Category Archives: SF History and Lore

The Fight that Ruined a New Weapon’s Reputation

The weapon was new, made of cutting-edge materials. It had demonstrated its capability in the lab and on the range, and the men had such confidence in it, that when a Laotian unit, driven out of Laos by NVA forces with tanks, begged the SF camp commander for anti-tank weapons, team sergeant Bill “Pappy” Craig (who was acting as his own weapons man, having been sent a flaky kid as a replacement who more or less defected to the NVA) gave the Laotians his two old, if proven 3.5″ rocket launchers, aka Super Bazookas. He kept the new Light Antitank Weapons for his own team.

M72LAW

He would live to regret that decision.

The time was early February, 1968, as all of South Vietnam convulsed with what the People’s Army of Viet Nam called the “General Offensive/General Uprising” and the West knows as the Tet Offensive.1 The place was the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp on Route 9, a scrawny , risky road running west past Khe Sanh, where a large Marine force was besieged on one large hill and several hill outposts.

USSF Detachments in RVN 1967Lang Vei was the northwesternmost permanent Allied presence in the Republic of Vietnam. This map of Special Forces compounds the year before the attack hints at just how far out it was — it’s the solitary little dot in Quang Tri province. The Marines at Khe Sanh were almost as isolated.

The LAW is a 66 mm weapon, as its name implies a Light Antitank Weapon, which answered the question: “What if you took the German disposable Panzerfaust concept and redeveloped it with the latest Space Age propellants, explosives, and materials — could you make a compact tank killer?”

The result was a small, environmentally sealed, extensible shipping container/launch tube that was, on its design, marginal on modern tank front turret and glacis armor, but effective on side, rear, top or bottom skins. It was effective through 360º on armor of World War II vintage tanks, still widely deployed by potential adversaries.

The LAW’s adversary that night should have been well within its capabilities, as the 1950s-vintage PT-76 light amphibious tank was never intended to slug it out with AT defenses. It was built to support river crossings — something the Soviet Army’s offensive doctrine demanded an answer for — with a better-than-nothing tank mounting a descendant of the first generation T-34’s 76mm main gun in a truncated-conical turret. The NVA also deployed a Chinese copy of the PT-76 with a domed turret like that of the T-54/55, mounting a version of the improved 85mm gun from the improved late version of the T-34; they also used T-34s themselves, but the only tanks confirmed at Lang Vei were PT-76s.

lang_vei_aftermath

Lang Vei, with three destroyed PT-76s highlighted, the next day. Central PT-76 is adjacent to destroyed TOC bunker. The two visible in the upper right were killed by James Holt’s 106mm Recoilless Rifle.

 

The PT-76 would go on to perform adequately at another SF camp, Ben Het, the next year (in the light of Lang Vei, Ben Het was reinforced by attached artillery and tanks, but one of the PT-76s actually knocked out a defending M-48 MBT before being destroyed itself). The PT-76 was also used by the Egyptian Army in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel.

The Lang Vei TOC bunker entrance and tower. The bulk of the TOC was underground and the roof was supported by 8x8" beams.

The Lang Vei TOC bunker entrance and tower before the attack. The bulk of the TOC was underground and the roof was supported by 8×8″ beams.

Knocked-out PT-76 and ruins of TOC the day after. The bunker was blown by the NVA after the surviving USSF escaped to the Old Camp and then out by Marine CH-46.

Knocked-out PT-76 and ruins of TOC the day after. The bunker was blown by the NVA after the surviving USSF escaped to the Old Camp and then out by Marine CH-46. The fuel drums full of rocks, from which Schungel engaged tanks coming from the left are at the left of the TOC.

This 50-odd minute documentary is rife with errors2, and omits even the names of those Green Berets that did not talk to the filmmakers, but does include a broadly accurate reenactment of the fight, and snippets of rare interviews with  SF defenders, including men from all key groups (the defenders who held out in the TOC bunker, then evaded under air-strike cover; the guys evading on top of the hill, some of whom escaped and some of whom were captured; and the guys isolated with the Laotian battalion at Old Lang Vei). The story of the fight, though is complex enough that you ought to read an overview before trying to make sense of a 50-minute video retelling, or it may confuse you.

The reputation of the LAW never recovered both from the blow of its failure at Lang Vei (it didn’t work much better at the next camp attacked by tanks, Ben Het, either), and the Army’s failure to face that failure squarely and forthrightly. Denial kept things from being resolved.

The camp itself was overrun. Of the eleven attacking PT-76s, three were left on site, destroyed by the defenders or by air; four more were blasted by air or artillery and destroyed in the immediate area. A 12th PT-76 had been caught in the open and killed by the USAF on 24 January.

Of 24 USSF on the site, 10 were killed, captured or missing, and 14 got away, all but one of them wounded. When an awards formation was held shortly afterward, only half of the survivors could stand up to get their medals.

lang_vei_survivors_decorations

ashley_moh_presentationOne posthumous medal was presented in Washington: here VP Spiro Agnew presents the award to Eugene Ashley’s widow and uncomprehending son.

 

Rich Allen, who was single, had traded places with Ashley before a fifth and final assault of their small element at the Old Camp to try to relieve the besieged new camp. Because Gene had a wife and son, Rich asked to take the more exposed front position. He was reloading his BAR — the camp had a lot of BARs — when he heard a burst go past him and mortally wound his friend.

Allen would be the only man who survived without a wound.

The Vietnamese VNSF and Montagnard CIDG strike force suffered similar casualty percentages. 209 of the Yards would be missing or killed, about 70 wounded went out with the Americans from the Old Camp, and 160 more escaped overland to the Marine base at Khe Sanh — where the Marines treated them as POWs. A SOG element at Khe Sanh was able to get them sprung and evacuated to Nha Trang.

The Marine commander at Khe Sanh, Col. David Lownds, had been lying when he’d told General Westmoreland he would reinforce Khe Sanh if it were attacked. He never had any intention of risking his men on a night movement on a road on which the NVA would certainly have prepared ambushes. He did, however, authorize his transport helicopters to pick up survivors, which the Marine crews did (amid enemy fire).

The official Army history of Special Forces in Vietnam doesn’t mention the 1968 Lang Vei battle, and dismisses the 1967 fight at the Old Camp that ultimately forced the camp to relocate, with a very few lines, and an ominous foreshadowing of the tank menace:

In I Corps on 4 May 1967 at 0330 Camp Lang Vei, Detachment A-101, Quang Tri Province, was attacked by a company-size force supported by mortars and tanks. About one platoon of Viet Cong gained entry into the camp. With the assistance of fire support from Khe Sanh, enemy elements were repelled from the camp at 0500. Two Special Forces men were killed and five wounded; seventeen civilian irregulars were killed, thirty-five wounded, and thirty-eight missing. Enemy losses were seven killed and five wounded. 3

And referring to NVA armament, to wit, tanks…

…major changes in enemy armament occurred. Introduced in quantity were tube artillery, large rockets, large mortars, modern small arms of the AK47 type, antiaircraft artillery up to 37-mm., and heavy machine guns. Tanks were employed on one occasion against the CIDG camp at Lang Vei, and others were sighted in Laos and Cambodia near the border and in South Vietnam. In central and southern South Vietnam, North Vietnamese Army replacements were used to bolster main force Viet Cong units that had lost many men.

The enemy launched his Tet offensive on 29 January 1968. This was followed by a massive buildup at Khe Sanh and the armor-supported attack that overran the camp at Lang Vei in I Corps. Pressure on CIDG camps, except for the attack on Lang Vei, was unusually light during the entire Tet offensive and for approximately sixty days thereafter.4

The tank menace had been well reported by the border camps and by the secret cross-border penetration patrols of MAC-V SOG. A Mike Force patrol had found a recently-used tank park near Lang Vei shortly before the attack. But intelligence officers dismissed the eyewitness (and in the case of some of the border camps, ear-witness) reporting, as implausible. The data conflicted with the theory, and they threw out the data.

We suppose that’s why we have intelligence officers.

