Friendly Fire

February 06, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON — Washington. Each time around, the old, old facts of war come as surprises to many civilians and some soldiers. This time, people keep asking when the war will be over, and can't it be done with air power alone? Understandably, they are chagrined that some of our casualties come from friendly fire.

They would be less surprised if their training included more history.

Much is made of how U.S. B-52s and other aircraft are pounding Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard divisions, as if such a thing had never happened before. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf says 400 tons of bombs were dropped on them one day, 450 the next. Anybody who thinks such attacks are unprecedented should ask the survivors of Hitler's Panzer Lehr division, if there are any.

Those Germans were defying Allied troops on the Normandy peninsula seven weeks after D-Day in 1944. A massive effort code-named Operation Cobra was mounted to break out into the rest of France.

After fighter-bombers worked over the German lines, 1,500 heavy bombers of the U.S. 8th Air Force were assigned to blast the way for tanks and infantry. They dropped 3,400 tons of bombs, close ahead of Allied ground troops.

Fritz Bayerlein, commanding general of the Panzer Lehr, lived through it. He said ''they kept coming over as if on a conveyor belt. My front lines looked like the face of the moon. At least 70 percent of my troops were out of action, dead, wounded, crazed or numbed. All my forward tanks were knocked out. The roads were practically impassable.''

Bayerlein was the enemy. Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair, commander of U.S. Army ground forces, was on our side. Unlike Bayerlein, he did not live through it. He was one of the 558 American casualties from that overwhelming bomb drop.

The worst-hit U.S. division was the 30th Infantry, whose commander said, ''It was horrible. The ground belched, shook and spewed dirt to the sky. Scores of our troops were hit, their bodies flung from their slit trenches.'' Maj. Gen. Clarence Huebner of the 1st Infantry Division, who had seen much combat, said, ''It was the most terrifying thing ever seen. I had a remote feeling of helplessness.''

Gen. Omar Bradley, commanding the U.S. First Army, said, ''Oh, Christ! Not another short drop!''

Something like that, with many more exclamation points, must be what those Marines along the Saudi-Iraqi border said last week when friendly aircraft fire struck their anti-tank vehicle -- if, indeed, they had time to say anything at all before they died.

Operation Cobra teaches much about the shock effect of heavy bombing on ground troops. But after it, there were still more than nine months and tens of thousands of casualties before V-E Day. The Air Force, not surprisingly, declined to accept responsibility for what happened in Cobra. It was ''within the normal expectancy of errors'' for such a complicated effort.

A year before that, during the battle for Sicily, a U.S. aerial convoy started on what was expected to be a milk run. Its mission was to drop 2,300 paratroopers of the 504th Regimental Combat Team as reinforcements for troops already on line. It was routed over the American landing fleet, which had just undergone German air attack.

Appearing minutes after the enemy planes left, the slow-flying U.S. C-47's spooked gunners aboard the ships. Twenty-three transports were shot down by friendly fire, 37 severely damaged. Sixty pilots and air crewmen were lost. Eighty-one paratroopers were killed, 132 wounded. The lucky ones had managed to bail out, or survived in planes that crash-landed.

These things happen in war.

Sometimes they cost hundreds of lives. More often they take one here, one there. On the Pacific islands, in Korea and Vietnam, infantrymen had to call in artillery or air support close to their positions. Sometimes there were short rounds, short drops, map coordinates ever so slightly off. But mistakes are not unique to modern combat, with high-speed aircraft and long-range artillery.

The most famous accidental death in American wars happened in 1863, near a Virginia crossroads named Chancellorsville. A Confederate general, after smashing the Union flank, rode in the dark to scout the way for further attack. When he started back, his troops thought another Yankee cavalry attack was coming. The 18th North Carolina Infantry opened fire, and sent Stonewall Jackson into legend.

There will be more surprises, and history says most of them will be unpleasant.

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