Saturday, December 18, 2010

O Christmas Tree

This holiday season brings to mind holidays of the past, particularly those I celebrated while serving in the military.

I graduated from high school at mid-term and enlisted in the Marine Corps infantry in February of 1975. I finished boot camp and infantry school in time to be on Okinawa by September, just after my 18th birthday. I had never been away from home during the holidays, but obviously, I would be away from home for this one.

We generally spent three to five days a week in the field. Vietnam was over, but not long over. Marines who conducted the mission to rescue the crew of the SS Mayaguez in Cambodia returned to Okinawa shortly after I arrived on the island. There was still plenty of reason to train, but this Christmas training was also a good way to think of something other than being away from family and friends during the holidays.

That is the reason I spent my first Christmas Eve in the Marine Corps in the field as a lance corporal firing 81mm mortars. We had a night shoot scheduled that evening. We'd finish the shoot, sleep in the field that night, then return to Camp Schwab in the morning for a Christmas meal in the mess hall.

The night shoot was fairly routine, but we needed to stay focused to continue to improve. In combat training, as it is in combat, everything done at night is much more deliberately performed since normal daytime visual cues are diminished. You can take nothing for granted. 

With an 81mm mortar, you don't normally have the opportunity to see your target, so you set stakes - aiming stakes - out in front of the mortar positions, all on a base heading or direction from each gun. At night, we attached unidirectional lights to the stakes so we could see them from the guns. Others in a fire direction center had targets plotted on maps and plotting boards and they called gun sight settings down to the gun squad leader via wired land lines. The squad leader called out the settings to the gun crew in the gun pit and gunners applied the settings to the sights and manipulated the mortars to align them with the aiming stakes with the new settings. The ammo men passed the ammo forward and handed it - one round at a time - to the assistant gunner who dropped each round down the mortar tube, again, one round at a time. Once the round hit the bottom of the tube, it struck the firing pin which ignited the propellant that launched the round down range.

When we fired at night, we generally fired a number of illumination rounds to light up the target area. These were shells that burst in the air to release a bright phosphorous ball suspended from a parachute. If all eight mortars in the platoon fired illumination rounds at once, it could light up a huge swath of land.

So, that night, had engaged a number of targets and finally exhausted all of our high explosive ammunition. We still had a few illumination rounds left, but our platoon leaders had a plan for them. With eight guns on line, they gave instructions for the two middle guns to fire illumination rounds. A few seconds later all eight guns each fired a round, then a few seconds later the two guns next to the outside most guns fired. A few seconds later the next two interior guns fired, then the next two fired, continuing until all pairs of guns working to the middle of the gun line had fired a round. Finally, one of the two middle guns traversed slightly to the middle and fired one more round.

As the illumination rounds burst over that dark windless Christmas Eve night, two then eight then two at a time, we saw that we had created a phosphorous Christmas tree dangling several seconds from parachutes. Five dozen Marines in the field that night admired the display in silence until the light was extinguished and the parachutes settled to the ground.

It doesn't seem like much, but it is was kind of neat to us. That was a nice Christmas.