In the months and the years that followed the hilltop fight, the Army made many half-hearted attempts to understand why and how the LAWs had failed. The testimony that they did fail is clear: they failed to fire, squibbed, hit the PT-76s and bounced off, hit and didn’t penetrate. And the weakest tank in the enemy inventory, a tank with a bare 15mm or so of armor, rolled over the defenses with near impunity. But most of the investigations were aimed at proving “that couldn’t have happened,” and shoring up the reputation of the M72 which had performed well in tests and poorly in combat.

The most plausible explanation is that long-term storage, careless handling while in storage (in the Army, the hard left of the bell curve goes into ammo handling), environmental problems, or the shock of parachute delivery had somehow affected the functioning of the rockets. The Lang Vei survivors reported so many diverse problems with the weapons that engineers were at a loss to duplicate the failures or even come up with an Ishikawa diagram or failure tree that plausibly explained them.

Other than the ineffective LAWs, the anti-tank weapons the defenders had included obsolete 57mm and obsolescent 106mm recoilless rifles, lightweight cannon that used the discharge of a countermass (in the case of these ones, gases through a de Laval venturi) to “punch above their weight.” The guns had been scrounged by team members and there was very little ammo for the 106s — perhaps as few as ten rounds. The recoillesses were positioned, necessarily, in fixed positions that were located before the attack and attacked. The Montagnard crews were killed or wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Schungel tried to get one of the 106 RCLs into action during the fight; another was crewed by James W. Holt, an Arkansas soldier who went missing that night while seeking more 106 ammo or LAWs (his remains were recovered in 1989, and identified only in 2015, thanks to advances in DNA technology). Holt managed to kill three PT-76s, according to a DOD POW-MIA narrative of the fight stored in the Combined Action Combat Casualty File for Lang Vei reliever (and later DNH in an air crash) Major George Quamo of MAC-V SOG.

Shortly after midnight on February 7, 1968, a combined NVA infantry-tank
assault drove into Lang Vei. Two PT-76 tanks threatened the outer
perimeter of the camp as infantry rushed behind them. SFC James W. Holt
destroyed both tanks with shots from his 106mm recoilless rifle. More
tanks came around the burning hulks of the first two tanks and began to
roll over the 104th CIDG Company's defensive positions. SSgt. Peter
Tiroch, the assistant intelligence sergeant, ran over to Holt's position
and helped load the weapon. Holt quickly lined up a third tank in his
sights and destroyed it with a direct hit. After a second shot at the
tank, Holt and Tiroch left the weapons pit just before it was demolished
by return cannon fire. Tiroch watched Holt run over to the ammunition
bunker to look for some hand-held Light Anti-tank Weapons (LAWs). It was
the last time Holt was ever seen.

But the same narrative shows that apart from the 106, the other defensive means were ineffective.

LtCol. Schungel, 1Lt. Longgrear, SSgt. Arthur Brooks, Sgt. Nikolas
Fragos, SP4 William G. McMurry, Jr., and LLDB Lt. Quy desperately tried
to stop the tanks with LAWs and grenades. They even climbed on the
plated engine decks, trying to pry open hatches to blast out the crews.
NVA infantrymen followed the vehicles closely, dusting their sides with
automatic rifle fire. One tank was stopped by five direct hits, and the
crew killed as they tried to abandon the vehicle. 1Lt. Miles R. Wilkins,
the detachment executive officer, left the mortar pit with several LAWs
and fought a running engagement with one tank beside the team house
without much success.

.... NVA sappers armed with
satchel charges, tear gas grenades and flamethrowers fought through the
101st, 102nd and 103rd CIDG perimeter trenches and captured both ends of
the compound by 2:30 a.m. Spearheaded by tanks, they stormed the inner
compound. LtCol. Schungel and his tank-killer personnel moved back to
the command bunker for more LAWs. They were pinned behind a row of dirt
and rock filled drums by a tank that had just destroyed one of the
mortar pits. A LAW was fired against the tank with no effect. The cannon
swung around and blasted the barrels in front of the bunker entrance.
The explosion temporarily blinded McMurry and mangled his hands, pitched
a heavy drum on top of Lt. Wilkins and knocked Schungel flat. Lt. Quy
managed to escape to another section of the camp, but the approach of
yet another tank prevented Schungel and Wilkins from following. At some
point during this period, McMurry, a radioman, disappeared.

The tank, which was shooting at the camp observation post, was destroyed
with a LAW.

That’s the only reference to a LAW having an effect on a tank.

Team Sfc. William T. Craig and SSgt. Tiroch had chased tanks throughout
the night with everything from M-79 grenade launchers to a .50 caliber
machine gun. After it had become apparent that the camp had been
overrun, they escaped outside the wire and took temporary refuge in a
creek bed. After daylight, they saw Ashley's counterattack force and
joined him.

And there you have it.

Signals intelligence showed that the Lang Vei defenders weren’t making it up — the attackers, too, made note of the rockets’ poor performance in their after-action reporting.

(In an interesting aside, the degree of enemy success at Lang Vei was due in part to infiltration, not unlike the insider threat our guys have faced in Afghanistan:

Subsequent intelligence and prisoner of war interrogations indicated that the attackers were aided from inside the camp by Viet Cong who had infiltrated the CIDG units, posing as recruits. One prisoner of war said that he had been contacted by the Viet Cong before the attack and directed to join the CIDG at Lang Vei in order to obtain information on the camp. After joining the CIDG, the man recruited four other civilian irregulars to assist him. One man was to determine the locations of all bunkers within the camp, the second was to report on all the guard positions and how well the posts were manned, the third was to make a sketch of the camp, and the fourth was to report on supplies brought into the camp from Khe Sanh. The Viet Cong had contacted the prisoner who was under questioning on four occasions before the 4 May attack to get the information. On the night of the attack, the prisoner of war and another CIDG man killed two of the camp guards and led the Viet Cong force through the wire and minefield defenses into the camp’s perimeter. This technique of prior infiltration was a Viet Cong tactic common to almost every attack on a camp.5

Nothing to do with LAWs or tank fighting, but … interesting).

And there the situation stood. The Army continued to buy LAWs in the hundreds of thousands, and sponsored dozens of improvements great and small. The Soviets would even make a conceptual copy, after their proxies encountered the weapon in Vietnam (where no one was impressed by it) and Angola (where it proved a surprisingly useful antipersonnel weapon, although less so than the RPG-7). The first Soviet version was the RPG-18 and it was closer to the original M72 than to the current version at the time it was introduced, the M72A2.

The LAW would later be replaced in the United States by the combination of the extremely effective Javelin fire-and-forget ATGM, and much-improved LAWs, which continued to be produced as a multipurpose light weapon after most development and production was transferred to Norwegian licensee NAMMO. The LAW is now at M72A7 and counting, but its reputation hasn’t recovered much, and SF teams have preferred to kill enemy armor long before it gets within LAW range — which new weapons like the Javelin and AT-4 make possible. When in 2003 a small Special Forces team (from the same SF Group as was engaged in Vietnam, 5th SFG(A), as it happens) found itself attacked by an Iraqi armored and mechanized force, the Green Berets destroyed so many Iraqi tanks and APCs that what had started as a ferocious attack turned into a headlong rout.

The Special Forces guys used the Javelins. The Iraqis, who fought bravely if futilely, didn’t get the chance to get within LAW range.

But to this day, nobody really trusts the LAW, even though today’s M72A7 is far more effective than its 1968 version. Why not? Lang Vei, where men who trusted the LAW were killed and captured, and the post was lost.

