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TOW Platoon, 6th Marine Regiment, Part III.
I was assigned to TOW Platoon, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, as a Sergeant, when it was formed in 1983. My tour there was not one of the high points of my military career. I’m not usually an authoritarian leader and that is the kind of leadership that combat Marines expect, so I always felt a little like a fish out of water.
The first squad dominated the platoon, largely due to the staff sergeant who was the squad leader. I think that some unfortunate decisions were made in setting up the squads. The first squad was almost exclusively fresh out of boot camp or low ranking NCOs, so the squad leader had a big effect on how these Marines shaped up. The second and third squads had a mix of experienced and brad new TOW ‘critters’ but most of the NCOs were either inexperienced with TOWs, or ineffective, or both. Right from the start first squad was a little different from the rest of the platoon, and the difference increased with time.
Division like this, in a small unit, is not a good thing. I’m pretty sure that it was never supposed to have happened, but it did. First squad got the one deployment that the platoon went on during the two years I was there. First squad went places that the other squads didn’t go. Yes, we did go on some exercises as a platoon, but if only a squad was going, it would be first squad, unless it was something that the first squad leader didn’t want to do.
One of the axioms of the US military is that a person should be transferred when they receive a significant promotion, like a promotion from a non-rate to an NCO. Some units ignore this because they want to keep the good people, but it usually turns out to be bad for either the unit or the person. I ran into this in the Army when I was promoted from an E-3 to E-6 while staying in the same platoon. It caused some hard feelings for people who were not as fortunate, and I lost a few friends.
At TOW platoon, 6th Marines, we had a group of ‘high flyers’ from first squad naturally. I got to see my Army experience from the other side this time. The Marine Corps, by the way, does not hand out meritorious promotions the way the Army did when I was in it. The Army would allow waivers for both time in service and time in grade for people going before a meritorious promotion board. The Marines would only waiver one of the two, and I’m not sure which it was. So three of the four people that were sent to special schools, from the first squad of course, (one to Army airborne training, one to Navy diving school and two to Marine Scout/Sniper training) came to the unit as PFC E-2s and were Sergeant E-5s when I left it. I think that one of them had even been recommended for meritorious Staff Sergeant. Some of the people that they had gone to boot camp with were still PFCs. A few of the Corporals in the platoon made Sergeant, and the first squad leader was promoted from Staff Sergeant to Gunnery Sergeant. There was some resentment, but we still got along well enough.
Enough about first squad. Let’s talk about me for a minute. One of the exercises we went on as a platoon was a CAX (Combined Arms exercise) at MCB 29 Palms, California. I read a lot and get bored easily. I guess I like to show off a little bit as well. Since I wasn’t making much of an impression in the unit with my physical abilities or leadership skills, and had a long training exercise coming up, I decided to try to make an impression with my academic abilities, specifically, military correspondence courses. Just before we left for CAX I enrolled in a Navy officer’s correspondence course in ‘Principles of Naval Engineering, Part I.’ Courses like these were designed for Navy officers who had not attended the naval academy. I’ve always been fascinated by large metal things like tanks and ships and I thought the course might be interesting. By the way, I was only able to take it because I was not in the Navy. It was not available to Navy enlisted personnel.
The course materials arrived while I was already at 29 Palms, living in a sand hooch that my squad was sharing with a pair of Force Marine Recon teams. The material was fascinating and I think I finished the entire test before we headed back to Camp Lejeune a few weeks later. I think it was designed to be completed over a period of months, but I’m not sure. I also think that I got the equivalent of an ‘A’ in the course. So I took Part II, and I liked that too. In all, in a year and a half, I completed over 200 military correspondence courses and found myself in competition with another Marine for an award given by the National Home Education Association. He beat me by a small margin, but I say he cheated because he was the Education NCO for his unit and was on a Mediterranean cruise with his unit for 6 months so he didn’t have to wait for his course materials to arrive by mail. The ship he was on carried most of them, and he was allowed to take as many at a time as he wanted to, while I was restricted to one at a time in most cases.
I took courses on TOWs, tanks, mortars, Naval Arctic warfare, gas turbine engines, naval weapons systems, Principles of Petroleum, Electronics, computers, mathematics, you name it. Anything that sounded remotely interesting, I took. I branched out and started taking series of courses like the Army course for Armor NCOs, and then Staff NCOs, then Scout NCO and Staff NCO. I took all of the courses that the Marine Corps had for officers and was finally allowed to take the Marine Corps Command and Staff College course by correspondence. It became an obsession, but I don’t think it was an unhealthy one. I was not able to find any Air Force correspondence courses, but I did take classroom instruction in Air Lift Load Planning from the Air Force, so I have diplomas from schools given by every service except the Coast Guard. It kept my mind active during that terrible period when we were essentially restricted to our barracks.
