I spent the weekend of the 5th and 6th of March, 1988, as a guest at a Cal Poly Recondo Club / ROTC FTX (field training exercise). The Recondo Club (reconnaissance patrol) is run by the Army for people who do not want to join the ROTC, and my friend at Cal Poly is in it (they actually have a military science dept. there, complete with its own building… hard for UCSC people to imagine.)
It was an hour drive down to Pacific Grove to pick up my brother Laurence, who
was kind enough to lend me a set of BDUs.
Then we started off on the three-hour drive down to Cal Poly.
Laurence got distressed whenever I exceeded 85 MPH or so.
He said he didn't mind moving fast, but HE wanted to be in control.
So about a third of the way there, he took the wheel.
He was doing about 85 when the CHP car pulled out of the bushes.
The cop started out playing a guessing game.
“Do you know how fast you were driving?”
“uh well uh…”
“Do you have any idea how fast you were driving?”
“Can you guess how fast you were driving?”
“Guess how fast you were driving.”
“Were you watching your speedometer?”
“Were you aware of your speed?”
Finally he cited my brother for doing 75. He had just gotten his license back…
At Cal Poly, it took us a while to find Sierra Madre dorm, Tower 0, room G30. The style is something like institutional gray concrete and steel. On the inside of the dorm, there was no finish on the concrete, just the pattern of rough lines where it had squeezed between the boards that were used to cast it. There were fallout shelter signs around (NOT farcical ones, as you're liable to see in Santa Cruz) and others telling what to do in case of an accident at Diablo Canyon.
We went to a meeting Friday night, where we were lectured for a couple of hours on patrol techniques by a guy demonstrating things with the usual blackboard drawings and toy soldiers. We then went out on an exercise on the Cal Poly campus to get some experience. The objective was to get a staff for our new guide-on (a sort of battle flag), while avoiding being observed by the enemy (ie, anyone who happened to be walking around the campus). We ended up hacking a limb off of a tree in the middle of the campus with the saw that was also supposed to be our M-60. Whenever someone walked by or car headlights shone our way, we would lay down flat or duck for cover. We were undoubtedly spotted, but the sight of a dozen people in BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms, camouflage outfits to you civilians :-]) running around campus apparently is not all that unusual down there.
I got a couple of hours of sleep that night. We got up at 5:30 the next morning to have breakfast with our Team Leader, Dean, at the local Farm Boy restaurant at 6:00 sharp (well, we almost made it.) Then we headed back to campus and met the ROTCs at the MS building. We, the Recondo Club, were Bravo Squad and the ROTCs were Alpha Squad. We got there exactly when we were supposed to, but as my friend told me, the usual military procedure is “hurry up and wait”. We sat around for quite a while, then were each issued an M-14, bolt, blank adapter, two clips, MILES gear, and an MRE.
The weapons (do NOT call them rifles or guns, or you do pushups!) are stored without their bolts (the part that hits the primer to make the round fire) for safety; we had to disassemble our weapons to put them in. The blank adapter sticks in the end of the barrel. It prevents the wax and paper plug in the blanks from shooting out and hitting people, and also partially blocks the barrel so that the gas pressure from the blanks (which have less powder than real rounds) will be enough to operate the cylinder that powers the reload mechanism, so that the gun can fire semi-auto. Semi-auto means that it fires each time you pull the trigger; you don't have to manually eject the spent round each time except when it fails. Full auto means that when you pull the trigger it keeps firing. M-14s can't do that. Sometimes they issue M-16s, which can, but there is a lot of old ammo of the caliber used for M-14s sitting around in US arsenals, including blank ammo, so it is cheaper. The M-14s themselves were about twenty years old; so old that they have to keep all of the parts of each individual weapon together because they would only work well together. We were supposed to memorize the 7-digit serial numbers of our weapons so that we could keep track of them.