Notes

  1. The offensive began on the Asian lunar New Year, known as Tet in Vietnamese; the Americans had been expecting the NVA to violate the traditional holiday truce — that is, after all, what Communists do — but were taken aback by the scale and fury of the offensive, which was led in many urban locations by local Viet Cong. The offensive was a failure for the NVA — their VC guerrillas were finished as a fighting force for  the rest of the war — but was reported in the US as an NVA victory, based largely on the Saigon hotel bar rumor reporting that characterized the “new breed” of war correspondents.
  2. Errors are too many to list here, but one of the most grievous is using random tubular mock-ups in place of LAWs. They also include the statement that the NVA/VC took the US Embassy during Tet, whereas none even got inside the chancery building (between the Marine guards and responding MPs, the NVA sappers that got inside the wall of the compound were all expeditiously slain); the use of later M16A2 rifles in some scenes; the lack of description of what became of the CIDG that surrendered (they were murdered); the use of wrong vehicles such as late-1980s CUCV trucks and 1970s-vintage Dodge M880s. It appears to be based largely on Phillips’s The Night of the Silver Stars, which seems to have been written in part to rehabilitate the reputation of certain Marine officers at Khe Sanh, who did not cover themselves in glory that night
  3. Kelly, Francis J. “Splash”. Vietnam Studies: US Army Special Forces, 1961-1971, p. 110
  4. Kelly, Francis J., pp. 126-127
  5. Kelly, Francis J., p. 110

Sources

Cash, John A.. Battle of Lang Vei. Chapter from: Cash, John A., Albright, John, and Sandstrum, Allen. Seven Firefights in Vietnam . Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, US Army, 1985. Retrieved from: http://www.history.army.mil/books/vietnam/7-ff/Ch6.htm

Jones, Gregg. Last Stand at Khe Sanh. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2014.

Kelly, Francis J. “Splash”. Vietnam Studies: US Army Special Forces, 1961-1971. Washington: Department of the Army, 1972. Available at: http://www.history.army.mil/books/Vietnam/90-23/90-23C.htm

Phillips, William R. Night of the Silver Stars: The Battle of Lang Vei. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.

Stanton, Shelby L. Special Forces at War: An Illustrated History, Southeast Asia 1957-1975. Charlotesville: Howell Press, 1990.

Bouncing the Gates

Picture from a ruck in a recent SFQC. Note foreign participants in their own national uniforms.

Picture from a ruck in a recent SFQC. Note foreign participants in their own national uniforms.

Before there was the Special Forces Assessment and Selection course (SFAS), the attrition in the Special Forces Qualification Course was heavily frontloaded in the first phase of SFQC.

In those days (1970s-80s) the course had three phases. Phase I at Camp Mackall, then an austere camp in the wayback of Fort Bragg, comprised a variety of gut checks, physical evaluations, and many, many must-pass gates, everything from survival skills to physical . Phase II was an MOS-specific phase; enlisted men learned one of five skills: light weapons; heavy weapons (in the 1980s the two weapons specialties would merge); military engineering (construction & demolition); medical; or communications. Officers got familiarization training in each skill, plus some specifics on A-Team leadership.

Each specialty had a phase culmination exercise of some kind where they were tested in their skills; weapons men went to the range, commo men went to the Uwharrie Mountains to send and receive traffic back to the mothership at Fort Bragg; medics had a trauma exercise that was a must-pass event.

In Phase III, some classroom instruction in guerrilla warfare prepared student teams — with all the specialties represented — to conduct a complete UW/GW mission, from mission planning to disbanding a victorious guerrilla force and exfiltrating the ODA. This overall culmination exercise or CULEX had different names in different decades; we recall hearing old-timers talk about CHEROKEE TRAIL or GOBBLERS WOODS. But by the mid-seventies, it was known by the name it still bears: ROBIN SAGE.

If you made it to Phase III, you were almost certainly going to graduate. There were exceptions: a captain who proved to be utterly lacking in leadership potential. A couple of good guys who got DUIs when things relaxed in the days before graduation. A guy who, after passing everything, quit because he decided SF was not for him. But most of the men who started Phase III were on A-Teams a couple months later. (Well, unless they were commo men. Many of them got stuck in Signal Platoon for a while). They would be shocked, most of them, to discover that the learning wasn’t over, and “qualified” or not, they had a long way to go to be useful to an ODA. We used to say, “It takes 10 years to make a Special Forces soldier.” Some guys picked it up quicker; some guys never really got the hang of it. If they got through school, they were almost always useful for something.

Rewinding a bit, if you made it to Phase II, you were probably going to graduate. That depended on your capacity for absorbing instruction, and on the difficulty of your specialty. The general consensus was that medics had the hardest training. It was certainly longest, and had the highest attrition. Communicators were most at risk during their first eight weeks, when they had to learn to send and receive International Morse Code by hand at 15 groups per minute.  If they made it through that, learning to cut antennae to frequency and to use and maintain Army communications gear was a piece of cake. After medics and commo men, and sometimes before them, in the rank order of attrition, came the heavy weapons men. Learning to serve on the crews of mortars, recoilless rifles, and other antitank and antiaircraft weapons was not hard, but forward observer and fire direction control procedures were. In the Phase II we attended, there were about 130 Light Weapons and 100 Heavy Weapons trainees. About 100 Light and 7 or 8 Heavy Weapons men completed the phase; the others were recycled to the next class, or, if they were out of second chances with the cadre, trucked across post to the 82nd Airborne Division.

But as we’ve said, most of the attrition came in Phase I. The big widowmaker was land navigation. SF takes land nav very, very seriously — the only units that approach the same level of skill, in our humble opinion, are the cousins at the SAS, and another US special operations unit that has some SF DNA in it. After land nav, the thing that was most likely to get you singing “We’re All American, and proud to be,” with a sad face, was an injury. Phase I was very physical and hard to complete, even if your fitness was perfect. If your fitness was imperfect, “hard” git very close to “impossible.” Not every SF guy was a natural athlete; you could make up for a lot of deficiencies in your physical strength by sheer guts and unwillingness to quit. But you needed some balance of fitness, athleticism and stubbornness, and the more you had of each, the more likely you were to make it out the narrow end of the funnel into Phase II.

One of the events was rucksack-marching as part of PT. “Marching” is a very loose description of it; it usually resembled either Olympic speedwalking or a very, very slow jog, depending on the length of your natural stride; with the added bonus of sixty-five pounds of lightweight gear on your back. You’re also laden with load-bearing equipment (LBE) and rifle, in our day the long-serving M16A1. But because that’s not challenging enough, you also have a few heavier weapons in the squad — an M60, a couple of ancient M14s — and maybe an extra rucksack, just for grins. The extra stuff gets handed off to a new guy every ten minutes or so.

It was not a crime to break step, to curse, to stumble, at least as long as you recovered. There was no singing of Jody calls or airborne cadences. If you had air enough to sing, they’d use it going farther or faster, or both, instead.

The crime was “falling out,” breaking formation and falling behind. If you did that once, they had a way of encouraging you either to quit, or never to fall behind again.

They would play some mind games with the formation, for instance returning to the compound at Mackall, running through the main gates, right to where the trainees would usually stop and drop their gear in formation — and keep on boogie-ing right out the back gate.

Mindslap.

But all good things, all bad things, indeed, all mortal things, must come to an end, and a Camp Mackall ruck march is no exception. By this time, the SF trainees no longer look light a tight military formation, like one of the 82nd companies that shuffle around Fort Bragg with their guidon and road guards, singing airborne cadences. They look more like a gypsy band. Some guys are wrestling with busted ruck straps or flopping boot soles; others are just flat straggling. They’re falling further and further behind as he broken-back snake of trainees loops back around the dusty clay roads of Mackall, and back into the gates.

And as the main body of the formation clears the gates, two instructors swing the gates closed in the face of the stricken-looking stragglers.

They’re about to learn how to bounce the gates. 

The guys inside are sent to turn in their firearms and take their rucks back into their tarpaper shacks. (There are permanent barracks now, but before the relative luxury of tarpaper shacks, there were only tents). They begin to shower. They have a tight schedule, and need to clean up and grab breakfast before their next evolution.

Meanwhile, the stragglers have been told that they have failed and their stuff is weak.

But there is one way that maybe they can redeem themselves.

“Bounce the gates!” an instructor roars. “Make these gates ring! You!” — and he singled out some wretch — “Bounce that gate!”

“Bounce the gate, sergeant? I don’t know what — ”

“Jesus, you’re not just a weakling, but also a dumbass. Bounce the gate means run full tilt and crash into the gate.

The student looks like that’s not the best offer he’s ever been given.

“Do it! Or pack your $#!+ and go home!”

So the trainee runs full tilt into the sturdy chain-link fence. Khawangg! The instructor laugh, and critique the bounce, and have him do it again, while queuing up the next victim. And for the next half hour, or hour, or some time period that feels even longer, the stragglers make repeated kamikaze runs on the locked gate, in ones and twos and, if there are that many, tens, as the instructors laugh and, sometimes, wager.

