Army colonel honored for foreign assignment
WINCHESTER — Shenandoah Valley Westminster-Canterbury resident John H. Claybrook, a retired U.S Army colonel, earned two medals and a plaque — honors from the Chilean Army for his service to that country 50 years ago.
This past November, Claybrook was the guest of the Chilean Army, celebrating 50 years since he sat down to tell a general what his army needed in the way of training.
Like a Hollywood action hero, Claybrook, an Army Ranger, brought the idea of special forces and commando operations to the Chilean Army in 1962.
How that came about is “an interesting story,” Claybrook said.
Sitting in the dining room at Westminster-Canterbury, where he and his second wife have lived for three years, he can still express surprise at the process that made him the instrument to modernize Chile’s army.
The Korean War veteran’s orders to head to South America came “out of the blue,” he said. They originally included a year in Monterey, Calif., to learn Spanish and then three weeks in Washington, D.C., to be tutored by the Foreign Services Department.
But, suddenly, “all that was canceled,” and he was rushed off to Santiago.
Claybrook was assigned to the U.S. Army Mission there, keeping track of equipment for the Military Assistance Program.
He had only been on the job for about six months, when, surprisingly, the general in charge of the Chilean Army’s training program invited Claybrook to go rappelling on a glacier in the Andes Mountains.
“It was a three-hour ride in by mule to the glacier,” Claybrook recalled.
They spent hours on the ice sheet. Claybrook was then taken to the Portillo Hotel, a ski resort in a country where summer comes in December and winter in June.
“There I was, a lowly captain, having dinner with a general,” he said.
Even more amazing, the general asked the captain, “What’s wrong with the Chilean Army?”
“I was dumbfounded,” Claybrook recalled.
For one thing, he said, in the 1960s, the influence of Germany was still very strong in Chile, a country that had favored Germany during World War II.
Most of the Chilean military didn’t care much for the United States.
But Claybrook bit the bullet and told this influential officer that Chile needed to give young officers, including noncommissioned officers, better training and allow them initiative.
Most of the training then was theoretical, he said. “They need more and better field training.”
Given Chile’s long, but narrow configuration, the Army should have an airborne unit stationed near Santiago, about halfway, ready to deploy quickly either north or south, he added.
The next day, the two men spent a day talking about how these two things could be done, and Claybrook outlined a training course, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Army Ranger training he had been doing at Fort Benning, Ga., to give Chile a mobile, efficient commando unit.
In short order, a Chilean Army captain had been appointed to work with Claybrook to create the training program. Jose Antonio Quinteras M., who spoke no English, became a good friend and co-founder of the Chilean Comando unit.
“My Spanish was very poor, but we learned to communicate,” Claybrook added, waving two hands in the air.
Claybrook said he had been taking a Spanish language course at the Embassy since arriving in Chile. His wife, Jane, learned to speak Spanish with the help of the cook and the maid they employed.
“She could speak in public much better than I.”
Claybrook obtained the services of a 12-member U.S. Army Special Forces A Team from Panama, led by Capt. Richard F. Carvell, to help with that first training course.
“The Rangers are equivalent to the Navy Seals,” Claybrook said, “but we didn’t do the underwater part.”
Claybrook said a lot of the training involved practical exercises. He would set up patrols, or objectives for the trainees to achieve, in addition to the weapons training, communications, demolitions, medical care and physical training.
As a trainer, he led many 5-mile runs at 5 a.m, with full packs and rifles. “I would run backwards, just to show I could do it,” he added.
Trainees would work long hours and miss meals and be asked to do grueling courses, while tired and hungry, or exhausted. Often, a team leader might be tapped as “dead,” and someone else in the team would be named to take over and complete the mission.
Training exercises often had unusual hazards. Moving across a cliff face at night, someone stirred up a rattlesnake. Working in the dark, it could be heard, but not seen.
What to do?
“Keep going,” said Claybrook, and hope no one gets bitten.
Trainers accompanied all the patrols and exercises to evaluate the men leading each exercise.
“Only the fittest survived. We lost a lot of students.”
While some pulled out of the program, there were some fatalities, Claybrook said.
At the time of the first class, Chile used wooden bullets instead of the blanks the U.S. Army used for training.
One trainee was hit by the wood cartridge, and it broke an artery, Claybrook said. The only good thing to come out of that was the Chilean brass agreed to get rid of the wooden bullets and go to blanks.
The first course was so successful, Claybrook organized a second one in 1963.
After that, Claybrook said, the best students from those two classes took over the training duties.
With his three-year tour over, Claybrook left Chile to return to the United States in 1964. A year later, Chile organized the airborne battalion he had suggested.
In 2002, a group of veterans of the Chilean commando group invited Claybrook to Santiago for a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of that branch of the military and made him an honorary member, compete with beret.
Chile has a new Military Academy, along with a Special Operations Command center, where the ceremony was held, and a new parachute school and special forces school.
“They have all new equipment and weapons. It’s a truly modern Army,” Claybrook said.
Quinteros, now a retired colonel, was also honored, along with Col. Carvell, also now retired.
Claybrook was told by a friend that the Chilean Army has a saying — things are either BC or AC.
That stands for “Before Claybrook” or “After Claybrook.”
— Contact Val Van Meter at email@example.com