Thursday, October 17, 2013

True Colors

--Capt. William Swenson receiving the Medal of Honor
 October 15, 2013 
Show me a smile then 
Don't be unhappy 
Can't remember when 
I last saw you laughing  
--True Colors, Cyndi Lauper 

Reportage on the on the most recent Medal of Honor recipient from the Wars on Terror -- Army Captain William Swenson -- carries a misstatement:
 "[this award] marks only the second time in the last 50 years that two American service members have received the Medal of Honor for actions in the same battle.
"In 2011, Dakota Meyer, a Marine sergeant who also is now a civilian, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in that Sept. 8, 2009, battle in Afghanistan" (Obama: Washington can learn from Medal of Honor recipient.)

Ranger presumes the article's "second time" refers to the MOH's posthumously awarded to Randall David "Randy" Shughart and Master Sergeant Gary Gordon for their actions in the Battle of Mogadishu (Oct. '93).

However, in fact the Vietnam War Battle of the Ia Drang Valley (LZ X-Ray) in 1965 produced three Medals of Honor, a battle within that 50 year window. However, somehow we still give that war and its participants the short shrift.

The MOH recipients from the Battle of LZ X-Ray were 1st LT Walter J. Marm (15 Feb 67); Captain Ed Freeman (16 July 2001), and Major Bruce Crandall (26 Feb 2007). It is only appropriate that the MOH finally be awarded to an Infantry U.S. Army Captain. Capt. Swenson did what one would expect from an officer under dire circumstances; he deserves our praise. But let us not forget Marm, Freeman or Crandall. 

Let us also honor the MOH recipients from that war no so long ago -- my war -- by remembering the names of those men and their actions.


  1. Excellent post Jim, thank you.

  2. Andy,
    I find this particular MOH interesting as i cannot believe that other Infantry officers have not performed at the level req'd to be awarded the MOH. Imagine 13 years of war and only 1 infy officer reaching the bar for award of the MOH.
    Now having said that i did a little more research and found a historical parallel in 1968,Sgt Yntema of the 5th SFGA. He like Cpt Swenson was given the option to surrender when he was surrounded and he chose to use his rifle as a club.
    When the en is that close that they offer a chance to surrender then it's pretty clear that things have gone south.
    1968 or 2009 and the song remains the same.

  3. jim

    For reasons that baffle me, it is not at all unusual for someone presenting an significant award of any sort to try and ascribe something "unusual" to it, as if the individual's MOH needs to be further elevated by external events.

    I remember when LTC Charles C Rogers award of the MOH was posted in Army Times in 1970, saying he was the highest ranking Black to be awarded the medal. Rogers wrote an indignant letter to the Times, saying that he was simply a Soldier, and the only color that should be ascribed to him was "Army Green", as should be the case for all Soldiers. Having served with the man, I was in no way surprised at his response to the Times. In fact, his Citation falls short of describing all of his actions during the defense of the FSB. I knew several troops on the ground with him, and they were in absolute awe of his brave actions. Judging by what I saw flying an early dawn resupply to the position, all hell had broken loose and was continuing to do so.

  4. jim -

    From my perspective, Swenson's award was well deserved and long overdue.

    Interesting that Ia Drang kind of leads into your previous post on Lang Vei. Didn't Ia Drang start because of NVA overrunning the SF CIDG camp at Plei Me? I believe that the CIDG camps were the same tripwire that started some other major battles back then. Dak To in 67 started when US manuever units went to the relief of the CIDG Camp there. And Kham Duc in 68 comes to mind also. The NVA did the same - major ambushing of relief forces - to the French also.

  5. Mike,
    LV and ganjga fights have a common denominator which is the lack of ,or tardiness of supporting fires.
    I believe that it doesn't matter if you were at LV or fighting what we call 4th generational war the whole thing boils down to DS arty and timely air rockets/bomb support. As always i favor the ds arty.
    Simply put no unit in an operational staus should ever be without rapid on call indirect fire responsive to the guys on the ground.
    Your cidg accounts look correct to me.

