The kid’s name wasn’t Sears, but Sears is close enough to do for our purposes.1 He was a home boy, which is to say from the Boston area, as I am, though I think he was from one of the outlying suburbs, rather than the city, itself, which is where I grew up. Though his name wasn’t Irish, like a lot of people in the area, Sears had the freckles. He also still had the accent which I’d long since lost, by then. Like a lot of people who manage to resist the attempted anti-military conditioning of the area’s public schools, he was committed to soldiering, and had been from an early age. His rank was private first class. I could see him becoming a sergeant within twenty-four to thirty months of enlistment, the personnel drones in the DC area, and their arcane scoring system, permitting.
I’ll tell you why in just a bit.
This was 1986, and I was commanding a mechanized infantry company, specifically Company D-Second Battalion, Twenty-First Infantry (Gimlets2), in the Twenty-fourth Infantry Division on Fort Stewart, Georgia. The company did more live fire exercises, with fewer safety constraints, than any other in the division. As near as I could tell, actually, the company live fired more than all the other rifle companies in the division, combined, except for B Company, which did quite a bit, too, and when I ran exercises for the whole battalion. And, yes, still with very little in the way of safety constraints though, oddly enough, with never a reportable accident from all that. I’ve never given what one might call a safety briefing on a live fire range, actually, despite having run, oh, something like four or five hundred platoon equivalent live fires over the years. Backbrief rehearsals worked better so I deemed them to be safety briefings, in effect. Makes one wonder about the efficacy – or, rather, the uselessness – of the Army safety program, no?3 Or boring the troops silly with nagging lectures?
The most dangerous exercise we did, though, didn’t involve live ammunition at all. Rather, it was a deliberate attack of a portion of a Soviet-style strongpoint, that we built ourselves, complete with trenches, wire, (fake) mines, anti-tank ditch and wall, booby traps, and very close use of blanks and grenade simulators. The odds of anyone being killed by the booby traps or blanks or grenade simulators were negligible, but the odds of being painfully injured were rather high. The odds of being more seriously injured when the armored personnel carriers overran the trenches and bunkers, as we sometimes did, were non-negligible, but not all that high.
To prepare the trench system we’d go out and one platoon would dig a communications trench from the rear, complete with bombproofs and trench-blocks, which were angle-floored indentations cut into the wall of the trench, filled with a big nasty wad of tangled up barbed wire, with the wire being held in place by commo wire on a pull cord. Pull the cord and the wire rolled down into the trench, making further progress most difficult for an attacker. From the forward point of that communication trench, two squad trenches, octagonal trace and with bunkers every fifteen meters or so, branched right and left. The defenders booby trapped the bejesus out of those, too, generally viciously, as when the whistlers, which whistled by shooting a 2-3 foot flame in one direction through the whistle, were aimed to shoot that flame in the direction of whoever tripped them. There were trench blocks in the fighting trenches, too.
We had a trick for the wire, to simulate using bangalore4 torpedoes to cut through it. The bangalores we’d made by filling some of the hollow poles for the camouflage screens with concrete. To allow them to be effective on the wire, we set the concertina up so that about every fifteen meters instead of overlapping and being wired together, the rolls of concertina were held together by three or so conjoined camouflage poles – these being empty of concrete – which would be pulled out as soon as the bangalore team set off a grenade simulator taped to the pseudo-bangalore.
That’s how it was supposed to work. Usually it worked quite well, but this one time…
And this is why.
Sears and another kid, named Benson, let’s say, a nice black kid from, if I recall, Phili5, were out on flank security while the Bangalore team was trying to get through the wire. There was a thick smoke screen from a pot blowing across, from south to north, which covered them while they set up and should have covered them all the way through the wire. Unfortunately, the wire stuck and tangled, hence couldn’t be pulled apart even after the poles that held it together were removed. Folks from the platoon started running up trying to pull the wire apart. Eventually, everybody was there except, I think, the vehicle drivers, trying in vain to pull the damned wire apart.
And then the wind shifted, the smoke screen went in the other direction and a machine gun opened up, setting off the MILES6 for every man in the platoon except the vehicle drivers, who were some distance away, and those two kids on flank security, Sears and Benson.
