Saturday, June 05, 2004

D-Day+60 years... Training for War and the Principles of Combat, then and now.

“I went through all the standard difficulties of infantry basic training, e.g., the machine gun and barbed wire infiltration course, 2 runs over the full-combat style obstacle courses every day; 32-mile forced marches, 10-mile speed marches, 2-mile double-time marches, (Note: all marches were performed with "winter" full-field equipment, full 3-day's rations, overcoat, extra boots, rifle and bayonet, etc.), interspersed with many hours of push-ups and other calisthenics, hand-to-hand bayonet-fighting drills, "dirty fighting" classes, close order drills, map reading, night patrols and night maneuvers, etc.; all in the Texas semi-arid 105-degree desert by day, and 45-degree desert by night! Our officers and non-coms, who were mostly combat veterans, used to say that this training would make us so "ornery" we'd be "able to chew razor blades and spit nails!!" It seemed to give us a lot of confidence in our fighting ability, and also tended to obscure the fact that death is ever present on the battlefield in spite of our newly found "toughness."
-PVT Sol Brandell-

As I finish this Basic Training Cycle, and ask myself the same question once again “Are these soldiers ready to go to war?” I can only answer … “No”.

Now calm down. I only grab your attention that way because, in my mind, no soldier is ever completely ready to go to war. There has never been a soldier who could just stop training, sit down on the couch, and say “That’s it. I’m done. I know all I need know, I am as strong and hard as I need to be, and I am as emotionally tough as is humanly possible.

The soldiers I am about to graduate on Thursday are as ready as I can possibly make them in 9 weeks. Could I have done certain things better? Absolutely. Did I teach them everything I know? Absolutely not. Will their training continue from this point? Definitely.

The big question in my mind is whether I have laid the foundation that will allow them to continue building and learning. From here they will make their way through Advanced Individual Training, go to their permanent Duty Stations, and probably ship across the water to Iraq, Afghanistan or some other location where they will eventually be in harm’s way.

Fifty-nine years ago, some Drill Sergeant wondered the same thing about a group of Privates who would, in the next year and a half, take part in possibly the single most pivotal battle of the 20th Century.

Those Soldiers were trained for a specific purpose. They had already endured several years of war as a nation, and understood that the consequences of failure could be nothing short of catastrophic. The invasion of Normandy was not a hip-shoot operation by any means. Plans for the invasion had actually started before America even entered the war. In 1939 it was becoming obvious that Germany was going to be a problem and the likelihood of open armed conflict was high indeed.

As I considered different subjects to write about in commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, I thought of all the different aspects of my own career that connected me through the years to those soldiers who fought that day. My first instinct was to write about the mighty 101st Airborne Division. I came of age as a Non Commissioned Officer in the 101st, and plan to return as soon as I am able. Specifically I intended to write about the Glider Regiments. My own former unit, the 327th Infantry, played a major part in the operation, and takes great pride in their contribution. Those soldiers in the Glider Regiments had a more dangerous landing, fought in the same engagements, and did it all without the same danger pay that the Paratroopers in the same Divisions received.

While the 101st Airborne would have been an easy subject to write about, it has also been covered a million times in different ways, as can be expected when you speak of the most famous unit in the European Theater. Something that hasn’t been covered quite as much is the training the bulk of soldiers received before boarding the landing craft or the aircraft.

In short, while I conducted my limited research into this area, I discovered that while politics and techniques have changed, the basic principles of training have not. Our soldiers today receive excellent and exhaustive training before they ever see combat. The soldiers who entered Basic Training in 1943 received the best training that their Instructors, mostly combat veterans, could give them. In the end, it wasn’t the technical or tactical training alone that carried the day for the Allies. It also took the toughness, commitment and resolve that made their generation so awe-inspiring.

Certainly though, their technical and tactical training was crucial to their success. This was long before the days of Close Combat Optics, PVS-14 Night Vision Goggles and hand-held GPS units. What one common factor do these awesome pieces of equipment share? They are all susceptible to breakage… and they all take batteries. As a soldier we can never forget that when you get right down to it, the nuts and bolts of mission success are the ability to shoot, move, communicate and sustain.