  6. Jim -

    I understand that tardiness of arty support was a major factor. Reportedly it took 15 minutes to get rounds on target. And then later during the attack the comm antennas for that fire support went out due to NVA mortar fire (or maybe it was 152mm from Laos??).

    Agree 100% with your comment for need of Direct Support. That 15 minute delay at LV never would have happened if they had a unit in DS. Same with Ganjgal's air support. Unfortunately I understand the current thinking in the puzzle palace is that fire support assets (both air and arty) are too thin to restrict them to DS.

    Battalions in VN that I served with always had a DS battery when they were deployed beyond the wire. And FSCC procedures were worked out in advance and practiced. Same with Battalion Landing Teams on float in peacetime. The same with air as the Corps used to have Close Air Support assets dedicated to a particular unit in the field in a DS role, But I understand the AF has nixed that during joint operations in order to keep all available air assets under their control. This has long been a bone of contention.

  7. Mike.
    I think the main issue is UNITY OF COMMAND.
    In LV the Marine CDR had a fire restriction of no arty unless there were targets observed with a direct eyeball. This precluded firing to break up the attack in the assembly area or before they crossed the LD.When the tanks were in the wire it was too late.
    We haven't even used terms like GS or GSR when discussing the arty spt at ganjgal. Surely the assets were not so thin that gsr would have been adequate.
    The point is that we hang troops out to dry.
    Thanks for your participation.

  8. jim -

    I did not mean to infer that the fire support assets were thin back then in Vietnam or at Lang Vei. That comment was meant more for more recent ops like Ganjgal and others in Afghanistan. Khe Sanh had "three batteries of 105-mm. howitzers, one battery of 4.2-inch mortars, and one battery of 155-mm. howitzers". Additionally "they were supported by four batteries of Army 175-mm. guns, one at the Rockpile, north of the base, and three at Camp Carroll, to the east" which may have been in range of LV. I imagine though that the accuracy of the 175s at that range would have been dicey. Surely there was a serious problem with the coordination of fire support between the TOC at LV and the FSCC at KS. I assume there was an investigation, but could not find results of it online. Sounds like too little unity of command and too much using of separate command channels.

    As for close air support at LV, all I could find was this account by Toby Rushforth, an Air Force FAC flying an OV-2: FAC Perspective. Good account! Rushforth and the other AF FACs did a great job there (in daylight). But they had a hard time convincing the brass about the NVA tanks. The money quote from his piece is his debriefing after his first mission over LV: ”The landing was uneventful, and I proceeded directly to the Intelligence debriefing room where I was told to call directly to Headquarters 7th Air Force in Saigon. A Colonel answered the phone and began the debriefing. When I mentioned tanks, he fired off and as much as called Captain Rushforth a liar or maybe just mistaken? After all we had been reporting that day and for weeks prior, I thought it incredible that he was questioning me like this. He was so adamant I became adversarial in tone, if not in words, and described the vehicles as "ya know, they have tracks on both sides, this thing that looked just like a turret on top, with a big long thing sticking out of it (like maybe a big gun)!?" Not only that, I was only 500ft. above them. To my amazement, he still wasn't buying it? I played my Ace of Spades -- "I have pictures!" "Pictures," he shouted! You get them right over to the photo lab and we'll divert a plane to pick them up immediately! I did, and he did, like within the hour. I'm sure the pictures were great on the briefing circuit (they came out well), but we never heard about them again.”

    But even though the FACs did a good job in daylight and under some cloudy conditions, I do not understand why the responding aircraft were not under control of the ASRT (Air Support Radar Team) at Khe Sanh. Those ASRT controllers could and did bring CAS strikes to within 50 meters of the Marine positions at KS and its hill outposts in the middle of moonless nights and in all-weather conditions. I have to assume that since LV was so close to the Lao border that its air space was under Seventh AF control and they did not have a similar ground-controlled support system at the time. Mox nix now with the technology of GPS and AF FACs on the ground embedded with Army grunt units.

