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Fire and Maneuver Training.
I hope this doesnít cause a stir anywhere, but, in 16 years in the military, I donít ever remember getting any. Maybe I was always either the wrong rank and was assumed to know all about it, or I had the wrong military occupational specialty and it was thought to be a waste of time to teach me.
As I understand it, fire and maneuver is the primary means of taking ground for US non-elite forces. From what I have read it seems like a sound principle as long as the odds are not overwhelming. While one part of a unit pours heavy fire on all of the bad guys that they know about, the other part of the unit maneuvers forward into Ďcoverí. They then become the base of fire and the other part of the unit moves forward, past them if possible. It works pretty much the same for tanks except that the supporting fire can come from infantry, anti tank guided missiles, helicopters, or other tanks. Also, tanks have a tendency to Ďwaddleí forward rather than advance in any sort of pretty manner.
Please keep in mind the difference between cover and concealment. When you are under Ďcoverí you are in a place where it is very unlikely that an enemy weapon can kill you. If you are under Ďconcealmentí you are in a place where it is unlikely that the bad guys will be able to see you, but, if they shoot in your general direction, they may hit you. A combination of cover and concealment is, naturally, better than either one alone.
The first time I was in the Marine Corps I was chosen by some civilian consultants to be an electronics repairman due to forces beyond my control. (I wanted to be a tank crewman.) All Marines are considered to be riflemen, primarily, so all Marines, at least then, went to ITR (Infantry Training Regiment) after boot camp. But there were two types of ITR in 1968-9. I believe that one lasted 6 weeks, but was called the three-week course, and the other lasted 12 weeks, but was called the 6-week course. I went through the Ďthreeí-week course at Camp San Onofre, California, primarily in November of 1968. I remember the November part because I was in November Company, but I donít remember what battalion or regiment I was assigned to.
We spent a lot of time cleaning stoves that we were not allowed to light, and shivering at night because we were, I assume, up in the mountains on some part of Camp Pendleton. Since we were destined to be cooks or aircraft mechanics, or, in my case, electronics repairmen, the emphasis was on getting us familiar with infantry stuff, but without doing us any serious damage or holding us up too long from our final training. I appreciated that at the time.
I donít remember doing any calisthenics there, but after boot camp I didnít notice calisthenics anyway. Instead we did Ďhumpsí. Humping, in the Marine Corps, meant marching, although not in step, for long distances carrying a weapon and a heavy pack. As ITR went on, we carried more weight and went on longer humps. Although it was very cold at night it was dry and dusty during the day and things got miserable after a very short time. For one thing, we did not understand the basics of this kind of movement and, since we were a large unit, we suffered terribly from the Ďaccordion effectí. The accordion effect can start at any point in a marching unit. Someone, for some reason, allows a small gap to form between himself and the person in front of him. The people behind him may or may not do the same thing. If some of them do, and then command to ĎClose Upí is given, the person with the first gap may only have to increase his stride by an inch or two for a short time. The people at the end of the slack may actually end up running for several hundred yards when all the gaps in front of them have been closed. That isnít really a good description but I think you can fill in the blanks. Since we formed up in alphabetical order, and my last name started with an S, I was always in the last few ranks of the column and I thought I would die a few times while trying to catch up.
Another part that I remember as painful was a Ďcompass courseí. I knew absolutely nothing about using a compass at that time. We were given an hour of instruction and let loose on top of a plateau with a card that had a set of ranges and bearings on it. I donít think that there were any markers for the intermediate points and we were graded on whether we ended up standing on the right marker at the end of the course. I ended up standing on a marker all right, but it certainly wasnít the one that I should have been on. After that, I had a superstitious fear of compasses until I Ďacedí the night compass course during Primary NCO Course at Fort Hood, Texas, seven years later.
Another thing that we went through that was instructional but not educational was a live fire obstacle course. We didnít have live rounds, but the machine guns firing over us appeared to, based on the presence of tracers. Maybe there was a trick to that which made it look scarier than it was. We had to negotiate a set of obstacles of various types while firing blanks periodically, and then crawl through a large area that was covered by low barbed wire and included demolition pits at a few points. The basic idea was to keep your butt down, stay in your lane, and crawl as fast as you could. If you did these things you would be in no danger whatsoever, although you might think that the world was going to fall in on you at any moment.
Unfortunately, I had a moment of personal stupidity during the event that might have affected my ability to type this. The person in front of me froze. The lanes were just shallow ruts in the dirt (not mud, thank God) and, after some prompting, I decided to pass. Not a bad idea on the outside, but we were a lot closer to the next demo pit than I thought. (Iíve often had a problem with situational awareness.) So I was crawling like the land crab from hell and trying to merge back into the lane when my leading hand went into the pit. I didnít realize what had happened at first but it was something different and, in the (almost) infantry, different is bad. So I stopped dead and did a turtle reconnaissance. That means trying to see everything anywhere near you without raising the brim of your steel pot more than ľ inch above the ground.
