Hamilton Over the Creek

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Mon, Dec 26 - 9:01 pm EDT | 6 months ago by
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    Lines of Departure - Swamp

    One of the things that disturbs me about the Army today – Marines, too, for that matter – is that, in the process of fighting war, they’ve largely forgotten how to prepare to fight a serious war. (No, fighting a war is not necessarily enough to prepare us to fight a war, which is one reason why regular retraining even during war is necessary for combat units). It’s not just the way past ridiculous all the way to the point of criminally bullshit mandatory training requirements, either; I have the sense that, faced with a murderous deployment schedule and predictably astronomical divorce rate, the leadership has largely forgotten or never learned that a unit in peace ought to be training, not nine to five, five days a week, but 24/7, for about three fourths of a month, every month. So, when I write about Captain Hamilton or Lieutenant Reilly, I am also trying to pass on some lessons of how the Army is supposed to act, look, and feel.

    *****

    They don’t call Fort Stewart, Georgia “Camp Swampy” for nothing. I can, for example, recall doing a motor march with my own mechanized infantry company there one night in January, 1987, for about four hours. For four hours I saw water and trees growing from the water, period. This was on a tank trail (read: slightly improved dirt road) and there was water over the treads of our armored personnel carriers from start to finish. There is a little elevated terrain there, the “ridge” along the Ogeechee River, where the FO (Forward Observer) points are, stands out, as does the drop zone out to the northwest, but for the most part the place is flat as a pancake except where it’s depressed like a wading pool. You can’t really tell about the depressions, though, or not, at least, how deep they are, because for much of the year they’re full of water. Oh, and gators. And snakes. Never really worried about either when we were rolling in the APCs. On foot…well…yes…it can be a little creepy.

    *****

    Speaking of creepy swamps, or at least of swamps and creeps, Lieutenant Colonel Young1 one time had a whale of a plan to humiliate Captain Hamilton. It involved the swamp near the southern point of Fort Stewart, which I vaguely recall was called the “Taylor’s Creek Swamp.” Whether it was marked on the map that way or not I cannot say any longer. All I can say for certain is that it was trapezoidal, about two and a half kilometers wide toward the west, about four and a half toward the eastern edge, and maybe five from east to west. There were creeks, though they were somewhat impressive to be called merely “creeks,” running through it, notably the already suggested “Taylor’s Creek.” There was a road more or less paralleling the swamp to its north, with a series of ranges between the swamp and the road. Another road ran along the south, but was within the swamp and bridged in about four places.

    Young’s clever, clever plan involved dismounting and attacking south across the swamp with four companies to seize the four bridges. The other three companies had movements of from two and a half to three and a half kilometers. Hamilton’s had to move, as mentioned, about four and a half. That wasn’t all that unreasonable, really, except that Young had staggered the LD times2 such that having about a third more ground to cover, Hamilton had about two hours less to do it in. I think but cannot be sure that Young’s idea was that Hamilton would get lost in the swamp, fail to take the bridge assigned, and therefore be much humiliated, with his troops losing confidence in him. Again, think, not sure; but it certainly was the kind of petty power play in which Young seemed to specialize, albeit not usually to much success.

    On the face of it, it just wasn’t possible to move on foot, that distance, in the time given, at roughly three feet up a well digger’s ass at midnight levels of dark, in snake and gator infested water (which was going to have an effect on the troop’s willingness to take that next step into the unknown), which water was going to range from waist deep, to neck deep, to “Hey, can we get some engineers to build an underwater bridge over Taylor’s Creek before we try crossing it?” At least, I am sure that Young thought it was impossible.

    Purely pro forma, sitting in the dirt with the map across his legs and the radio handset to his ear, Hamilton asked Young to move up his LD time to where he’d have a chance of making the objective on time. He was not, so I understand, remotely surprised when the answer came back: “No.” Then he said, “Okay; of course. Well, I need to send a recon out anyway.” The answer to that one was more liberal, amounting to, “You can send up to one squad and you may not accompany it.” “Great, thanks. Wilco. Out.”

    “Wilco” means “I understand and will comply.” And, indeed, he intended to comply. The only possible difference of opinion was what would constitute a squad. As it turned out, what with Young manipulating the company strengths to shortchange Hamilton’s company, his third platoon could summon maybe seventeen dismounts, not including the platoon leader, platoon sergeant, and their RTO (radio-telephone operator). “Poof,” Hamilton said, with a magical wave of his hand, “I designate thee a squad, with two machine gun teams attached. And, platoon leader and platoon sergeant, I want you to accompany this ‘squad’…for safety reasons…yeah, yeah; that’s the ticket…safety reasons.”

