By Harold Wayne Hamlin
The seventh in an 11-part series sharing the very personal story of one Long Range Recon Green Beret and his time in Special Forces training.
Learning morse code is easy. Copying morse code at 25 to 30 words a minute is difficult. We had one instructor who could put on a different earphone on each ear, then have one morse code message sent to one ear and a different morse code message sent to his other ear. He could copy words at 50 per minute per ear. Writing with both hands, with each hand writing a different message. Yeah, Genius, like Liz.
After completing my primary MOS training, we had a weeklong training exercise in the Pisgah National Forest of NC.
Two days before, teams of six men were deployed into the mountains. It rained over an inch. Then it froze. Then two feet of snow fell.
Watching the weather on TV, everyone thought the exercise would be called off. Special Forces calls off nothing.
They would just put a D9 Caterpillar with a 9-foot blade out in front of the trucks transporting us and deploy eight teams of six men each in subzero weather.
They left us with no fuel for a fire. Everything was soaked, then frozen. My team was the only one that managed to get a fire started; I did it. The other five members on my team gave up within 15 minutes of trying to get a fire started. They crawled into their goose down sleeping bags and went to sleep.
To me, it was a challenge to start and maintain the fire. I had read all the survival books ever published. I knew how to start a fire; I just needed to do it.
I spent an hour looking at all the trees’ trunks until I found a large tree that was large enough to protect the trunk area from the rain. The one I found had a rotten section halfway up through the center… dry half-rotted fiber, the perfect kindling.
I got a fire started. I stacked wet wood near the fire to be dried by the flames. I was so proud of my mountain man reading on how to do things.
At midnight, I turned on the radio and made morse code radio contact with Headquarters. At 0300 and 0600, I made contact and gave reports. The others slept. It was hard work maintaining the fire, operating the radio, and staying awake.
I heard a jeep coming up the mountain road. A Captain got out of the jeep. I stood at attention and saluted. “As you were Private,” he said as he warmed himself by my fire.
“Who got the fire started?” He asked as he looked in the tent where everyone was asleep.
“I started it, Sir,” I said with pride.
“Who helped you?” he asked, looking at me hard.
His question put me in a tough spot. I didn’t want to say no one helped me, but I didn’t want to lie. I hesitated.
“Stand at attention, Private. You… Private, were the only one of all the teams to build a fire? You… Private were the only team to make all four radio contacts. You… Private did it all by yourself? Am I correct?”
“Speak up, Private,” it was a direct order to answer.
“Sir. Yes, by myself, Sir,” the Captain left me no choice I had to tell him.
He extended his hand, and I shook it, “Excellent job, Private. Get in my jeep. Sergeant Aims douse this fire and return the fuel cans to the jeep.”
Sergeant Aims did as ordered. I could have cried when Sergeant Aims kicked snow on the fire that I had worked so hard to start and maintain.
“Get them up, Sergeant!” There was anger in his voice, and I didn’t understand why.
The Sergeant tore the tent down as he kicked the men awake.
Before the men realized it was not me treating them so rough, they were cussing and saying they were going to kick my butt.
Once the five men were up and realized a Sergeant was getting them up, they settled down.
The Sergeant called them to attention. The Captain ordered Sergeant Aims to take their coats.
It was minus -4 degrees, but we had very good cold-weather gear. When the men were stripped of their coats, it took only a moment before they started shaking from the cold.
The Captain looked each man eyeball to eyeball and said, “We have spent weeks trying to get it into your heads that you are a team. You are always a team, regardless if you are on a mission with friends or strangers. Regardless if you like each other or not, you are a team, and you will function as a team or pack your bags and leave Special Forces. Not one of you got out of your warm sleeping bags to relieve Private Hamlin. Each of you were waiting on someone else to get up instead of doing your part.”
The men were freezing and starting to shake.
“I will be back here at 1300. You will have a fire going. You will make every scheduled radio contact. You will make radio contact with every other team on this exercise and convey to them how unfit you all are to be in Special Forces. If you miss one radio contact, I personally will put your sorry asses on the bus out of here.”
By this time, the men were shaking uncontrollably from not only the cold but from fear as well.
“Sergeant Aims, Private Hamlin, in my jeep.”
The Captain left them there, standing at attention.
I looked back as the jeep sped away. They were scrambling to get into their coats. They would not freeze if they worked as a team. Some in sleeping bags were staying warm as they took turns doing what the Captain had ordered.
And me? What the hell did the Captain want with me?
Submitted by Harold Wayne Hamlin, Lubbock, TX. Harold was a Sergeant in the US Army during Vietnam, serving 16 missions as a Long Range Recon Green Beret while serving with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) and Command and Control North (CNN); where he was awarded a Purple Heart. Harold is also a retired Lubbock Fire Fighter.