Friday, November 15, 2013

The Army I Knew: Grenada 4, or, Does Anybody Here Know How The Hell To Play This Game?


Last time we visited with young Doc Chief, he had just landed on the tropical paradise of Grenada, the "Spice Island", in hot pursuit of the then-latest outbreak of the Global Communist Menace in the persons of the comic thugs of the Grenadian "army" and their Red Cuban pals.

As with the preceding entry in this series, the following post is largely taken from a letter I wrote home in November of 1983, and I'll let my younger self take the mike from here out; the blockquotes are from the 1983 original.

As before, if there is something that I didn't make clear in my original letter, or something that my older self wants to expound on a bit, I will add the comments in parentheses in normal text.
"We almost bolted down the ramp of the aircraft and onto the verge of the runway. Point Salinas (sic) is a low brackish baking expanse of rock and sand. Black volcanics, pitted tuffs (most of this stuff was actually coral) and lavas crop weirdly from the ground.

We shambled at an awkward pace past a group of disinterested artillerymen. We peered from under our helmets between runnels of sweat at the shirtless, headbanded gunners as if they were gods of war and could tell us all its secrets.

They, no doubt, (were) smug in their vision of yet another planeload of grunts loaded with water jerrycans, flak vests and rucks, eyes wide and breath short.
(I should note that these guys - B Battery, 1/320, according to the sources - probably weren't all that smug for long; their entire part of the Most Excellent Grenadian Adventure consisted of less than a handful of fire missions. The problem the gunners had was that the island was tiny and crowded and their maps - hell, ALL of our maps - were utter shit. The chances of putting a round on target were low and that the round would, instead, kill some casual Grenadians doing nothing more offensive than breathing was high.

According to Larry Yates' Field Artillery in Military Operations Other Than War the 1/320 fired three missions; two are described as "a paratrooper attack on a hostile target" without describing the maneuver unit or the target involved, while the second is said to have been "the rescue of medical students". I don't recall any of the artillery firing on 26 OCT, but I could very well have simply ignored outgoing fire.

The third mission was fired on support of the Ranger air assault on Calivigny Barracks on 27 OCT. I'll mention it here, because I was otherwise occupied on that day and observed neither the arty fire or the air assault so neither turns up in my letter. According to Yates (with comments of my own in italics)

"Three batteries of artillery (that is, the full battalion of 1/320FA) opened the barrage. Of the 500 shells fired, one hit the camp, while the rest fell into the sea. Later it was discovered that "the artillery had misplotted their own positions by 700 meters, had inaccurate coordinates for Calivigny, and had left their artillery aiming circles (tripod-mounted compasses used to align the cannon in battery) back at Fort Bragg."

Apparently no one bothered to place a forward observer where he could see the target, either.

In the field artillery we generally refer to this as a "rolling clusterfuck".

At any rate, there was no further need for the FA after Calivigny, so regardless of their issues the redlegs enjoyed a tropical holiday with the rest of us.)
"We sat down not ten feet from the shore, the sun and sky azure-blue above as the sea. Aircraft wheeled overhead, firing at targets beyond the first line of hills. A bumbling AC-130 gunship made lazy pinwheels, its guns tearing howls as it fired."
(We didn't know this at the time, but it was one of these aircraft that had shot up our 2nd Brigade's tactical operations center (TOC) that day. Rick Atkinson wrote a 2011 account from my then-battalion commander's viewpoint and here's his version (with my additions in italics):

"(LTC) George (Crocker - in disrespectful moments we called our battalion commander "Betty") had been lying about a thousand yards from the 2nd Brigade’s tactical operations center (TOC) at Frequente when a Navy A7, misdirected by a Marine liaison team attached to the 82nd, raked the TOC with 20mm cannon fire. Seventeen men had been wounded; one later died.

After the strafing run ended, George listened to the chaos on the radio before walking another two hundred yards down the road, where he happened on the Marine fire controller, staring at the ground. “Do you know that air strike just hit the 2nd Brigade?” George asked. In a voice choked with remorse, the Marine had simply murmured, “Yes,” and hung his head a little lower."

This wasn't the first clusterfuck that had killed U.S. troops on, or trying to get onto, Grenada.

On the night of the 24/25 the U.S. Navy had dropped a couple of SEAL teams into the ocean west of the island. Something went wrong - either the soldier-squids were injured in the jump or the stronger-than-expected currents exhausted them (or a combination of both) - and four SEALS drowned.

Another SEAL team was tasked with snatching the British Governor (a gent named Scoon, who was basically a living connection between the former British colony and the Commonwealth) and managed to get ambushed inside Scoon's house and had to fort up until relieved by the USMC late on 26 OCT, the day we landed. In the process several Marine Sea Cobra attack helicopters were shot up and several of the A/C crew killed.

As if that wasn't enough, the Army's Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta - yes, that "Delta Force", the U.S. Army's SAS - attempted an air assault on the combination barracks and prison at Richmond Hill in the early hours of the invasion.

