FORT BRAGG, N.C. --
The ground shook and thunder split the air as rounds shattered the silence surrounding Fort Bragg, N.C., during 10th Marine Regiment’s month-long annual field training exercise known as Rolling Thunder commenced March 2, 2010.
During the month of March, the Marines worked to hone their artillery skills as well as their combat readiness by participating in a grenade range, a combat marksmanship shoot and a test-in-readiness evaluation.
The Marines spent the month making their job into an art form, ensuring each movement on the gun is timed perfectly, comparable to a loud and much more deadly ballet.
In one week of training, the average gun will fire approximately 150 rounds. It can do all this from 25 miles away, meaning if the Marines make one small mistake, it could cause serious injury to Marine infantrymen fighting on the ground.
“In training there is a margin for error, but when deployed Marines are calling in for support and if we get it wrong, we could end up seriously injuring other Marines or local nationals,” said Staff Sgt. Johnathon A. Huizar, a howitzer section chief with 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines.
As the Marines practiced their skills, they found input on how to improve when they were issued a test-in-readiness. The test is designed to evaluate each Marine individually, as well as each gun and to give them an idea of what areas they can improve.
Other than individual evaluations, the gun teams were graded on how fast they could set up when they arrived at a new location.
“If we perform a [quick] move than we only take essential gear needed to fire the weapon; we can be set up in a new area in under 10 minutes,” said Huizar. “Time is important when you’re talking about bringing support that could save Marines’ lives.”
“Flak up!” Each day begins early and with speed as the call rings out from all over the gun line. Marines race to don their protective equipment.
In an artillery battery, there are six M777 Light Towed Howitzers. Each gun is teamed by six Marines, who all play a critical role in firing the complicated weapon system.
As support is requested, the gun line is prepared to fire. “Fire mission,” is heard over the radio and the Marines move with speed and intensity reminiscent of bootcamp after hearing just those two words.
“It’s funny how you can be sleeping or eating or doing almost anything and as soon as you hear the words ‘fire mission,’ your up on your feet, flak jacket on and Kevlar in hand, ready to put rounds downrange,” said Pfc. Jay J. Wemlinger, a canoneer with the battalion.
Each time a fire mission is called in, several things happen in very quick succession, each of which is critical to the mission. First, a recorder writes down all the instructions received.
After the information is correctly recorded, the gunner and assistant gunner use traversing and elevation wheels on the howitzer to move it into the correct position. From here, another Marine loads one of a few types of rounds.
Most rounds being fired from the howitzer will be high explosive, meant to destroy and wreak havoc, but leadership also has the option of ordering up white phosphorus or illumination rounds.
The rounds, weighing approximately 95 pounds each, are slammed down onto a tray and plunged into the chamber. After that a powerful gun powder is added to propel the round upon firing. One Marine inspects to assure everything is ready and the breach is slammed shut, meaning the gun is ready to fire when the order is given.
All this happens within the span of a few moments, so each Marine has to have perfect timing. The faster the gun can be loaded and aimed, the faster the Marines can bring vital support to those Marines on the front lines.
What happens next can only be described as jaw dropping. The call for fire comes and a Marine pulls a lanyard attached to the gun, causing an enormous explosion to echo throughout the line and the extremely powerful round to be discharged from the barrel of the gun.
Six guns fire in quick succession. Clocking in at around 141 decibels, one howitzer firing is comparable to a 747 taking off. Now imagine six jets taking off within a couple seconds and standing in the middle of them all.
When taking a break from the chaos and noise, Marines spent time fortifying their positions. They dug fighting holes between each gun and at the ends of the gun line. They armed them with heavy machine guns and grenade launchers in case enemy troops infiltrate their positions.
Since each member of the gun stays on it at all times, Marines had to be ready at to jump from the role of canoneer, to a Marine defending a firing position with a rifle.
After the fighting holes were filled and the howitzers quieted for the night, the artillery mechanics moved in to work. These very expensive weapon systems need maintenance often to keep them ready to fire.
After all the guns were fixed and it seemed the Marines had just laid their heads down, the sounds of reveille shattered the silence. They had another long day ahead of them.