The Mortar Carrier—Rebuilding a “Track”

The Mortar Carrier—Rebuilding a “Track”

Another in a series by Tom Rozman

A few years ago a friend related a story of interest.  It illustrated how infantry and other operational leaders, even in non-deployed situations are confronted with challenges and as leaders are caused to make decisions—sometimes on the frontiers of policy. But most intriguing was how the leaders involved operated as an effective leadership team using extended experience and solid network building with sister organizations to pull off a difficult task—one whose success was essential to the organization’s larger go to war mission.

As the story went, a mechanized infantry company at a post in the continental United States was heavily challenged as most units were in those days and continue to be with “layers” of mission.  The go to war mission had become a focus with attendant deployments, extended gunnery and maneuver training at distant installations and concentrated tactical training on the home installation.

In addition, the Army was beginning the long process of modernization and reorganization that would continue through the next decade and a half.  The company was one of the first stateside units to form and train its M220 TOW Cap equipped TOW anti-tank missile section in a reconstituted weapons platoon from the existing  M125 Mortar Carrier equipped 81mm mortar platoon—this included completing gunnery tables with just issued training systems less the actual missiles, the latter as yet not available.

The company was also involved in a support mission for testing the vehicle that would replace the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier in the mechanized platoons and companies of the Army.  And, it was deeply engaged with a sister National Guard newly organized mechanized infantry company in support of its training as part of a larger Army effort to enhance National Guard go to war capabilities.

There were other tasks and missions like a complete overhaul of the arms room by contractors.  This was a Department of Defense initiative  to enhance weapons storage security at a time when significant criminal break-ins and weapons seizures were occurring across the country.

All of this activity occurred around the Army’s personnel situation that could see as much as 30% of a unit’s personnel base turn-over in a year.  And in the case of M113 family vehicles like the M125, a low density variant of the M113, new production of the vehicle was temporarily halted as new production M113s were prioritized to the Israeli Army to expedite that Army’s recovery after a recent war.

Around all of the missions and activity, the company was expected to maintain a high level of readiness against its go to war mission and Army Training Evaluations and Inspector General evaluations were part of the mix.  Each of a week or longer duration and an intense process of evaluation in actual operational mode for the entire company requiring it to deploy in various configurations.

And so it happened as the story was related that the company was deeply engaged in the support of its sister National Guard mechanized infantry company for a month by hand receipting its combat vehicles to that unit and supporting initial concentrated training followed by the administration of an Army Training Evaluation.

The company had been conducting liaison with the Guard company at its home state location for a time before the site training at the installation began.  There was familiarity between the units.  The soldiers, NCOs, and officers of the Guard company were proving excellent comrades intent on being the best possible tactical unit under the circumstances.  The commander was an ex-active officer and veteran of combat in Viet Nam with the 101st Airborne Division, a light infantry officer now involved in his first mechanized infantry experience.

But, there was a significant underlying challenge.  The unit had recently re-designated from being a towed M101 105mm howitzer battery and its soldiers, who had been artillerymen for most of their Guard careers were retraining themselves as mechanized infantrymen.  This was their first hands on extended experience with the equipment they were operating.

And so the Guard company arrived at the installation, received its orientation under its battalion headquarters supported by the host company’s battalion headquarters and drew the host company’s vehicles–and the training began.

The training proceeded very well.  There were challenges that were to be expected with soldiers, especially part time soldiers, adapting to an entirely new tactical format and requirement.  But the guardsmen’s attitude individually and collectively can only be characterized as excellent and professional.  Their leaders were committed and engaged and proving quick learners.  Much of this positive momentum was a function of their very able and capable company commander.

As the training cycle proceeded, the Army Training Evaluation loomed on the schedule horizon.  It would be a complete tactical deployment with movement, attack and defend missions conducted on a remote maneuver box on the installation’s north side, the exercise moving across the box some 15-20 mile west to east.  There would be a gunnery phase for the mortar platoon.

The day came to alert the Guard company for the first phase of the evaluation.  The unit deployed.  Despite the challenges one could expect from a newly reorganized unit using another unit’s equipment—because of the caliber of the Guard unit’s personnel, the exercise and unit were doing well.

At a late phase of the exercise, the host company commander, deployed as a controller/observer in his M151 jeep, received two transmissions on the radio—one from his company executive officer (XO) a highly competent  burly airborne ranger 1st lieutenant and from the Guard company commander.  The host company maintenance sergeant monitored the transmission. The transmissions were reporting that one of the M125 mortar carriers had developed an engine problem.  The information reported that the vehicle while in tow to the company trains location had dropped off a bridge and was laying on its back in a creek bed. Both gave the coordinates and the host company commander moved immediately to the location.

