Hingham, MA, day thirteen, part II (actually Manassas battlefield visit 2018, day I)

Well.  That was a  bit longer drive than I expected…But the best of plans, they taught us at the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course at Fort Benning way back in 1986 will immediately turn to chaos once battle begins.  I’ve had that little lesson confirmed to me over and over in my adult life…”Improvise, overcome, adapt” doesn’t belong to the Marine Corps (sorry my Leatherneck friends – We doggie officers have been using it as long as you have, perhaps longer).

So I simply reversed my itinerary and went straight to Mosby’s Rock in Herndon, had a one-sided conversation with the ghost of one of the most legendary Rangers in Ranger lore (he was actually known as “The Gray Ghost” by his adversaries – If his ghost is in fact gray, he wasn’t present today – But then I like to think of Mosby, Rogers, and Darby much in the same way I think of the Infantry god: He’s always there, and he sees what you’re up to, and if he disapproves, he’ll make it known).

I sat right on that rock, as I always do, and pondered questions on all of the things I think I did wrong as an LRSD (Long Range Reconnaissance Detachment, a sub-specialty Ranger unit whose job is the opposite of Mosby’s – We were to insert without being detected, patrol our area of operations, moving our “base camp” (which just meant digging fighting positions in a new location every morning…most of our movement was done at night)) Team Commander.  These are the sort of things I’d love to discuss with formidable Ranger officers of the past like COL Mosby, for example…

The mission was to report back via long range radio antennae to the Commander of the 107th Military Intelligence Battalion and the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Infantry Regiment (Airborne / Ranger), better known as the second Ranger Battalion, based at what was then Fort Lewis, Washington, now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, not too far from Seattle, whenever enemy troops, installations, vehicles, or aircraft were spotted, along with the number of any troops we spotted, the equipment they carried, the weapons they were armed with (from personal weapons to track mounted artillery, armor (tanks), armed personnel carriers, missile guidance systems, mortars, and the like) the number and types of any vehicles (especially any Soviet provided vehicles) or tracked / towed / mounted weapons systems, the direction they were traveling in, the map coordinates for where we had spotted them, and the date / time group they were spotted.

“Installations” in the jungles of Panama were invariably ill-fortified hovels more suited for the comfort of the PDF (Panama Defense Forces, Noriega’s “Army”) “installation” commander than for defensive or offensive operations.  The only structure we encountered that worried higher command (all the way up to JSOC South, apparently, based on how long it took to get a response to my request as to what command wanted us to do now that we were right on top of it) was a one-story brick building with antennae and a watch tower on the corrugated tin roof – That one we were instructed to “take out of commission”, the risk of our being detected for having done so deemed acceptable.

[An aside: The most powerful weapons we carried as Light Infantry and Long Range Surveillance teams were LAWs (Lightweight Anti-Tank Weapon), you can find the specs here, it’s really not much of a rocket launcher: Hell, it is disposable after one shot.  Still, there was only myself and my communications Sergeant, this was a leader’s reconnaissance, not a full-fledged patrol, we’d stumbled upon the structure purely by dumb luck, we weren’t looking for it.]

So the only way I could think of to “decommission” it was to low-crawl up to a window on the west side of it and raise my head just enough to look inside, then low crawl to the north side of it and repeat the window peek, that was enough to confirm there were only five PDF soldiers in the structure, and a few desks mounted with communications equipment.  A few aluminum lockers that would serve well as shrapnel when they were hit by the LAW’s rocket.

So my plan was this: I’d take the north side window, and my commo sergeant would take the west side window (those were the only windows in the structure), and fire our LAWs straight through the windows from about twenty meters away.  It was a natural crossfire, only with rocket launchers, not light weaponry, and there was enough metal office equipment to be turned into white hot shards of shrapnel before the rocket encountered the brick wall on the other end of the structure.  The only doorway was located on the north side, near the window, so I’d stand fast at my position after firing my LAW in case any PDF troops survived the explosion and attempted an exit, and my commo Sergeant would run to my position as fast as he could to add his 5.56mm (M-16 A1) firepower to mine.  Turned out to be unnecessary.   I’d fired plenty of LAW simulators and real LAWs in training, but never at a brick structure, only at old, burnt out tanks on the range, and the destruction those two little buggers caused was total, the roof fell straight down to the ground after the explosions, there wasn’t enough brick to hold it up any longer.  I didn’t fire my personal weapon (M-16 A1) once, as I deemed no one in the structure could have survived, but we had to confirm.