Well, the demo pit was heavily barb wired and quite obvious. (I wonder if it was less obvious for the 6 week guys?) So I was in between lanes and the instructors might fire a charge in the pit at any time. It was not a good place for my hand to be, so I pulled it back and the instructor fired the charge. I donít know what they used for those charges but most demo people seem to think in terms of ľ sticks of dynamite. I was stunned and not seeing very well but I knew that I had better get my little crab ass in gear or someone would notice and then who knew what would happen? So I got back into the lane and headed for home.
We also did some night fire exercises during ITR. These were usually done Ďen masseí and we fired tracers at 55-gallon drums, as I remember it. This can be a real confidence builder. I donít remember any fire and maneuver training.
Several years later I was in the Army and went through two training courses on different tanks, but it was assumed that we would not be drivers or TCs until we had been in for a while, so we didnít do any fire an maneuver training.
Suddenly, I was Sheridan section sergeant in the 1/9 Cavalry, and a part time scout, and was expected to act accordingly in the field. I will never forget my first encounter with the bad guys on a training exercise. We were in some fairly deep woods on the eastern side of a creek, and far from the rest of the platoon. I was the VC of a jeep. After a long, boring wait, we saw a vehicle on the other side of the creek and it had some kind of colored marking on it that was not normal. (I think it was a green triangle, wide side up and obviously taped on.) I asked my driver what that was all about and he didnít know. So, being a good scout, I called the platoon commander on the radio and made a Ďspot reportí. I donít remember how to do a proper spot report anymore but it was something like where I thought I was, what I thought I saw, and what I was doing. Lieutenant Stuart T. Ashton IV replied that he appreciated the information but that he was fairly certain that I did not have enough fuel to be in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and would I try the location again. I guess I finally got it right.
After that I was involved in a lot of Ďengagementsí while with the Cav, but I donít remember ever firing and maneuvering. I know that we scattered and ran like hell a few times, but that didnít require a lot of training. You have to keep in mind that a scout unitís mission is to gather intelligence and not EVER become decisively engaged with a superior force. Considering that a squad of infantry had considerably more firepower than a gun jeep, or even a lost machine gunner from an infantry unit, there were not many occasions to become offensive in anything except smell.
During the time I was with 1/9 Cav I was sent to school three times. The first time was an advanced Sheridan crew course that didnít involve any kind of maneuver work. Next was PNCOC, Primary NCO Course, at North Fort Hood. That was a little different.
I donít remember what rank I was at the time, but it was winter so I was probably an acting Sergeant. I was very upset about being sent through this course in the winter because, although it doesnít get below freezing in this part of Texas very often, and I had only seen it snow there once, I was a warm weather kind of guy at the time. (That changed after four winters above the Arctic Circle later on.) One of the first things that went wrong, and that my natural and newly acquired cynicism had allowed me to compensate for was that we were told that the Post Exchange at North Fort (Hood) would be open while we were there. Most of the people in the class went with the thought that anything they needed could be procured locally. Not true. The next rumor was that we would be able to go to South Fort on the weekends. Not true. The next rumor was that this wasnít about spit and polish; it was about small unit leadership and tactical proficiency. Not true. I think this was one of the best courses that I ever attended in the military, and, although there were some shortcomings, there was not a minute that would not have been valuable to a junior NCO getting ready to go into a combat situation. But I started off with a very bad attitude.
I had recently been designated as the Squadron NCO of the year, and had not known it. I asked a female friend to attend with me and we ended up being placed at the table with the squadron command and sergeant major, and their wives, and no one else. My female companion was a German citizen and did not speak much American. She was also wearing a pants suit that I had told her would be fine, not expecting either of us to be in the public eye. That relationship was dead before the end of the evening. I left for North Fort three days later.
After the trucks dropped us off we found out that the Post Exchange was only open, at certain hours, during the summer. Next we found out that training usually ran 7 days a week, so no trips to South Fort. In other words, if you hadnít brought it with you, and its lack didnít get you expelled, you would have to do without it. Next we found out that we had about four hours to get ready for a full inspection.
Cynicism won the day. There were a few people sent back due to lack of essential items but the only thing anyone even asked me about was why I had brought 12 cartons of cigarettes with me. When I responded that I had heard some rumors, the inspecting officer nodded and went away. I never saw another officer during my stay there. I did end up guarding my cigarette stash with my life on a few occasions, though.
