As soon as the call comes in from the forward observer, the countdown begins.
Three minutes is all the Marines from Mortars Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, have. Three minutes to plot the direction, distance and elevation of a round, apply this information to their mortar tubes, launch the round and destroy the target. It’s three minutes of chaotic action, but for the Marines involved the payoff is worth it.
Mortars Platoon, a Marine Reserve unit based out of Johnson City, Tenn., spent the day honing their craft at one of the firing ranges at the Shirokyi Lan Training Area, an area used by Ukrainian Armed Forces for training, June 8 during exercise Sea Breeze 2011.
The Marines began the firing day by splitting into two groups, fire direction controllers and gun teams. An FDC’s job is to receive a fire request from a forward observer, and then using maps of their area of operations which are divided into grids, relay direction, deflection, distance and elevation data that will be needed to drop a mortar onto the target.
The gun teams then apply this information to their mortar tubes and send the mortar downrange, a process which is supposed to be completed in three minutes or less.
The Marines took up their positions and waited for the range to go “hot.” Marines spent minutes waiting for a call and just when they started to get comfortable, the radio would suddenly come to life. “Fire for effect!” someone yells over the radio and the gun teams snap to life. Marines scramble to hand out rounds and quickly send fire downrange.
The mortar Marines went through this scenario several times through ought the day. Just when they would begin to relax, a mission would suddenly come through the radio. As the Marines fired rounds, occasionally mistakes or delays would happen; rounds would be slightly off target or the tubes would need to be cleaned, causing the Marines to run dangerously close to their three- minute deadline.
Each gun team would race to fire first and would do their best to call out other teams who were running slowly. Shouts of “brush your tube” or “hurry up” filled the air as the teams rushed to complete their mission, mingling in with commands over the radio from the FDC’s, such as “Watch your pod” or “Make sure your gunner is bracing,” commands which other teams had no problem repeating out loud in an effort to call out other teams.
Despite the brief moments of excitement and stress every time a fire request comes in, the Marines find the effort worth the reward.
“I like hearing the orders (radio commands)…it’s like the build up and the explosion at the end is the quick release, it’s a rush,” said Lance Cpl. Eric Winkler, a Kansas City, Mo., native and former infantryman who has been training with the platoon since February to become a mortarman. “It’s really cool, when you hear that metal on metal sound…when the round hits a tank, it feels good.”
Mortar men are often the least understood section of an infantry company or battalion, namely due to the fact that they work in a different location and carry different weapons than their rifleman counterparts. However they often steal the show when it comes to large-scale training events.
“People are often unfamiliar with us because we use a lot of math,” said Gunnery Sgt. Ben Ramsey, an Aurora, Mo., native and platoon commander for mortars platoon. “They think what we do is mysterious, kind of like magic, but they are always drawn in because we make a good size boom.”
During the course of the day the Marines fired approximately 230 rounds. They will spend the next two days firing mortars during both the day and night as part of exercise Sea Breeze 2011.
Sea Breeze is an annual combined air, land and maritime exercise with the goals of enhancing amphibious operations, improving multinational maritime capabilities and fostering trust and cooperation among participating nations.
This year’s exercise includes participants from the United States, Ukraine, Macedonia, Moldova and Georgia and incorporates amphibious operations, maritime interdiction, improvised explosive device and convoy operations and other platoon level training. Marine Forces Europe, based out of Stuttgart, Germany, is the lead U.S. Marine Corps service component for the exercise.