It was the final night of an amphibious landing and beach assault exercise on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Almost at the end of the final phase of Ranger School that had begun nine weeks earlier, I was exhausted and seasick.
U.S. Army Ranger training was no walk in the park. In fact, by the final phase of the course, it was normal for half the class to have dropped out. Our class of 300-plus had been a large one. I felt lucky to be one of the remaining 100 students in Ranger Class 2-73.
The final phase of the course was conducted in and around Florida’s Yellow River basin area on a remote section of Eglin Air Force Base. At times of the year the swamp was high. But in late October and early November, the water was only waist-deep and still relatively warm from the summer heat.
After days of patrolling in the swamp, we were supplied with rafts and paddles and headed to the Gulf of Mexico via the Yellow River. Arriving at the confluence of the river and the Gulf, we boarded a ship that carried us out to sea. Affording time to rest on the deck, it was a welcome ride. It began raining about dusk.
In the darkness, the ship pitched and yawed as the sea became angry. The wind and rain increased its intensity, adding to the misery of seasickness. No one dared stand. Just when it couldn’t get any worse, I heard someone yelling my name. To my great disappointment, I learned that I would plan the mission. There was no rest this night for the weary.
Wretchedly, I made it from the deck to an open hatch that led down a narrow hall into a larger room where the operation order was written. After I briefed the order, I returned to the rain and wind of the open deck. For the previous hour or so I had forgotten my misery. The motion sickness had all but disappeared with the concentration required to write a plan for the mission.
It was 0-dark thirty. The rain and wind had eased when we climbed over the ship’s side with our field packs, weapons and radio equipment using cargo netting to lower ourselves. The sea was rolling, and wave after wave slapped the hull – I could see white caps. The rafts were rising and falling with each wave; letting go of the net was tricky. Timing had to be just right to fall into the raft. Most of us waited for our raft to bump our legs or buttocks before letting go. Amazingly, no one drowned or was injured. The assault on the beach was scheduled for daybreak. Those first to load into a raft paddled around waiting on the other rangers to load and join the growing raft flotilla. It was extremely dangerous to leave the ship in the darkness. It took an hour or better to load all the rangers and equipment. Motion sickness set in again, but this time there was nothing to regurgitate. I gagged until my tongue and jaw were sore. Soaking wet and cold, my head hurting and my teeth clicking uncontrollably, hypothermia was taking its toll on the body.
In this miserable state, my mind took me to another place and I began to sing the lyrics of a once popular song.
Why are we here? Where are we going? It’s time that we found out.
We’re not here to stay; we’re on a short holiday.
To this day I can’t explain how I knew some of the words to "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries." But in my condition, my subconscious mind kicked in and the words rolled off my aching tongue. Suddenly I was in a better place – a different state of mind.
Don’t take it serious; it’s too mysterious.
You work, you save, you worry so, but you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go.
At 0530 our rubber boats were in assault position and all rangers were vigorously paddling to surf the waves onto the beach. Pathfinders had marked the landing sites, and smoke pots shielded our approach. We scrambled to unload the gear as small arms fire erupted followed by machine gun bursts and hand grenade simulators.
The exercise was over in a matter of minutes. As the sun popped over the horizon, the mission ended. I remember feeling relieved that I had survived that miserable night on the sea. The irony in it all was that none of us could have survived crossing a defended beach under fire. So I sang these words.
Life is just a bowl of cherries! So live, and laugh at it all!