Friday, November 08, 2013

The Army I Knew: Grenada 3, or, Into the Wild

You may remember than when last seen, Doc Chief and his pal Woodus were out in Area J playing field medic as the United States began its first foreign military adventure since the end of the Vietnam war some eight years earlier.

Little did we know that while we were trying to pound our ears in the piney woods a composite unit of the then-two battalions of the U.S. Army's 75th Infantry Regiment (Airborne) (Ranger) was staging in the Caribbean to parachute onto the runway at Point Salines.

What should have given us a clue that the something that the U.S. had decided to do about those pesky Grenadian Commies included the 82nd Airborne Division was the constant uproar in Area J that night.

No sooner had we snuck back into our hootch from the billets after the platoon beer-and-pizza-night than a whining deuce-and-a-half rolled up and some knucklehead roared out "First Three-two-Five! Third Three-Two-Five! Alpha Three-Oh-Seventh Med! Get on the truck!"

This was greeted with the U.S. soldier's traditional enthusiastic obedience to orders:

"Fuck off, you! Tryin' to sleep here!"

"Who died and left you in charge, asshole?"

"What kind of clusterfuck IS this?"

But the roarer kept on roaring, and Woodus and I - who, like sensible GIs, kept our heads down; nobody had called OUR unit - heard the sounds of scuffling and dragging all around us, thumping and banging, and then the deuce engine whined and spun up and the headlights strobed away and the forest was dark again.

For probably a couple of hours.

Then the whole thing repeated itself; the farting and whining of a truck engine, another set of bellowed unit numbers - First Five-Oh-Fourth, Second Five-Oh-Fourth, Three-Twentieth FA, First Five-Oh-Eighth - and more scuffling, thumping, banging, and then silence.

The hell with it. Wasn't OUR problem. We went back to sleep.

The morning of Tuesday, 25 OCT 1983, was cool and clear. I remember waking slowly, and wondering why if it was light out that nobody had come around with first call earlier. Soldiers never wake up in daylight. I rolled out of my poncho liner and wriggled around to stick my head out of my end of the hootch.

So. First, you have to picture the little encampment as it had looked at nightfall the previous evening.

The EFMB cadre had set up a regular little field bivouac in Area J. Neat rows of two-man shelter halves (cretinous pigs that we were it was just us threw up a poncho hootch; they made us go all the way down to the end of the rank of little pup tents like the inbred relatives at the kids' table for Thanksgiving), a couple of big rectangular GP Medium tents for classrooms and even a ginormous GP Large for the mess tent.

A cook tent complete with immersion heaters for dishwashing, motor pool set aside for the quarter-ton M151 jeeps (Oh, alright "MUTTs", like anyone ever actually called them that...), CUCVs, and deuces.

But when I looked around our hootch that morning?


And I mean nothing. No tents. No vehicles. Not so much as a cardboard C-rat box.


"Woodus..." I said, "...I think we might be in a little bit of trouble."

When we burst into the billets twenty minutes later nobody even bothered to lock our heels.

"Where the fuck have you two idiots been?" Monty Harder, my section sergeant, didn't even look up from packing his rucksack. "Never mind. Get your DRF shit together. We're going into DRF1."

At this point I want to turn you over to someone else who had a better view of what happened next.

Well, sort of.

The someone else is him - twenty-six-year-old Doc Chief, the me that hurried into my barracks room that morning struggling to find all my TA-50 and assorted kit to pack in preparation for - I thought - going on duty as the Division's "Ready Battalion", the unit that was supposed to be capable of emplaneing within two hours, the United States on-call Army.

I wrote this in a letter to my parents about two weeks later from where my infantry platoon was loafing around a deserted police station outside Pearls (I think). It isn't great literature by any means, but it has the cardinal virtue of being the actual eyewitness account, undimmed by time and without the additions and subtractions that reflection makes to memory.

I'll comment on it when it's clear that I didn't explain something well, or another issue demands explication, but otherwise I'll try and let my younger self speak. From here on the block quotes are the voice of SP4 Chief, platoon medic for 3rd Platoon, A Company, 1/505 Infantry (Airborne) (Light).