“Hey, Phil, I bet you Number 107 can make a louder crash than 233.”

“You’re on, Don!”

Bouncing the gates continues until they’re tired of it — not the students. They start off tired. They keep it up until the instructors are tired of it.

The gate bouncers are smoked. Some quit on the spot. Some are injured. Some will keep trying, but the calories they lost from the breakfast they didn’t have time to eat, plus the extra calories they burned in their assault on the gates leave them with an irrecoverable deficit, and tomorrow they’ll be shambling through bouncing-the-gates with half of today’s energy; they’re as good as dropped now, the poor bastards just don’t know it yet.

And there are a few, very few, for whom the worst of bouncing the gates is the shame of it; it burns, and they will not feel that burn again. Tomorrow, they will not fall behind. They will, in fact, never bounce the gates again, and they will walk across the stage and receive their diploma and green beret from some celebrity (in the idiosyncratic way SF defines celebrities; nowadays, it has been formalized as Distinguished Member of the Regiment).

We have thought about this barbaric ritual a lot since seeing it for the first time in 1983 (fortunately, from inside the compound. We never had to bounce, ourselves). And we’re no closer to the answer now than we were then: was it just hazing, or was it a worthwhile, integral part of the Phase I gut check?

Who Taught You to Walk?

Who taught you to walk? No, not simply to locomote around the house on toddler legs — who taught you to walk in the woods? Do you remember?

For some, it was your dad or uncle, on hunting trips. For others, it was probably an NCO in your first combat unit. We didn’t have a lot of hunting relatives, so when we first got to an operational unit, the NCOs there quickly determined that we needed an informal block of instruction so as not to endanger the men, the mission, and the military in general.

Learning to walk -- US Army photo of modern 25th ID soldiers.

Learning to walk — US Army photo of modern 25th ID soldiers.

Think about it. Do you remember who taught you to walk?

There’s a lot to learn. There’s how to walk slowly, and as silently as possible; how to walk as quickly as possible while still making minimum noise; and how to cover ground that might be observed, or booby-trapped.

At low speed you walk on the balls of your feet. You feel for where you will (a) have solid footing, and (b) not make noise (dry leaves, twigs). Then you slowly lower your heels, perhaps with an exaggerated supination to rollll your weight along the outside of your jungle boot. Then, perhaps, you move your other foot close into the one that is now forward, bearing your weight, before it in turn becomes the forward foot and you stretch it, ball of the foot first, towards a safe and silent touchdown.

Hollywood has made a dry twig a cliché, (well, James Fenimore Cooper beat Tinseltown to it by a century plus, but moviemakers have belabored that image even more than Cooper did). But there’s truth in the cliché: it can get you noticed, and in our world, for, say, six men on foot 1000 kilometers on the enemy side of the FLOT, stealth was life. Apart from the cinematic twig, there are other things to watch out for: dry leaves, branches that whip back into your eyes. Catching a branch with your hand is better than catching it with your face; catching it with a weapon depends on this: does it make a distinctive noise?

In M16A1 days, the telltale whack of a branch against the plastic handguards was a dead give-away, an unnatural sound. There were (are, we suppose) ways to reduce this.

You stop a lot. You stop and listen. In the jungle, in thick forest, in the city at night, in all the environments that are safest for dismounted infantry, your best sense, vision, is limited by line-of-sight issues. So your new best sense is hearing. You can’t hear the other guy making noise if you’re making noise, so periodically you stop. And you make it a long stop — because if the enemy is stopping with you, you want him to lose patience first.

It’s not paranoid. In combat, they’re really out to get you.

Then there’s how to do all these things at night. Which is different — radically different. For example, on a very dark night, the best way to tell if you’re on a trail can be to look up to see if there’s a linear gap in the trees. You learn that the branches, despite being invisible, are invariably thickest and most impenetrable nearer to the trunk… so if you see two trees ahead, split the difference to reduce contact with branches.

Then there’s the differences between walking and patrolling. And the difference between doing these things with a combat load (maybe 25 pounds in those pre-armor days) and a sustainment load (usually over 100 lbs of lightweight gear).

There’s no block of instruction, no approved lesson plan, for walking in the woods. It isn’t part of AIT, or jump school, or Ranger School, or SFQC. Somebody has to up and take you and teach you, when you don’t even know what it is you don’t know, yet.

Some of this might have been taught to the guys at the in-country recon school or the 1-0 school in Vietnam. (SF guys generally didn’t go to the Recondo school. They taught there). Before you can lead, you have to be able to move through the vegetation, call it woods, forest or jungle, without sounding like an elephant caravan. And in combat, you haven’t got time (or enough pints of blood) to learn by trial and error. Somebody’s got to teach you.

Our teacher was a brilliant staff sergeant called Terry Douglas Damm. Terry, as we called him then (he’d later go by his middle name) was a typically outsized SF personality. He was truly expert at fieldcraft… stuck in a remote area for a couple days, he’d build a two-story treehouse, a bridge across a creek, or a massive throne for himself (he was also a typically modest SF personality). He could actually make a fishhook and line, which they taught everybody in survival school, but Damm did it for fun — and he actually caught fish, which impressed the hell out of us.

He started out as a radio operator in the MI Company, after doing some tours with the Army Security Agency, including Thailand during the Vietnam unpleasantness. Later, he’d be a team sergeant, including on a scuba team at Bad Tölz. His last-before-retirement gig was teaching future officers in the ROTC sub-program at Dartmouth College, and he retired from the military in that area, working as a cop and making custom furniture.

Over the years, we lost touch with him. But you never forget the guy who taught you how to walk in the woods.

Wonder where Doug Damm is these days?

How the M203 Got its Sights

In the beginning, as a super-duper flechette-launching grenade-launcher infantry weapon project (the Special Purpose Infantry Weapon, SPIW) collapsed, what survived was a small grenade launcher modeled on an H&R Topper single-shot shotgun with a thyroid problem. This was the M79 bloop gun so fondly remembered by Vietnam vets. The M79 was introduced in 1961 as an infantry weapon, to restore the grenade-launcher capability lost when the M14 rifle replaced M1 rifles and carbines, which could take a grenade launcher attachment. (Grenade launcher development has always lagged rifle development in the US. Early in World War II, Springfield rifles were kept in the rifle squad for grenadiers, because there was no grenade-launcher attachment for the M1 yet, five or six years after its formal adoption).

m79_grenade_launcherThe M79 became one of the signature weapons of the Vietnam War, and a skilled bloop gunner was a valued member of a combat unit. In dismounted infantry combat the M79 had some advantages and disadvantages versus the enemy counterpart, the B-40, which was the Vietnamese licensed copy of the Soviet RPG-2 antitank weapon employed as an anti-personnel weapon. The 40mm grenade warheads were superior antipersonnel rounds, being designed as antipersonnel or dual-purpose rounds (the Soviets would later bow to the widespread use of their squad AT weapon as an antipersonnel force multiplier by just about everyone who ever used it, and make fragmentation, thermobaric and other anti-personnel  rounds for the follow-on RPG-7V, but not in time to do the PAVN and VC any good). The M79 was highly effective against troops in the open, highly accurate with training and experience, and the light, compact rounds meant that the GI could carry a lot of them. It was useless against armor, but that was immaterial to the Americans in the first years of the Vietnam War (the NVA made tank attacks, finally, in 1968).

m79-3

The grenade launcher capability was much desired, as a Human Engineering Laboratory survey of Marine combat infantry man in 1967 demonstrated. Well only a few percent of them reported carrying the M 79 as their primary weapon, several commented that they wanted more M 79’s, more and 79 rounds, and a white phosphorus round for the M791.

The problem of the thing was in its very nature. Doctrinally, the grenadier’s primary weapon was the grenade launcher, and so to carry the launcher and the rounds left him with no close-in defense weapon except an M1911A1 pistol. The answer seemed logical: make a snap-on or bolt-on launcher as an accessory for the service rifle, the M16A1.