The one course that I had great difficulty with was the called ‘The Artillery Fire Control Computer man’ and was from the Marine Corps Institute. When I received the course materials it was an envelope packed with unidentifiable objects, a book, and the answer sheets that I had to fill out. When I started reading the book, everything made perfect sense, but, when I started taking the test, the questions didn’t seem to have anything to do with what was in the book. I was baffled. I thought I had ‘hit the wall’ or that senility had stolen several marches on me. Finally, after careful examination of the mysterious objects that had arrived in the envelope with the book, I noticed a word on one of them that reminded me of one of the questions on the test. It was honestly like finding the Rosetta stone. The questions still didn’t seem to have anything to do with the book, but I was at least able ‘throw the bones’ (examine the mysterious objects) and make wild guesses that seemed reasonable to me at the time, and fill in the answer sheets. I had never even had a bad grade on one of these courses before, but I was sure that I was going to fail this one. When my grade came back I was amazed to find out that I had passed, barely. It turned out that the course was not intended to be taken by anyone who was not actively working as a Fire Control Computer man. Anyone else just wouldn’t understand the terminology, which had to do with the effect of winds at high altitude, humidity, gun tube wear and a lot of other things that artillerymen need to worry about that no one else does.
By the way, I remember that the course in Naval Arctic warfare was very interesting, but the only specific fact I remember, which I hope will never be a fact needed by anyone who reads this, is that Polar bear livers contain so much vitamin A that they are poisonous to humans.
I mainly did the correspondence courses at home, at night, much to the delight of my wife of that period. There were a few other events worth mentioning, though. I think I have already mentioned our platoon commander who would drop by regimental headquarters at all hours of the night to read the classified message board and then call all of the squad leaders in the platoon to tell them that ‘the sky is falling!’. That got pretty old. Early on I was desperate to get out of the unit and I told him I would like to transfer to a different occupational specialty that was very short of people at the time. He told me that I “ . . .needed more time in the Fleet.” (Fleet Marine Force) Not too long afterwards he took the opportunity to train to be an OV-10 Bronco observer. At the time the OV-10 was used for a lot of things like dropping Recon Marines, spotting for artillery, contacting units that were out of communication by dropping notes, you get the drift. Anyway, for the performance part of his final exam, the platoon was tasked with providing some jeeps with crews to act as lost units, etc. We had mixed emotions about it but I think we provided a lot better service than he deserved. So he was off to the Air Wing, kind of, and I was still in the Fleet.
We did go to the field a few times during the years that I was with 6th Marines. I will never forget the first time we went out after I was made a squad leader because my jeep didn’t have any crew, except for me, and also didn’t have spare missile racks taking up most of the room in it. It didn’t even have a back seat for some reason. When I was in the cavalry my normal place for sleeping was diagonally across the hood with my helmet (pillow) on top of the driver’s side front turn signal. I had never been to the field before in a jeep that had a canvas top on it before except for once in Germany when we were doing ‘terrain appreciation’ near our GDP (Germany Defense Position) south of the Fulda Gap.
On this exercise, I had no idea what was going on. There was no real briefing before we went out. The people who were supposed to be leading us got lost a few times and we had numerous long and unexplained stops. Radio silence was in effect so I couldn’t call for information and I certainly didn’t feel like walking to the front of the column to find out what my people were supposed to be doing. (As I said, this tour was not the high point of my career.) It was a fairly cold night and I had the opportunity, around 0300, to go to sleep for a while. In retrospect, I would have been more comfortable taking the top off the jeep and sleeping on the hood, but I curled up like a dog in the back and got about three hours worth, an hour at a time. The next morning we went back to the barracks, and if I ever knew what it was all about, I don’t remember now.