"That morning (when I called) we returned to find the battalion preparing for DRF. This was no surprise, since the 2nd Brigade had been called out (we didn't know where and rather assumed that had gone to the wargames in Georgia). So we pallatized our vehicles and packed, still unsure of whether we would go.

At noon the speakers in the phones were removed, and we were sent down to draw our .45's."
(This was the Big Tell, by the way. First, remember that this was the pre-cell-phone Eighties. The old black AT&T pay phones in the barracks hallways were the only way for a regular grunt to call out, and as many times as we had been the Ready Battalion we'd never had a time when the Charge of Quarters came around and unscrewed the speaker from the handsets. That, and the medics and assistant machinegunners never took our pistols to field problems.

They were useless for playing soldier - no blank rounds or muzzle adapters - and our commanders had a justifiable paranoia about some idiot joe dropping his hogleg in a hole or down a shitter or just losing it out in the woods. Drawing the service pistols meant that Shit Was Real, or as real as it could get for a peacetime Army...)
"By 1600 we knew that the 2nd Brigade was on the ground in Grenada and (we) were becoming more sure that we would go. We moved in the night, all of us, loaded with rucksacks, duffle bags, weapons and harness on the silversided 80-pax trucks down to LACC.

Our lock-up, or LACC, is in the old wooden barracks on the north end of post. They are fenced and wired, patrolled by guards. There we grabbed a hasty meal and were sent down to our companies.

Third platoon, A Company, was loaded with munitions and abuzz with rumors. Anything seemed possible in the sickly glow of the streetlamps. Twice we filed through a gap in the fence under the hooded eyes of the MPs. First we drew such things as jungle boots, canteens, meals, and sundries. Then we passed heaps of ammunition and, for the first time, I really believed. The fear in my gut weighed as much as the 50 rounds of .45 caliber ammo in my hands."
(Looking over my old letter I really didn't manage to convey how freakish the supply and ammo draw was. It was, and here's why: for my entire Army career it had been hammered into me how precious and special Army equipment was. Everything we were issued had to be accounted for, receipted, cared for, carefully managed and returned in equal or better condition than it was provided.

Not that night.

The supply guys literally threw stuff at us. "Jungle boots. Poncho liner. You need two? Fine. That looks worn, here, take this new one. Go, go, move it, here, put this in a waterproof bag. Move out, troop." As much as the live ammunition this carelessness was so uncharacteristic as to be genuinely frightening. If the supply pukes were in that kind of hurry, I thought, what the hell was going out outside the wire?
"Wednesday morning we moved in a long, straggling column down to Pope AFB and waited until noon at Green Ramp for the aircraft. A C-141 lifted us off and for five hours we were locked inside (with) our own private fears before touchdown - 1636 Wednesday, 26 October."
(We didn't know it but by the time we landed what little genuine fighting there would be was all but over.

The Ranger battalions had parachuted onto the airfield the previous morning, seizing it and going through the raggedy-ass little Cuban detachment like a dose of salts. A "counterattack" by the shambolic Grenadian "Army" - which consisted of a couple of wheeled BTR-60 armored personnel carriers had been shot up with 90mm recoilless rifle rounds and routed. What was left was a bunch of random characters with an AK-47 or three who felt like taking a slap at GIs; there was no "defense" of the island in any real sense of the word.

The other thing we didn't know - and that I want to go into more in the next installment - is how badly we, all the various branches of the U.S. armed forces managed to screw up and get people killed in what was really nothing more than a one-sided beatdown of a tiny opponent barely capable of defending itself from a troop of angry Boy Scouts.

We hadn't been to war in almost a decade, and it showed.

But that's for next time.
Next: Grenada 4, or, What If They Gave A War And Nobody Knew How To Fight It?


Ael said...

I do love that army decor.

That desk and door reminds me of my misspent youth.

Barry said...

Agreed. That old butt-ugly stuff.

FDChief said...

