This was originally published in The Belle Banner, Belle, Missouri on June 13th 2018.
This is just some war stories, but not the kind that is conjured up by the term “war stories”, so I’ll just call them “Army Stories”. Some are funny, some are not, some are funny only to the people involved, some are just interesting, but they are about life in the Army.
A Rifle Platoon Sergeant in the infantry runs a platoon of about 40 soldiers. The Platoon Leader, the lieutenant, leads the platoon. In the infantry, Rifle Platoon Leader is the very first assignment (job) a new lieutenant gets, after he has completed all of his initial training. In the field the Platoon Leader leads and directs combat operations and the Platoon Sergeants’ job is officially beans and bullets. Making sure that everyone has what they should have. Unofficially one of the Platoon Sergeants’ primary jobs is to train his lieutenant. Good Platoon Sergeants understand that and take it as a responsibility. Good lieutenants also understand it and welcome the years of experience from their platoon sergeant. Most of the time that works very well, sometimes it doesn’t.
One of my platoon leaders graduated second in his class at West Point. He was extremely smart, but he knew it and thought that he was smarter than everyone else. I also had a new lieutenant who had grown up in the Army. His father was a Colonel and his wife’s father was a Colonel. He graduated from ROTC, and he was completely familiar with army life. He was all open and eager to learn. Shortly after he arrived, our company commander (Captain) took him to a briefing at Battalion Headquarters for an upcoming operation. When the briefer said; “This is a joint exercise, so when you call for tac air (meaning tactical air support, i.e. jet fighters attacking positions you are requesting them to attack), you get tac air. My lieutenant blurts out “Ohh WOW”!!. The captain said, “shut up …..” listen to the briefing”. He was a good lieutenant, he would listen to anyone who made sense. The troops liked him, and when the troops like a lieutenant, look out. When the troops don’t like a lieutenant, they leave him alone, but when they like him, and they consider him one of them, he is free game. Somehow exlax got into his canteen in the field. I don’t think he ever knew why he had problems on that field exercise. I found out later, but not who did it. I was proud of him, because in six months he was moved to be Platoon Leader of the Battalion Reconnaissance Platoon, which is usually reserved for the best infantry lieutenant in the battalion.
During a training exercise, my company jumped into Sardinia in 1978 and made CBS evening news. About 120 paratroopers jumped that day, we had over 30 injured including a couple broken arms, mild concussions and one broken leg. When my parachute opened I thought for a second that I was disoriented because the wind wasn’t right. Then I realized that it was the wind. The wind was way too strong for a parachute jump. We had MC1 steerable chutes with hand toggles, very maneuverable, and you always face into the wind when landing. The wind was so strong that it was pushing in on the wind side of my canopy. I hit the ground heels first, did a backward flip through my suspension lines and went about 50 yards through a briar patch before I could release one side of my canopy. Nothing hurt. Our First Sergeant who had spent 20 years in Special Forces and had jumped in all kinds of adverse conditions, realized what was happening and released his canopy the second he hit the ground. We stopped the war gaming long enough to get the injured treated and separated into those who could continue and those who would be evacuated back to Italy or to a hospital in Germany. One of my Squad Leaders, a Staff Sergeant named Joe, really got his bell rung. When we finally gathered to move out, Joe had that horizon blank stare in his eyes, wasn’t walking steady, and didn’t seem fully aware of what was happening. We sent Joe back to Italy and it was a couple days before he was completely normal.
A formal investigation following that jump discovered what had happened, and caused a change in drop zone control. On every training parachute jump there was a Drop Zone Safety Officer and a Sergeant assistant, usually from the unit jumping, and an Air Force Tactical Air Control Team. They had wind machines to monitor wind speed and direction. Training parachute jumps are allowed in wind speeds up to about 12 knots, wind speeds of 13 knots (about 15 miles per hour) or over usually cancel the jump. The drop zone for that jump was about 3,000 meters long and was next to the ocean. The drop zone control party had set up at the lead end of the drop zone, which was normal, be where the jump starts. They were monitoring winds of 11 to 12 knots, which were approaching borderline, but still within safe jumping conditions. However, about halfway down the drop zone the ground was slightly higher catching the strong ocean winds. After that, drop zone safety teams had to survey the entire drop zone. The general consensus was that we jumped in 35 to 40 mile an hour winds.
The Army started using GPS, just like everyone else, especially in Iraq, except what the military uses is much more accurate and reliable than what civilians get to use. And the Army apparently became so dependent on GPS that it was ignoring plain old land navigation with a paper map and a compass. Because in the past couple years there has been a renewed and increased emphasis on teaching and testing land navigation. If technology breaks down, soldiers on the ground have to be able to navigate. This is one of my land nav stories. During a war gaming exercise in mountains in Norway my company was in the process of getting everyone in position to start the exercise. My platoon was the first to arrive in the area and get in position. Another platoon was to be located a couple mountains west of us. Our Company Commander (CO) ask me to go with him, via helicopter, to show me the location of the other platoon, because he had to go to a meeting. When the other platoon arrived I jumped in the bird with the Platoon Leader and rode with them to their location. The helicopters dropped us and left. After I pointed out the parameters of the location to the Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant, I had nothing else to do there. My platoon was located about three kilometers away, on the map. In mountains that can be a long way. It was late afternoon and the sun was already very low, but I wanted to be with my platoon. My Platoon Leader was a good lieutenant and very competent, but I wasn’t there. I had a map, a compass, and a radio, so I started home. By the time I got down the side of that mountain it was dark and no moon. As I got back on high ground I could see a house light in a valley in the distance and the lights of a car on a road travel from left to right past that house. Our platoon radio operator, Specialist White, was as sharp as they come and was with my platoon. White could also see the house light. Every time a car moved on the road White gave me the azimuth when the car moved between him and the house, I checked my azimuth. After several hours of sliding down banks and climbing up them and running into trees, our azimuths were getting very close. Finally I sat down and waited for the next car, we were on the same azimuth. I sat there for a few minutes contemplating my next move when I heard someone cough. I asked White if some just coughed, they did. They were about 50 feet to my rear.
One of the best infantry company commanders (CO’s) I served under, also had a great sense of humor. When playing army in the field, blank ammunition is used in rifles and machineguns, at that time blanks were not manufactured for .45 caliber pistols. Our CO disagreed with a captain in our battalion operations section about a certain aspect of the current field exercise. Our captain wrapped an M-16 blank cartridge with duck-tape until it fit perfectively in his .45, and when the headquarters captain visited our company command post, in the field, to discuss the exercise, our captain started an argument. The argument heated up, and our captain stepped back and said; “If you don’t like it, I’ll just shoot you”. And BANG, a blank fired in a pistol sounds very much like the real thing. For a few seconds there was no sound, only big eyes and open mouths, then laughter and finally laughter by all, and the disagreement was resolved.
One time I was working for a colonel when he was promoted to brigadier general. When he was first promoted he would come in the office laughing about his new experiences. He always drove to work in his PT (Physical Training) clothes, sweats or shorts and T-shirt. One morning he was stopped at a routine Military Police check point. The young MP checking licenses and ID cards asked, “Sir, what does “BG” mean?” He answered, “That means Brigadier General.” The young man said, “I was afraid that’s what it meant.”
This was originally published in The Belle Banner, Belle, Missouri on June 13th 2018.