Bright Star Artillery

Originally published in The Globe, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.

October 1999 — “Hurry up!  We’ve got stuff to blow up,” growled the battery gunny to his troops.  It was early morning of Oct. 21.  The sun was just starting to burn away the evening’s chill in this barren section of the Egyptian desert.  Scattered around the grumpy gunnery sergeant on the broken rock and sand of the desert ground were Marines of B Battery, Battalion Landing Team 3/6, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.  They were busy devouring a hot breakfast consisting of powdered eggs, sausage links, cereal, juice, and coffee delivered to them from a distant field mess.

The Marines of Bravo Battery were used to Gunnery Sgt. John Weis’s constant rough prodding, but nevertheless gulped down their food a little faster.  Today was going to be a big day and true to the gunny’s words, they were going to blow stuff up.  For the first time in about three months these devildogs were going to fire their 155mm Howitzers.  The live fire was just one of many such military training exercises during Exercise Bright Star, a huge multi-national exercise boasting over 50,000 servicemembers from 11 countries.

After finally finishing off breakfast, the Marines loaded the last of their hygiene and sleeping gear into their trucks, formed up a long convoy of vehicles, and headed off across the desert towards the live-fire range they would be setting up in.  The ride was long and torturous, and military vehicles are not known for their comfort.  Marines were stuffed in the back of 5-ton trucks along with all their gear and supplies.  The drivers had a tough time crossing the rough landscape.  The ground alternated between soft sand and jagged rock.  To keep from getting stuck in the sand, the drivers had to pour on the speed, however, just on the other side of the sand, the rocks punished the vehicles’ passengers with bone jarring bouncing and rocking.  Even the toughest of Marines had to admit to feeling bruised and battered by the time the ride was over.

However, the Marines didn’t have a spare second to complain about the rough ride.  As soon as the trucks pulled into view of the range, they were guided into pre-set spots that an advance party had already surveyed and marked with red-striped metal poles.  On the far left of the battery’s setup, the truck pulling gun number six made a wide arc and raced into position.  Once in place, eight Marines poured out of the truck’s bed and set to work getting the 16,000-pound gun into position.

The gun was unhitched, the base plate was set into place, and the trails were spread out.  Next, the Marines frantically dug into the hard ground six-inch deep trenches so that the gun’s spades could be set into them.  Without the trenches, the recoil from the gun’s first shot would send the heavy weapon skidding across the ground, and could severely damage surrounding equipment and injure people nearby.  Finally, the howitzer’s sights were carefully aligned.

Taking charge of the mad dash to get gun six ready to “rock and roll” was Sgt. Adam Jannereth, the gun’s section chief.  A confident man in his mid-twenties from Grand Rapids, Mich., Jannerteth backs up his quick commands and decisions with his five years of experience working with the big artillery guns.  He asserts himself in such a way that there can be no doubt as to what he wants and when he wants it.  That strong-willed nature coupled with a hard-working crew backing him up enables him to make claims of greatness without sounding too boastful.

“I could put my crew up against any other in this battery and come out the best,” he said as his crew spread camouflage netting over their truck and howitzer.  “We beat gun five on five out of five displacement moves.”  He nods in the direction of the gun five crew who are racing just as quickly as gun six to get their equipment in place.  “They still owe us two cases of beer,” he adds with a grin.

Speed is an essential part of life in the artillery.  Getting set up fast is important to the infantrymen that the artillery supports; missions can succeed or fail depending on how quickly artillery can respond once called upon.  Tearing down and “getting out of Dodge” is just as important to the artillery Marines when the enemy hones in on their position.  The end result is the Marines of all six of the battery’s guns being highly competitive.

Maj. Edward Bacon, the battery’s commanding officer, nodded his head and smiled knowingly when told of Jannereth’s claims.  “They’re all like that,” he said.  “I would say gun six is as strong as any other gun here.  There’s rivalry among the entire gun line.  Every gun has its own personality, and its own strengths.”

The major’s demeanor grows more serious, though, as he continued.  “The problem is that most people don’t get a chance to see that intensity.  They usually only come by to see us once we are already set up and sitting around awaiting fire missions.  They definitely get the wrong impression of us.”

Hurry Up & Wait

The flurry of activity associated with getting set up was over with but Jannereth wasn’t yet satisfied enough to allow his crew to relax.  The bed of their truck was a jumble of Meal Ready to Eat bags and boxes, miscellaneous tools, water bottles, and personal gear all stuffed in among the racks of artillery rounds and powder canisters.  The mess was a result of several days of being constantly on the move in a field environment.  He ordered his Marines to get the mess cleaned up.

Only once the truck was cleaned and organized did Jannereth allow his crew to relax.  They sat on the howitzer’s trails and told stories and jokes.  Time stretched on for quite a while as they waited for the much-anticipated call to action from the Fire Direction Control (FDC) over the communication network.

