'Friendly fire'

Harry Summers

February 06, 1991|By Harry Summers

THERE ARE fears that at least some of the 11 U.S. Marines killed in action in the fighting along the Kuwaiti-Saudi Arabian border last week may have been struck down by friendly fire.

The sad truth is that such incidents are not unusual on the battlefield.

In the Civil War, for example, one of the South's most famous generals, Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson, died from friendly fire. While on reconnaissance near Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, he and his staff were mistaken for Union cavalrymen and fired on by his own men. Severely wounded, he died just over a week later of complications from his wounds.

Perhaps the worst case of friendly fire in U.S. military history, however, was during World War II, just after the D-Day invasion. On July 25, 1944, in preparation for Operation COBRA, the breakout of VII Corps (now in the gulf) from the Normandy beachhead, the U.S. 8th Air Force launched a massive bombing strike to breach enemy lines. But the bombs landed short, causing more than 600 American casualties, including Lt. Gen. Leslie J. McNair, head of Army ground forces, who was among more than 100 killed in the incident. Fort McNair, in Washington, the home of the National Defense University, is named in his honor.

As a squad leader in "L" Company, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, I have first-hand knowledge that friendly fire was a constant in the Korean War. Being strafed by our own aircraft was not unusual, for fighter pilots in transition from prop to jet aircraft initially had major difficulties with target identification. The mountains in Korea added to the problem, for in many cases the only way the artillery could put rounds on the target was through high-angle fire, which had a wide margin for ** error.

In an attack on Hill 1157 in the central sector in the spring of 1951, for example, our unit suffered many casualties when a friendly artillery barrage came in short. To make matters worse, the mountains made radio communication impossible and the first rounds cut the land-line telephone links, so we could not inform the gunners of the problem.

A similar incident occurred in Vietnam in August, 1966, near Phuoc Vinh. My unit, the 1st Battalion, 2d Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, was locked in close combat. A napalm strike was called in on enemy positions, but when the two tanks were released from an F-4 fighter-bomber, there was a mechanical malfunction and they hung on the bomb racks for a split second, just long enough to cause them to miss their target and land directly on our positions. One tank exploded; the other didn't.

Several soldiers were killed instantly and many of us suffered burns from the flaming gasoline. As with the earlier artillery incident, the accident was exacerbated by the fact that, in the intense heat of the explosion, all the rubber cables to the radio handsets vaporized, and there was no way to call off the attack. I am alive today because the second tank, which splashed us all with jellied napalm, failed to explode.

"When you want it bad, you get it bad!" That's the way most front-line troops look at such awful accidents of war. If you are in such extreme danger from an enemy attack that friendly air attacks or friendly artillery have to be called in to keep you from being overrun, then you have to accept the risk that you yourself may be injured in that barrage.

That was especially true in Vietnam, where the jungle made target identification from the air difficult, and where artillery was called upon to perform under particularly trying circumstances.

In past wars, artillery, firing from behind friendly lines, had only to lob the rounds over the heads of its own troops. But from Vietnam fire bases, artillery sometimes found itself firing toward friendly positions.

As a result, artillerymen had to worry about things that previously never concerned them: nose spray from an exploding round that carries forward from the point of impact, for instance; or the flight path of empty canisters from flares which, like debris from Scud missiles these days, fell on friendly positions; and a host of other esoteric factors.

You can be sure that the incident at Khafji will be thoroughly investigated, for it was just such a "friendly fire" incident that killed a soldier in then-Lt. Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's infantry battalion in Vietnam. The soldier's death led to "Friendly Fire," a controversial book and television "docudrama" that ultimately concluded that the error was caused by the artillery fire direction center's failure to take into account the height of trees in the area when plotting the trajectory of the shells. As a consequence, an incoming round hit a tree and killed one of our own men with flying shrapnel.

Civilians often find such incidents almost impossible to understand, but those on the front line understand that war is an extremely dangerous endeavor.

Is friendly fire ever justified? Marine Cpl. Jeff Brown, an artillery forward observer in Khafji, evidently thought so. Iraqi troops were so close to his location that he was forced to call artillery fire down on his own position and he was wounded by shrapnel from his own guns.

Does he hold a grudge?

"I'd do it again," he said.


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