I don’t claim to have adopted many wise habits during my time with the Army. One very good practice I am happy to share is my practice of always asking a question or two following the receipt of an operations order (OPORD). Even the best and clearest opord deserved a follow-up question because they would always reveal a new level of understanding. The “first peel to the onion” often generated more questions from others and, I believe, a better result was achieved.
REFORGER 84 was a thoroughly planned exercise. I could tell from the many machinations I could see happening at higher HQ. This did not mean that details filtered down very well to lower level commanders such as myself. This meant that at levels closer to the individual soldier, things that were planned in detail at Division might make it to the people who were executing the plan in only piecemeal form or the guidance may arrive too late to be executed well. The premier example of this on this exercise pertains to the map overlay presented to me about three days before we departed for the exercise area. I dutifully traced “Route Violet” on the map I would carry into the exercise. For those unfamiliar with the scale of mechanized operations, this route meandered through about 50 miles of German countryside. It was intended to guide us through a “withdrawal” phase of the exercise and was probably intended to be executed with a fair degree of speed. I passed the trace of “Rote Violet” to my platoon and section leaders as well as the mess, supply and maintenance teams that would accompany us. I had them study the map in the hopes we could “envision” what the trip would be like. Many of us had actually driven sections of the route while touring. We felt confident that we could execute the trip without problems.
The early parts of the exercise are outlined in other stories, but we will discuss the “withdrawal under pressure” we expected would be ordered and proceeded in orderly fashion to “Route Violet” without any delay. About 20 miles into the march, one APC became separated, probably because the convoy element it was following broke my number one rule of convoys “Do not lose control of the element behind you!” I made it clear that a break was the fault of the last element that did not get separated – if everyone paid attention to the guy behind, there would be no breaks. SFC Michael Reynolds radioed with the coded message that he had a break and was going after his lost children. This meant that he might very well be going beyond radio range, but I had absolute confidence in Reynolds. After 40 minutes of holding my breath I got a weak signal that suggested Reynolds was en route with his lost squad. In an effort to give him the ability to “catch up” or at least get a bit closer, I had slowed slightly down from the march speed of 35km/hr being careful not to create a traffic jam for the elements behind me.
When we crested a hill that provided a panoramic view I noticed that the elements that had been in front of me were nowhere in sight. I thought this was a result of dragging my feet for awhile, but I was wrong. I was to learn later that the “Route Violet” had been changed. Instead of giving the modified route a new name, Division decided to keep the name, probably so the printed Operations Order would remain unchanged. I had broken my own rule. Instead of asking questions, I had simply replied at the last OPORD briefing, “Yes, I have the overlay for Route Violet.”
I proceeded on the original route only to find I was greeted by politzei. The were kind and explained that I would now have to follow them as a police escort. I was suspicious that this was a first-class ruse that the opposing force had pulled, but I had little choice. The escort soon approached familiar territory which I recognized as the Romantic Road, Germany’s most historic path. On the horizon, I could see Rothenberg (Germany’s museum-piece medieval town) and wondered what they were going to do to get around it. Now with all my 13 APCs and a tracked recovery vehicle in tow, I could see them leading us right into town! I thought. “This just cannot be!” They guided us under the historic gates of town and to a road that descended the steep bank of the Tauber River. The politizi guide then departed and left on our own. We had only one option, proceed forward and down the riverbank to a place where the Tauber was crossed with an old bridge I remembered from my previous tourist visits to the town. I was the forth APC in the convoy and I could see ahead to where the lead elements were preparing to cross the structure. I could also see the highway weight markers familiar to all who travel in Germany. The signs read”13” meaning the bridge could support thirteen tons. SFC Lyles had stopped and dismounted to ensure the 11-ton APCs went over one at a time to remain with in the weight. He continued to do this smart task until I was past and SFC Nadeau dismounted and continue the direction for his platoon. I felt a bit relieved at the work as we continued down the road, now nearly at the assembly area designated for tonight. Then I remembered, the recovery track weighed 17 tons. It was last in line and could not get back to do anything about it now. All I could do was pray. As an American officer and history lover the last thing I wanted to do was destroy a 15th Century bridge.
I got word that the crossing was complete and without incident. That night I breathed a sigh of relief as we arrived in the assembly area intact and free of maneuver damage. Upon arrival, our scout platoon leader looked surprised as he greeted me from his jeep. “How did you guys get here so early? We did not expect you for another 90 minutes.” “Well, John, we are Charlie Company. We just did things differently.”