MILES is a system the Army uses for wargames. You mount a small box, the transmitter, on the end of the barrel of your weapon, and wear a harness that has several straps on the front and back with infrared receptors on them. You also have a key that is normally in the transmitter to enable it. The transmitter has a microphone in it, and whenever a shot is fired, the sound causes it to fire a coded IR laser beam. The sensors on the harness are wired to a box on the back which detects when you have been hit. If you are, a beeper starts sounding loudly. To turn it off you have to take the key out of the transmitter, thus disabling it, and put it in a switch in the harness. Then you are “dead”, and have to wait for an observer to come around with a special key that can reset the harness. They can also use the God gun, which is so called because it can fire pulses that will “kill” you, like the other transmitters, but it can also fire pulses that reset your harness (bring you back to life…)
The MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat, Individual) is the modern field ration. It comes in an army-green plastic pouch.
After assembling our weapons and attaching the MILES transmitter, and hooking the harness to our web belts, we went out for inspection. There was a Marine Sergeant-Major there, yelling, chewing tobacco, drawling in his southern accent, etc. Among other things, he called out the serial number from the weapon of someone in Bravo squad. The person who had been issued the weapon had not memorized it, so it took him a while to respond. Because of that we had to do the serial number pushups. He called off the first digit of the serial number, and we had to do that many pushups. Then we got up, he called off the second and we did that many pushups, etc. We did about 35 altogether.
Finally, we boarded the Greyhound bus for Vandenberg Air Force Base, where the exercise was to be held. My friend asked the Sergeant-Major how long the trip would be. The Sergeant-Major said, “Attention everyone. The question is, how long will the trip be? The trip will start now. It will end when we arrive at our destination.” It turned out to be about an hour. Fortunately the bus was air-conditioned. During the trip, we taped up every bit of metal or plastic that could rattle on our weapons, backpacks, MILES harness, etc. with black electrical tape, so that nothing would make any noise in the night. Although we had not been issued ammunition, we were ordered to hold our weapons between our knees with the barrel to the floor so that if one should fire accidently the bullet would go down.
We spent most of the day at Vandenberg on the confidence course. It is similar to an obstacle course, but the objective is to build up your confidence at doing difficult or dangerous things, rather than test your agility. Two of the contraptions were not used, one because the rope netting that was part of it was rotting and the other because people had died in falls from it. Alpha and Bravo squads started at different points on the course so we could use it simultaneously.
The obstacles involved such things as crawling in shallow ditches under barbed wire (first face down, then face up), getting over a moderately high wall that is tilted back toward you, walking over a series of bars that are placed at groin height (careful!), walking along logs that are free to roll, etc. The most difficult for me was one where you had to get over a large diameter slippery log placed at a height that makes this rather difficult. I started out trying it the wrong way, and whacked my knee against the log. It caused me problems for the rest of the trip. The lengthiest one involved walking along three logs about the diameter of telephone poles but very smooth and slippery, each higher than the previous one (I'd guess they were at four feet, seven feet, and eleven feet), then making your way along about 30 monkey bars. It would have been easy except that it was somewhat windy. There was also one where you jump from a height that is supposed to simulate the speed that you hit the ground when you do a parachute jump. Alpha squad did that one before us. Actually, we did not do it at all, because both of the women in Alpha squad injured their ankles when they tried it. When we were done, we had a competition involving three of the obstacles, which Bravo squad won.
We then played with the pugil sticks for a while. They are poles about five feet long, heavily padded at each end. They are used to simulate hand-to-hand combat where you are using your weapon to hit/stab the enemy because you have run out of ammo. There are various offensive and defensive techniques and winning moves. One end of the pugil stick is designated the bayonet end. It was interesting to hear the referee calling out such things as “Multiple stabs to the face… winner here!”. Bravo squad won the pugil stick competition 8-3.
Finally, we began putting our camouflage paint on in preparation for our FTX. The Sergeant-Major did himself up as an example. There were various kinds of paint going around. Some were sticks that were pushed out of paper tubes, some were in a pot, and others were very liquid and came in tubes like oil paint. I got hold of a green stick and a black one, and since we didn't have a mirror, I let Bill do me up. When I finally did get hold of a mirror, I decided that he hadn't used enough black, so I added another layer on. After I had returned the sticks, I noticed that everyone else was doing their necks and ears too, so I asked Dean to add that to me. Apparently he didn't think much of my camo job, because he ended up completely redoing it by adding yet another layer, this time using the gooey stuff. It ended up causing me problems during the night because it acted like flypaper. Various flying, crawling, and jumping bugs hit it and stuck to it, and had to be picked off.