The Guard company had received training in such procedures and their maintenance personnel also had experience and training as well.  Additionally, there was a host company maintenance liaison with the Guard company’s maintenance section as well as radio connection with the host company’s executive officer who oversaw company maintenance and support operations and the company maintenance sergeant.

Based on this preliminary information, the company commander directed his XO and maintenance sergeant with the company’s recovery vehicle to rendezvous with him at the site.  He moved as quickly as possible the several miles to the incident site.

On his arrival at the site, the host company commander immediately confirmed the status of all personnel and the earlier report that no personnel had suffered injury.  He than assessed the situation of the M125.  Interview of personnel involved developed the following scenario.

After the engine failed, the M125 was being evacuated to the maintenance area in the Guard company’s trains for evaluation.  The guard unit had rigged the tow bar from the vehicle to an operational track and began the tow back along a crowned and graded dirt road.  Recent rain and vehicle activity on the road had churned the red clay soil into a gelatinous mud a foot or more thick.

The tow vehicle started down the slope from a ridge toward the bottom of a quarter mile or more wide valley.  The grade to the concrete bridge spanning the creek at the bottom was about 30%.  As the vehicle approached the bridge the tow vehicle’s speed combined with the driver’s experience level resulted in the towed vehicle starting to sway from side to side—the motion made worse by the mud.  As the two vehicles reached the bridge, the towed vehicle swayed wide and edged over the right side of the bridge—the bridge did not have abutments able to contain the vehicle.  The edging increased until the tow vehicles weight sheered the tow bar and the M124 dropped onto its top in the creek bed below.  Fortunately, no one was in the towed track.

When the host company commander arrived on site, the sight of the “track” was not a happy one.  It was in the creek bed well below the bridge in a ”dying cockroach” position.  With the hull on its back, tracks in the air and the steep slopes of the creek bed, recovery was not going to be as it had been in other operational situations—especially to avoid undue additional damage to the top of the vehicle.

Worse, if the track had suffered damage to a level requiring evacuation to depot level maintenance, such as a hull crack or a crack to one of its plate welds, the current M113 vehicle family replacement situation being what it was, a replacement vehicle any time soon was unlikely, directly affecting the company’s readiness.  Even the relatively high priority the company had with its current readiness mission, given some other recent adventures with parts replacement, the going would be rough to get a replacement M125.

Most likely and at best, loss of the mortar carrier would mean that one of the company’s 81mm mortars would have to be trundled around and transported by other means if employed at all.  This meant that the company’s organic indirect fire support would be reduced by 33%.

The company commander, the XO and maintenance sergeant immediately evaluated the situation and possible recovery options.  The maintenance sergeant was a seasoned old soldier of many enlistments and knew his trade—especially recovery.  He and the XO and the  company commander had confronted previous tough vehicle recovery situations over the many previous months of the company’s unusually high operational tempo schedule to include a month of operations in the New Mexico desert.

As well, the company commander had served as a mechanized infantry platoon leader, mechanized infantry company XO, mechanized infantry battalion headquarters company and tank brigade  headquarters company XO in three battalions and a brigade in earlier assignments elsewhere in the Army.  He was experienced as a maintenance and recovery officer.  This team had faced more than one tough situation together and had confidence in their ability to handle most situations that would develop.

The determination was that the recovery could be managed with added support from the tank battalion and its heavier recovery vehicles.  The tank battalion responded quickly and by careful rigging of cables to anchor points and attention to stress in terms of siting the several recovery vehicles assemble the M125 was righted with no further damage to the installations on the vehicles top deck.  It was winched by cable attachments up the slope to the road bed and by sundown had been returned the 15 miles to its motor pool and placed in the company’s maintenance bay for evaluation.

On site a recovery team of soldiers from the host company, the Guard company and the tank battalion had been formed for the work.  Everyone had pitched in—all soldiers on the “same” team.

Using all means available to the company, to include the next level maintenance echelon, the hull was determined sound.  And the maintenance sergeant determined that he and the maintenance section had the ability to make necessary repairs—the ordering of some parts would be an issue but because of the readiness imperative a determination was made in cooperation with battalion to proceed.  The XO and maintenance sergeant began the process of obtaining the parts.

The M125’s repair project proceeded for several weeks, the delay being from receipt of parts.  On completion, the vehicle was tested and validated and found operational.  It was returned to the weapons platoon as an operational vehicle.

This case illustrates how demanding operational schedules with multi-type missions will present tough problems needing prompt effective courses of action to a solution that works.  It illustrates the value of leadership in an effective team that has confidence in each team member.  It underscores the value to mission effectiveness of any leadership team or organization establishing and maintaining effective extended networks with other sister or superior organizations.  It also illustrates the importance of leaders with a clear vision of what the mission is—stated and implied—and having the sense of how to effectively form and lead teams to mission success.