This was tried as early as 1964, when three prototypes were tested. The best of the pack seemed to be Colt’s slide-the-barrel-to-load launcher, which was developed by Colt’s Karl Lewis in a remarkable 57 days from concept to test-fire. It was combat tested in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 as the XM148. This picture shows the XM 148 without its extended trigger.

XM148_Grenade_LauncherAs part of that test, 5th Special Forces Group received a handful of the weapons sometime in the quarter ending on 31 January 67, and had these comments:

This item was designed to be mounted under the front hand guard of the M-16 rifle. It has an extension bar attached to the right side of the weapon to bring the launcher trigger near the trigger of the rifle. 5th SFGA is presently evaluating five XM-148’s. Two are located with Project Delta, two with Project Omega and one in IV CTZ. Results to date are excellent.2

Delta and Omega were reconnaissance projects.

In testing of the XM148, it turned out to have its own set of problems vis-a-vis the familiar M79. The Army Concept Team in Vietnam reviewed the XM148 and concluded “It did not meet Army requirements in Vietnam.”

The Army went back to the drawing board. Not one, but three launchers were developed to meet this need. An unknown firm developed a pivoting barrel grenade launcher, about which we’d like to know more.

AAI (formerly Aircraft Armaments Incorporated) developed what the Army called a pump-action grenade launcher, the XM203, by 1968. It was very similar to the version that was finally adopted in 1971, with some minor improvements.

M16a2m203_afmil

M203 on a later M16A2, nearly identical to the initial M16A1 hosted XM203.

AAI also developed a futuristic launcher on a principle called the Disposable Barrel Cartridge Area Target Ammunition principle. Lacking any official nomenclature or pet name, this beast was called the DBCATA, an acronym nearly as awkward as the full name. This 40mm grenade was a case that itself formed a throwaway barrel, and was an survivor of the years of engineering overreach called the SPIW project. (The projectile was exactly the same as the M406 used in the M79, except that the rotating band was pre-cut to interface with the rifling).

DBCATA cutaway

Its Achilles Heel turned out to be that ordinary 40mm rounds could be fired in the smoothbore, unchambered barrel — not just the standard low-pressure 40mm M79/XM148/XM203 rounds, but also the high-pressure rounds used in helicopter armament and the Mk19 crew-served grenade launcher, then being developed for the Navy’s riverine force. A high-pressure round in a low-pressure launcher turned the apparatus from a grenade launcher to an instantaneous grenade.

The comparison test concluded that the XM203 was the best of the bunch, but needed two improvements and a combat test in Vietnam to confirm the Proving Ground tests. The report of the comparison test of the three contenders is full of interesting insights. For example, for all launchers, the TOONK of firing the 40 mm round came with enough recoil to bounce an M16 or XM177 bolt back out of battery. Next time Joe went to fire his rifle, he might get a click and no bang. In the end, there wasn’t really a technological solution for this, and it was managed with training.

Here’s a training video on the then-new M203… in 1971.

When the final M203 was issued, it incorporated a number of improvements from the GLAD tests, including a folding battle sight atop the M203 handguard — the only part of the break-action launcher they’d liked — and a more robust peep sight called the “quadrant sight.”

“The system,” so often derided by the field soldier, had worked as advertised, getting him an improved weapon (which remains in service to this day). Although it was developed by AAI, the production contract went (initially, and for many years) to Colt.

An ACTIV evaluation of the M203, with 500 samples, found that it was suitable for service in Vietnam. It served for many years thereafter, and is only gradually being replaced by the H&K M320. But the ACTIV evaluation, which recommended standardizing the XM203 as the M203, reached an interesting conclusion:

The battlesight and quadrant sight are useful during training, but they are not needed once the firer becomes proficient in the pointing technique.3

They further recommended deleting the removable quadrant sight.

But by then, the M203 was in full production, and units in Vietnam were clamoring for them. The quadrant sights were never deleted, and ACTIV’s conclusion is still just right: it’s very helpful to a gunner learning to system, or getting back in the groove after some time off. But once he has his 203 knack back, it’s superfluous.

Notes

  1. Tech Note 1-67.
  2. 5th SFGA quarterly report.
    The report also notes two other new arrivals in the world of small arms, including:Submachine Gun, 5.56 mm, CAR-15. This weapon is similar to the XM-16 rifle, however, it has a shorter barrel and hand guard, a telescoping butt stock, and different type of flash suppressor. It weighs 5.6 lbs., is 28 inches long with stock closed, and has a cyclic rate of fire of 750-900 rounds per minute. 5th SFGA,will evaluate 100 CAR-15’s. They will be located in each CTZ.
  3. Reid, Final Report.

Sources

HEL Staff. Tech Note 1-67: Small Arms use in Viet Nam: M14 Rifle and .45 Caliber Pistol. Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD: US Army Human Engineering Laboratories, January 1967. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=AD0649517

Keele, Eric, and Hendricks, George. Final Report on Engineer Design Test of Grenade Launcher Attachments for M16A1 Rifle (GLAD) (U). Aberdeen, Maryland, 1968: US Army Aberdeen Proving Ground. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/393211.pdf

Reid, John E. Final Report: XM203 40mm Grenade Launcher Attachment Development: ACTIV Project No. ACG-14/691. Army Concept Team In Vietnam, September 1969. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=AD0860601

Uncredited. 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces. Quarterly Report for Period Ending 31 January 1967.

 

Bonus

Click “more” to see the comments combat Marines made on the 1967 Human Engineering Laboratory survey about the M79. (A lot of them apply to any grenade launcher).

Continue reading

From 18D to MD in One Easy Helicopter Crash

Karl Holt on finishing the Marine Corps Marathon.

Karl Holt on finishing the Marine Corps Marathon.

Except, of course, nothing was easy about it. Karl Holt is typical of SF soldiers, in a way: he did many things before finding himself an 18 series, in what was probably the only job in the Army that would have scope for his breadth of learning and ability, 18D, Special Forces Medic. Like many 18Ds, Karl went on to further medical service post-military: lots of team docs become, like Karl, “real” docs; or nurses, NPs, and especially physician assistants. (One of the Army’s best sources of PAs is wear and tear on team 18 Deltas).

Karl was bright, educated, and inculcated in an ethos of service before he joined.

Karl’s grandfather, Kenneth “Buck” Holt, had a huge influence on him.

“He was a hero to me,” says Karl, who remembers his grandfather’s stories of flying missions in the South Pacific during World War II.

As Karl’s interest in medicine developed and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan raged on, he increasingly thought about his grandfather and felt compelled to try to serve as a Green Beret medic, known as an 18-Delta.

“Being an 18-Delta, for me, was the perfect fit,” he says. “I was ready physically. I’d been a marathon runner, and I embraced the grueling aspects of the Green Beret training and the life post-training.”

He spent one month of his year of medical training at VCU Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, scrubbing in at 25 to 30 surgeries and “doing pretty much everything I could possibly do while there.”

The most common training experiences were thoracic injuries and gunshot wounds. By participating in the care, he developed confidence in his ability to treat trauma cases and became comfortable with the prospect of being the lone medic on a unit.

“Our job as 18-Deltas is to work in very austere places around the world,” he says. “You have to be a jack-of-all-trades, ready for anything, including amputation, veterinary medicine – you name it. You have to be prepared.”

via Green Beret, White Coat — News Room – UNC Health Care.

The military’s special operations medics share a lot of their training, especially trauma training, and they’re good at it. The unique bit the SF medic gets includes tropical medicine, epidemiology, veterinary skills, and other things that may be useful to a team that is hanging out on the very edge of civilization, hundreds of miles and hours if not days from a hospital, doctor, or medical (or any other) support.

Karl might have stayed an SF medic for a career, but for a career-ending helicopter crash with his 7th Group team in Afghanistan.

This is what was left of the Chinook Karl's team was in.

This is what was left of the Chinook Karl’s team was in. (Well, there’s a burning rubble field to the left of the picture, too, which is the rest of it).

One night in October 2009, the team went to a storage depot nestled between two mountains in a valley in Daree-ye Bu, in the western province of Badghis, to destroy drugs, IEDs, and other weapons. The mission had been a success, but as the group was ready to depart via two Chinook helicopters, it came under fire. Karl recalls an RPG zooming above him, its velocity knocking him to the ground as it passed. It detonated against the mountain behind him.