In 1943 well over half of the soldiers who arrived for training had done some sort of significant hunting back home. Many of them fed their families with rifle and shotgun. While this might have been a significant advantage overall, it has never been prerequisite for marksmanship training. Consider the account of PVT Sol Brandell:

As a matter of fact, I qualified as "Expert" and my score included 16 "bullseye's" out of 16 shots fired from prone position on the 500-yard line not withstanding that it was drizzling that very afternoon and I had to intermittently blow raindrops out of my rear sight to keep from blurring my view of the target. A Colonel, on duty as range training officer, asked my name and said in the last 2 years of his being in charge of this range he'd never seen anyone shoot 16 "bullseye's" out of 16 shots at 500 yards, rain, shine or otherwise! He was suspicious enough to telephone the target-pit detail to see if anyone knew me and was "fixing" my score! Apparently the sergeant in charge of the pit detail explained that the were from another training battalion and had no idea who's targets they were serving! The Colonel was surprised that any one could shoot this well and ventured a guess that I must be from Kentucky and had done a great deal of hunting. I said I was from New York City and had never gone hunting! {I never let on to anyone on the rifle range that I was a college boy from Brooklyn, New York, and had never owned even a "BB" gun when I was a kid!}

Even more interesting to a current Drill Sergeant is the section that preceded this:

Among other things, I found that I could shoot the Garand M1 rifle like I was born to it! Actually, even though I was right handed, my left eye was dominant and I had to fire the M1 from the left, and would not have been able to shoot well in "rapid fire" if we'd had to use the old Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifle.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me, but it gives me a good feeling of kinship with those instructors of the past… knowing that they faced and dealt with the same challenges in the same way. Nothing is more frustrating than getting to the range and finding out after long trial and error that someone’s hand and eye dominance don’t match up. Therefore we always make it a point to identify those soldiers within the first 72 hours so we can start getting them used to firing “wrong-handed”.

The ability to move in combat encompasses more than your stroll down the beach, obviously. The soldiers of D-Day were put through the wringer over and over before they were declared fit to fight in the European Theater or anywhere else. One soldier who later served in the 101st Airborne initially volunteered because he thought they wouldn’t have to walk as much if they were dropped right into battle. He soon discovered his error:

It was in training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, that he discovered his gross miscalculation about the walking bit.
The regimen required three weekly 6 mile runs in under 50 minutes, up and down Mount Currahee (over 700 feet in elevation above the camp), a 25 mile march in under 8 hours wearing full equipment (up to 100 pounds each), and a 48 mile march in 18 hours.
And as if that wasn't enough, his unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the newly formed 101st Airborne Division, made a 136 mile march from Atlanta to Fort Benning, Georgia in record time.

Add in the daily calisthenics, obstacle courses, log heaving, duck waddles, rope climbs, jumping from a 34 foot pulley-equipped tower, and then later making free falls from a 225 foot tower.
And of course, there was first-aid training, chemical warfare training, map reading, orienteering at night, and crawling on their bellies with live machine gun fire overhead. The training regimen was grueling, designed to wash out the fainthearted. And it did just that.
A fully trained and physically conditioned paratrooper was expected to perform his mission under extreme conditions of hunger, fatigue, and mental stress. No doubt, those who survived the program could be excused for believing they were ready for anything.
At 5'9" and weighing only around 155 pounds, Darvin developed the strength and stamina to carry well over an additional 100 pounds of equipment. This included a parachute, reserve chute, 3 days of K-Rations, a mess kit, small T-handle shovel, 4 grenades, an M-1 rifle, an anti-tank mine, 250 rounds of machine gun ammo, a trench knife strapped to his leg, change of underwear and socks, a gas mask, several 8 round clips of rifle ammo, and a raincoat.

Even today, the weak wash out of Basic Training at a fairly consistent rate. Not everyone who has the desire to be a soldier can physically do it, but most can if they have the heart to endure the training and the toughness to avoid injury. The problem is that when you begin to attempt to eliminate injuries or washouts completely, you start to put substandard soldiers in the Army. This is unacceptable. The hard fact is that it’s better that someone blow a knee or break down emotionally here in peacetime than to send them on and put them in a situation where they break in combat and lose their life for it.

