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April 17, 2006

Under Fire

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For some reason my son was impressed when I happened to mention that I once crawled under machine-gun fire.

No big deal. I was perfectly safe. Well make that almost perfectly safe. I'd better explain.

It was part of Army Basic Training (do not call it Boot Camp -- that's what Marines do) back in the days when the Berlin Wall went up.

There was still a draft, so training companies were made up of enlistees such as me and draftees. Regardless of type of service, everyone had to undergo eight weeks of Basic. Those destined for Infantry would move on to the "second eight," another two months of field training that would give them more experience with weapons and small-unit tactics. Soldiers going into other fields ranging from artillery to clerk-typing went on to specialist training schools after completing Basic Training.

The first-eight Basic's purpose was to provide a minimum common grounding for all Army enlisted men; officers had similar training, usually in the form of a six-week ROTC summer camp.

We learned how to dress, march, maintain the barracks and fire and take care of the rifle. We also got a smattering of small-unit tactics as well as some exposure to weapons other than the World War 2 vintage M-1 rifle we were issued.

The machine gun came into play towards the end of Basic. One training area had two or three 50-caliber machine guns on a small rise or terrace facing a berm a few hundred feet away that served as the impact area for the bullets. Between the terrace and the berm was a lower area that had stake-mounted barbed wire crisscrossed about 18 inches above the ground; it was at least a hundred feet wide and maybe 50-75 feet deep in relation to the machine guns.

What we had to do was get on our backs and push ourselves over the ground under the barbed wire in the direction of the machine guns. We were told to position the rifle trigger-upwards with the end of the barrel leaning against the visor of our steel helmet. This way, we could use the rifle to push up against the barbed wire to help avoid getting snagged.

We were told this as we sat in bleachers next to the training area. It was late November or early December and the sun was already set. After the officer completed the instructions he signaled the machine guns to give us a fire demonstration. It was impressive.

Of course it was noisy. But what really got our attention was the tracer bullets. They turned the area over the barbed wire into a sheet of yellow-red flame. When they hit the berm, those bullets not burying themselves into the earth ricocheted in random arcs over the berm. "Are you readddyyy?" asked the officer enthusiastically. "Ulp, ready" we weakly responded.

One more detail. Those machine guns were not free to depress and, as best I recall, couldn't traverse either; their barrels were fixed to a metal post, forcing the bullets (with allowance for random dispersion) to fly over the crawling troops, not into them. About the only way to get killed would be to panic and somehow try to stand up -- almost impossible given all that barbed wire over us.

So the worst part of it was getting dirt down the back of our necks as we pushed our way under the wire. Yes it was noisy and yes the tracers were lighting up the area. But the dirt was frustrating because there was nothing much that could be done about it until we got past the barbed wire.

As best I can figure, the likelihood of encountering anything remotely like that situation in actual combat was nearly nil. The point of the exercise was to give us the feeling of being under heavy fire.

As I said, no big deal, but an interesting story to impress the kids.



posted by Donald at April 17, 2006


I've heard that the machine guns used today in that sort of training are set so that bullets cannot go any lower than eight feet above ground level, so even a soldier who manages to stand up will be safe.

Posted by: Peter on April 17, 2006 8:42 PM

I read the same thing as Peter in Richard North's good review of Jarhead for Social Affairs Unit, on line here. A recruit freaks out, stands up and gets shot; "Couldn't happen," says North.

Posted by: robert on April 18, 2006 7:17 AM

I think you use that story to impress chicks. Hey, didya know I crawled under machine gun fire...?

Posted by: annette on April 18, 2006 9:17 AM

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