“Our small group was alone, and several hundred Taliban were amassing on our position and aiming to kill us,” he says. “When the two helicopters arrived, we couldn’t see them. It was completely dark, blacked out with sand and smoke. Literally, we just held on to each other and ran toward the heat and the sound of the helicopters.”

It was 3:30 a.m. The helicopters were lifting off the ground as the last man ran inside. The first Chinook made it to the top of the mountain and cleared the cliff. Karl’s helicopter, meanwhile, in the confusion of war and while maneuvering away from incoming fire, nearly ran into the cliff. It lost control and fell 800 feet to the village below, crashing through a two-story compound. The helicopter broke in half on impact. Karl was sitting in the front; everyone immediately around him died.

Despite his severe injuries, Karl survived. He was, however, the only medic on board, and his aid bag had been destroyed in the crash. As he came to, he couldn’t breathe – too much wreckage was covering him. He struggled to remove the weight.

“There was nobody around,” he says. “We were completely isolated – alone basically.”

Once free, he realized he couldn’t stand. He had broken his back, and his left leg was “pretty much destroyed.” His face had been crushed and he’d lost several teeth. Bodies had been decapitated and limbs were strewn. Only five individuals who were on board were able to walk. “I started crawling,” he says. Jeremy Valdez, the only surviving Green Beret, put his life on the line as ammunition “cooked off” amid the heat and yanked him out.

“Once away from the crash site, we consolidated patients in a darkened room,” Karl says. “I was the only medic, and I had 10 traumatic patients. Our weapons had been destroyed by the crash and we were preparing for the fight of our lives.”

Karl began crawling from one patient to the next, stopping hemorrhages, applying tourniquets, splinting fractures, and trying to keep everyone conscious.

The crash was cataclysmic, killing most of the aircrew, two of Karl’s teammates, and three Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agents who had volunteered for the Afghanistan mission. In all, 10 men from the crash share a common grave in Arlington today. Karl was this close to being the 11th.

Two years ago, Karl traveled to Arlington National Cemetery with his fiancee to visit the grave of his friends SFC David E. Metzger and SSG Keith R. Bishop. A few years earlier, at their funeral in Arlington, Virginia, he was on his way home, driving back to North Carolina, when he realized that he could not overcome the psychological scars of his experiences by himself.

Two years ago, Karl traveled to Arlington National Cemetery with his fiancee to visit the grave of his friends SFC David E. Metzger and SSG Keith R. Bishop. A few years earlier, at their funeral in Arlington, Virginia, he was on his way home, driving back to North Carolina, when he realized that he could not overcome the psychological scars of his experiences by himself.

(An acquaintance of ours, who served in 7th Group and knows or knew all these Special Forces soldiers, and is himself a man of unquestioned and recognized valor, considers Jeremy Valdez, the guy who pulled Karl out of the incipient fire, the bravest man he knows).

Although he survived, was a career-ending, crippling injury for Karl, who had all those physical injuries plus an initially undiagnosed TBI that made it impossible to read or study for any length of time. He would have been justified in taking his disability retirement and kicking back.

Justified, yeah, but he wouldn’t have been Karl. Within a year, he ran the Marine Corps Marathon. He decided to go to medical school — which meant, he had to knock off his undergrad prereqs first. Which meant, he had to conquer the TBI’s problems with dogged rehab. He did all that. Through all this he had a family to hang on to, also.

In five years he had something like three dozen surgeries, mostly to reconstruct his destroyed face; but he also made his way into UNC Medical School, where he’s preparing to continue a life of service.

Every doctor savors the little triumphs of a medical career. Not every doctor has a cheering section in Valhalla.

We’d urge you to Read The Whole Thing™ at the UNC Heath Care in-house magazine, where there’s much more detail on Karl’s rocky path from Team Doc to Real Doc (which isn’t over yet but all is proceeding well). This is especially true if you’re the sort of person who’s got half a mind to nuke whole universities. The STEM disciplines are still strong in the best of them.

Jerry Shot First

Every once in a while we use a Jerry Miculek video here because they’re so damn entertaining. This one, in which Jerry too piles on to the Star Wars movie publicity blitz bandwagon, is no exception:

George Lucas famously wimped out on Han Solo blasting Greedo, but do you think Jerry would?

If there was an award for best product packaging in the firearms industry, Jerry Miculek would win, and we say that not just in humble respect, but in awe. The only showmanship we’ve ever seen that was a fraction as good was former SOT chief pistol instructor, the late Paul Poole. We don’t believe anyone ever recorded Paul’s ever-changing “routine” — there are not even many stills, as cameras and recorders were officially verboten at Mott Lake Compound — but he’d have given Jerry a run for the money, and been one hell of a YouTube personality.

He had the most imitated inimitable voice and laugh in SF. “Don’t dry fire in a fireright! Bwa-haw-haw!”

“Hognose, you’ve improved on the .45 but you still suck like a jeep-washee girl! Here, this is what you need.” (Pulls out M79 from behind his back). “An area fire weapon for you approximate region of the target mofos!  Bwaw-haw-haw!”

RIP, Paul Poole, Son Tay Raider, Chief Pistol Instructor, and all around Good Mo Fo. Valhalla’s probably out of beer by now, but they’re all laughing their asses off.

In the Warrior Caste, We’re All Connected

Motherboard (a Vice site) has an interesting post on two Air Force brothers, one, Uriah or Yuri Hines, an F-15E backseater and his older brother Reese, an enlisted EOD tech. Their lives and the lives of other USAF personnel intersected in peculiar ways, but it may just come down to math: this endless war is being conducted, on the ground and in the air, by a very small handful of personnel, from a relative handful of families.

Reese (left) and Yuri (right) at Walter Reed. "Hey, brother, this finger works!"

Reese (left) and Yuri (right) at Walter Reed. “Hey, brother, this finger works!”

The war is a perpetual motion machine. Many of the 51,000 are from elite flying and special operations units, are lucky to have lasted so long without serious injury. Why push it? Why go back to the war? The answer is in the question. You go back because your comrades are going. Your comrades go because you go.

It’s hard to get off the ride because, after years of war, when you get that mission to go rescue the wounded, to relieve a squad in a firefight, to respond to a helicopter crash, to clear an IED, you can expect, mathematically, to be saving a friend. Or a friend’s friend. Or a friend’s brother.

via One Degree of Separation in the Forever War | Motherboard.

Brian Castner, whom one suspects comes from the sort of family that hasn’t sent a son to war since the 1960s produced creativity in draft deferments, wrote his piece with the usual anthropologist-among-the-headhunters tone of Acela Corridor media drones gawping over the puzzling Flyover Country habit of joining the military, us chumps. Is it a primitive mating ritual? An atavistic throwback to Neanderthal days? A Darwinian means of winnowing the violent out of a post-conflict world? Ah, those are questions to be savored over a fine single malt or a bowl of Maui Wowie before shuffling back to the rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan that Mater’s or Pater’s connections got you.

After all, in combat, a fellow could get hurt.

The place where a jug of ANFO and Reese met, with similar consequences: both got "blow'd up."

The place where a jug of ANFO and Reese met, with similar consequences: both got “blow’d up.”

There’s no question that we, who unlike JFK’s fellow Haaahhvahd men have “paid any price, borne any burden” so that the Kennedys’ increasingly inbred and incapable spawn need not,  form a caste, a subculture, a veritable monastic order. It is little appreciated and less understood by those who would be cardinals and popes over us. Castner is not a direct writer, and his insight is buried in s blizzard of white noise, but the insight is here:

This longest war in American history has created a warrior caste. Less than one percent of the US population, the “Other One Percent,” served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly half of those veterans completed two or more tours, and 51,000 of them, a Spartan-esque subculture than would barely fill Yankee stadium, have deployed six or more times. The Delta operator who fell in Iraq in October was on his fourteenth tour.

Our professional military is staffed entirely by volunteers. Returning to combat this often is a choice, and our culture has turned to explanations from camaraderie to adrenaline to economics to explain this drive.