Our instructors at PNCOC were a little different. We were responsible for handling our own early morning physical training after the first one, that they lead. Believe it or not, we got to a point where we pushed ourselves pretty hard, without supervision. That was a good thing. Giving instruction is a lot harder than sitting in the bleachers sleeping, and we did enough instruction to make us learn a lesson. We actually studied at night, without being forced to. I blame that entirely on the qualities of our instructors and it created an insatiable urge in me to learn more about the profession that I had, at least temporarily, chosen.
There were two primary instructors for my group. (I hesitate to say anything like squad or platoon because there were too many of us to be a squad and too few to be a platoon.) One had long blond hair and was very tall. We never figured out what his plan was. He was definitely second in command, but there was no telling what he would do in a particular situation. He was the one that lost a boot heel on one of our more spirited exercises and stayed with us for more than a day before he was able to get into his spare pair.
The other was had probably been a Ranger/LRRP/Special Forces type in Vietnam. He was shorter than most of us but carried the same load. Always. When he humped it was difficult to stay up with him. His legs seemed to have very little limitation on extension. One day it got warm and he had to take off his long john top on the trail. He had at least three bullet holes in his chest and some other unidentifiable damage.
Anyway, we patrolled, we got ambushed many times, we got helo lifted into ambushes, we had the incident where I had a whole field to myself, was armed with a machine gun firing blanks, and most of the OPFOR ran right in and got hosed, but we didnít do any real fire and maneuver.
Just before I went to be an experimentation soldier at Fort Hunter Liggett, California, I went through the first BNCOC course given at Fort Hood, Texas. Basic NCO Course was almost entirely classroom work, and, like PNCOC was not branch specific. Each of us had to learn the things that applied to our branch as well as the things that applied to the other branches of the combat arms, except for artillery. One of the problems we had was that the instructors told us on the first day that the tests were wrong and there wasnít any guarantee that we would pass even if we knew the right answers. That was a little disheartening. I had been doing pretty well in military schools and didnít want to look like an idiot after this one.
We had some very interesting periods of instruction including one where artillerymen fired small caliber Ďcannonsí based on our calls for fire and adjustment. I learned a lot at that class.
We did have a field exercise but, with six tank commanders and no crew all in one tank, we spent most of our time arguing about where we were until we ran into a large roll of concertina wire that the temporary tank commander told us, in theory, we should be able to run over with little or no damage. I think I must have been assigned as the battery box operator at that time because I donít remember foaming at the mouth, and I certainly knew what a roll of concertina wire would do to a tankís suspension.
After all of the rubber was off of all the road wheels and we had thrown a track and completely trashed a final drive, we spent the rest of the afternoon waiting for the wrecker. This was a Thursday, and the last day of the course for some reason, and I knew that I was flying out to California for at least 6 weeks. (turned out to be nearly three months) the next day. I did feel bad for the tank crew that owned that poor thing, though. If we did any fire and maneuver training at BNCOC, I donít remember it.
After the Cav I went to Germany, to B 1/33. I suppose you could call some of the things we did fire and maneuver, but it was really rare for us to do anything like that in the field. We spent a lot of time doing Ďfollow the leaderí down dark trails in the woods and could not see any open ground or much else from the places that we parked. That is a good thing if you want to survive the current unpleasantness unscathed, but I didnít think that was what we should have been doing. We didnít pull into hull defilade positions, fire a few shots and then back away, as I had expected. My driver was trained to go full speed in reverse and trust me to guide him through areas that he couldnít see at all, but I think we only did that once and it was because a smoke generator had caught on fire near us. So I still didnít know how to fire and maneuver.
My last tour in combat arms was in the Marine Corps where I started out as a Sergeant E-5 in a TOW platoon. TOWs are Tube launched, Optically tracked, Wire guided anti-tank missiles. This was a change for me. The Marine Corps TOW gun vehicle of choice was the M-151 Jeep at the time. (This was before LAVs) M-151s donít provide a lot of protection for the crew and the idea was that we should not get closer than 1000 meters from the bad guys so fire and maneuver was not something that we spent a lot of time on. I remember making an advance once during a CAX (Combined Arms exercise) at MCB 29 Palms California, once, but we fired from maximum range and then waited for the infantry to develop the situation. After that we tried to stay out of everyoneís way for the rest of the exercise. The first rounds we fired were war shots and none of them hit their targets, by the way, even though all of the gunners firing had fired before and all had hit at least once.
I guess I just wasnít in the right place at the right time but I never saw any fire and maneuver practiced by a unit that I was in. After having read the Sharpe series, written by Bernard Cornwell, especially, I can understand the value, and I donít think the training would be difficult. I just donít think I ever got it.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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