Fort Irwin, California

Go down by the Santa Fe Railroad Yard and take the narrow 2 lane road north out of Barstow, California about 25 miles and you will run into the Guard Shack for Fort Irwin.  From there all you can see in any direction is sand and sage brush as far as you can see.  On a clear day you can see a lot but if the wind is moving at all you will find your vision obscured by sand that will eventually pit your windshield and chrome.   After being there for less than 6 months, Dad replaced the Windshield on the Volvo I had out there.  He then wrecked that car but that's another story.

After another 10 miles or so you will spot your first sign of Civilization.  Units that had been stationed there would paint their Unit Crests on the big rocks along the road.  Another three or 4 miles you will drive onto what is one of the oldest and bleakest looking forts in the Army.  The only salvation is there is an almost normal looking shopping center right as you come on base but even the Officer's club was built prior to WWII.   I think General Patton said," Don't change anything until I get back."  And they didn't.   A careful look at the post and you could see that there was only one or two buildings newer than 1950 and the rest were built in the 40's.  

After signing in at Post Headquarters, I was told that I would be assigned to the 6th Bn, 84th Artillery.   Where are they, prey tell?   Well, the only part of that unit that was there yet was in a Quonset hut over behind the Hospital.  OK, so I drove over there to see what I could find.

There was one jeep located outside the building and a bunch of Civilian cars lined up out front.  When I went inside, there was a Captain drawing the unit crest on a piece of paper and a bunch of 2nd Lieutenants playing cards.  No one hardly looked up when I came in but thankfully I did recognize a couple of guys from the same OCS class I had been in.  I said hello and one of them said that I needed to get over to the Housing place and get a room before they filled up.  He and about 8 others were in a house over in the housing area and they were told that until a unit left in another week we would be housed there.

By the time I got there, the only thing left for me to sleep in was the dinning room.  They had put a bed and a dresser in there but it didn't have any way to lock the door so I would need to have a footlocker with a lock.  I went over to my new home and most of the card players had drifted over to the house.  We discussed the arrangements and all agreed that it sucked but it was better than the Quonset hut we had as our Headquarters.   One of the Guys said that he had seen the assignment of the house and it was where our Battalion Commander was to be housed when he arrived the next month so there was hope we would have a real place by then. 

For the better part of a week we would all get up, drift over to the Headquarters hut and sit around until we saw the need to do something else.  I finally was about to go bat shit crazy when I was told that the Field Artillery Brigade needed some officers to be safety Officers for a unit that was training up for deployment.  Anything beat the hell out of sitting around and I drove over there to see if  I could get in on the work.

They were glad to see me and assigned me a jeep and a driver.  When I met him, we discussed what we needed to do.   He had already been out with someone else and knew the lay of the land.  He told me that I should meet him in the morning at 06 hundred and be ready to spend the day out in the field.  Roger that, I was bright and early the next day and off we went. 

We drove by the Motor pool for the 5th Bn, 22nd Arty which was a 175mm Howitzer battalion.  I met the Battalion S-3 and he directed me to one of the batteries to spend the day with.  We followed them out to a firing point and watched them as they set up and were ready to fire.   The 175mm Howitzers were about 75 yards apart and there were 4 of them in each battery.   As they got ready to fire their first mission, it was a registration so all the rounds were fired from a gun in the middle of the battery (Called Base Piece)  That took about an hour and then they were given a fire mission which meant that I had to run from one of the guns to the other to ensure they had the right data on the gun.  For the next three or four hours that continued and I was about to have a heat stroke. I ran over to our jeep and drank about a gallon of water.  The Sergeant there had filled one cooler with ice and water and had another five gallon water can to refill the cooler as we drank it dry.  I think that between each mission I went over and drank at least a quart of water.

Someone from their Fire Direction called the guns and asked for a Powder Temperature.  One of the Cannoneers said that in the shade the powder Temperature Thermometer was pegged at 114 degrees.  No wonder I was so dry.  By that time I had to get a pair of gloves to climb up on the guns because they were so hot in the sun.   You could have fried eggs on them.  I did notice that the driver I had had used the second can of 3ater to refill the cooler.  All this time, I could not see one speck of sweat on the outside of my uniform.  With the humidity about 5% you sweated but it all evaporated. I would love to tell you that it cooled you off when it evaporated but that would be a lie. 

By the end of the day, I was one tired guy.  I'll bet that I had run five miles in the sand between guns and I was totally flagged.  I told the battery XO that the cannoneers needed to bring the excess powder charges over to the burn area and I would burn them.    I had only been around 105mm Howitzers and 155mm Howitzers and was not ready for the 100 meter string of powder charges laid out there in the sand.  I had no experience in the 175mm howitzer system and I asked the driver if he had done that before.   Sure, LT not problem.  He whipped out a knife and cut one of the powder bags and made a trail of those little pellets over to the end of the pile.   I know you have all seen westerns where the bad guys used a trail of gunpowder  and how it smoked and made a flash. 

When I set off the first few pellets, they made enough heat to about roast me as I ran away from the 100 meter length of powder.  Had the sergeant not had the jeep running and in gear, we would probably have been set on fire when the big increments set a blaze.  Form a couple of hundred feet away the heat was barely under the temp to peel the paint on the jeep. 

When I got in from that day, I stripped off my fatigue blouse.  My Green t-shirt was almost white from the salt crystals.  My black boots had salt crystals on the outside of the boots and my socks were stiff from the salt.  Thankfully I had a day off to recover.  I think all I did the next day was drink, pee and sleep.  

For the next month, I went to the field with a battery and performed safety duties about every other day.  Some of the other guys were roped in and man was I ever glad to see things change when our Battalion got there.  That's a story for another time.  What I can tell you is that you have no idea how much water you can drink until you are in the desert  and have to run around doing things.  I am pretty sure that by the time that got over I was one pretty fit young officer. 


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