  9. Mike,

    From what I heard of this fight, the primary concern was how close the fighters were to civilian populations and the real problem with the fight was the FSO at the TOC would not authorize support in a timely fashion and air support was diverted to another AO as a result of prior asset prioritization.

    Swenson earned his MoH by not only fighting off some serious odds but also by doing it without support. This battle disgusted me from a Fire Support perspective because while the guy on the ground was apparently calling for inappropriate targets, the response should never be "sorry, we can't. Best of luck."

    Good Fire Support provides real options to the guys on the ground. There are good reasons not to start shooting rounds down range; if the ground commander doesn't know where all of his guys are, I'd be wary. But even so, you can always shoot some targets and you can always provide some support until the guy can get his shit together. From what I heard, that didn't happen. Support was denied in any form until things had already gone south. A damn shame.

    As for GSR versus DS, that is a total lost art for the Army. As far as I could tell, trying to have a FECC defend multiple locations from attack was nearly impossible. Too few assets is a problem but we don't handle it well and that's worse.

    PF Khans

  10. I would expand on PFK's observation that it has been a long time since the U.S. Army trained on - much less executed - FA missions above battalion level.

    I think a lot of that has to do with simple funding. In all the time I spent in the RA (with an infantry unit, mind you) the largest single maneuver element we ever trained in the field with was a brigade, and that was at NTC. We sent elements of the 82nd ABN to Germany with REFORGERs in the Eighties but that was usually 1) less which ever brigade was in mission cycle, and 2) without the XVIII Corps FA assets that would have provided GS/GSR fires in wartime.

    As a Guard artilleryman things were worse. We typically had a notional "battalion" but often batteries had 2-4 crews and as a battalion we usually fielded less - and usually much less - than the 18 gun systems we were supposed to have.

    And we almost never trained with all the elements we would have in wartime. So no FSEs with the maneuver battalions, no divisional or corps fire support/fire direction elements, no FACs, no was just us bopping through the woods at FLWA or YFC.

    The one time we tried was JRTC back in the early Oughts and it was a freaking disaster. None of the FSEs could reliably clear fires (i.e. they often didn't know exactly where their supported maneuver units were...) and many, many missions didn't get fired because there was just no way to be sure we wouldn't be placing rounds on our own units.

    And this is a DS artillery battery. The higher echelon FA units NEVER trained with us, or our maneuver units. Never.

    FA operations above brigade level are a great rarity and have been since the Seventies. To try and do them now would mean not "regaining" those skills but learning them from scratch, basically. All the lessons the U.S. FA learned from '42-45, relearned in Korea and again in Vietnam (and to some extent got to relearn in the desert in '91...) has - I suspect - now been completely lost.

  11. Chief- Here is the first paragraph of a 2009 AUSA National Security Report:

    Not long ago, three former combat commanders of maneuver brigade combat teams (BCTs) collaborated on a
    “white paper” that highlighted several trends. While reinforcing the importance of integrating fires with maneuver, they decried the “identity crisis” (their words) of the field artillery branch as a result of, among other factors, force structure changes within the Army and nonstandard manpower demands of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. They believed fire support was fast becoming a lost art and, most disturbing, the branch was “losing the very talent it needed to fix itself.”

  12. Al: I was running around like what was left of my hair was on fire back in 2005 and 2006, telling any and all of my highers who would listen that the FA Branch was eating its young because of the "War on Terror".

    Young redlegs coming into my Guard unit from off RA - and we got fewer than you'd think; word had gotten out that the RC units were getting activated every 2-3 years and a lot of these guys had had their fill of Wogland, Guard money or no Guard money - were effectively galvanized infantrymen.

