Go ahead…step off the plane onto the sticky tarmac at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, six a.m., the searing sun just breaking the horizon on a late August day. You recoil at the blast of a hot wind and dense humidity. Your military adventure has taken a new step.
It’s 1970. America is at war in Vietnam. And you’re here to learn how to tell artillery gunners exactly where to drop their shells. You’ve been told by veterans that you’ll replace a fallen second lieutenant within weeks of being in-country. You’ll be a forward observer. You’ll soon join the fallen lieutenant. Rousing stuff, all that, cheering you on.
First you study in the classroom, where you are pounded over the head with concepts of shell velocity, ammo type and fuse setting, bearing and elevation, plus all the other terms I’ve forgotten. And you have to endure the callous “jokes” of instructors who find the bombing of orphanages and monasteries particularly funny as they demonstrate examples of correct targeting.
It’s 1970. And two movies are still making the rounds in the theaters. One, Patton, stars George C. Scott, and it’s a rousing salute to WWII battle and command bravado which is shown at the base theater. The second, M*A*S*H, inspiration for the later long-running television series, takes a somewhat more jaundiced look at military life during the Korean Way and (indirectly) Vietnam. It shows off-post only. I see them both.
Somehow, I feel myself drawn to the latter more than the former, and my Advanced Individual Training is underway, so it’s time to make it more interesting.
Now by a quirk of fate my best boyhood neighbor Dan happens to be held-over between training sessions at Ft. Sill when I arrive. He has signed up for some sort of special non-com Ranger training–I can’t remember specifics–so he has nothing but time on his hands. I don’t tell him I’m here, just seek him out where he’s trying to catch a few late-morning z’s and drag him off his cot and on to the barracks floor. He takes it well, and we decide to make our stay at Ft. Sill as interesting as possible.
Now you need to know this about Dan: he and I were hell-bent-for-leather buddies in junior and senior high school. So we nearly blew up his father’s garage with our home chemistry lab (that story in another blog post), raced our bicycles so fast off a bridge heading home from school that I ended up using my head to destroy a car’s side window, dressed in black wet suits, took a rubber raft, and planted fake limpet mines at night on the sides of Navy ships at the Port of Stockton, almost being swamped by a huge freighter…you get the idea. Typical teenagers.
So now we’re both typical young twenty-somethings. And all of Ft. Sill is ours for the taking.
First: KP. For those who don’t know or care to remember, that’s Kitchen Police. It meant that soldiers had kitchen duty all day long when your number came up, or you were being punished for some misdeed. Dan filled me in right away that the best move was to get up and in line before five a.m., and I’d have your choice of jobs. These ranged from the easiest–greeting and helping unload supply trucks bringing in the grub–to the hardest, such as hand-scrubbing the pots and pans all day long.
So I always got there early and took the supply room job. I’d sit in back of the potato bin (since you didn’t want any of the non-coms to catch you with time on your hands). I’d read a paperback and wait for the trucks to arrive and sound their horns, then quickly help off-load the goods, then disappear once again into the potato bin. Worked like a charm.
Now the soldiers training in FDC all had to have a certain level of smarts, since relatively complex mathematical gyrations were involved in figuring out how exactly to get those artillery shells from the mouth of the gun to the intended target. So most of us were reasonably smart, and many were unreasonably smart-ass. Which didn’t make things particularly great for the drill sergeants whose only apparent task in life was to keep this bunch in line.
Every morning bright and early we would be rousted from our bunks by these hapless sergeants. They’d enter the barracks, switch on the glaring overhead lights, and rattle our bunks. And all the sleepy-eyed soldiers would roll grumbling to the ground and amble off to get prepared for the day’s events.
At that time there was a television commercial for a breakfast cereal which featured a herd of cartoon animals hastening off en masse, I presume to their doom, since they were intended to feed the kids. “The one and only cereal that comes in the shape of animals,” was the sales slogan.
