Sunday, July 4, 2010
Fort Madison, Iowa
Aboard Charlie Six
The sprint across Iowa had been a little more trying than I thought it would be, the last fifty miles illustrating burned farmhouses or towns, with a few scarecrow civilians and probably no supplies. The S.A. continued to demonstrate their ability to emulate the locust swarm.
A continuing threat of surface to air missiles by the hundreds effectively kept normal Air Command ground-support missions in a stand off position, and hindered their ability to effectively target the S.A. in an agile manner, except with drones of limited capability and increasing rates of failure….and the result was the field of damaged heavy armor nearby. The reality was that the U.S. Army and Air Force were fighting with worn down aircraft and inexperienced replacement crews. It was catching up to our Brigade of course as well. When real-time mattered, the satellites couldn’t deliver, or the effectiveness of numerous enemy anti-satellite missions proved their effect. Recon was spotty. The scale of air support needed was completely beyond Air Command’s ability to deliver, due to the hundreds of sorties needed daily to meet everyone’s demands. Not all problems could be addressed with massive hammer blows…surgical strikes were needed, and almost impossible to execute.
Thin U.S. forces held the bridge at Keokuk, and all points south. That bridge had been the last point that the S.A. crossed, as Composite swept north and east. Composite Group was moving east and north, from that point, as all bridges across the Mississippi between Keokuk and Davenport, far to our north were gone. The vast majority of the Composite, almost ninety-five thousand men and thousands of trucks, tanks and artillery were already across the Mississippi south of us, in pursuit of the S.A., headed toward Bloomington and Champaign…eventually Chicago. I’d learned that everything east of us, from the Illinois line roughly over to Cincinnati, was now in U.S. control.
Third Washington would begin our work at Fort Madison, but within a week, we’d be heading over the Mississippi ourselves to support Composite moving north.
Fort Madison, according to my intelligence file, was a few miles north and across the river from Nauvoo, Illinois. It was the home to the oldest military garrison on the upper Mississippi, dating from before The War of Eighteen-Twelve. The town itself was above the banks of the Mississippi, on the northern edge of a floodplain that stretched eight or so miles southwest, about two miles wide, obviously carved by the river. The pre-War satellite images of the plain showed that it was ringed by tree-covered hills, and bisected north to south by Highway Sixty One, and cut again by the rail line to Kansas City. The Air Force had considerately taken destroyed the Fort Madison Bridge, along with many others across the river, which enabled the destruction of the S.A. armor and forced infantry south to the few remaining crossings of the river. Fort Madison also was the home of the Iowa State Penitentiary. I’d read that the inmates, to a man, were executed by the Iowa State Militia, rather than risk their release…a repeated event at many maximum security prisons.
Hundreds of Humvees, tanks, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles had been towed or dragged to the railyard in Fort Madison, for the train-deployed crew following us to repair and refit, or haul back West for repair or reconstruction. Charlie Six and Dog Six would have no more than two hours to deploy before a train hauling twenty-four refitted Abrams and uncounted other vehicles would arrive from Kansas City. Plans changed quickly on the rails, often it seemed, in conflict with each other. The offload began at fifteen-thirty, after we’d figured out a staging plan.
By seventeen hundred, offload and setup was complete for both Charlie and Dog, and recon of the battlefield north of Fort Madison would start at first light. From initial reports of the fight, the S.A. threw everything they had at the U.S. forces, eventually abandoning most of their surviving heavy equipment well before the Air Force took out the bridge crossing. The Brigade was working through the ‘dinner shift’, that on a good day took a couple hours. I ate with the squad from Second Battalion that had helped clear Sixth Army in Sterling. First Sergeant Jones and I had worked some difficult hours together. I’d made it a point to try to check in with every squad, once in awhile, but this one was a little more on my mind than most.
After dinner, I headed up to the far end of Dog Six, out to the farthest observation point with the relief watch, and back down to the far end of Charlie. The thick fog that had covered our progress for a hundred miles was still with us, limiting visibility to hundreds of feet at best. It was irritating and taxing on the men, who had to split their duties at observation posts that had almost no observation ability. The fog also muffled sounds, putting an additional strain on the men.
“Colonel, here’s the latest from on-high,” Gerry McGowan said as I entered the darkened Command Car, handing me what Texas thought our schedule should be. In typical Command fashion, the pronouncement was made without on the ground intelligence, made wildly optimistic projections on the ability of Third Washington to create order from complete and utter chaos.
“That good, Ger?”
“They want us to mobe in forty-eight hours, sir.”
“They DO realize that we actually haven’t done any work here yet, right?” I said, reigning in some unwarranted anger.
“As usual, sir, I don’t think they care what we’ve actually done, versus what they have expected us to have accomplished by now. Also, that Mechanized unit is running late, estimated time of arrival, twenty-three hundred.”
I uttered several expletives, and read the orders, and said a few more, before the Command Car door opened and closed quickly.
“Sirs, we have company,” Captain Shand barked, hearing traffic through his headset as the communications techs scrambled into ‘alert’ mode. “Marine unit has heavy contact with enemy. Our side of the river.” Orders immediately went out to all Third Washington troops and the few hundred unattached troops.
“Well, shit,” I said. “That, I didn’t see coming,” my adrenaline level kicking up dramatically. I picked up the headset and tuned to the south end recon and observation frequency, listening in on the Marines as they fought off what seemed to be a very large attack. “Kittrick, map me friendlies on the terrain model.”
