Expending Ammo

As a mechanized infantry company commander serving in Germany in the 1980’s one of the great experiences one could have was a “density” (I never could understand why they were so called) at Hohenfels Training Area.  Hohenfels was a region dedicated to military maneuver training.  It was devoid of civilians.  In retrospect it seems as if it must have exceeded 50 square miles.  There was plenty of space to exercise the scope of operation that was the province of mechanized infantry and armor. Units could cross a line of departure, move to a tactical assembly area, prepare for operations (day or night) and move out.  You could practice terrain driving.  You could test SOPS and the clarity of operation orders. You could practice camouflage and deceptions. Your navigation skills could be tested at high speeds.  You could get lost!

Deploying a mechanized infantry company or battalion was a major logistical exercise.  The M113 tracks were too slow to travel the distance from western Germany to the Czech border on the autobahn.  A convoy that size would impede traffic over a large area for an entire day.  While there were armored convoys on occasions, we never travelled that way to Hohenfels. We travelled via rail.  All the armored vehicles were chained to flat cars after they were carefully loaded to ensure proper balance and distancing.  Troops rode in old sleeper cars and if the travel was to be done at night, which was often the case some soldiers slept while others stayed up and played cards.  Our train was often sidetracked and sat for hours to make way for priority passenger and commercial traffic.  The Orient Express for example came through Goppingen and we did not stand in the way of such traffic.  Arrival at the railyard at Parsberg was always interesting. We were supposedly moving without public awareness but Parsberg Annie was always at the railhead with a generous supply of schnitzel sandwiches and spätzle for sale to hungry troops.  While my battalion was second to none in the tradition of having “chow” available for troops as needed anywhere and under any condition, there was not even an effort to compete with Annie. 

Hohenfels had rather spartan barracks where troops could at least be dry and somewhat warm.  The 4/16 Infantry eschewed the accommodations and typically bivouacked outside even in the cold wet winter “densities”. The battalion commander provided his rationale for his choice.  “The barracks will make you sick!” We laughed as we grumbled.  Was he just trying to be a hardass?   A week later it was interesting to note that our sister battalion ensconced in luxury had triple the sick call rate as we. 

Hohenfels provided few opportunities for live fire. It was a maneuver area. A major challenge at Hohenfels was the need to properly engage troops.  Mechanized troops could, if planning was poor, simply become passengers riding in the back of a track.  It was always desirable to frequently require a dismount and require soldiers to provide security or some patrols, especially at night.  As both an assistant S3 (operations) planner and company commander, I tried to do what I could to get soldiers out of the track, down the ramp and into the great forested area. The woods were a bit wild and the sight of a wild boar was not uncommon. On one occasion, I had one “charge” my 13-ton APC. 

The terrain was deceptively complex and it was possible to get a bit lost.  On my final exercise I was asked to accompany our new battalion commander (who had never had a tour in Germany) on our exercise.  On a socked in fog morning I was able to guide him to his rendezvous with the brigade commander and save us both the embarrassment of “getting lost”.  After about 5 trips there I was still amazed it was so easy to get lost – especially if you lost sight of the main landmark “Old Baldy” a steep but modest hill that overlooked much of the center of the maneuver area.  In the fog, “Old Baldy” could disappear.  On my previous trip there I had met with a fellow company commander just short of the summit.  In a daring- do exercise he had is his driver ascend to the tippy top daring me to follow.  Seeing no point to endager the life or bones of my driver and myself, I showed myself a cautious coward and declined the invitation, the view was just fine from where I was parked!


On that same exercise, I was ordered to the battalion TOC (tactical operations center) which was a collection of three 577’s (higher versions of APCs) which were parked with their extensions (tent-like additions that added to the space of an open back).  When the TOC was full size, there was room enough for several staff people and all the company commanders to meet and receive an operations order.  When I arrived, the TOC was empty, and I was the only company commander present.  “Arthur, I have a mission for you!” were the words barked by the Battalion CO.  “The other units in our brigade have not fired their allocated 50 cal ammunition for the fiscal year.  As you know, the FY ends next week and the only way to consume this ammunition is for 4/16 to fire it up because we alone are at a place where we can fire.”  He took the opportunity to remind me that we had managed our resources correctly and we are doing this because others had not. If we did not fire the ammo, the entire brigade would be shortchanged in the future.

 I was unaware of any firing range at Hohenfels so I was curious about what this entailed. Where is the range? I asked.  An operations sergeant took over providing the details: “Well, it is not so much a range as a firing point.”  What does that mean” Well, sir, you can only have about three tracks up there at a time. The trail is a bit rough, and just getting tracks in and out will be a challenge.  I did a quick calculation.  If we allowed every crew from the five combat to come up and fire a bit that would mean that there were about 75 crews of 50 cal to fire.  I imagined a traffic nightmare. I also realized that there was very limited value in any crew firing any weapon except their own, A crew need to familiarize and trust its very own weapon. “OK, my next question…how much of this excess do we have to fire up?”  “Sir that is 76,000 rounds.”  “Seventy-six thousand rounds!” Having run 50 Cal ranges before I knew that this was a lot more complicated than figuring out how many rounds you could fire from three positions.  There would be headspace and timing issues.  There would be barrel changes. If the ammo was old, which too often it was, we could have to cock and recock over and over just to fire a single belt of 100 rounds.  We’d need to have a lot of lubricant.  We would need chow and water.  My mind drifted to the thought of morning fog precluding us from going live as soon as we’d like.  It was October and it got dark a lot sooner than it had in June. 

I met with my platoon sergeants who had a lot more range experience than I and we came up with a plan.  We would park three of our company APCs in place, no we’d fudge it to four, and leave them in place all day.  Crews would park at the bottom of the hill and carry their own weapons up to the firing points and mount then on the parked APCs and allow them to fire their own weapons an allocated amount of ammo.  They would then dismount the guns and the next crew would follow immediately behind.  My friend Jim O’Donnell the S3 had found a huge stash of Brake Free in the woods a day before, no doubt a unit was trying to dump excess inventory to prepare of an IG inspection.  Good for us!  We placed the stash on the firing point to remedy problems as they arose.  We built a stockpile of 50 cal barrels (which are interchangeable with any gun) along wit a crew to manage the barrels and the break free. 


The next day, our 0800 go live time was, as expected, delayed by fog.  We lost 30 minutes but began as soon as possible.  The racket was tremendous!  All day we had four heavy machine guns firing away at some old hulks of armored vehicles positioned 300 -1000 meters away.  In the rare situations where there was a break because a unit showed up a bit late (I did mention you could get lost at Hohenfles, right?) we had two 50’s mounted on tripods and our company got a bit extra practice using those.  Remarkably by 1600, we had expended 75,000 rounds of 50 caliber ammunition.  I would offer in an after-action report that most of this was seriously expended, not just tossed down range.  Most crews in the battalion had an opportunity to shoot about 8 boxes of 100 rounds with an opportunity for both gunner and assistant gunner to engage targets at various ranges.  We had a lot of rare opportunities to deal with misfires, heated barrels, and correction to headspace and timing while the crew fired their own weapons.  And we had the distinction of saving next years bacon for the entire brigade.