Tactical Test Adventures

Or, how to chase down a 105 mm howitzer

One of the last things 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines did before deploying as Battalion Landing Team 3/8 was to participate in a tactical test administered by 2nd Marine Division. The purpose of the test was to determine our readiness to deploy to the Mediterranean, where we would become the Landing Force for the U.S. 6th Fleet. The test occurred at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in October 1970, so it was a long time ago, but as I recall, it lasted about three days and the BLT was put through a number of different tactical evolutions…offense, defense, scouting and patrolling, helicopter operations, tank-infantry tactics, riot control, etc…anything that may confront us while deployed to the Med for six months.

There was one very interesting exercise that India Company, which I commanded, was chosen to execute. I can’t remember all the details, but it involved moving two 105 mm howitzers to a forward location to provide fire support for a unit that had advanced beyond the range of its covering artillery fire. India Company was to provide two reinforced rifle platoons for security for this section of guns at its remote location. The concept of operations was that both howitzers and their ammunition and the security element were to be simultaneously moved by helicopter to the forward position.

The forward location was at Bogue Field, a Marine auxiliary air field located near the Atlantic coast on Bogue Sound roughly half way between Camp Lejeune and the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina. Although not permanently occupied by any Marine aircraft squadrons at the time, the field was regularly used for training for squadrons from Cherry Point and MCAS, Beaufort, South Carolina. The field, built in 1942, had three runways, the longest being 4000 feet, which were constructed in a roughly triangular shape. The runways were bordered by tall North Carolina pine trees.

There were some interesting twists to this exercise apparently designed to see how well we functioned under pressure and in unexpected situations. I was given a verbal five paragraph mission order by the BLT commander and told to rapidly organize my company into heliteams for immediate departure. The howitzers would be externally lifted to the objective by CH-53s. Four CH-46s would simultaneously transport the two India platoons and company headquarters to Bogue Field in however many waves were required. We were ordered to board the helicopters immediately so I had no chance to brief the platoon leaders on our mission. I solved this problem by having the lieutenants board the helo that I rode on the first wave and briefed them enroute to the objective, telling them to brief their platoons at Bogue. This took care of the initial confusion.

Upon arrival at Bogue, the CH-53s dropped the guns and ammunition off near the end of one of the runways. The CH-46s dropped us off at about the midpoint of the same runway about 500 yards from the artillery pieces. I thought the choppers could have gotten us a lot closer and asked the pilot to take us closer. He feigned not to hear and lifted off after we deplaned. It later occurred to me that the separation was done on purpose to see how we could react. But as the helos departed to pick up the rest of the security force I was turning the air at Bogue Field blue with obscenities that even surprised me. My Marines later told me they could hear me above the noise of the engines.

Recall that only the platoon leaders had been briefed enroute on the mission, the plan being to brief their units upon landing. No time for that now. I shouted to the lieutenant whose platoon was on the ground to get two squads to the howitzers as fast as possible, and those Marines immediately took off at high port and secured the guns, covering the 500 yard separation in about three minutes.

We set up a hasty perimeter with the Marines who remained at our landing site and waited to see where the ‘46s would drop the rest of our security force. Shortly the choppers returned and dropped everyone else off at our landing site. I quickly briefed the new arrivals on what had happened, and we set off to the 105’s new firing position. We established a solid perimeter around the guns and dug in for the night. We received probes from the aggressor unit during the night, but nothing more serious.

This drill occurred on the last night of the tac test. The next morning 6 X 6 trucks from 2nd Motor Transport Battalion and 10th Marines arrived at Bogue to haul us back to Camp Lejeune. We policed the area, hitched the howitzers to their prime movers, climbed aboard and headed home. The India Company Marines did well on this exercise. We showed that we could react effectively in a situation where time was at a premium and confusion reigned.

Several weeks later in mid-November BLT 3/8 boarded the five ships of the amphibious squadron that would be our home for the next six months and set sail from Morehead City, North Carolina. It was the start of one of the best six-month periods of my Marine Corps career.

Semper Fi,

   Dirck Praeger sends