    The 13Charlies who were supposed to be fire direction specialists had lost almost everything they had learned in AIT and at their RA units. E-5s would show up unable to remember how to process anything but simple adjust fire BCS or AFATADs missions. They had forgotten how to read a meterologic message. E-4s would have to page slowly through a TFT to extract data and work a GFT or site stick only with difficulty.

    Most of them had not fired any of the FA Tables in years; I actually had a buck sergeant tell me he had NEVER fired FA Table VIII.

    I have no idea what sort of condition my old branch is in today, but hopefully the drawdown from the Middle Eastern deployments have allowed the FA units to return to training on artillery tasks.

    1. Chief,

      That sounds about where it was when I left it. If anything, the fire support side is even worse. I'm not sure if the US ever had anything like an institutional appreciation for fire support, but it's not there now.

      All the 11s and 19s seem to think that 13Fs are additional radiomen and that when it comes down to it, "anyone" can call for fire, so no need to worry about it. I had a day of CFF training set aside for months prior to deployment only to have it cancelled for "Drown Proofing." Guess what was relevant in Kunar and Kamdesh?

    2. "I'm not sure if the US ever had anything like an institutional appreciation for fire support..."

      Be sure. The U.S. Army in 1945 was pretty much known as an artillery organization with assorted support elements. Outside the Soviets the U.S. had the largest and best served indirect fire organization in the world; every GI, and everyone who observed, or wrote about GIs, talked and wrote about that.

      And that was the basis of U.S. operations for decades; hell, the big complaint in Vietnam was that the U.S. was TOO dependent on artillery, that the use of H&I fires and liberal designation of free-fire zones caused more problems than it solved.

      The ascendency of the COIN Cult, though, has changed that and I agree that the current situation is dire for the FA.

  13. Aviator,

    I read that paper. It's not pretty. I can tell you that of the 10+ officers that got lectured upon submitting our request for termination of service, 7-8 of them were arty. I can also say that at Arty OBC, Fire Support as a whole got shortened to give us other "Effects" training, mostly in Information Operations type stuff and some Civil Affairs crap.

    Outside the mechanized artillery in Korea, no artillery in the US is in any position to deal with counter-battery fire.

    The artillery problem deserves a totally separate post, it's so large. IMO, it's a product of a culture that denigrates good supporting fires in the hopes of replicating some sort of gunslinger fights. The Cav and Infantry guys I knew really wanted to get into a close fight with the Taliban until they got fucked by trying it. And frankly, the most "Army successful" (read: best OERs and placement) artillery officers also feel like using supporting fires is cheating. There's too much "Call of Duty" Army antics and not enough winning is winning mentality. And that makes sense when you are fighting urban gangs without their own fire support. But the instant, your enemy starts coordinating and suppressing your suppressing positions, you want fire support. Ultimately, that's really not the time to realize you need it.

    PF Khans

    1. Interesting, in sort of a "WTF?" way.

      I guess I can understand the lack of emphasis on indirect fire as a problem in a guerrilla war, where civilian casualties from rounds outside the MPI are a potential problem.

      What I don't understand is the notion of FA as "cheating".

      That's a complete WTF; "cheating"? Dude; you're in a fucking deathmatch, the Game of Thrones - you fucking win or you die. How the hell do you go into something like that without every tool in the box?

      That's ridiculously fucked up. They seriously think that way?

  14. Probably one reason that Arty has fallen into general disuse is the "lack of emphasis" you offer, Chief. If it isn't an ever present tool, it slowly becomes forgotten. Way back in antiquity, part of our USMC training in setting up a "hasty defense" was determining targeting for defensive supporting fires. That was taught at the squad level. Fires, be they mortar, Arty or CAS were part of every equation. No idea of what is taught today.

    But then, by 1976, helo resupply was no longer a common thought for maneuver commanders. 1) It was a lot simpler to use organic wheel transport in their exercises. 2 The drivers "needed the training". 3) Field exercises do not consume at the level of actual combat. We had to beg maneuver units to use our Chinooks to support their field training. One Bde Cdr told me that we were intruding on his training operations!