When we were done, we jumped in the back of various trucks for the trip to the field. We drove to a remote valley with a dirt road meandering through it. The bottom of the valley was fairly bare, while the hills were covered with chaparral and trees. As the sun set, we ate our MREs. Since I had no means of heating it up, I had my BEEF, DICED WITH GRAVY and my processed cheese spread on my soda crackers (separately). I avoided the BEANS WITH TOMATO SAUCE. Actually, if the beef stuff had been hot it might have been good. All of the components are in plastic pouches, so that they can be boiled to heat them and are easy to open. No longer is the can opener the GI's best friend. I heard other people trading various items around, just like you see in movies.
After we were finished the ammo was distributed. We had been told that we would get 60 rounds each (to fill two 30-round clips), but we ended up getting 48 rounds. The ammo came in the usual metal boxes, prized by military buffs, and were linked together into belts for machine guns. We had to unlink the rounds for our purposes. When we started filling our clips we found that they actually were 20-round clips, though they would hold about 21. Also, at this point we were ordered to remove the blank adapters from our weapons and return them. Someone had decided that we were too likely to waste our ammo if we were able to fire semi-auto. If you use blanks without the blank adapters, you have to manually eject every spent cartridge. Since normally you only have to do this to load the first round, it is not made to be as easy as with other weapons.
Finally, we were ready. Alpha squad moved out first. The two women with injured ankles had recovered somewhat and where designated as the night's snipers, a job usually held by some other officials. They were to threaten both squads. As we prepared to move to our initial rally point, our observer tossed an artillery simulator to start things off with a bang. After every such occurrence they told us what we did wrong in dealing with it. At the initial rally point, we formed a security perimeter and waited for orders from Talk over the radio. By this time it was pitch black. Only the vaguest silhouettes could be seen.
Of course we immediately began hearing things in the dark. We were told that we should not bother our team leader every time we thought there was something out there, because it probably was nothing. I heard something off toward the left of my area of coverage. Was that two oak trees with a stump between them, or a person between them? I pointed my weapon in that direction and stared, waiting for it to move. It just stood there. If it was an infiltrator, it seemed strange that he would stand between the trees instead of behind one. Though in general it seemed very still, I occasionally got an impression that it was wavering.
While I waited, our assistant team leader, Woody, came around to see that everything was ok. I told him that I thought there was someone out there. He looked, and called out “Identify yourself!”. There was no response. We waited. Suddenly, the figure started moving toward us. I flicked off the safety. When the person was near, Woody called out our password query, “dog!”. The figure hesitated, but then correctly answered “fish”. It turned out to be one of our group relieving himself. He had neglected to tell anyone, with the result that he had had several of his own squad's weapons pointed at him in the dark.
I heard voices murmuring from the radio. They called each other by such universal names as Tango and Charlie. Dean, Woody, and our observer pored over maps of the area with red-filtered flashlights while I struggled out of the field jacket that it turned out I most certainly did not need. It was difficult, what with the MILES gear, web belt, backpack, etc. over it. I had to reconnect the harness and web belt in the pitch darkness when I was done. Finally we were given our orders. Our ORP (objective rally point) was an orange chemlight on a hill about a half klick away. We moved out in a single column, the usual formation used at night because it is difficult to hold any other formation when you can barely see anything.
At some point we had to cross an open road to reach the hill. This is generally a dangerous operation. We stopped at a point where there were oak trees not too distant from each side. I was selected as one of the two people who were to cross the road first, reconnoiter the other side, and secure it. However, before we crossed I thought I heard a noise on the other side. I listened, and thought I heard whispers and rustling. I told Dean, who listened for a moment but did not hear anything. An owl hooted from the target tree. We thought it might be a signal, but it kept hooting, and Dean decided that that it was a real owl and that was what I had heard rustling. Also, he thought that if there was anyone over there, the owl would keep quiet.
