The Coldest Night I Ever Spent

Ft. A.P. Hill - February 10, 1989

A person put a photo up on Facebook today of a road closed sign on Ft. A.P. Hill in Virginia.  It brought back some memories of time spent living and working around the base in the town of Bowling Green, and training on the base as a Marine.

I'll never forget one USMCR drill weekend that we spent on base.  In early 1989, we were still using M101A1 105mm howitzers, my particular one having been built in 1944.  My usual sleeping arrangements in the field consisted of making a pallet from four wooden ammo crates, my closed cell foam sleeping pad, and my intermediate weight sleeping bag with a busted zipper. 

105mm Howitzer Ammo Crate
Even in the winter, I stayed pretty warm at night, even sometimes waking up with my poncho draped over me, stiff as plywood from a heavy morning frost.  I would strip down to my skivvies, keeping my boots and uniform in the bag with me so I had something warm to put on in the morning.

This particular February weekend, we mustered at our reserve center on Friday evening, loaded up the deuce and a half trucks, hitched up the howitzers, and headed up I-95 to A.P. Hill.  It was bitterly cold riding in the back of the canvas covered truck with an open rear end, waving at cars on the highway.  When we got to the base, instead of heading to the WWII barracks where we normally slept for winter drills, we headed out to the field and immediately set up our guns for a night-fire mission.  Around midnight or 0100, we were given the order to stand down.  I began to set up my normal sleeping position, but the order came down for everyone to sleep in the back of the trucks for body warmth.  I was against it because I believed that all that open air space underneath for the wind to whip under the sheet metal floor would make us even colder, but I was a lowly lance corporal and in no position to argue.

So there we were, no cold-weather gear, nothing but field jackets with liners, regular old leather combat boots, and intermediate-weight sleeping bags (keep in mind that mine had a busted zipper, so I had to depend on snaps to keep mine closed).  Some had enough sense to wear long johns, and a few had "wooly pully" commando sweaters - these were not issued at the time, but were approved for optional uniform wear.  I climbed up in the back of the truck without enough room to unroll my sleeping pad, so I shucked my uniform and boots and climbed in the bag, with my uniform, and pulled my two canteens in with me. 

After a few hours of restless, fitful sleep, we were roused before dawn to begin another training day.  I rapidly dressed and found my canteens, which had been inside my bag with me, had frozen solid in the night.  A minor mutiny occurred.  Because of the vast quantities of bagged gunpowder on the gun line, smoking and open flames were strictly verboten.  That morning, the entire battery built campfires right beside our firing positions and even broke open some powder bags to get the fires started quicker.  I distinctly remember the smell of melting rubber as I stuck my boots right in the flame in an effort to warm up.

We were told that the overnight low was 10 degrees with a windchill below zero.  I just checked the historical records and the nearest I could find was for the town of Bowling Green which showed 17 degrees with a windchill of 7.  Either way, it was doggone cold.  We were then told that barracks had been available, but that we faced the challenge, and succeeded in the spirit of Chesty Puller and the Frozen Chosin.

It was a cold, miserable night, that really could have been dangerous, but I (along with 120 other Marines) survived and even prevailed.  I went winter camping a number of times after that, for recreation, and used my experiences to have more appropriate gear.

So how is this relevant other than as a story to tell around a campfire?  Cold weather can be deadly, but with minimal gear or shelter, it is easily survivable.  If you have even the slightest chance of being stranded outside in the winter, having the basics of shelter and staying dry will keep you alive.  As we head into fall with winter travel and hunting season, check your car kit and your hunting gear to make sure you have those basics.


  1. About two years ago, I was hiking inside Tonto National Forest. A friend and I made a spontaneous day trip, and carelessly neglected even the simplest precautions. What was supposed to be an easy two-hour hike, turned into nearly 16 hours of hellish survival. And of course, being the geniuses that we were, we did not inform anyone as to our exact whereabouts. Wearing nothing but shorts, t-shirts, and light jackets, we wandered up and down the mountain until sunrise. Without food, means of contact, defense, or even water, we are lucky to have made it. We spent a few hours of the night huddled against a rock, trying to sleep, frequently hearing the sounds of animals around us, but it was pitch black and we had no light other than the dimming flash of her camera. As a frequent camper, I was able to distinguish the prints and feces of mountain lions and bobcats. We were terrified. Through some great miracle, however, we were able to find our way back to the car at about 8:00 the following morning. The weather report on the drive home informed us that we had just endured 35 degree weather, and frigid winds. At one point, we were certain that it would rain, but somehow the clouds disappeared before us. If there's one thing I learned from this experience, it is: don't underestimate the importance of water, a gun or knife, proper attire, flashlights, food, and basic survival knowledge. At one point, we ate leaves, but then realized what a terrible idea it was, not knowing if they were safe or not. We then settled on the crumpled Disneyland tickets that she had in her camera bag (of course, the only thing we brought with us...). I can't stress this enough: use common sense. And be careful. I had pneumonia for three weeks afterward, and was so sore I could hardly move, and nearly broke my leg while hiking at night. Learn from my mistake.

    1. Great story and lessons learned! Thanks for sharing!

  2. feb 10th? i was there on the third. i think it snowed as i recall. we made "camp", hooches of ponchos and 550 cord. i made some hot soup in my canteen cup and settled in for the night. about 0200 the CO musta got cold and made us get up, tear down and go in to an UNHEATED barracks. it was COLDER inside than out(i think he went to the inn on rt301). that was my coldest night.and about the closest to stomping a CO's butt i ever got...well, there was that time in bosnia.....small world D! there ain't a square foot on the hill i haven't set boot on at some point. and i was an artillery repairer for a while as well...good times, good times. i say that now but i used to cuss a blue streak every time they said we were going to the hill. its aptly named. thats where i finally figured out why we were called "grunts". meeeemorieeeees.....

    1. Funny how paths cross... like the Regimental Sgt. Maj. said to Gunny Highway in Heartbreak Ridge, we may not have served together, but we sure chewed some of the same dirt!


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