That's the orderly room of the outfit I went to the Sinai with, 2/325, and yeah, those were some pretty fuckin' ugly buildings. Built in the late Fifties or early Sixties, I think and already showing their age by the early Eighties.

Mind you, it hadn't been long before that that the Division had been up in what was in my time the CLACC area, the Forties "temporary" housing in what was by my time called "old Division" area on the north end of post. Parts of the 82nd - notably our light armored battalion, 3/73rd AR - were still up there. So these things were a treat compared to those old open-bay-partitioned-off-with-paper-thin-plywood-walls buildings...

FDChief said...

Brainfart. The light armor unit was then flagged 4/68th Armored. They were the last battalion-size unit to field the M551 Sheridan light tank (tho I think the 101st might have had Sheridans in their 1/17th CAV about the same time...)

They didn't deploy to Grenada and soon afterwards were reflagged as 3/73rd, God knoweth why.

Ael said...

I've never figured out why Americans use regimental numbers rather than names.

If you are going to die for something, wouldn't it be better to die for the First Portland Regiment than the 1/234?

FDChief said...

I think there are two main reasons; first, the mutability of the U.S. Army and, second, the mismatch between the state and federal military systems.

First you had the U.S. Army in peacetime (including pretty much every war between 1781 and 1945 except for the U.S. Civil War and the world wars) and the army the was created for those big wars.

The "peacetime" U.S. Army - the actual "U.S. Army" or USA - was too small to have a regional recruiting base for the various permanent regiments. So recruits went to whichever unit needed a draft, and there never was a hard connection between, say, the 3rd U.S. Infantry and any particular geographical location.

Which isn't to say that those units didn't develop a sort of character; the officers generally stayed with their units (at least until WW2, where the huge expansion needed to build the Army meant that the was little or no effort expended to keep anyone in any particular unit) until they reached flag rank and most of the long-service NCOs were promoted within their regiment. But that was the leaders; there was no real sense of place amongst the troops. So calling a U.S. (federal) unit by a place name would have been kinda silly.

But you had a second organization; the "Army of the United States" that was created for the big wars. That army took in the state Guard units which DID have regional or local affiliations, so my old FA unit in the Oregon Guard might have been officially the 2nd Battalion of the 218th Field Artillery but we thought of ourselves as the "Portland Light Artillery", the lineal descendants of the old Oregon militia cannon battery formed in 1866 (

But the AUSA was an ad-hoc, temporary organization AND one that, like the nucleus USA, tended to create the newly-raised formations (as opposed to the state Guard units) from drafts taken from all over the U.S. So, again, no point in trying to give these units a local character.

That said, many of the permanent federal units tended to develop their own character apart from their unit numbers. The 27th U.S. Infantry, for example, will always be "The Wolfhounds" and has its own regimental traditions and insignia. My old units in the 82nd included the 505th Infantry "Panthers" and the 325th Infantry, "Falcons" and we all had our special days - for example the 505th, like many U.S. Airborne units, often has a "dining-in" for the 6th of June where we remember the guys of Company F from our 2nd Battalion that were dropped right in the town square and fought it out with the German garrison there...

Anyway, a long way to answer the question with "We sorta DO have regimental traditions, just not those associated with a region or locality as is the British and Commonwealth standard"...

Lisa said...

I shall be awaiting the next installment.

I liked how you shifted the speaking persona, and handed it off to your younger self. I enjoy a protagonist who can recall the thoughts at the time, as opposed to simple recollections from present p.o.v.

FDChief said...

I'm lucky that my parents saved that little letter, Lisa; it's the "unfiltered" version, free of whatever mental edits I have made to what I did and what happened to me during that time.

And IMO there's been a LOT of "filtering" about this ridiculous little adventure. As you'll see in the next installments, as tiny as this expedition was a hell of a lot went wrong, and most of that out of pure ignorance and inexperience. Some of it was just plain "fucked-up shit that happens when you give young people automatic weapons and powerful machinery" but a great deal was because we simply had no idea what we were doing and did some of it very, very badly indeed.

And, of course, being war, other people died because of that.