But this Veterans Day, it is worth considering another reason, unique to our current conflict: saving a life within a very small world. So small, in fact, that using small world theory, the math tells us that statistically they are not saving the lives of strangers, but of known quantities.

“Known quantities?” Restated in plain English, when the same guys at the sharp end keep going back, and going back, and going back, they’re risking their lives not for the strangers a couple units over or in a different service, but if not friends and family, at least, friends of their family members, and family members of their friends.

Castner seems to think that this consanguinity itself is why the guys keep risking their necks; that there’s some kind of cost-benefit maximization analysis at play here. He would; he comes from a culture that never considers anything except in the light of personal gain and advantage, and that roils with contempt for any lesser souls who do not. He’s projecting.

Brian Castner is also mistaken in thinking this small subset of troops who keep riding to the sound of the guns is unique to our current conflict. It was present in Vietnam, too, but not in the draft units that the popular culture has obsessed over (perhaps because a young novelist or director might actually be drafted, especially after Nixon eliminated many of the class-based deferments). It was there in the volunteers that went back, and back, and back. The units that did much of the actual fighting were all volunteer: SF, the Airborne units, combat aircrew. The Marines, who did more than their share, had draftees, but far fewer of them than their Army peer units.

This assortative separation has characterized the military more and more since the coming of VOLAR in 1972. The late Charles Moskos of Chicago studied this phenomenon at great depth early on, and by the early 1980s saw the early signs of a military culture divergent, in some ways, from the national culture. This alarmed Moskos, whose answer was a return to the draft. It is instructive to understand that his reasoning was, in part, because the Army was full of stupid people and only a draft could get anyone intelligent to join. While that point seems very silly to anyone with military experience, it is still widely believed along the tracks of the Acela and in supposedly elite universities across the country.

Castner’s article is still worth a read, despite the Marco-Polo-among-the-savage-heathens nature of his analysis, because he’s quite good at the reporting part of reporting. (Which was supposed to be the whole thing, before reporters started rolling a Moral into every fable). He elicited quite a great deal from the Hines brothers, especially Yuri, and his story about Yuri’s Air Force career change has an interesting twist to it. So do Read The Whole Thing™.

That the military is a culture apart is an insight that’s older than the gunpowder old Polo brought back from his travels. But it’s not the only one.

In our opinion the Acela Corridor Government/Nonprofit/Journo sector is at least as inbred a caste as the military. The two are easily distinguished, though, because they are characterized by different values.

  • One tends atheistic; the other religious.
  • One promotes self-serving; the other, selfless service.
  • One lionizes celebrities; the other, heroes.
  • One defines identity and value based on race, class, and connections; the other on performance.
  • One celebrates (often imaginary) victimhood; the other, sacrifice.
  • One makes a to-do about pathetic, imaginary “bravery” of verbal criticism of non-malevolent entities; the other goes toe-to-toe with unspeakable evil and is mortified if anybody makes an overt reference to it.
  • One’s standards are gauzy, and only nominal, and once a certain threshold is reached by an individual, no longer apply to him at all; the other enforces bright-line standards more evenly.

Depending on where you sit, one of these minority groups you can choose to join is better than the other. Your answer, reader of this blog, will not be the answer Brian Castner and his newsroom or his next bong party for that matter, would select. Most of you already gave your answer, and put your necks on the block, behavior that Castner can only explain by trying to make it somehow a game of personal gain or advantage.

It isn’t, kid. It’s just who we are; it’s just what we do. One of those subcultures is not like that, but one of those subcultures is. To steal a line from the great Lartéguy: That’s the one in which I would choose to fight.

And that’s a reference you’ll only get if you’re a member of our culture, isn’t it?

Rock Island Auction Ho! Here are a few of our Favorite Lots

The RIA Premiere Auction kicks off soon, at 0900 Central Time today. RIA’s online auctions are where we occasionally find a good deal. The Premiere Auctions are where really awesome stuff shows up — stuff that, despite what seem to be reasonable auction estimates, we almost certainly can’t afford.

But we can dream, hey?

First up, two rare US martial target-shooting rifles: A Springfield ’03 National Match….

Springfield 1903 NM RIAOf which Rock Island says:

Springfield NM shipping documentAccording to the included pair of shipping tickets, this rifle was sold from the inventory of Springfield Armory in 1936 by the authority of the Department of Civilian Marksmanship. The rifle is noted by serial number, along with the description “U.S. Rifle, Cal. .30, 1903A1,/National Match, 1936, with Target/and Star Gauge Record Card” (NOTE: target and record card not included). Blade front and folding ladder rear sight with a star gauge stamp on the muzzle, protective hood on the front sight and “SA/(bomb)/3-36” on top of the barrel. The “F” and “NS” marked nickel steel bolt has been hand-numbered on top to match the receiver. Fitted with a smooth pistol grip stock, stamped “P” on the wrist and “S.A./S.P.G.” on the left side with a deeply checkered buttplate and a brown leather sling marked “H&P.1918/WEH”.
Condition: Excellent, with 90% plus of the correct mixed blue and parkerized finish showing some areas of brown patina and mild wear overall. The bolt body has been polished. Stock is also excellent with a few light dings and scratches. Mild scuffing and verdigris is present on the sling. Mechanically excellent.

… and an M1 National Match on, as usual, a Springfield receiver. Complete with provenance and documentation, this late NM (1963) may have been made even as the M14 project was winding down. It looks like it may have been a 1988 DCM sale, but we honestly just skimmed the two documents that are posted (partially redacted) on the Rock Island site.

M1 Springfield NM - RIA

 

 

 

Naturally the images embiggen with a click, and there are more images on the site.

Both guns are in startling condition for a guy with a safe full of rack grade rifles. The 1903 is particularly gorgeous — a collector would be hard pressed to upgrade this fine collector rifle.

As usual, the estimates ($2,500 – $3,750 for the ’03 and $2,250-3,500 for the M1) are on crack. The guns will sell higher, unless everybody has spent everything on ARs this week.

The US Martial Long Arms category includes only cartridge long arms but it has some real winners — a rod bayonet ’03, a remanufactured Infrared Sniperscope M1 Carbine, a Remington 720 that was bestowed as a Navy/Marine shooting trophy and comes with the presentation information, including the name of the Marine NCO who won it. There are sniper rifles (including a bogus one) and rare prototypes and trials rifles.

Maybe it’s not US cartridge military rifles you collect. Mausers? Winchesters? Colt pistols? Class III? Maybe Rock Island’s list of Categories can help you find something to spend the rent money on:

Search our catalog Now! Click here.
Or view our auction categories.  Simply click to view!

If there’s nothing there you want, check the URL you’re reading this at, and then take your pulse. You’re either in the wrong blog… or you’re dead.

UPDATE

OK, one more that’s right in the left and right limits of this blog: a Colt .32 Hammerless Pocket Automatic. One of 543 from a particular shipment in 1944. It’s not just a really nice condition, Colt, it’s also documented to that particular shipment…

OSS Colt

…to the property officer of the OSS in the Fowler Building, Rosslyn, Virginia. You know you want it.

A Reporter with Special Forces in Africa

USSF officer Doug O'Connell with African officers, Flintlock 2015.

USSF officer Doug O’Connell from SOD-A with African officers, Flintlock 2015.

A very interesting story in Texas Monthly covers SF soldiers from the Texas Army National Guard who deployed to Africa in FTX Flintlock, the major UW exercise that once, decades ago, focused on Europe. The Texans are part of Special Operations Detachment – Africa (SOD-A), one of a series of SODs that provide SOF augmentation to theater combatant commands (or theater special operations commands).

[I]f Special Forces soldiers are good at building trust with local forces, they are wary of the media. Their work is complicated, not easily captured in sound bites, and as with any other government employee, a few misplaced words can jeopardize an entire career. When I ask Vince, a burly, affable major, a question that he considers inappropriate, his immediate response is “Are you trying to Rolling Stone me?”

Vince is referring to the Rolling Stone article published in 2010 that got General Stanley McChrystal forced out of the Army because of some offensive comments. Most civilians have probably forgotten this article ever existed. But you can bet that not a single soldier has.

