The U.S. Army first started training troops in the jungles of Panama in 1916, just two years after the opening of the Panama Canal. Training began in earnest in the early 1940s as World War II in the Pacific necessitated the need for soldiers to be well-versed in the tactics of jungle warfare.
The 158th Infantry Regiment even adopted the nickname “Bushmasters” after the vicious pit viper they encountered while training there.
However, it was not until 1953, as the Korean War was drawing to an end, that the Army finally established a formal school, called the Jungle Operations Training Center. Operations ramped up once again during the 1960s in order to meet the demand for jungle-trained soldiers to fight in Vietnam.
In 1976, the Army realized it would be more efficient to train whole battalions at one time rather than training individuals piecemeal and sending them back to their home station. Those battalions would go through some of the toughest, most grueling training the Army had to offer. The jungle itself provides challenges of its own.
The thick, triple canopy and dense foliage made radios all but useless and reduced visibility to just a few yards. Rain and humidity ensured soldiers were constantly wet and the jungle floor was always slick with mud, which the soldiers had to march and crawl through.
There were tree roots and vines on which to trip or become entangled. Other plants offered worse. A manual written for troops stationed in Panama during World War II listed over 100 poisonous or injurious varieties of flora. Leaning or brushing against the wrong plant could lead to some rather uncomfortable conditions.
If the plants weren’t bad enough, there was local wildlife to contend with. Poisonous snakes and bugs surely top the list of unwanted encounters. Enormous spiders would spin giant webs across narrow jungle paths. Snakes waited in the underbrush and in trees. Jim Smit, a National Guard platoon sergeant and Vietnam veteran captured and killed a fifteen-foot boa constrictor during his time at Jungle Warfare School.
He said it was the best training, short of combat, that any soldier could undertake.
There was also the venomous and dangerous Bushmaster pit viper. Mercifully, the snakes preferred not to make contact with humans, so encounters were rare. Rounding out the dangerous reptiles in the area were the crocodiles that lived in the waterways nearby.
However, the worst encounter for many soldiers was the common mosquito. They are ubiquitous in jungle environments and are a terrible nuisance. Although most bites simply leave soldiers itchy, their most dangerous quality is their ability to carry malaria. In the jungle, a little carelessness can lead to a lot of pain. Failing to properly secure mosquito netting at night could mean waking up covered in mosquito bites. Even with the netting, soldiers weren’t entirely safe. Exposed skin, carelessly pressed against the net while sleeping, would be open to bites.
It was in this setting that the Army conducted some of the best training and created some of the best unit cohesion possible. The terrible conditions forced soldiers and leaders alike to have to think through situations while not being able to simply go “by the book.”
This is because the jungle is a great equalizer in combat conditions. The thick foliage interferes with radio signals, renders night-vision devices nearly useless, and stops hand-held GPS devices from working properly. Soldiers at Jungle Warfare School could not rely on the technological advantages they were accustomed to.
These circumstances were what made the Jungle Warfare School unique, though. While soldiers learned how to operate in the jungle learned many valuable warfighting skills that are difficult to replicate in other environments.
Although not technically authorized for wear, many students who completed the school wore the Jungle Expert tab or patch.
Despite the unique nature of the school and the exceptional training it provided, it was not relocated when Fort Sherman closed down in 1999. Soldiers would not have the opportunity to attend Jungle Warfare School again for another fifteen years, when it was reopened in Hawaii in 2014.