One morning I rousted all of my platoon out of bed a half-hour early, before the sun was up. We dressed and hid behind a partition near the barracks door. When the sergeant entered and flipped on the lights, all he saw was a long bank of empty, already made beds. And then came the herd: twenty-five or so soldiers clumped together in one big shuffling mass as we nearly trampled our way out of the barracks, singing “The one and only cereal that comes in the shape of animals.”
Dumbfounded by the raw courage, the pure idiocy of the moment, the drill sergeant (once he got out of the corner he had been forced into), shook his head in disgust and ordered us all off the breakfast.
Here’s another example: We are mustered for morning roll-call, lining up in rank and file, platoon by platoon, company by company, because a new battalion commander is there that morning to review his troops. It’s dark. A faint hint of approaching morning on the horizon. And here’s what’s supposed to happen: the commander calls out from his rostrum “Battalion!” in his best command voice. The company commanders call our from their respective positions: “Company!” The drill sergeants call our “Platoon!”And then the new commander shouts “Attention!” and every troop snaps to attention in a fine display of military regimen and behavior.
Okay, so here’s how it went down: “Battalion!” “Company!” “Platoon!” And before he can get out the word “Attention!,” some wise-ass shouts from the darkness, “Squad!” And another voice from the back: “Troop!” And finally, several other miscreants join in with “Troop!” The whole assembly breaks down in misguided laughter.
Angry grumbling from front and center, a hasty call to “try it again,” and once again a solid disregard for protocol ensues.
The commander gives up in disgust: “Get them to the mess hall.” And all but the officers cheer. The guilty parties were never apprehended. Thank God it was dark.
Now Dan had a motorcycle on post. And I wasn’t allowed off-post without a pass. But things happen. So we explored Lawton, which is the nearby town and was graced with a main street lined with bars, clubs with lovely girls in skimpy outfits, and enough private chapels to save the misguided soul of every soldier in the artillery.
Dan and I were saved a few times in return for free cookies and soft drinks; it just didn’t feel right to disappoint the freelance preachers who were convinced that a moment of bowed heads would immediately drive Satan from our young hearts and minds. Not with all those attractive girls around, anyway.
All went well until we ended up late at night in a Lawton pizza joint, enjoying a last minute snack and beer before sneaking back on post. I looked down the long table and met the eyes of one of my drill sergeants. He looked back, shook his head in horror, and returned to his conversation with a young woman. Maybe his wife? I never heard more about that incident.
The time came when we all seemed well enough versed in doing the math to correctly direct artillery fire and we were introduced to…computers. Now think about it, when do you first remember hearing the term, or checking out the new Commodore at Radio Shack?
The Army was way ahead of the curve and had these olive-drab computers about the size of a large box which were designed to do all that computation we had learned to do manually. Then we found out why they were showing up so late in our training. The trainers who had seen action in the field said the computers would fail after a couple of days to weeks in the humid jungles of Vietnam. But for the moment, we gathered in groups of two or three in little rooms, learning how to program the necessary data to come up with the basic instructions to phone out to the men manning the big guns.
Unfortunately, that took us about one day’s practice, but the Army had directed that we spend a much longer period learning the ropes. So my team mates and I decided to pass the time between spot visits from the supervising sergeant or lieutenant computing just what shell/fuse/ammo/etc., taking into account the spin of the globe, would be required to get the shell to leave the gun barrel, make a beautiful trajectory, and land right back in the mouth of the cannon. A typical (and useful) computation took a few minutes to come up with a result. Our poor computer took ages, obviously confused and worried by the ridiculous things we demanded of it. And after about twenty minutes of hilarity as we awaited the computed results, in walked the lieutenant.
“About done, boys?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” we answered, hoping against hope that he would leave right away.
He didn’t. He sat down to await our results. Minutes ticked by. Results came in.
He called it a day. We were sent back to the barracks.
Strangely, we were never punished for our inconsistent behavior. I guess they figured we wouldn’t last long in Vietnam anyway, so why not give us a little fun along the way?
Little did they know we still had a trick or two up our olive-drab sleeves.
Coming next: The Orders are In, and We’re Moving Out
Copyright 2013 by Patrick W. O’Bryon