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Land Navigation Training
   (Ver 1)

 

I'm sure that I've mentioned land navigation several times in other things that I have written, but it is an interesting subject, and I haven't seen many other people mention it.

Many people in the military don't use land navigation very much, especially now that GPS systems are so widely used. During most of the time I was in the military I happened to be assigned to jobs where land navigation was a necessary skill, but it is another one of the skills that I wasn't always very good at.

The first time I was in the Marine Corps I went through the 'short' Infantry Training Regiment course because I wasn't going to be assigned to a combat unit. That was in 1968 when I was on my way to Marine Corps Electronics Schools for the first time. I'm not sure how long the land navigation part of the long course was, but I think my unit only spent a day or two on it, at the most. I think we had some classes on map reading during boot camp, but I'm not positive. The performance test at the end of the land navigation class at ITR involved using a magnetic compass to navigate between markers set into the ground in a large sandy area. This didn't have anything to do with map reading since we didn't have maps and there were no obvious terrain features nearby.

The way the exercise worked was that groups of three or four trainees were given a compass and a card with a set of magnetic bearings and distances on it. We kind of voted on how to proceed and may have taken turns using the compass. In the end, we stopped at a spot where there was no marker very close, but there were several around. The whole course was probably less than half the size of a football field. Anyway, I think we voted again, and went to one of the markers. When the grader got to us we found out that it wasn't the right marker, but weren't told how far off we were. Nobody felt any particular guilt because we had done things democratically.

That was probably all of the experience I had with land navigation during that enlistment.

When I joined the Army in 1974, I had signed up for Combat Arms, preferably tanks, and went through Advanced Individual Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I remember doing classroom work on map reading again, but I don't remember doing any compass training in the field. Tank crewmen don't usually find compasses to be all that useful because magnetic compasses, being magnetic, will always point towards your tank unless you get an uncomfortable distance away from it. Gyroscopic compasses, Sun compasses and GPS systems are great for tanks, but magnetic compasses have their drawbacks.

After AIT I was assigned to B Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division and, at the time, the unit was desperately short of both scouts and money for fuel. For those reasons I spent a lot of time working as a scout while my three Sheridans sat in the motor pool with nearly empty fuel tanks. During this period of time I got most of my real experience with land navigation while running around all over Fort Hood in an M-151 'Jeep'.

For some reason we didn't ever seem to use compasses then either, although you don't have to get too far away from an M-151 before it stops affecting your compass. At that time the scout section was run but two good Sergeants who both had a lot of time in the Army, and a lot of time at Fort Hood. They hardly ever seemed to use maps and they hardly ever seemed to need them. Not being too motivated at that point in my career, I spent a lot of time following them around, and eventually learned my way around the Fort pretty well.

That wasn't particularly good training, but there were a lot of things that we did, and got away with, at Fort Hood that would not work nearly as well when I finally got to Germany.

While at Fort Hood I was offered the opportunity (ordered to go) to the Primary NCO Course (Combat Arms), which was held at North Fort Hood. Things have probably changed a lot by now, but this was probably in 1975 and there wasn't much there. Since all of the people there were considered to be infantrymen for the duration, it was a little different for me because I had no infantry experience. We did have real map and compass type land navigation training and testing there, though, and were actually expected to use what we had learned during the big field exercise at the end of the course.

I'm sure we had map reading training, as usual, and we did have some real compass training as well. We went out on a course and determined the length of our paces under different circumstances and spent some time practicing using pacing and compass headings to go to identifiable places, which was a good confidence builder. We were also tested for both time and accuracy on day and night compass courses. Surprisingly enough, I must have learned something, because I placed high on both the day and the night courses, only losing points for time and none for accuracy.

So, when I got back to my unit after PNCOC(CA), I felt like I was the Great Scout, which was a good thing because both the real scout sergeants transferred out shortly after that.

It took me a while to do it, but I finally reached a point where I could actually follow our route on a map while we were moving. This is absolutely essential if you suddenly find yourself lead vehicle in your unit. Its very embarrassing to have to ask where you are rather than where you are supposed to be going. After about a year of that, I felt pretty comfortable navigating, and was able to get fairly close to any selected spot on Fort Hood based only on the destination's grid coordinates.