And again I’m surprised at how similar the training back then was to today’s BCT tasks. I will admit though, that not even I have ever walked 48 miles at once, much less from Atlanta to Benning. I do know that right before I left the 101st, they had planned a 101-mile road march in 5 days. I’m not sure whether they completed it, since they received deployment orders right after I left, but I can’t say I’m sorry I missed it if they did. It would have been something to be proud of when we were done, but the suck factor would have been tremendous at the time.

Today, every soldier does 12-mile road marches at fairly frequent intervals as Army policy. Infantry units and presumably most of the Combat Arms branches do much more than the minimum standard though. Each Infantryman does a 25-mile road march before he graduates from Ft Benning, and the Infantry Divisions schedule various lengths of training marches as I stated before.

While shooting and moving are largely individual tasks, the nature of communicating implies more than one Soldier. Naturally, the more individuals who are involved in an exercise, the more complex and prone to mistakes it is. The soldiers who arrived in England soon discovered this as they trained for the upcoming invasion:

Training this huge and complex force was undertaken at all levels of command. While assault infantry, armored and airborne units could prepare for the invasion at company or squadron, battalion or regimental levels – naval, air and army support units required larger scale exercises to test their abilities to operate in larger groups.

As expected, the first large training exercises - on the south Devon coast at Slapton Sands – revealed communications problems, lack of mission comprehension, poor crisis management abilities and a general sense of chaos.
While successive and more complex maneuvers over the next few months addressed many of these problems, the intensity of training, the lack of experience among many personnel and the often exceptionally dangerous nature of the equipment developed to support the landings led to a high number of deaths and injuries among the troops.

As always, rehearsals are a key to mission success. Unfortunately, when you deal with close to 200,000 troops, accidents are bound to happen. This is as true today as it was back then, although our risk management processes are probably more intensely scrutinized and followed. This is an area where we have to constantly balance realistic training conditions with safety. For the soldiers across the pond however, the ongoing war occasionally intruded on their training with tragic consequences.

On April 28th, 1944 the men who were slated to land on Utah Beach were conducting one of their largest training rehearsals so far. Around 23,000 men were packed into landing craft and conducting training in the ocean off Slapton Sands, on the Devon Coast. They were discovered and fired upon by German E-Boats resulting in 749 Soldiers and Sailors killed. GEN Eisenhower rightfully ordered the entire affair kept secret. The reasoning behind the secrecy was that it would hurt morale and tip off the Germans. In my opinion, he made the right decision for the time. I can’t really say that it was right to keep it secret for 50 years, but during the planning stages for a major operation, it would have been disastrous to let the Germans know that that many men were gathered in a particular location training for amphibious landings.

Can you imagine the political hay that today’s presses would have made of something like this? Damn the consequences… sometimes it seems like today’s media would happily endanger thousands more lives if they thought it was in the interests of free speech (cough) profit (cough). Without a doubt, the secrecy order should have been rescinded by the time the war was over, but sometimes there are hard decisions that have to be made by our commanders. Often these decisions seems cruel or harsh after the fact, but any commander who is worth a damn makes his decisions based on what is in the best interest of his troops and the overall mission… not what the media or even the American public will think of him.

The final principle of combat is to sustain. This basically means, on a large scale, that our forces have the capabilities and training to sustain long term combat operations in place with minimal or nonexistent support from outside. To the average field soldier, however, it also means fieldcraft. Fieldcraft is all those things that they don’t teach you in manuals, and some that they do. Fieldcraft is how to take a crap in the woods. Fieldcraft is good field hygiene that keeps you in the fight rather than back in the rear with trench foot or dysentery. Fieldcraft is understanding the lay of the land and how to use it to your advantage in more ways than just actual combat. This is an area that is not very standardized, even today. I’m not quite sure that I would want it to be, except that we need to ensure that our NCOs are passing along their knowledge and experience to the young Joes who will take our place someday. If you read this and happen to be an NCO in any branch, never pass up a chance to teach Joe something. Teach him anything. Most of them are eager to learn anything that will make their life easier, and it only makes the Army stronger when we become more self reliant and sustainable in the field.