It really wasn’t anybody’s fault. Yes, clustering like that was crappy technique, but it was in response to a more or less administrative glitch that wouldn’t have happened from a real smoke screen from artillery or mortars or with a real Bangalore cutting real wire7. I wasn’t even angry, really. I was going to just stop the thing, send the platoon back to the assembly area, and start over. Then I noticed Sears low-crawling along the wire and said to myself, “Self, “ I said, “not so fast; let’s see where this goes.”
Where it, or rather, Sears, went was to Benson. Since Sears was a PFC and Benson a PV2, Sears took charge. He and Benson then crawled to the twenty-plus bodies laying out where they’d been caught when the smoke shifted. They then proceeded to strip those bodies of all the grenade simulators and as many loaded M16 magazines as they could stuff somewhere in their uniforms – to include down their drawers, ouch! – or load bearing equipment. All this time that same machine gun was trying to get them, but they kept too low.
I’ve never been entirely certain, but I think they crawled through the concertina, taking their cuts and tears as they did. One minute they were on the friendly side; the next they were grenading the trench with the simulators from the enemy side of the wire. And I never saw them get through, the wind having shifted back and reestablished the smoke screen.
I mentioned the exercise was dangerous. I used to have to have an officer or NCO to follow along – usually one per two men who made it alive into the trench, plus some for the enemy – to pull the guys out of the way of the grenade simulators, which can really hurt you, and assess casualties on those who would have been hurt if not pulled out of the way.
Well, Sears and Benson grenaded their way into the trenches and beat off the first counter attack through sheer meanness. They then, outnumbered six to one, through booby traps that the opposing force knew about but they didn’t, proceeded to clear the goddamned trench system, every inch of it, to the communications trench and then up it. Blocked by a barbed wire trench block? Sears crawls out of the trench, suppresses the enemy with rifle fire, and drives him back with grenade simulators. Meanwhile, Benson ignoring the damage to his hands, pushes the now literally bloody wire out of the way and restrings the commo wire that held it back. Then Sears rolls back into the trench – they were 4 or so feet deep, or maybe a tad more – and the two proceed to continue to fight forward.
When they finally emerge, bleeding and happy, from the far end of the communication trench I’m waiting for them. To this day I still kick myself in the ass for not calling “Woody,” the battalion commander, and saying, “Boss, just take my word for it; two Army Achievement Medals and you, here as quick as you can get here.” He’d have done it; I know he would have. My only excuse was that I was just so awestruck at the sheer determination a couple of my private soldiers had displayed that it was, let’s say, very hard to think clearly.
1 I’m not going to use real names in these unless I have permission. I looked for the man on line without luck, so a pseudonym it will have to be. Should he happen to see this and identify himself, great.
2 Either a drill for boring through hard surfaces or a drink in a gay bar, take your pick.
3 You can find my – admittedly understated – opinions on the Army safety program here: http://www.benning.army.mil/infantry/magazine/issues/1985/MAY-JUN/pdfs/MAY-JUN1985.pdf. Interestingly, that article was reproduced as a handout by the Army Safety School at Fort Rucker for the better part of a decade that I know of and, for all I know, may still be (seems unlikely though). Suffice to say that I was not a big fan of the program. No, not much of a fan at all.
4 Bangalores – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangalore_torpedo – are considered somewhat obsolete technology now, having been replaced by MCLC, Mine Clearing Line Charge, a rocket dragging a hose full of explosive behind it. MCLC, however, doesn’t do all that much to wire and its effect on mines can be reduced by stringing wire a few feet above the ground. I don’t think the engineers really thought MCLC through, completely. Fortunately, they appear to be making a minor comeback and can be home made, too.
5 I call them kids because they were both barely eighteen
6 Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System. Think: A very expensive laser tag for mostly grown boys.
7 Most real concertina wire, anyway. Soviet factory-made concertina was very high quality stuff, and came wrapped under compression and was still under compression when emplaced. Thus, the wire itself would fill up a Bangalore-created gap. Fortunately, because it was expensive it was also somewhat rare, I’d been told, and the engineer troops themselves would make concertina, locally, that was more like ours.
Photo by Niyazz/iStock-Getty Images
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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