Midnight Surfer Part 1.

The 6th Battalion, 84th Field Artillery was formed at Fort Irwin, California and trained there in the fall of 1967 prior to deploying to Vietnam in the spring of 1968. It was a 155mm Howitzer battalion that fielded 18 howitzers. The 155mm howitzer would shoot a 100 pound projectile a little over 12miles with a pretty good accuracy. There were over 500 men assigned to the battalion. Because of the build up in Vietnam, there was a shortage of experienced officers and Non-commissioned officers. Most of the young officers were from the same classes of Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Almost all of the Gun crews had trained together and a lot of the gun chiefs were just flat promoted from the ranks and were so inexperienced that it hurt. Everyone wanted to do a good job but just weren’t sure what that looked like. I would estimate that each battery had one or two people that had been in the service more than three years and were darned lucky if they had a Vietnam veteran. We were gathered together to be a part of the 500,000 men on the ground in Vietnam by mid 1968.
I was one of those brand new 2nd Lieutenants and pretty typical. I had a great attitude but almost no experience. I was assigned to a battery that had a 1st Lieutenant as the Executive Officer. The bad news was he had gone to flight school and not to a real unit so his experience level was nil. I was assigned as a Forward Observer and had the additional duty as the supply officer. Little did I know that one job would consume as much time as it would preparing for deployment.
Everything the battery would need to train with was sent through the supply room in the first month or so the unit prepared to train. Unless you have been there you wouldn’t understand the number of parts and tools issued to each of the six howitzer sections. They have all the tools and parts to maintain a howitzer. To say it filled a 10 by 10 box for each section is an understatement. The battery maintenance section had three times as much to store and use. During most of the issue phase I was attending Jungle School or in the hospital from the disease I contracted in training in Panama.
Fort Irwin is basically sand and rocks covered with sand. The north end of Fort Irwin was the south end of Death Valley. It wasn’t where the good Lord would give the world an enema but you could see the insertion point from Main Post. The lack of rain kept it from having much in the way of ground cover. There were some parts of the post covered with scrub brush but a lot more that was just sand. At least two places were dry lakes that were big flat spots covered with salty sand that was covered with a thick crust that was heavily cracked. Absolutely nothing could grow there due to the high salt content. One of those dry lakes would gather all the rain from the surrounding area and grow a brine shrimp once about every twenty years or so. The rest of the time Bicycle lake served as the post airport. The only thing that kept Fort Irwin interesting was there were several mountains along the edges of the post. They weren’t very tall but for a kid from Kansas they were a very novel sight.
At fort Irwin there were very few rules for firing the howitzers. Don’t hit a paved road or hit anyone near the training area. There was no one to report a bad round fired in training unless someone or a road was involved. I have seen many rounds fired that hit wide right of the target area we were firing into. Most of them were fired by other units and not by me.
Our battalion trained as separate batteries at first. The idea was to train small units and then do the collective Battalion training. Each battery would go out and set up in an area and fire at targets. They would fire and move, fire and move until they could emplace the howitzers fast and accurately. The Forward Observers would go out and set up on the edge of a mountain and send “calls for fire” to the unit and then adjust the impact of the rounds. As long as there was a battery to fire, the Forward Observers would be manning their “Observation Posts”.
Most of the time there was nothing for us to do with the battery until someone told us they were ready to accept a mission. It was hours and hours of sheer boredom out there looking at sand covered with a few old tanks and abandoned track equipment hauled there for the artillery to shoot at. The unit that shot at these targets prior to our arrival was a 175mm Gun Battalion and for them to hit a target it was sheer luck. Most of the targets had tank round holes in them from the National Guard Division that trained there but unlike the targets at Fort sill were not blown to smithereens. Tanks in training do not fire a high explosive round but some kind of round that punched holes in targets but didn’t blow them away. Field Artillery rounds are filled with a high explosive and the explosion of artillery rounds would eventually reduce most targets to piles of scrap. At fort Sill, targets were described as a beaten pile of debris so many mills down from the skyline and left or right from a known point. At Fort Irwin they were generally Tanks, bulldozers or Armored Personnel Carriers.
Our Battery Executive Officer (XO) had washed out of flight school and most of us didn’t have an idea why. I found out that he was basically book smart and street stupid. He could explain the theory of the earth but just couldn’t brush dirt off his boots. As the battery Executive officer, he was responsible for placing the guns in each firing position. The Battery Commander would go out and find the next firing position, meet the XO and tell him where to go and when he was to be ready to move. Installing the guns in the next position was the responsibility of the XO and making sure they were firing the correct direction was entirely his responsibility. I guess his inability to read a map and compass combined to cause many errors. At least twice the XO had set up the guns aiming the wrong direction. The first two times the Battery Commander had caught the error and got everything corrected. The last time the battery was aimed the wrong direction; the Post Commander was driving by and saw the guns aimed at Fort Irwin proper. I guess the Colonel drove into the position and pointed out the error. Much to everyone’s chagrin, the XO actually argued with the post commander until invited to get in to the jeep and given a short ride up the road until both the battery and Fort Irwin could be seen. At that time, the post commander drove the XO down onto Fort Irwin proper and dropped him off at the Battalion Headquarters with instructions to come to Post Headquarters with the Lieutenant Colonel, Commander of the Battalion.


  1. Is it wrong for a grown man to weep even reading about the training? I absolutely hate that war and violence become necessary at some point and I certainly hate that young men have to see these things.

    But salute, Sir.

  2. A lot of us spent time either laughing or crying at the end of long days. I personally chose to laugh as much as I could. It is not the soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines that chose the battle but the Governments that could not do their jobs. It was only our duty to do the best we could for as long as it took. MUD