This didn't go so well.

Atkinson (2011) again: "...the Army’s special operations helicopters had not fared well in the early fighting. About ten aircraft from Task Force 160, a secret unit based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, had been supporting Delta and the other commando forces. Nicknamed the Night Stalkers, their motto was “Death Waits in the Dark.” TF 160 pilots were the Army’s best — combat blooded, with at least two thousand hours of flying time each — and they had just been riddled with gunfire. Every TF helicopter was full of holes; at least one had been destroyed."

As I said, I didn't know anything about this that morning. All I knew is that I was hot and already tired, even though I'd done nothing more than unload crap off a C-141 and worry about what the hell was going on. Sorry for the interruption; here's young Doc Chief again):
"I remember vividly three black soldiers, shirtless and casual, digging a (fox)hole at the high-tide mark just behind us and thinking that any further south and they would be sailors.

That hole seemed endlessly safe and desirable at that moment.

That night we dug in south of the airstrip. I found a huge rock and haggled out a kind of scrape in the lee of it. We had been told that the strip was taking mortar fire nightly and everyone spent an uneasy night.

Thursday, 27 OCT, 1983

We piled our rucks (Thank God! They and the flak vests were sweaty torture in the Grenadian sun) and moved off in a broad wedge alongside the airfield. Transports were taking off and landing almost constantly...

We crossed the runway and moved up, across a sharp saddle and north up a second hill nearly immediately (this was our introduction to the nearly vertical character of the Grenadian countryside).

At the top of the first hill we came across the first traces of war: men of the 325 (the "White Falcons" the 1st Battalion of that regiment) crouched in the whins. Atop the hill at the road intersection were two Soviet-made BTR-60P armored transports, the one nose-to-tail with the other. Both were destroyed, fire having reduced the tires on the second to a gray powder. A single gaping hole in the driver's compartment of the first told the story."
(I wasn't sure at the time but this destruction was not the handiwork of the 1/325 but the Rangers.

The hole in the first APC had been made by a 90mm recoilless rifle, a Fifties relict that the Rangers still carried but that we in Division had DX'ed for the widely disliked M47 "Dragon" AT missile.

The Grenadian Army (which called itself the "People's Revolutionary Army", by the way, which was usually abbreviated "PRA") had tried a counterattack on the afternoon of 25 OCT around three of these wheeled armored cars.

All three had been knocked out; two supposedly by 90mm fire (though I don't recall seeing any actual damage to the second BTR in the picture above and today kind of suspect that the crew unassed the vehicle and ran away when the first rig got brewed up...) and the third by some kind of aircraft.)
"We trudged up the hill and turned off the road. We set up the machineguns on the ridgeline that we had crested and looked down on the little town below."
(This was either part of the little town of Frequente or the outskirts of Ruth Howard; I suspect the former)
"The rest of that mid-day took on a surreal quality. The Three-Quarter (1/325) pushed past and into the town, clearing houses, moving slowly. Twice they took fire and we watched them use grenades to clear the (shooters) out.

I found a coverless copy of James Webb's A Sense of Honor in the bush where I laid (the 325 had dumped all quantity of gear, airborne equipment, sweaters, food - they had arrived hideously overloaded). So I sat and re-read Webb's story of Vietnam Annapolis whilst below me the snipers and the 325 played their deadly-serious game of tag.

By that afternoon we were moved forward to secure a hill overlook the asphalt-gravel quarry that dominated the (north)east approaches to this little town.

We moved down a dirt road, past a burnt-out jeep and a dead Cuban, huddled and already starting to bloat, with the sickly-sweet smell particular to corpses emanating from him."
(The dead guy was probably a PRA troop rather than a Cuban, whose activities were largely limited to the airfield at Point Salines. He was face-down in a foxhole under a bush off to the right side of the main road, while down the road a piece was what looked like the remains of an ambush of one of the Ranger recon jeeps; a trail of M-60 ammo belt links spaced out along the dirt leading up to a jeep-sized burn mark ringed with metal powder and bits of GI gear.

I'm not sure to this day, but I suspect that this may have been the gun jeep from A Company 1/75th (Ranger) Infantry described here: "Alpha Company Gun jeep Juliet-5 was ambushed and Rangers Randy Cline, Mark Rademacher, Russell Robinson and Marlin Maynard were killed in the ensuing close quarters firefight but not without killing many of the soldiers who had ambushed them." All of these dead people didn't make us cherry troopers any more confident that the people in charge of this thing knew what they were doing.

Worse was to come.)
"We passed a pair of small, shacky stilt houses on the way up the hill and entered twenty minutes of steep, sweaty, slick-footed hell."
(Here's where I really need to remind young Specialist Chief that he left out a critical part of this.

As we passed these shotgun shacks I noticed that neither had marks on the doors as we'd been taught to do after clearing buildings. I turned back to our platoon sergeant and waved at these; "Do you know if anyone cleared these damn huts?" I asked. "Shut up and move out, doc..." was my platoon daddy's reply, and up the hill we went.