Among the priorities for the gun line once communications were set up among all the different sections was to pass the word that the Yankees and Braves baseball teams had won their respective games from the day before.  Cheers and groans could be heard all up and down the gun line.  Little bits of information from “the states” are an important source of morale for the Marines working so far away from home.

The gun chiefs were then all called into the Battery Operations Center (BOC) for a briefing with the battery’s executive officer, 1st Lt. Jason Brown.  The Birmingham, Alabama native explained to all present that the day’s firing was not really for the battery’s benefit, but for the benefit of an infantry company that would be operating near the impact area.  The exercise was meant to give the Marines a feel for what working with artillery is like.  After briefing all the chiefs on the more technical aspects of the day’s shooting, Brown turned them loose to return to their guns.

Back at gun six, Lance Cpl. Dennis Huberts, the Marine referred to on a gun crew as the “number one man”, decided to do an impromptu work out.  Huberts used various heavy tools to conduct a makeshift weightlifting routine, making it look easy all the while.

Huberts, who is from Chicago, Ill., has only been with Bravo for seven months, which was about the time the 22nd MEU had “stood up” as an active unit in preparation for this current deployment.  He’s definitely muscle-bound, but is also soft-spoken and easy-going.  He said he was enjoying the deployment so far, and this was the first time he had ever been to such a large field exercise.  The really positive thing that he is quick to mention, though, is how he likes being a part of his gun crew.

“I’m really getting into the team thing,” Huberts said.  “I used to like things pretty much on my own.”

Fire Mission!

Finally, the comm. speaker booms with a loud, “Fire mission!”  The gun six crew scrambled into action but was quickly disappointed when the mission is given to gun two only.  Lance Cpl. James Wright, the crew’s gunner, yells a few curses in the general direction of the FDC and settles back down into a fold-up chair he had brought to the field with him.  Wright’s personality is in direct contrast to Huberts’.  He’s loud, blunt, and speaks his mind without fear.  But, he can get away with some of his loudness by the virtue of knowing what he’s talking about.  During another portion of the Bright Star exercise, many of the battery’s Marines had fired crew-served weapons.  Many of the other Marines didn’t know how to set up the 50- caliber machinegun, so Wright had jumped in and instructed the newer devildogs.

At long last, another call of “Fire mission” sounded over the comm. speaker, this time for gun six.  The Marines leaped into action in a well rehearsed blur of motion despite not having done this in three months.  The instructions given over the comm. were precise and each gun crew Marine responded immediately once his own sets of directions were received.

Lance Cpl. Anthony Kupris and Cpl. Ron Julin pulled the prescribed round out of the holding area, set the fuse, hefted into onto a carrying tray, and hauled it to the gun’s breach.  At the same time, Wright adjusted the gun’s quadrant, which is artillery-speak for horizontal movement, and Lance Cpl. Omar Royal adjusted the gun’s deflection, or vertical movement.  Lance Cpl. Rolando Ferrufino pulled out the required gunpowder from its canisters and held it at the ready.

Dashing around the center stage of activity was Huberts.  Once the round was carried to the breach, he used a pole to shove it deep into the gun’s chamber.  Next, he took the powder from Ferrufino and stuffed it in after the round and slammed shut the breech.  He attached the primer and lanyard, and stood by with the lanyard in hand for the command to fire.

Jannereth’s job was to supervise the whole process by checking every step of every Marine’s job in detail.  He checked both the quadrant and deflection for himself, ensured the round was the proper type called for and made sure the fuse on it was set correctly.  He ensured the correct amount of powder was used.  As he went through each step, he yelled out his findings to his recorder, Cpl. Raymond Rust from Oxford, Ohio.

Rust’s job was one of the most important on the crew.  As Jannereth phrased it, “He’s the life or death of me.”  Rust wrote down all the instructions given for each mission and was in constant communication with the FDC.

“Sometimes it gets complicated,” said Rust.  “It depends on the number of rounds and the different requirements for each.”  During a mission consisting of firing five or more shots each with different types of rounds, fuse settings, and powder amounts, it’s the recorder’s monumental task to keep things straight.

Over the comm. the command “Fire!” sounded and an instant later Huberts yanked the lanyard and with a deafening boom, the round whistled down range.  Huberts then opened the breech, used a makeshift swab to quickly clean it out, and peered inside to ensure all was clear.

Fire missions were carried out sporadically throughout the day and into the night.  Under a bright moon, the crew of gun six continued sending rounds down range as they were called in.  According to Wright, the pace was slow compared to missions performed during previous field exercises.  This exercise only called for one or two rounds at a time, whereas the crew was used to firing of up to five rounds or more in a row.  It wasn’t until long after midnight when the Marines were finally given the command to pack their gear, hitch their gun to the truck, and load up for another bone-jarring cross-country trip.

By 2 a.m. the Marines were finally settled in for the night.  Marines wearily climbed into sleeping bags on the hard ground or in their trucks.  There were no bathrooms, showers, or other comforts to clean away the sweat and dust of a long day of work.  There was just the bright moon, shining stars, and a cool Egyptian breeze.