“Twenty seconds, sir.”
“Faster would be way better,” I said. All troops in Third Washington were deploying in support…to where was the next question. The thirty-eight Marines were near the junction of Highway Sixty One and Highway Two Eighteen. South of them, an Army artillery unit, a few miles from Keokuk. We were on the northeast end of a crescent-shaped plain, a little more than two and a half miles wide at the greatest. The Marine contact was at the southern end of this plain. To the east, gently rising terrain, wooded, overlooking the broad plain. Several large farm-industrial plants just south of the county road—‘Jay’ Sixty Two, the rest appeared to be farms.
“Done, sir,” Kittrick replied as I looked over the screen and the current locations of Charlie and Dog and the three thousand men under my command. Greg Shand, Gerry McGowan and I quickly sketched out a deployment plan, against an unknown force.
“Battalion Commanders, this is Colonel Drummond. Marine Recon Twelve is in heavy contact with enemy forces, approximately four miles southeast, Highway Sixty-One observation post. Gentlemen, we need to flank whatever S.A. forces are out there. First and Second Battalions, you will proceed east by whatever means possible—best possible time--to deploy on the ridge just west of Highway Two Eighteen from the Sixty-One Junction to due west of New Boston. Third Battalion, from New Boston to County Road ‘Jay’ Two Sixty-Two. Fourth and Fifth Battalions will move east then south across the Fort Madison Plain to enclose the S.A. forces. We are recalling an Army artillery unit to support the Marine unit in this engagement and requesting reinforcements. Upon contact, do not engage unless you are fired upon. We are to determine the size of this force before taking action, and contain them. Drummond out.”
It took nearly an hour to fully deploy Third Washington in the field, using our own trucks, transports, and our two Abrams tanks, and two dozen shot up but drivable salvaged trucks and a few Bradley’s. Our tanks were held in position south of both Charlie and Dog, intended to protect both the town of Fort Madison and our train.
During most of that time, the Marines were engaged. Probably against better planning, Jim Schaefer stayed in ‘Charlie’s’ Command Car while I went afield, setting up a mobile command post between two Humvee’s, between First and Second Battalions, uphill from the area where the S.A. was believed to be, perhaps a mile away, near a Federal-style two story farmhouse on ‘Valley Road.’ The house looked to have been built not long after the First Civil War.
By twenty-three hundred, we knew we had a serious problem.
“Colonel Drummond, Gunnery Sergeant Delaney is here,” Kittrick said, not taking his eyes off of the monitor, but listening intently to the tactical frequencies of our picket line.
“Very well, Kittrick. Thanks,” I said as the tent flap opened.
“Colonel,” Gunny Delaney said, snapping to attention and saluting.
“At ease, Marine. Sit rep,” I said, returning the salute.
“Substantial enemy presence, sir. Some thousands, at a minimum. By the enemy muzzle flashes, we had a target rich environment.”
“Interesting way to look at it….you’re getting lit up and you call it a target rich environment?”
“Yes, sir. Emptied five mags and they kept coming. Evac’d up the road and the Brads stuffed a few hundred rounds their way. That shut ‘em up for a while. Won’t be for long, though, sir. We can hear them down there.”
“Sergeant, are we talking a thousand, or ten thousand?”
“Colonel, I’d have to lean toward the higher range. If we were talking hundreds—which is almost certainly what we killed, the rest would’ve turned hind end and melted off. They just piled over their dead and kept coming.”
“What do you have for recon around the area?”
“We’re down to thirty-eight, sir, although fifty-five are wounded and still able to fight. Eleven KIA. The rest are moving up from Keokuk, but it’ll be awhile before they get here.”
“Colonel,” Shawn Miller interrupted, “We can get more intel only one way, and that’s moving closer in and infiltrating. We don’t have enough night vision equipment that’s operational.” The Third Washington night-vision gear issued to us was given to front line units long before.
“Pretty ballsy, Colonel Miller,” I said.
“South end—Fourth and Fifth Battalions—have had no contact at all. They could be three miles away. Sir, I’d suggest sending advance elements south and east until they make contact. Same thing with the other units. Probe a little bit.”
“Colonel Miller, we could be seriously outnumbered here, and we’re at best, lightly armed,” I said. “Kittrick, report on ETA of reinforcements?”
“I have that, sir,” Corporal Martin said. “Rather, I have relayed the information to Command. They replied with ‘several hours at a minimum,’ Colonel.”
“Shit,” I said. “Sergeant, where is the enemy at present? Did they advance or retreat after action?”
“Retreated, sir. Estimate three hundred meters from the engagement location.”
“They leave their dead behind” I asked.
“Shawn, get some of your men and some from Second. Not many….retrieve some of the dead, get their clothing. Execute your infiltration,” I said, seeing Lieutenant Jenkins—from the communications staff of ‘Dog Six’ perk up at the suggestion.
“Colonel, if I may?” Jenkins said.
“Sir, we have four dozen remote sensors that will allow tracking and targeting of human targets within a two mile range of our receivers. If First and Second Battalions men place those sensors around or within range, we’ll have a better idea what’s out there.”
I’d forgotten all about the sensors. They were intended for small unit defensive use, basically an electronic picket line that would identify friend from foe.
“Get on it, Lieutenant. This works, and I’m buying you a steak dinner after the war,” I said. “Sooner, if we find some beef on the hoof.”
Posted by Tom Sherry at 5:16 PM