Unfortunately, by its nature as something not very standardized, I can’t really find much information on what the soldiers of World War Two practiced as fieldcraft. One example however, is the simple story of the “crickets” that the paratroopers carried with them into combat to help them assemble in the dark and recognize friendly soldiers.

These were simple kids toys made of metal that made a popping sort of sound when you squeezed it. When the soldier wanted to know if the rustling in the underbrush was enemy or friendly, he just clicked it a few times and either received a click in reply… or probably clicked his weapon off “safe”.

One of my favorite stories about the guys from the 101st involves a Chaplain who jumped in that night. He was a naturalized German citizen and had a thick German accent, which certainly made it a bad idea to speak to a nervous fellow paratrooper in the dark. When he jumped, instead of the standard single cricket… he carried dozens of them secreted all through his gear and uniform.

This is just one example of how ingenuity and resourcefulness made those men of Operation Overlord so successful. They came from every walk of life and every part of the country. They were mechanics and farmers, college boys and dropouts, northerners and southerners and everyone in between. They came together in Basic Training and put their heart into it because there was no other way to ensure our success. The outcome was by no means assured, and most likely seemed doubtful at times. But they didn’t whimper and quit. They didn’t criticize or cast blame. They grit their teeth, put their shoulder into it and pushed on through the training, through the tragedies, onto the landing craft, up the damn beach and on into a history that has never been rivaled in y opinion for it’s sheer guts and determination. They are the standard bearers of the American People for the 20th Century and we owe them a debt of gratitude that we can never repay.

NOTE: I typed this all at once in a single sitting, because I couldn’t stand to be left out of something as important as giving tribute to our veterans who changed the course of history on June 6th. After re-reading it, I don’t think it is as good as they deserve from me, but it is all I have at the moment. As a final thought, please consider this… My wife works at the VA hospital and treats WW2 veterans every day. Many of these former soldiers have little or no family to speak of, and would love nothing more than to sit and talk with someone who showed an interest. If you have relatives or acquaintances, who served in World War Two…or any other conflicts for that matter, give them the opportunity to talk about it to you. In today’s world, more people live far from their parents and grandparents… and fewer people take the time to listen to what their elders have to say. I’m not sure if there are programs to go and read to a veteran in a nursing home or just hang out with them, but if not then there should be.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Blackfive tribute to the D-Day Invasion...


If you have never been to Blackfive's site... or even if you have... you need to go there on the 6th of June. He has organized a group effort on the Blogosphere to post on D-Day related topics. I've seen a partial list of the posts that are coming out and it looks like it is going to be awesome. Each Blogger is going to cover a different aspect of the invasion of Normandy.

As we remember one of the pivotal moments of the 20th Century, remember that these heroes are currently in their 80s. If you know someone who served anywhere in World War 2, spend some time talking to them abut it if they don't mind. Don't twist their arm or anything... everybody is different and some just don't want to talk about it I'm sure. But I've found that most of them are extremely proud of what they did and love to hear that you are interested. The same goes for all our veterans of Korea, Vietnam and other past conflicts.

Anyway... here's the link. Check it out at He will have a list of all the posts and links as well.

Victory Forge...

Well... hell

Here we go again.

We head out to the field tonight at 0230 for our "Victory Forge" field training exercise. It's the "capstone" training event for BCT and the soldiers will use nearly all the various training they have received throughout Basic.

It's actually gotten a little better since I've been here. They now have taken some of the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and incorporated them into BCT as familiarization training. It is supposed to get even better later on and there is talk of extending the current 9 week BCT into about 13 weeks.

Some of the new training they are receiving includes Convoy Operations, 9 Line Medevac requests, Introduction to Call For Fire, and later on they should start receiving training on more weapon systems... to include the MK19 and M2 .50 cal MG.

Anyway, I'll write more when we get back and the cycle starts to wind down. I have a million friggin topics I want to hit, but haven't been motivated to sit down and type em out yet. I need to get back to blogging daily. I've found that writing is kind of like working out or running. If you do it daily, you are always thinking about it and can't wait to get to the gym or on the road. But if you let a few days go by without hitting it, it becomes easier and easier to let it slide.