Sunday, January 11, 2009

Clearly Obscure

It's late and I'm tired - long evening with the kidlets at our company Christmas do - but Jim from Ranger Against War left a comment on the last post that reminded me of this tale from my misspent youth I just had to tell.

Back in the 90's I was working as an 81mm mortar platoon fire direction chief; we were live firing on the range at Ft. Lewis, Washington.We had been firing all day shooting our METL* missions and now night was falling. We fired several rounds to adjust in the forward observers (referred to as "The Hill"), when I walked the line of steel to check on the round count. At this point the platoon sergeant informed me that the ammo point had issued us a lot of defective ammunition - a bunch of mortar ammo had been sent to Saudi in '91, sat around the desert getting too hot, too cold and generally fucked up, and then returned to CONUS - and as a result we had no high explosive (HE) rounds to shoot. All we had on the firing point were illumination ("'lume" or ILL) and white phosphorus ("Willie Pete" or WP).

(Despite the nonsense you may have heard, WP is NOT a "chemical weapon". It burns hella hot and can be used as an indecendiary, and it puts out a thick, white smoke and is commonly used as an "obscurant", to blind an enemy or hide your own troops, i.e. a "smoke screen").

I called my battalion to check and see if they wanted us to cease firing. Nope. We were supposed to fire a night mission - a "coordinated illumination", where we adjusted the 'lume rounds so that the flares would light up an area, and then, while one gun continued to fire 'lume rounds, the remainder of the platoon would plaster the now-supposedly lighted-up bad guys with high explosive.

Except, of course, we HAD no high explosive. So, by God, we would shoot the mission using phosphorus rounds instead of HE.

So I called up to the Hill.

(Me) "You, this is me, be advised, HE withdrawn, stand by to observe coordinated illumination with Whiskey Papa** in effect***, over."

(The Hill) "Me, this is you. Do I copy that you will fire WP, I say again, Whiskey Papa in effect, over?"

(Me) "You, me, that is correct, over."

(The Hill) "Me, you, let me be sure I understand this correctly: you wish to both illuminate and obscure the target, over?"(Me) "You, me, that is correct, over."

(The Hill) "Me, you, roger, we will continue to illuminate until the target is totally obscured, over."

(Me) "Roger, out."

I have to tell you: unless you've seen it, the white phosphorus clouds under the hard light of the flares are like nothing else extant. They may possibly be one of the most unearthly and beautiful things created by man. The billows of perfectly white smoke bubble, roil and twist under the light, and are, in turn, lit from within by a million tiny stars of burning phosphorus.

Anyway, for his wit and good humor, I bought that observer his every round at the NCO Club the following evening.

I'd almost forgotten that story. Glad I got to tell it to you. G'night, y'all.

*METL: Mission Essential Task List - the stuff the Army and your higher believes you gotta know and do right to win in battle.

**Whiskey Papa: phonetic spelling of the letters "WP"

***"in effect": When you are moving the fall of the mortar or artillery round so as to hit your target - usually done with one gun - you are "adjusting". When you get on target you fire the entire battery, section, platoon, or battalion in order to spoil your arget's entire day. This is called "fire for effect" or just "in effect".


rangeragainstwar said...


This brings back memories -- in 1970, in RVN, we were shooting 4.2" mortar HE rounds that were made in 1943. A lot of these we simply blew in place, since they were bleeding.

Ael said...

It is always strange to me, that the americans send NCOs up front as observers and keep their commanders back near the guns.

mike said...

ael -

Not sure where you got your info. Back in the day, all arty and air FOs I served with were generally 1st or 2nd lieutenants - or in the case of Naval Gunfire then they were ensigns or JGs. Although there were some enlisted observers for the 81-mm mortars as Chief noted.

And I do understand that the Air Force used enlisted as FOs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those zoomie pilots did not want to miss out on their flight pay.

FDChief said...

Jim: Yeah, the Army never loses anything - until it's time to pay you, get you your mail, or stamp your VA benefit package...

Ael, mike: FO's can be officers, but most Arty FO's are sergeants with EMs as RTOs. Our FA officers are ususally either 1) with the maneuver HQ element (FSOs/FSEs) where they clear fires and help the maneuver commander plan fire support, or 2) as Ael says, with the FA batteries/battalions.

Thing is, calling for fire isn't a really tactically tricky task. Good observing is technically tricky and does take a LOT of experience, tho - by the time I'd worked in the mortar FDC for a year (and LONG before my FA days) I could almost always tell when I had a young FO - especially if the observers were at a roughly 90-degree angle to my gun-target line (what we call "Angle T") - because of the amount of time we'd spend in adjustment. He'd forget that a "left" for him was an "add" for us, so we'd do what's called "chasing the round". Fun.

Since FO officers are usually lieutenants, as mike points out, they tended to do this more than salty old NCO types.

FA lieutenants are typically too expensive and rare to throw out on an OP. They need to be where they're most useful - acting as battery or battalion Fire Direction Officers (FDOs) - and where their technical expertise can be best used.

Ael said...

In Canada, forward observers are mostly Captains (and they have already been gun position officers, so they are intimately familiar with what is happening on the guns).

mike said...


Marine arty FOs were officers. Typically they were attached at Rifle Company or sometimes Platoon level, hence there were no captains as otherwise they could have outranked the infantry commander, a definite protocol No-No. Arty captains were typically assigned at the infantry battalion HQ as a coordinator with an arty major assigned at the RLT or regimental level. Of course many of those Lieutenant FOs stayed back with the FSO/FSE at battalion until tasked to accompany a specific unit for an operation.

This was back in the 60s and 70s - I disclaim all knowledge of current tables of organization. There was an argument going on for as long as I can remember to standardize the FO position into one man regardless of whether he was calling in air, arty, NGF, or whatever. Not sure what happened with that. Never sounded like a good idea to me, dumb a$$ that I am.

81-mm mortars were manned by infantry MOSs and I believe did have NCO observers as chief mentioned. 4.2-inch mortars batteries were organic to arty battalions, staffed by artillery MOSs, and used whatever arty FOs were out in the field with the unit they were firing in support of.