We'd come to regret that later.)
"Panting we reached the top and crossed it, passing evidence of Cuban habitation. (The lieutenant) sent 3rd Squad back for rear security, left the #6 (machine)gun on the crest overlooking the factory, and took the rest down to check out the gravel plant.

I sat next to the gunners, hot and tired and frightened, when gunfire burst out to our right rear. In the woods, and so close that it sounded like and entire company engaging our 2nd Platoon. (which had moved around to the east (our right) side of the hill we climbed) I bolted up the trail to meet SSG R------- (of 3rd Squad) coming back. He was pie-eyed and whispering "They're moving up here!"

"Oh, shit!" "Where's the El-tee?" "Down in that fucking factory!" "Oh, SHIT!"

We ran back (to 3rd Squad positions) - the sound of bullets overhead is a weird snapping or hissing noise, by the way - and found Top (A Company's First Sergeant), who turned half the gun team around.

In the meanwhile the LT returned with the platoon, moved back up the hill (to 3rd Squad's position) to hear that four enemy had crested the hilltop minutes before and run down the other side. A spate of firing from the 325, and then, nothing.

We spent a cold, rainy night in the thick brush atop that same hill."
(And here's the final fuckedupitude about this entire episode; all that firing? It was our own Charlie Company.

Turns out that Alpha Company, or at least two platoons of it, had drifted forward and to the right across the front of our C Company that had been bushwhacking through the thick brush to our right and fallen behind us.

The four PRA guys had either been squatting in the tules or hiding in the two shacks until it became obvious that they were cut off. They had then fired up the guys from Company C and grabbed a hat.

Charlie Company, having no idea that they had friendlies in front of them, proceeded to have a little personal Mad Minute. Fortunately for us their shooting was as bad at us as it was at the Grenadians and nobody ended up going home in a bag or leaking brain housing fluid.

But I can tell you this; nobody on that hilltop that rainy night felt like we were conquering the shit out of anything, much less Grenadian Communism, or were taking part in the inevitable triumph of Democracy and the Free Market.

Next: Grenada 5, or, Touring the Spice Island with I-Love-My-Body and the All-American Ra-ree Show


rangeragainstwar said...

I'm hoping that you are gonna do a post invasion area study on the effects of the US invasion on the economy of Grenada.
An update of what's happening today may also be enlightening.
How did the arty survey their guns?

FDChief said...

I'm not sure, Jim; based on the Yates quote I suspect that they just did a mapspot and, as I mentioned, our maps were truly awful.

Forgetting the aiming circles is just apalling; I have no idea how the hell the battery Gunnys managed that; pretty much all the Gunny does is lay the battery.

But look at the rest of the Yates' account (and most of that is taken from the AAR DoD did after everything was over); the entire mission was a goatscrew. The failure to put a FO in one of the helicopters is equally hard to understand. You don't shoot unobserved missions if you can avoid it; that's FA 101. The A/C were there, the FOs were there...why the hell didn't anyone think to put 1+1 together and make 2?

What's kind of ironic is that if this had been five years later the mapspot wouldn't have mattered because the guns would all have had a PLUGR GPS system. We were just ahead of the technical breakthrough that has made map-and-compass navigation and fire direction a backup...

But what's kind of the point is that Grenada was the poster child for Can't Remember Shit Syndrome. Here it was less than ten years after we'd fought the hell out of Vietnam and we we as fucked up as the Army of December 7, 1941. And this was the Rangers and the 82nd; "America's 9-1-1". We were supposed to be the best-trained outfits in the Army, ready to land and fight with no more than a phone call...

And I do want to end this with a sort of update on the place today, tho I wish I knew more. I'd hoped to actually revisit the island some time around this anniversary, but, whatever...

I do find it amusing and kind of ironic that the airport we fought over is named for Maurice Bishop, the eeeeevil commie who started the whole business.

Anonymous said...

Nice job on your blog. Great POV accounts from your letters, interspersed with current info on the op. I'm working on the definitive, tactical history of Urgent Fury. You quoted the vignette I wrote for Rangers.
Keep up the great work.
Joe Muccia
GySgt, USMC (Ret)

FDChief said...

Hey, Gunny!

I was gratified to find your work; all these years I'd always suspected that the jeep that I saw was part of a Ranger outfit; as far as I knew we didn't have any recon elements out in front of us (other than probably our own battalion recon, and those guys were on foot...) but never knew who they really were. Your account was very well written and helped fill in a lot of gaps in my POV.


Lisa said...

Dear FDC,

I am finally reading your posts.

I am saddened by how uncoordinated the whole thing seemed. How tragic that so many of our men were killed, unnecessarily. Also, how dreadful that your own men were shooting above you that night.

And it must be a sick, uneasy feeling that you were undergoing or participating in this and yet now feeling you were "conquering" or "triumphing".

You wend your story well.