I found Germany to be a lot different for some reason. The only time we ever used maps was when we were at the Major Training Areas, and maps were scarce, with the exception of the ones my platoon commander kept leaving on my tank after our tank commander's meetings. One problem was that I was never the lead tank when we went anywhere. Most of the time I only had a vague idea where we were, which means I wouldn't have been much use at getting us to some other place. Another problems was that our platoon sergeant wasn't much of a map reader. That left the platoon commander doing almost all of the navigation, and I never did get a feel for how good he was at it. We did end up sitting and waiting for someone to find us fairly regularly, but it could have been the other guys who were lost.

I vividly remember my first Reforger in German and getting hopelessly lost. The two sections of the platoon got separated somehow, and I ended up sitting in a parking lot outside a restaurant for quite a while hoping to see another tank somewhere. I remember that I had a map, but I didn't know what the name of the town I was in was. I'd only been in Germany for a few weeks and knew absolutely no German, especially about the special character that looks like a 'B' but is actually a replacement for double 'ss's. So I wouldn't know that GroB Auheim and Gross Auheim were actually the same place although the signs outside the town was Grob and the town on the map was Gross. As I said, that was moderately embarrassing.

I did get one opportunity to shine, though. Our unit had an overnight Escape and Evasion exercise some distance form our kaserne some time in the autumn, and I was paired up with the man who would soon become our platoon sergeant (the one who wasn't very good with maps). It turned into a long, cold, wet night walking through lots of woods and a few fields, where I learned that German electrified cattle fences don't look like the American version. In the end, though, we not only avoided getting caught by the bad guys, but also ended up right at the truck that would takes us back to the barracks. I have to say that the training I got a PNCOC made all the difference that night.

The next time I was in the Marine Corps I spent the first four years with a Jeep mounted TOW Platoon. I did go through ITR again, and the long course this time, but I don't remember any compass training at all. We did have a few hours of map reading. It didn't really matter. Most of the movement we did at Camp Lejeune was from range to range rather than cross country. We stayed pretty close to the roads almost everywhere we went except a few trips out to Combat Town, which was pretty easy to find.

I did get jammed up once, though. We were our on some kind of training exercise and I hadn't really been paying much attention to where exactly we were, or where we were going. Suddenly, at about 0200, I was told to take the lead and navigate around behind Combat Town. Things didn't go well at all.

For this exercise we were supposed to stay off the roads. It was also pitch black outside and I was along in my jeep. That left me trying to read a map by the light of the dash lights, which messed up my night vision while driving through unfamiliar terrain. Another things about reading a map by red dash lights is that anything red on the map turns white. Basically, it disappears. Well, what I ran into would have actually been blue on the map, because I parked my jeep in the middle of a stream and had to be pushed out. After that they never let me lead again at night.

As I said, there were some times that I was pretty good at land navigation, and other times when I was terrible. I suppose that is a pretty good indication that practice is necessary. There probably are people who never forget, but I'm not one of them.

Land navigation from a moving vehicle is very different from navigating on foot. For one thing, things often happen much faster, and, unless you have a pretty good feel for how fast you are traveling across the map, its pretty easy to miss a turn. A compass can help keep you oriented while moving, if your vehicle doesn't interfere with it. For instance, if you have been following your spot on a trail and you suddenly notice that you are not facing in the direction you think you should be, a compass can either restore confidence, or let you know that you are just about to get lost.

One thing you should not try to do is drive and read a map at the same time, especially at night. If you have to do that, plan on frequent stops. If your interior lights are too bright you are probably going to have to get out of the vehicle fairly frequently to see what the terrain you are on actually looks like. The best luck I had with jeeps was with someone else driving and the top and windshield removed.

Tanks are a little better. The chances are that the driver will not be navigating because he has enough to do already. The chances are also that the Tank Commander won't be navigating either, unless he has a map. If the tank commander does have a map, though, and doesn't have to spend too much time dodging branches, the chances are that, with a little practice, he will have a pretty good idea where he is most of the time.


My thanks yet again to Rory.

 

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