Guys who wear the RANGER tab frequently make a distinction between “Summer Rangers” and “Winter Rangers,” especially if they claim to be the latter. There are several reasons why winter Rangers feel superior to their summertime brethren, besides the obvious difference of the temperatures which they endured. For one thing, there are more hours of darkness during the winter months. As Ol’ Weird recalls, there were occasionally things that were mildly enjoyable or fun during Ranger School, but nothing good ever happened at night. Ever.
The absolute coldest Ol’ Weird ever was, happened during the Florida phase, one night when the temperature went to 17 F. That may not sound so bad, except that just after dark, his patrol had made a crossing of the Yellow River. That meant fording 150 yards of flowing swamp, neck deep in icy waters, roped together in the dark so as not to lose the non-swimmer “rocks,” with their weapons hoisted over their heads. Before they had even gotten up to dry land, their sopping fatigues were already freezing solid, so sixty pounds of gear in rucksacks, soaking wet became ninety pounds of ice. That was one night Ol’ Weird was actually grateful that they never stopped moving, because he surely would have been a frozen cadaver.
Early in Ranger School, Ol’ Weird figured out that the best deal in the world was to volunteer to carry the machine gun. Two odious patrol tasks which everyone avoided were carrying the machine gun and carrying the radio.
Both were huge dead weight, and neither one usually worked, so it was always an exercise in pointless work. But the M-60 machine gun had its advantages. For one thing, since it was guaranteed to jam after only a couple of rounds, Ol’ Weird learned he could ditch all but about a 20-round belt of ammo and carry an empty ammo box the whole patrol. He earned lots of martyr points by saying, “Hey, man, I’ve been carrying the damned machine gun from the start – gimme a break!” The duty got spread around, so whenever he needed some relief, he just whined to the patrol leader, and got to unload the monster for a bit.
Same thing worked for the hapless Ranger carrying the radio, with one big difference. When the eight to twelve-day patrols began, the machine gunner left his M-14 rifle locked in the rack back at base camp, while the radio man carried the radio plus his rifle. So, while everyone else was dragging their weapon through the mud with parts falling off all through the patrol, the machine gunner’s rifle was clean and dry back in the base camp riflerack.
The really bad part came when it was time to jump. Ol’ Weird jumped with the M-60 in a kit bag hanging across his thighs below the reserve parachute. [Every Ranger school jump is a night jump.] He never understood why, but two things were different about jumping at night. First, the ground came up way faster at night. And no matter what you did, at night you always hit the ground backwards.
His worst jump ever was one night in Florida phase. Army regulations forbid training jumps if the winds on the drop zone exceed 13 knots, steady. On the night in question, winds were 18 knots, gusting to 25, but the Rangers were going to jump. So, the DZ (drop zone) Safety Officer cupped his hand in front of the wind gauge and reported “13 knots, steady.” Blasting out of the antique C-123, Ol’ Weird felt gusts oscillating him beneath his parachute like a gigantic pendulum, and sure enough, heading ass-backwards to the DZ, straight for the trees.
He hit the ground on the backswing in the classic three points of contact, Feet-Ass-Head, and the M-60 smashed into his face. Being dragged violently, he thought, “This is the end, for sure,” but just momentarily. Landing just inside the DZ, he was only dragged a few yards before his parachute hung up in the tree line. He lay there forever [probably less than a minute] feeling blood trickling off his chin. Finally, he gathered enough strength to pop his quick-release and climb to his feet. Medics gave him three sutures and two Darvon, and it was back on patrol. Ol’ Weird has that scar to this day.
Another difference between summer and winter Rangers is that, during the mountain phase, winter Rangers were issued far more gear, including Mickey Mouse boots, heavy duty clothing and heavy mummy sleeping bags, all of which had to be carried in every patrol. Trouble was, whether it was cold or not, that was a lot of extraneous gear, and in a soaking rain it really got heavy.
The absolute worst thing a Ranger could ever do was to break contact during a patrol. That earned an automatic 25-point bad spot report, which would almost guarantee he would not get the RANGER tab upon completion. [Ranger School is the only Army school where just finishing the course does not earn you the award. Only some Ranger graduates get the tab.] Seems the “Black Hat” cadre (distinguished by their black baseball caps adorned with their jump wings and Ranger tab) did not want to be out looking for lost Rangers in the wilderness at night. To ensure that no one ever breaks contact, the procedure is to “send up the count.” This means the last man in the patrol slaps the man in front of him, saying “One.” He slaps the man to his front with “Two,” and so on, until the patrol leader at the front gets the right number, or if not, halts and scrambles to find the missing Ranger. At least once every hour, and more often when he thinks of it, the patrol leader must pass back the word to “send up the count.”
So, there they were, a patrol of fifteen exhausted, starving, delirious Rangers, at night in a cold pouring rain, slogging single file up a North Georgia crag affectionately known as Greasy Mountain.
The terrain was so steep and the night so dark and wet that the only way to maintain contact was for each Ranger to keep a firm grip on the rucksack frame of the Ranger in front of him. Ol’ Weird was Number Seven from the rear of the patrol, as they slipped and crashed up the freezing mountain mud.
… Ol’ Weird was jerked awake by the man behind him, saying “Oh, shit. We’ve broken contact.”
“No, we haven’t,” Ol’ Weird insisted. “I’m holding onto the guy in front, and they aren’t moving.” Just to prove it, he pulled off his sopping glove and felt the rucksack he was clinging to. Only it wasn’t a ruck frame – it was a tree branch. “Oh, man, we’re in trouble now!”
Ol’ Weird huddled with his six Rangers. They had broken contact, and he knew his ass was on the line. During the patrol operations order that afternoon, they had been shown the map and briefed that they would move up to the peak of Greasy Mountain and then follow a ridgeline several kilometers to the objective. No one in his group had a map, or a radio, or even a flashlight with working batteries. Just the useless machine gun Ol’ Weird was lugging.
Since the main patrol was heading for the top of the mountain, if they just kept going up they might sooner or later find the rest of the patrol. So, he told his lost sheep, “Stay tight. Send up the count every five minutes. Don’t worry – we’ll catch up with them. It will be OK.” He took off, leading six worried Rangers up the mountain, always up, as fast as they could and stay together.
An hour passed in the freezing rain, blind except when an occasional flash of lightning lit the mountain side. Up and up they went, desperate to rejoin the main patrol. Another hour, and up they went. A third hour passed, and the terrain began to flatten out. Somebody said, “I hear something.” Off to their left, down the slope, they could hear crashing around.
In a couple of minutes, they made out somebody coming up the mountain. Ol’ Weird’s group had passed the main patrol on their way to the top! As the main patrol passed right by, completely unaware, Ol’ Weird counted until the eighth man passed, then slapped him on his ruck and said, “Seven.” The count, apparently the first one in hours, was passed up, and no one ever knew anyone had broken contact.
Every man in that group of seven lost sheep wound up getting the RANGER tab, Ol’ Weird included.