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FO Teams & Tall Comanche

By Dan Bertram

Birth Control 28; LKA Head Beagle 28  (Currently a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio)

Artillery support of the infantry is a long-standing tactic of the US Army and almost all armies of the world.   The following is a description of a typical Forward Observer (FO)  team’s make up, duties and relationship to the supported infantry company.

I was the forward observer for C 2/5 Cavalry, Tall Comanche, from September. ‘69 through December. ‘69.  The typical FO team consisted of the Forward Observer (usually a Lieutenant), a reconnaissance sergeant, ( an E-5), and an RTO. ( an E-3 or E-4)  My Recon Sergeant was SGT Charlie Dickey, and my RTO was CPL Gary Armstrong.  Our principal duty was to acquire and adjust the artillery fire of both tube artillery and aerial rocket artillery.  We were also the contact when US Air Force assets were providing tactical support to the company.  An additional duty was keeping track of the map location of the company as it moved through the jungle.  SGT. Dickey and I were also responsible to mentor the RTO in FO procedures should it become necessary for him to assume that function.  Naturally that situation did arise.  I had the opportunity to monitor the radio when CPL Armstrong had to become the FO and I am proud to say he did an excellent job. 

The three of us were actually artillerymen assigned to Battery A, 1st Battalion,  77th Field Artillery (A - 1/77FA) and we were attached to Tall Comanche.  Technically speaking, we were not part of the company.  We were there to support the company in its missions.  However in our hearts, and I am sure this applies to all FO teams, we were part of the company.  We patrolled with them, we slept with them, we ate with them, and we fought with them.  We knew the men of C 2/5 would never fail us and we would never fail them.  They were not just somebody we were temporarily working with.   We viewed them as our brothers.

When the company was in the boonies we normally conducted four types of fire missions for them:

Contact missions:  These were fire missions conducted when we were actually engaged in firefights with the NVA.  We would adjust the fires of the supporting artillery batteries, normally 105mm and 155mm howitzer batteries.  We also would call for support from the 2nd Battalion, 20th Aerial Rocket Artillery (2/20 ARA), the Cobra helicopters with the Blue Max call sign.  These were excellent weapon systems.  With their mini guns and rockets they could bring direct fire on the enemy.  The artillery rounds from the howitzers had such a large kill radius that we had to be extra careful due to the close in nature of a jungle firefight.

Occasionally the USAF would support us with F-4 Phantom jets and fire from AC-130, Spooky, gun ships.  Communicating with the F-4s was normally done through a FAC (forward air controller) pilot.  The Spooky pilots would contact us directly on our artillery radio frequency.  Adjusting the fires of aviation support always had a scary component.  Their runs were usually very close to friendly troops.  Did I know where everybody was?  Did anybody get to far forward?  Telling those pilots to “roll hot” was always playing a game of  “you bet your bars”.   Fortunately I never had an incident.

Defensive Targets:  Also known as DTs or Delta Tangos were fired every night whether we were in the weeds or on a firebase.  When the company was in position for the night we would plot four target grids around our position and fire then in.  If we were to have enemy contact at night we would just call for the pre-fired location closest to the enemy location and shift those fire to the enemy position.  This saved a lot of time by not having to figure a target grid in the dark of night. 

Reconnaissance by fire:  These missions were fired when we were about to move into a location about which we had insufficient information or we suspected that enemy troops might be occupying.  We would have our artillery battery fire a number of rounds into the forward area.  If the area should be occupied hopefully these rounds would disrupt the NVA and lessen the risk to our own troops. 

Marking missions:  A marking mission was used to help the company find its ground location on the map.  Yes, sometimes we were not completely sure where we were.  Tay Ninh Province was as flat as a tabletop.  The dense jungle, elephant grass, and double canopy overhead made terrain feature identification pretty much a non-event.  To fire a marking mission we would have a gun fire a white phosphorus air bust at two separate grid intersections.  When the WP rounds burst in the air we would shoot a compass azimuth to the two burst locations.  Then on our map we would plot back azimuths from the intersecting grid locations.  Where the back azimuth lines intersected would be our map location.  This method actually worked, occasionally.  Another method was to have the C/C bird fly over and give us our location but then we had to admit that we were not sure where we were. 

A few more words about keeping track of the company’s location.  While this was ultimately the “6’s” responsibility it was also imperative for the FO team.  We could not plot a target grid if we did not know our own location.  I tried to keep tack of out location by polar plotting.  This method assumes that we know our correct starting point.  That was not always a valid assumption.  When the company was about to move, “6” would brief the platoon leaders and me on the planned route of movement and compass headings we were to follow.  Knowing our starting point and direction of movement I would count every time my left foot hit the ground.  I learned that approximately every sixty left foot strikes were equal to one hundred meters.  Every time we moved a hundred meters I would stick a twig in my helmet band.  When we would stop I would count the twigs.  Knowing how far and in what direction I could re-plot our position.  With every halt Six and I would confer and compare our location estimates.  This method really worked very well.

When the company was in the field my RTO and I would normally stay with the CP.  The FO’s function is to assist the “6” with his fire support requirements.  SGT Dickey, the Recon Sergeant, would normally move with whichever element might need additional fire support.  If the company would send out an ambush element he would go with that detail.

When the company would return to a firebase to pull its duty as base defense company.  The FO’s primary duty would be to fire in the defensive targets and to be prepared to defend the base if and when an attack would occur.  On a daily basis the company would send out a day light patrol or a daylight patrol and night ambush.  These patrols were normally about the size of half of a platoon.  SGT Dickey and I would take turns going with these patrols.  One day he would go with the patrol and I would stay as base defense FO.  The next day I would patrol while he did the base defense duty. 

While pulling base defense duty the FO team did have one perk that the grunts did not enjoy.  As artillerymen attached to an infantry company we had the ability to eat from either the infantry mess or artillery mess.  We could check out each mess’s chow and pick which ever had the best that day.  Sorry grunts, but I think the artillery mess won about 2 out of 3 days.  The worst days were when both messes were serving liver.  (Editorial Note from Doug Hendrixson:  I thought the artillery mess won out every day.  I even smuggled Tall Comanche “6” into the artillery mess a few times.  “6” also agreed, saying something to the effect:  “This isn’t just good food for the Army – this is good food for anywhere.”  “Perfectly good food can be screwed up by bad cooks!”)

I would like to take a moment to thank the grunts for a favor they always extended to me.  If on a day that I was out patrolling, the company received goodie packages, i.e. clean uniforms, SP packets, soda pop some one would always remember to set aside a portion for me.  The items would be in my bunker when I returned.   I can’t express how much I appreciated that consideration. 

In closing I would like to say to the Tall Comanche troopers how much serving with them has meant to me.   Being part of the company was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  I think any artilleryman who has had the opportunity to serve as an FO in combat would always think of that experience as the most fulfilling of their artillery career.

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Updated May 11, 2002