Another time was a little more exciting. We were loaded onto helicopters (two jeeps per CH-53) and flown out over the ocean for about 45 minutes of circling. Two jeeps don’t quite fit into a CH-53 so mine extended about halfway down the rear ramp. I had a lovely view and the weather was great. I noticed that one of my people in the jeep inside the helicopter was obnoxiously airsick though, so I took great pleasure in eating a few ham sandwiches during the flight. (I didn’t like that guy.) I think that the LZ (landing zone) could take three helos at a time. When we were a few feet off the ground we found out that the advance team had NOT secured the landing zone though. We went in anyway, and as soon as we could get the hold down cables disconnected there were jeeps racing wildly in every direction across the LZ. We had no plan. I was a team leader then, in charge of two gun jeeps, and it took me an hour to find them both and get them to our assigned position. Due to lack of training, or interest, we had not set up any rally points or anything. We just had a few dots on our maps to show us where we were supposed to be. It was very poorly planned and done but I suppose that some of it was my fault.
So we sat in the weeds, about 10 feet from a major road intersection, a stupid place to be at the best of times, for about a day. At that time Camp Lejeune was an open post, which meant that civilians could drive through it. It was a lot better for them than driving the extra miles to go around. So we got to gawk at a lot of civilians gawking at us. One of my gunners had a liking for the rock group ‘KISS’ and always cammied up as one of them. Black face with a big white star over one eye. I’m sure that impressed a few passers-by. The next day we went into retro-grade (retreat) and moved about a mile up a straight road, bordered on both sides by tall trees and thick underbrush. (We couldn’t escape into the woods.) The cut area off the sides of the road extended about 30 feet on each side and we parked behind a small hump, in ‘skull-defilade’. (Only our heads and launch tubes showing.) A day later we moved a mile farther back and got into the same kind of position. I was thoroughly sick of this exercise by that time. We might as well not have been there at all. We never saw anyone except the civilians on the road. Not even friendly forces. Finally, we packed up and went back to the barracks. It was very bad training.
There was one exercise where we used MILES gear. I can’t remember exactly what that acronym stands for but it had to do with laser sensors on harnesses that we and our vehicles wore, and laser devices that were attached to our weapons. You could tell that the sensors had been used before because the very hard plastic covers over the sensor units had been abused to the point where they were almost opaque. (Real Marines don’t like to die even in simulated firefights.) At one point in the exercise I was elected to be the unit ‘pony express’ because we didn’t have the same crypto key in our radio as the unit we were supporting. There was a ’dead’ LVTP-7 about 50 meters off the side of the road I had to drive up and down many times, and every time I went by someone in it would ‘kill’ me. Well, they were supposed to be dead so I didn’t feel that bad, but the harness made a really loud irritating noise when I was killed and I had to find a ‘grader’ to get it reset. After I went back to the same grader for the fourth time, he just shut it off and I was immortal for the rest of the exercise.
Another time we actually went out to try to do some training. Things like field expedient radio antennas. I remember that because I was the one who gave the class. (A sad waste of an ex-radio repairman if you ask me.) I built a lovely hanging half wave di-pole, resistor terminated antennae, with ground plane, from some WD-1 comm wire, four plastic spoons and the center core out of a battery. Keep in mind that Camp Lejeune is largely swamp when I say I was proud to get 15 miles out of that antenna.
Unfortunately, the regimental Sergeant Major made an appearance the second day to see what we were up to. We got sand-blasted because some of our people, including myself, were wearing olive drab first aid kit slings as scarves to cover up our white T-shirts where the appeared above our camouflaged blouses. Oh well . . .
Third squad, sometimes mine, did get the ‘opportunity’ to do a number of ‘dog and pony’ shows, which first squad felt were beneath them. A dog and pony show is an exhibition for either foreign dignitaries or US junketeers and are supposed to keep the Marine Corps from being broken up into pieces, as the Army, Navy and Air Force would like. We would drive our jeeps out to the display area (There are pictures of some of this on my pics section) and cammie up. We didn’t pull out into the open because we were not supposed to distract people from the high dollar shows, like the Harriers and the Force Recon people. If a visitor wanted to see us, they had to find us in the trees usually. It was not demanding work, but it was boring and kept us out of trouble, but also from doing anything useful.
This part might need to be deleted. I eventually got an opportunity to see a few Marine tank crews fire. I was appalled. It was for a kind of a dog and pony show and their accuracy was laughable. Maybe it was a bad day, or a rogue crew, but I gave up the idea of being a tank crewman in the Marine Corps after that demonstration. In the Army we would have sent our best, or at least someone who had bore-sighted recently. The crews that I saw could not hit targets at LAAW range, (2-300 meters) and their tanks looked and sounded worse than Basketcase ever had.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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