Father Denis O’Brien (MM) and late a Sergeant of the First Marine Division in that little dust up out in the Pacific was a veteran of the Cape Gloucester, Pelelieu (“we lost the equivalent of two regiments in a week”) and Okinawa landings. Having heard God’s call in the cauldron of close combat, after the War, he took holy orders as a missionary priest to the far corners of the world. Still, he never stopped being a Marine—he was the beloved Chaplain of the First Marine Division Association at the time of his death in Dallas, Texas on August 29, 2002.
The Padre knew war and was not afraid to write about it.
The high point of the day for me was the 1700 (5pm) meeting the Skipper had with the platoon commanders, the artillery forward observer, and the Company Gunnery Sergeant. The Gunny would have his FM radio turned to the Armed Forces Vietnam Network for the country and western program. We got our mail, ate, talked and then were briefed on the night’s plans.
Around 1 February, the Skipper announced that Mike Koch and I would swap platoons. I would become Weapons Platoon Commander and Mike would take over 2d Platoon. While I was not happy about the change, it was fair. On Christmas eve, the Skipper had noted that with four of us joining at the same time, he would make a switch to ensure that each of us had a shot at a rifle platoon.
Weapons Platoon was a different assignment. Because the machine gun and anti-tank sections were attached out to the three rifle platoons, all I really had was the three tubes of the 60mm mortar section. As a result, I was also the headquarters commandant, which meant that I was posted in the COC as the "watch officer" most of the time.
It was at this time that Dick Rollins and I became friends. Dick was an artillery officer assigned to Charlie Company as its FO. He was the company commander’s supporting arms expert and, in our situation at the Base Camp, acted as the Supporting Arms Coordinator, coordinating the fires of the 60mm mortars, 81mm mortar fire missions, and close air support, as well as the artillery fires from Delta Battery, 2d Battalion, 11th Marines (his parent unit).
One afternoon, the Gunny scrounged some older 60mm rounds and we decided to train our gunners. Alligator Lake (named for its shape on the map) was at the southwest corner of our perimeter. We had the mortar teams set up and planned to shoot into the lake.
The 60mm mortar rounds we were using had a finned base, a tubular shaft that connected the fins to the body of the shell, and a point-detonating fuse. Clipped to the fins were propellant increments (referred to as “charges”), an explosive papery substance. There were holes in the tube, which was hollow. Inserted into the base of the tube was, essentially, a shotgun round without any pellets.
The firing pin was located at the base of the mortar tube itself. The round was prepared and then dropped into the tube. When it hit bottom, the shotgun shell was fired, which ignited the charges, generating gas and propelling the round out of the tube. The range of the weapon depended on the elevation of the mortar tube and the number of charges affixed to the fins. The gunner and assistant gunner could adjust the range by removing one or more of the charges before the round was dropped into the tube.
When we opened the rounds the Gunny had obtained, we discovered that they were Korean War era ammo. They were similar to the round we used, but were shorter and stubbier.
We began the firing exercise and all went well. The Gunny and I were standing about 15 meters from the gun pits, observing. Suddenly, I noticed that as one tube fired, the round exited the mortar slowly and was already wobbling in flight.
“It’s not supposed to do that, is it Gunny? Gunny? Gunny?” He was nowhere to be seen.
I looked back, and he had taken cover behind a sandbagged emplacement. “Get your ass over here, Lieutenant!”
I hit the deck as the round exploded about 150 meters outside our lines, well short of the middle of the lake. Thus ended our practice shoot.
A couple of nights later, tragedy struck again. One of Chip Hartman’s squads was heading out for its ambush site. While still on the road, they heard noise to their flank and went into an immediate action drill.
IA drills are practiced before every patrol to address common situations, such as taking incoming artillery or mortar fire, being ambushed, or countering an ambush.
In this case, the proper response was for each man to turn 90 degrees towards the suspected enemy unit and to assault through the enemy ambush. They did just that, but the tail end Charlie apparently turned less than 90 degrees and moved in front of the next man in the column. Seeing movement in front of him in the darkness, he fired, killing the other Marine.
The squad returned to the lines for the night. I quickly formed up an ambush patrol made up of cooks and bakers and spare Marines from the 81 mm mortar platoon and sent them out for the near ambush.
The next morning, Chip assembled his entire platoon in a back corner of the Base Camp. The Marine who had killed his shipmate was still at sickbay, but the rest of the platoon was badly shaken. They sat in a “school circle” and talked for about six hours, until they had things settled in the “family.” It was never mentioned again.
I think that Chip’s performance in those trying circumstances was one of the finest acts of leadership I witnessed in my Marine Corps career. He was a consummate officer and a genuine leader of men.
The incident itself was the kind of “friendly fire” incident that has plagued soldiers since the beginning of time. Because the press was so anxious to find any “story” to spice up the news, many Americans think that friendly fire was a phenomenon unique to the First Gulf War. They are wrong.
Stonewall Jackson was killed at Chancellorsville by friendly fire. During WWII in Normandy, there were several instances in which Army Air Force bombers became lost and bombed American units, killing hundreds. We refer to “the fog of war” for a reason.
This incident and others like it prove Father Denis’s famous maxim (from his essay, “Murphy’s Law of Combat”): Friendly fire isn’t!