    Then Hamilton showed the platoon leader and platoon sergeant something that Young had apparently missed. You see, friends, Fort Stewart was then and had long been – even long before it had been created as a camp and then fort – a major logging area for pine. Nowadays, the pine logs are hauled out on trucks, mud permitting. In the dim mists of antiquity, however, they’d been taken out on trains, narrow gauge jobs running along elevated embankments that had criss-crossed the area. The trains were gone. The rails had apparently been salvaged. Some or most of the ties remained….and the embankments were still there, under water by anything from a few inches to a couple of feet. Even the old bridges were sometime still sitting there, unseen. “This dotted line,” Hamilton told them; “I believe – indeed I am certain – that it’s an old rail line. If it was once, it will still be there under water. I need you to find it. Use some mini chem lights, the 4.5mm jobbies, placed where they won’t be seen and won’t illuminate us as we pass, to mark where it is so we can see it at night, and follow it all the way to” (a point he showed on the map) “from which I want you to move cross -swamp, get behind the objective, and get eyes on the objective. If there are any obstacles, clear them. If there are any gaps in the embankment, fill them or otherwise bridge them. On order, be prepared to attack on your own hook to seize the bridge. Acknowledge.”

    About twenty minutes or so after that “squad” had crossed the LD on their recon, the platoon leader reported in, “Found the railway embankment. It varies from six inches to maybe a foot under water. Continuing the mission.”

    “Roger; out.”

    Some hours later, when it was dark, Hamilton and the remainder of the company, (less the APC drivers and XO), maybe fifty or, with all attachments, sixty men, crossed the LD in column and hauled ass for the railroad embankment. It was marked, and almost as plain as day….well…as plain as day to a blind man with functioning feet. They went up the embankment, turned left, and continued to haul ass for about four kilometers, in water that ranged from ankle deep to, occasionally, about crotch deep. There were certainly gators around, but they apparently didn’t want to mess with a hundred-legged critter, a hundred meters long, moving purposefully.

    About two thirds of their way along the embankment the platoon leader reported in that they’d been compromised and the force defending the bridge was reacting to them. “Try to bait them into following you and lead them away from the bridge,” Hamilton ordered. “Wilco.” He could, thereafter, hear intermittent (blank) rifle and machine gun fire. This not only served to help the company (-) orient on the objective, but the sound could be expected to cover the sound of their approach. Moreover, as long as the defending force was trying to drive off the third platoon, their attention was not on the swamp the rest of Hamilton’s company was soon going to be coming out of. He could also head firing some distance to the west, which could have been, but wasn’t necessarily, the other companies fighting for their objectives.

    At length they reached the point on the embankment that was marked for them to leave it. The company turned about half right and descended into roughly chest deep water. Rifles and machine guns held overhead, they forced their way through it as quickly as humanly possible, and without a lot of concern for security. Why not; after all, the defending force was engrossed with the third platoon, waltzing with them on the other side.

    Shortly, they came almost to the bridge. The trees didn’t grow especially close to it, so it was somewhat lit by light reflecting off the clouds from the main cantonment area of Fort Stewart and a bit of Hinesville, Georgia, as well. Hamilton put his two remaining platoons on line. Then the company assaulted across it, as ordered, “screaming like ten thousand motherfuckers.” A hasty defense was set up, oriented along the road in each direction. I believe there was one half-hearted counterattack from the defending force and then that was it. Hamilton reported the objective was secure.

    And he refused ever after to tell Young how it had been done. “Sir? SIR? That would be telling!” He was tactful enough, though, to refrain from saying, “But you really need to learn how to read a map better, sir.”

    __________

    1 Whenever I think of Young I am reminded of something McClellan wrote about Henry Halleck: “Of all the men whom I have encountered in high position Halleck was the most hopelessly stupid. It was more difficult to get an idea through his head than can be conceived by an one who never made the attempt. I do not think he ever had a correct military idea from beginning to end.”

    2 LD Time is the set time one crosses the “Line of Departure,” to go into an attack, that being a line, sometimes imaginary, sometimes not, on the ground, used to help control and coordinate an attack.

    Photo by 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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