Still, the more I listened the more I was sure there were people under or in the tree. Dean was undecided. Our observer impatiently asked us how long we were going to take to decide if there was a danger there. Finally there was enough noise and voices from the other side that they all realized I was right. Since we had a limited amount of time to complete our mission, Dean decided to cross in a more vulnerable, open area, but at least we avoided the tree. If whoever was over there had just kept quiet they would have gotten us. I later asked the snipers and they said it was not them. Perhaps Alpha squad had dispatched a team to ambush us.
We approached the target hill cautiously. As we moved up the hillside toward the chemlight, Dean told us that if we were ambushed we should rush through, meaning in this case that we would simply run toward them regardless of their firing and try to mingle with them so that they wouldn't know who they were firing at in the dark. There was no noise from the target area.
However, just before we reached the eerily glowing orange rod, shots rang out. We all charged, screaming at the top of our lungs (this is supposed to intimidate the enemy). As soon as I saw some muzzle flashes, I dropped down, flicked off the safety, pointed the weapon toward the bad guy, and pulled the trigger. I was rewarded only with an unsatisfying <CLICK>. I pulled the bolt back to disgorge the dud, but it did not eject. Since there was now another round attempting to enter the chamber that still held the dud, I could not push the bolt home. We had not been given any practice or training with firing or unjamming the weapons, so all I could do was fumble with it in the dark while people were firing at me and wait for my death beeper to go off.
Apparently I was not the only one with problems; I heard sounds of frustration from both sides. Oddly enough, despite the gunfire, I did not hear any beepers at all. Finally our team leader told us to move forward and secure the area even if our weapons were not functioning. We formed a perimeter as Alpha squad fled. The observer called admin time, which means that actions are suspended while dead people are rejuvenated and our performance is evaluated. Many of us told the observer that our weapons did not work. At first he thought that it was because there had been a screwup and most of us did not have bolts that matched our weapons (remember they were old and had worn in together). However, it turned out that the same proportion of people who had matching bolts had had problems as though who didn't.
Finally, a bit late, the observer told us about a few things that can cause the M-14s to jam. First, most of us had put 21 rounds in the clips instead of 20. The force exerted by the spring in the clip was thus too great. I took one round out of each clip. Also, because blanks are shorter than rounds with bullets, there is some leeway in the clip; they can slide back and forth a little bit. If the rear of a round is not against the back of the clip, the flange on its base will not be in the correct position to be engaged by the loading mechanism. The cure for this is to hit the clip against your boot in such a way as to settle the rounds against the back. Also, we were advised to keep dirt away from the bolt.
After a bit, we got new orders. We were to take a hill to the east. We started marching in that direction. At one point, the observer told us that we were sitting ducks and should stay off of the military ridge. That is the part of the top of a hill where you will stand out in silhouette against the sky to someone observing from the bottom of the hill. At one point, we ran into a deep gully. Woody and I were sent to try to find an easier place to cross it. We followed it for quite a way, but the sides did not get any less steep. In the distance to the northeast I heard shots; presumably the snipers picking off a few of Alpha squad. We returned to our squad and ended up crossing despite the steep sides.
When we reached the hill, we climbed it apprehensively but there was no resistance. We took up positions around the top and waited for action or new orders. After about half an hour, we heard the enemy approaching. We were told not to fire until the team leader or assistant team leader did. When they were all out in the open, a shot was fired and we opened up. My weapon actually worked, and I got off four or five shots before it jammed. Having unjammed it the last time, I was slightly better at it this time. The main trick seemed to be pushing the next round back down into the clip while getting hold of the flange at the base of the round in the chamber and pulling it out; at least that's the way I dealt with it. Fortunately I was able to do this by touch. But, by the time I was done, Alpha squad had backed off and it was admin time. A couple of beepers could be heard telling that their wearers were dead.
We sat on top of the hill for a while before the radio told us that our next mission was to return to the base of the valley and set up an ambush. We eventually made our way down to a cluster of trees near the road we had crossed previously and took up positions. Once again Woody told us not to fire until he did. It was quite a wait before Alpha squad came marching up the road. As they neared us, I heard a loud click. I wasn't sure whether it was Woody trying to fire or someone releasing a safety. No one else was, either, so the enemy trooped right by us even though Woody had, in fact, simply encountered a dud.