In one hell of a hurry (we’d made one hell of a noise), we dragged the thin metal roof away from the base of the structure, grabbed any loose papers and pieces of equipment light enough to add to our loads, swept what was left of the structure for live enemy troops (there were none), and began shuffling as fast as we could with all that weight back towards the base camp, as quietly as we could.  It was an uneventful, if strenuous journey, and the sun was almost down, so we had our planned patrols to run and new fighting positions in a new location to dig when the sun came back up, so we distributed the documents we’d retrieved and the equipment we’d brought back among the rest of the team and moved out.

But before we did, my commo Sergeant, who apparently thought (correctly) he’d been in error to spray the area of the structure where the doorway had been with 5.56mm full-auto fire because he thought he saw movement after the structure was destroyed, was having a conscience attack.  “Sir,” he asked, “do you think I killed any people?”

This is where four years as an enlisted Infantryman in the Georgia National Guard and four years of education at what is, IMHO, the finest Senior Military College in the nation before commissioning as an officer pay off.  “Sergeant,” I said in a put-on puzzled voice, “I know godd***** well I killed a building, but I can’t say as I believe I killed any people (this was nominally true, anyone who perished from direct contact or shrapnel from my LAW wasn’t a “person”, they were an enemy combatant).  You, on the other hand…Well you did fire a full clip on full auto across a 10 meter stretch of ground, so I dunno.  Me personally, I know you know that 5.56mm fire wasn’t necessary, and I suppose I’m a little pissed that you wasted some of our ammo, but it was just bad luck we ran across that field commo building, and our orders were to take it out.  Trust me, that’s a mistake you won’t make again, that little excursion is one you’ll never forget.  But to your question, yeah, I’m pretty f****** sure you killed some people.”

I was not trying to make that Ranger feel worse than he already did, but if seven years on active duty (three of them with a Ranger battalion, and the remainder with Light Infantry Divisions), Ranger School, and the Basic Non-commissioned Officer’s Course (what we called BNOC, today they call it “WLC”, the “Warrior Leader’s Course”),  had not yet brought him to terms with the bald fact that in all likelihood he was going to send a few enemy troops to wherever their god promises they’ll go after their toes turn up to the daisies over a career in the army (especially the freaking infantry), a longer discussion with him than I had time for (and probably some counseling) was going to be necessary when we got back to Fort Ord.  I wanted him to put some thought into it in the meantime, but not so much so that his focus wasn’t on the mission, so as he turned morosely to follow the rest of the team, I stopped him and said…

“Sergeant.  When I write up the after action report on what just happened, the report will contain no mention of your firing your personal weapon.  We haven’t briefed the rest of the men yet, so no one but you and I know exactly what happened – Let’s keep it that way.”  His mood seemed to lighten at that, and he kept pace with the team for the rest of their time in-country during operation JUST CAUSE.  I say “their” time because irony of ironies, *I* was the one who was wounded a week later, Medevac’d and sent back to the hospital at Ord – He and the rest of the team were in Panama for another three weeks.  But that, my friends, is a TINS tale I’ll never tell, nor attempt to write of again…The first attempt to novelize our mission didn’t go well for me.  Not at all.

Apologies.  Almost everything above is a TINS tale, and I did not start this post with the intent of telling one, my plan was to describe my visit and give you all an idea about what sort of things I’d love to discuss with COL Mosby’s ghost, and here we have it, my plan went to s***.  An unintentional demonstration of the first maxim I scribbled at the beginning of this post: “…the best of plans, they taught us at the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course at Fort Benning way back in 1986 will immediately turn to chaos once battle begins.”

It’s one of my many flaws, my verbosity (both speaking and writing) – One of the minor flaws, at that.  Still, my apologies, that probably bored the bejesus out of all of you, but having spent the time to write it, it stays.  I’ll put it behind a “Continue reading” wall.

Well, I’m tired from the drive, and getting hungry to boot, so I’ll sign off this net for the night and bother you no more.  Hope you all had a wonderful Saint Pat’s Day!

Out here.

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