  15. Agreed, Al, and with the understanding that in a guerrilla war that is (at least notionally) being fought along Western COIN practices/hearts-and-minds lines the downside of a round landing on some local kiddies outweighs the upside of FA support.

    I just don't have the on-the-ground experience to argue cogently one way or the other, other than the general sense I have that the Western COIN paradigm is massively flawed. IMO the problem goes much deeper than just losing a handful of villagers to a stray round; it's that suppressing rebellions is and always has been a matter either of 1) making deals with the rebels to bring them into the tent, or 2) butchering everything that breathes and calling the result "peace". It's the old "Go Roman or go home" deal for the foreign occupier.

  16. Chief-

    About Italy/Sicily, you wrote in another thread:

    2) there was no way they could justify having hundreds of thousands of guys and assloads of aircraft and tanks sit around doing jack shit.

    Pretty much the same with having supporting fires units, just in case they can be used. The "COIN model" worries about "hearts and minds", thus fires are downplayed, and consequently fires slide off the table.

  17. Al and Chief, I believe that organic mortars would do the job most effectively out on the COP's IF the mortars were employed and used within the framework of how they should be employed.
    One does NOT put arty tubes in beaten zones, so why do we repeatedly do so with mortars?
    If u can't service the tubes then they are useless.

  18. For your enjoyment, Arty at COP Boris (a little COP along the Pak border)

    According to someone who was there the triple 7s fired all day and all night long all the time. This was supporting fires and counter battery fire.

  19. Chief,

    It was honestly that bad. It took taking casualties for them to realize that this shit was for keeps and that it wasn't a good idea to go out without having a little extra firepower. But in that weird war before death, everyone wanted to be John McClain.

    Hearts and minds was very much an inconsistent factor in the employment of indirect fires. I know for a fact that the commander at COP Keating regularly turned down requests to fire his mortars even in cases where the fires would be within ROE. And even when it was, he regularly opted for smaller caliber 60s instead of the 120s that he had. He apparently was always concerned about civilian casualties and that restrained him to a fault.

    Incompetence aside, the Army promotes artillery officers who would rather be infantry officers. The Army turned Forward Observers into radiomen and tried to democratize fire support to all soldiers. But since everyone already had a job, fire support goes to the guy who is least capable of his job and thus least capable of fire support. They stopped teaching any of the fire planning shit and instead taught COIN. All combat units, arty and infantry alike got deployed as infantry in Iraq.

    The result is that no one in the platoon can call for fire. No one can process the call for fire when it's given. No one knows when to call for fire and we jerk from "FIRE EVERYTHING" to never shooting. And since the experts aren't actually experts, no one knows that this is incorrect.

    I witnessed a platoon winchester a B1 bomber on a mountain side to no effect. Literally an hour later the enemy remerged and resumed their attack. Everyone involved was applauded for their awesome fire support skills. I was so disgusted. You give me a 2,000lbs bomb, I'll fucking kill some people. You give me 75,000lbs of bombs and I'll turn an attack into a rout. But these dumbasses spread their bombs all over the map on rocky outcroppings not a damn soul ever got close to and then patted themselves on the back for their use of weaponry in a highly ineffective manner.

    The Army taught me that good artillery is not the actual product of Army processes and techniques but requires often disobeying orders and what amounts to a black market, underground system of controls. Good fire support was required to be whispered and talked about in the hushed tones of embarrassed and shunned soldiers.

    I sleep soundly at night because these problems are offset by the fact that a) very few armies do this well. b) We make up for our lack of skills with munition quantities that are awesome. and c) I'm out and I before I left I trained my LTs right. I did my piece. I kept my guys alive. I no longer care to make this right.

    PF Khans

  20. To all,
    I must make a closing comment.
    The good and brave Captain looks like a deer caught in a spot lighters beam.