We lay in wait for another long while before they came charging over the small hill that we were at the base of. I got off one shot before my weapon jammed, and again the firefight was over before I had it fixed. Of course many other people on both teams were having similar problems. The organizers had hoped that having us remove the blank adapters would make us conserve our ammo, but the effect had been much stronger, since the weapons were so unreliable when not firing at least semi-auto. We had been through three encounters and still had most of our ammo left. Also, it was reaching the wee hours of the morning; after our day of strenuous exercise we were getting very tired.
Because of this, it was decided that we would have just one more encounter, and it should continue until we had used up all of our remaining rounds. We were told that we should not quit firing even if we were hit. Our objective was a ditch that ran across an open field. Unfortunately, as we headed toward it, we saw that the enemy was closer than we were and they reached it first. We were left firing at them in the open. I had gotten better at handling the bolt and unjamming the weapon and fired quickly at every muzzle flash that came from the ditch. My beeper emitted occasional brief tones, indicating a near miss. At one point my weapon seemed to have jammed in an odd manner and I could not fix it. Suddenly I realized that I had finished my first clip, and swapped it with the other.
Shots rang out throughout the area, muzzle flashes lit up the night, beepers whined in the brief lulls in the firefight, and the smell of cordite hung in the slight breeze. Our observer wandered about the battlefield. I heard him extolling the “the sound of gunfire in the night”. As I went through my second clip, I was hit by a few pieces of wax from blanks. Obviously someone was aiming at me. Suddenly, my beeper went off, and I jumped. I was dead. But, that didn't stop me. When I was done with my second clip, I pulled out the duds from my pocket and loaded them into a clip and inserted it. About half of them went off the second time through. Altogether I got off about forty shots before I was empty. I retreated to the sidelines. After the firefight died down our observer came around and turned off our beepers with his key.
We moved out and climbed to the top of a nearby hill. There we were told that our last mission was to reconnoiter Talk, the encampment of officials in the valley. We were divided up into three groups of three, to approach from the middle, left, and right. My brother and I were in the “right” team, along with one other person. Our goal was to get as close as possible without being observed, and record any relevant information… how many vehicles and people there were, whether they were wearing uniforms or were armed, etc. We were told to be back within twenty minutes. Dean and Woody stayed behind.
We moved off of the hill in a direction that would allow us to approach from the right. As we neared the target, we saw that they were gathered around a bonfire in the middle of a large meadow. Since we did not have night glasses, we could not see any detail, but if we left the trees to get closer we would be seen. The only solution was to crawl through the grass. However, we all had backpacks which would make this difficult and make us easier to spot. Since we could not leave the backpacks unattended, one of us had to stay behind to guard them. The other two seemed eager, so I volunteered to stand watch. They shed their loads and crawled away. I watched the two patterns of quivering grass head off toward Talk while I kicked back and ate some beef jerky.
Eventually, I looked at my watch and saw that twenty minutes had already passed. We were supposed to be back on top of the hill by now, making our report. Five minutes later, I began to get irritated. They were really going a little overboard. At about that point, the third team member showed up. He said that Laurence was still out there, trying to get into the camp itself. A few minutes later, he got back, and we headed back to the hill. We got there about ten minutes late. However, Laurence reported that he had actually penetrated the Talk encampment, and had hidden under a van listening to them talk. He had begun to get nervous when another vehicle was moved to provide a windbreak, and then someone got into the one he was under. But, it wasn't moved and he got out safely without being spotted.
We returned to the encampment, along with Alpha squad, and tried to get a couple of hours of sleep there around the bonfire. At five o'clock or so we got up, hopped in the trucks, and returned to the confidence course to meet the bus that was to take us back to Cal Poly. Though we were all quite fatigued, when we got back we spent a couple of hours disassembling, cleaning, oiling, and reassembling our weapons and equipment to the satisfaction of those in charge of the armaments. Then, after a brief stop at Bill's dorm, Laurence and I began the three-hour journey home. I started out driving, but found that I could not stay alert. I kept being awakened by the bumps on the side of the road, occasionally finding that we were headed for large concrete obstacles like the sides of bridges. After I stopped to get coffee I let him drive. I'm sure I looked rather odd to the people in the deli, with my face covered with mud and old camouflage paint, but they didn't say anything.