I mostly stick to safe subjects. I take a seat with the group. They are polite but not exactly forthcoming; they are still sussing me out. We talk about guns and the month I spent at Blackwater. I tell some hunting stories, like the time I got stalked by a pair of mountain lions in East Texas. Still, most of these men have been in combat. There is basically nothing about guns or hunting they don’t know already. Conversation begins to lag. Finally someone says, “So, does being an author get you laid?”

At this, all conversation stops. People turn away from their laptops. They look at me expectantly; this is the only interesting thing I really have to offer.

I would like to pretend that I responded only with great reluctance. But they are all married, and I have been single for many years. So I tell them some stories. Then I tell them more stories. Most of the stories are lies, and none of them are fit for print.

“Jesus, reporter,” says Vince. “By the time this is over, I am going to Rolling Stone YOU.”

Read The Whole Thing™; rather typically for Texas Monthly, it’s good and has some decent photographs. Here’s one more taste:

There are reporters and well-dressed State Department officials wandering around. There are BBC reporters burned bright pink by the sun. Finally there is an announcement about the maneuvers, and everyone goes out to a hilltop to watch the closing exercise being put on for all the visiting brass and reporters. A joint African assault group, made up of Nigerians, Nigeriens, Tunisians, Algerians, Chadians, and Cameroonians, stages a raid on a compound. There is the crackle of AKs, the rattle of PKMs, and the occasional thud thud thud of a DShK.

A handful of photographers have flown in for this—machine guns and explosions make for good photographs—and indeed, this is what media coverage of Flintlock primarily focuses on. But this is not what Flintlock is really about. U.S. and European special operations forces give weapons training to partner nations all the time—there are SF operators training African forces all the time. Flintlock, and the other big exercises like it, are about bringing together these various host nations to learn to work together. Not in the sense of holding hands and singing “Kumbaya,” but in the sense of Does our radio system talk to your radio system? Do we understand each other’s tactics? And, most fundamentally, can we trust each other?

It’s unusual for a reporter to actually get the hang of SF, let alone have a few insights about it, penetraring insights, but Philipp Meyer did just that in this article.

 

SF and Mustaches

Now this guy has a mustache worth emulating.

Now this guy has a mustache worth emulating.

Everybody these days associates Special Forces with beards. But there was a time when SF meant mustaches… luxuriant, regulation-defying womb brooms. So it was entertaining to learn that the British Army once required mustaches.

The order to abolish the moustache requirement was signed on October 6, 1916 by General Sir Nevil Macready, who himself hated moustaches and was glad to finally get to shave his off. While no longer in force today, there are still regulations governing moustaches and, if worn, they can grow no further than the upper lip.  It is also still extremely common for British soldiers in Afghanistan to wear beards, as facial hair is still associated with power and authority in many Islamic regions.

via http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/08/from-1860-1916-the-uniform-regulations-for-the-british-army-required-every-soldier-to-have-a-moustache/.

The story is a fascinating overview of mustaches in the military, including their 50-plus year run as mandatory grooming for Tommy Atkins.

In the US, too, mustaches ran afoul of officers who didn’t like them. A fairly liberal policy of the 1970s and 1980s ended in 1981 with a new Chief of Staff who came up with a policy that initially more or less required a Hitler mustache. It was quickly tweaked to require a Hitler-sized but non-rectangular regular trapezoid, top end no wider than the nose, bottom end coming to a point no further left or right than the opening of the mouth.

On the other hand, this fellow's style is lost to history (Kaiser Wilhelm II).

On the other hand, this fellow’s style is lost to history (Kaiser Wilhelm II).

This was not a Hitler, but it wasn’t really a Stalin, either. Stalin may be one of greatest villains ever whelped by human dam, but he certainly had a great mustache, unlike his Austrian counterparty.

And really, where would a discussion of mustaches be without discussing one of the Three Monsters of the XX Century™, two of whom were distinctively mustached? (The exception was the clean-shaven Great Helmsman, who demonstrated that even if life is cheap in the Orient, the right guy can run up a hell of a tab). The pseudonymous writer of the piece linked above probably wants to keep working in media, so he doesn’t bag on #2, Stalin, but does discuss #3 democide record holder, Adolf Hitler, who singlehandedly drove both a common name and a common 20th-Century mustache style into obscurity:

Hitler originally went with the previous most popular ‘stache in Germany, the Kaiser Moustache, which was turned up at the ends, often with scented oil.

He continued to wear this ‘stache at least up to and during WWI.

A soldier who served with Hitler during WWI, Alexander Moritz Frey, stated that Hitler was ordered to trim his moustache during WWI while in the trenches to facilitate wearing a gas mask; so shaved the sides off and went with the toothbrush moustache instead.

Nobody1 names their son Adolf any more. And nobody cuts their mustaches like his.

Except the US Army and other services that rigidly follow the Army’s 1981 mustache regulation — who wear a slightly trapezoidal Adolf variant, thus losing the mustache stakes to numerous Southern European and Central Asian mischief makers. Originally, the mini-mustache didn’t have to be trapezoidal. We think we know how that came to be.

You see, for a long time, in SF, we got away with the pre-81 facial hair approach. It wasn’t that we were unmilitary: several of the contingencies in our mission tasking letter expected us to go under cover, and we knew that if Ivan poured through the Fulda Gap, the war was not going to wait for us to grow our hair out. It would be “come as you are.”

In 1984, we got a new CG for Special Forces. The only general in SF, BG Joe Lutz, was kicked upstairs with a second star — and packed away to lead a military advisory group in Greece. The new Chief of Staff did not like SF, and sough a new CG in his own image. He found Major General Leroy N. Suddath, who was the very model of a STRAC airborne infantryman, having commanded at every level except Division in the 82nd Airborne (he had successful Company, Battalion and Brigade commands), and served in the sensitive but by-the-book role of Provost Marshal in Berlin, where he and a clandestine SF element operating there developed a lasting mutual enmity. (Tensions between the showpiece Berlin Brigade and city-based special operators and spooks were the norm; moreover, the passive collecting spooks and the preparing-for-combat spooks always stepped all over each other’s networks).  MG Suddath came in at a time SF was getting more resources — he would take the review when the Pacific-oriented 1st Group reactivated, for instance — but he came in with orders: get those wild men under control. Bring those rogues back into the Army!

Like any good leader in the cold war Army, that meant a focus on appearances. He wanted high and tight haircuts. He wanted clean-shaven men, as he’d required in his 82nd units. That was his measure — his only measure — of his men’s readiness. Wherever he could, he replaced special operations officers with infantrymen, the less imaginative the better. Ranger, SF, same thing, right? That was how he acted, if not how he thought (you’d have to ask him). Officers with special operations leadership potential were stashed here and there — then-Colonel Dick Potter was parked at the War College as commander of the support troops, IIRC, for instance — to wait him out. But meanwhile, SF was going to join the Army, whether we liked it or not.

We didn’t like it.

There was also an operational side of his conventionalizing the Army: he was determined to crush initiative and run things from HQ, like LBJ and Macnamara acting as a command master corporal from thousands of miles away.

So our team decided to protest. None of us had heard of Alinsky, at that time, but we knew instinctively that the way to mock a rule was to follow it punctiliously, indeed, beyond punctiliously: to great excess.

So we all trimmed our luxuriant facial hair down. Boy howdy, did we trim it down. Next morning PT formation, a very cross company commander looked at a row of smiling Hitlers.

“What the bleeep is this?”

“Sir, AR 670-12 dictates that…” and our team sergeant ran through the reg, yadda yadda. Our toothbrush mustaches were technically legal. We had vowed that none of us were going to shave them until the Army yielded, by God: we were within the letter of the law.

The next morning, the protest had spread — every team was a ringer for the Boys From Brazil. But with one exception. Our team sergeant, who had initiated the protest, was clean-shaven!

“WTF, dude?”

“Momma said she was not getting in bed with Adolf Hitler.”

Some time after that, they made a very small change to the facial hair regulation. One’s mustache was “not to present a chopped-off appearance.” Did that result from the one-day protest of one team at Fort Devens? Or was that protest one of many?

We’d like to think that we got the regulation changed, even if it was a retrograde change to what was (and is) a stupid regulation.