all the different countries on this part of the course but no French recruit. How come?”
The instructor smiled. “Three quarters of the conscripts in the French Army are communist. If we teach them how to handle explosives,” he shrugged his shoulders in a very French way, “in a month or so, when their service time is over, they will be down in Paris blowing things up. Training, compliment of the French army. No, no, no, my friend. This is not going to happen”.
After lunch the instructors lined us up. We were to set off the charges consecutively in the order we were given, mimicking a real war where you would be blowing up a convoy of vehicles traveling down the road.
The next day was our last day on the course. We would soon put to good use all that we had learned during this course. At 5:00 in the morning we were given an objective which we must have reached by 3:00 in the afternoon. This was only a seven-mile course which would have been easy to complete except for all the dangers and obstacles lying in wait for us.
We were creeping through the woods when we came upon a French tank on the road. The crew was laying around, unconcerned, doing what soldiers do best, wasting time. One of our guys had a bright idea to give them a jolt. We had been provided with a few smoke grenades for our journey. He took a rope and tied a grenade at each end. He pulled the pins and then whipped the rope above his head with great force. He must have been a Caballero in his former life. His contraption behaved like a Boleadoras. The rope whipped through the air, caught the barrel of the tank and twisted itself around it tightly. The grenades were belching out dark gray smoke. The startled French tankers tried to get the rope off but the smoke was getting in their eyes and making them cough. They shook their fists and cursed us to the deepest pits of hell. They could not see where we were while we made our escape, snickering all the way.
Next, we had a long march through a marsh of stinking black waters three inches deep which filled our boots and made walking rather uncomfortable. Following the marsh was a river we had to cross. The only way to get to the other side was a bridge made of wooden slats strung together by a couple of cables. These cables were anchored tightly to both banks of the river. There was nothing to hold on to. The trick was to lope along, one soldier at a time, without stopping, which would keep the bridge from vibrating excessively. If, for some reason, the bridge started to vibrate too much, you had to get down on your hands and knees and stay motionless until the bridge stopped moving. The only other option was to fall in the water and swim across. Given that the bridge was ten feet high and the river was ice cold, this was an option to avoid.
After the river, we came upon a very tight high cable strung between two trees. Our instructions were to cross the distance between these two trees using the cable. To accomplish this, we had to grab the cable with our hands and cross our feet over the cable; we then had to shimmy across hanging down like a sloth. As we proceeded across, the rough steel cable cut into our hands and made them bleed. We then had to climb up another tree and swing back across the same river, holding on to a rope like a monkey looking for bananas. On the other side of the river was a large net strung vertically between two trees. The idea was to swing into the net, grab onto it and climb down. One of our guys missed grasping the net, fell down and hurt his arm. The medics arrived swiftly and checked him out so we could continue on our merry way.
After another two hours of climbing, rappelling, sliding and slipping we came to the last part of our journey: a five-kilometer run. We did not have much time left but we were all in top physical shape. The soldiers in our group were between the ages of 19 and 23, except for our platoon leader. He was in his early 40s. He was a great guy. He must have really pissed somebody off to be sent on the course at his age. He had recently been a senior NCO busted to Cpl. for refusing an order. I did not know what the order was but he was a career soldier and a good one so, who knows?
We began the run, moving along at a fairly brisk jog when, suddenly, our platoon leader stopped. He was in good shape but the physical strain of the past weeks was too much for a guy his age. He was not going to be able to finish the race on time. He ordered us to go on. We refused. He threatened us with being thrown in jail for refusing to obey an order. That was a rich statement coming from him after what he had done. In the end, we took turn supporting him, one soldier on each side, and jogged to the finish line. We made it with a couple of minutes to spare.
The next morning, we got our French Commando Badge from the French base commander. He concluded the ceremony with a short but poignant speech. “You should always remember this accomplishment and be proud of the job you did. Many people do not have the tenacity or guts to finish the course.” The dropout rate for some of the other military groups was between thirty and fifty per cent, but we were all professional soldiers and did not lose anyone.
I will always remember that speech. I still have my badge. It used to sit on my desk at work, before I retired. Whenever I feel down in the dumps, I look at it and feel extremely proud.
Unless noted otherwise, photography in this article was taken by the author, Frank Reid.