... an unexplained mystery finally revealed.
Things were finally coming together. They were settling into their new
position behind Old Baldy. The changes that would come because of the
Cease Fire were gradually taking place. The field grade officers were
departing for home. They were career soldiers, with the senior grades
of major and above who had been running the 8th Field Artillery
Battalion. They had not been eligible for rotation home no matter how
long they had been in Korea. They stayed until the shooting stopped.
Lt. Colonel Cox, a feisty, little red head had been the Battalion
Commander, the 8th Field’s boss of all bosses, was gone in about three
weeks. Major Lannen who was in charge of all the 8th Fields guns was
next to go. Joe Rattigan had worked in Fire Direction when Major Lannen
was running the show.
The Major had always maintained a continuing aloof attitude and stood
apart from the congenial conversations that took place between the
junior officers and the enlisted men who operated the Fire Direction
Center. Even so, the fire direction guys had a deep affection for him.
He was a soldier’s soldier and they were nostalgic when he departed.
And a new day dawns.
Major Lannen’s departure left them with the situation they were dealing
with now, the execution of a drill designed to prepare for a fire
mission that would not actually take place. The 8th Field’s firing
batteries were to respond to a non-existing target that would be
radioed from Division Artillery Headquarters (always called Divarty)
down to the 8th Field’s Fire Direction Center. The plotters at Fire
Direction were to calculate the information necessary for the 8th
Field’s gunners to crank up their howitzers to the elevation and
deflection that would send an artillery round at the target.
There would be no artillery round involved since this was only a drill.
The process itself had been routine when the real-time shooting had
been going on when it would usually involve only a couple of howitzers
each time. The 8th Field had not fired a round in almost three weeks
since the cease fire went into effect on July 27.
The drill made sense, even to old timers like Joe who knew replacements
were slowly filling in to take the place of the members of the gun
crew members who would be leaving for home. The new guys would be
getting a hands-on experience working with gunners who had been doing
this for real less than a month ago.
There was no better example of this than what was taking place in the
Fire Direction Center. The responsibility for the 8th Field’s
participation in the fake-o drill was Major Lannen’s replacement, Major
Schwanderveldt. He was obviously no rookie but nevertheless unfamiliar
with the peculiarities of the 8th Field’s routines.
The Major was now standing in front of the firing charts that were
situated on a table about ten feet long. Behind the table sat the three
troopers who would communicate directly to the firing batteries.
Lieutenant Cox, the officer in charge of the Fire Direction crew was
standing directly across from them. He would be in charge of
implementing the drill. Joe had worked with him many times when Joe had
been a radio operator on the Fire Detection team. The Lieutenant’s
easy-going demeanor made him popular with the troopers who also had
great confidence in his ability.
Cooling things down.
Cox’s reassuring calmness took the edge off the extra pressure on the
Fire Direction troopers created by the presence of the Major. If the
drill didn’t go smoothly, any mistake would be blamed on the Major. The
pressure was on the radio section guys, too. Any breakdown in
communications meant that there would be hell to pay, especially if the
breakdown could not be immediately remedied.
Joe was the radio mechanic. He and Elmer D. Meyer, the radio section
chief, were standing with Al Bejima the radio operator next to the
radios that would relay the message that would start the drill. The old
radios were being used since they had speakers that allowed the guys
working the firing charts to immediately hear the corrections that
would be coming in from a forward observer.
The drill was supposed to start with the 8th Field’s request for a
commo check directed to Division Artillery’s radio operators. Division
Artillery, commonly known as Divarty was in charge of all the 25th
Division’s artillery units. There were two other 105 howitzer artillery
battalions in addition to the 8th Field and one 155 howitzer battalion.
Joe wasn’t sure if the drill would involve all four battalions.
Once Divarty responded that they could hear the 8th Field’s signal as
loud and clear, the target coordinates would be transmitted to the 8th
Field. This was to take place at oh-eight hundred hours exactly.
Everybody, who had been standing by for at least an hour, was looking
down at his watch and when the appointed time came the Major looked
over to Lieutenant Cox who then said to Bejima, “Do it.”
Al Bejima pressed the microphone button and said, “Excellent two,
Excellent two, this is Excellent six, commo check, how do you hear me,
Nothing. No response. Joe said to Al, “Try it again.” He did, again no
Anxiety takes its grip.
Joe felt his stomach turn to ice. No response meant the 8th’ Field’s
radio signal was not getting out. When this happened the radio crew
would be obliged to start repositioning the antenna to a position that
would enable them achieve contact. Sometimes it took more than one try.
The antenna, situated outside of the Fire Direction tent was 18 feet
high and was held upright by a series of wires that were staked into
the ground. Each move could take over 10 to 15 minutes. This had
happened a number of times when they had been doing this for real.
Today it meant failure to start the drill.
Joe said to Elmer, “I don’t believe it. No way our signal is not
getting out.” Meyer said, “Well no matter what we believe we ain’t
gettin’ no answer. Let’s start movin’ the antenna.”
‘“Wait a second,” Joe answered, “how far is Divarty from here, about a
mile? If we send Bedini with the three -quarter ton that has the radio
and have him park in front of Divarty we’ll be able to find out if our
signal’s getting out.”
“That truck ain’t got but two feet of antenna on it, no way we hear
him,” Meyer said.
“Yah, answered Joe, but he’ll be able to hear us. We’ll keep sending
commo checks every two minutes, when he hears them, he goes into
Divarty and calls us on the land line.”
On the otherhand...
“And if he don’t?” Meyer asked.
“Well, he calls us and says he can’t hear us, then we start moving the
antenna. Look at it this way,” Joe continued, “Bedini will be outside of
Divarty before we complete one move of the antenna. It’s worth the risk.”
Meyer pondered awhile and then said, “Okay call Bedini, tell “im whut ya’ juss
told me.” Joe gave Meyer a little rap on the shoulder in appreciation. He
called Tony Bedini, he was a rookie but he was a solid kid. Joe knew he’d get
After a quick phone conversation, Bedini, now in the truck, gave a
request for a commo check from Bajima in Fire Direction who responded
that he was coming in loud and clear. There was no reason why he
shouldn’t. The truck was in front of the Radio Section tent located
about 100 yards away.
Lieutenant Cox not wanting to appear anxious sauntered over to Joe who
he always called by his nickname. “What’s up, Murph?” Joe told him
about sending Bedini to Divarty in the truck to confirm the conviction
that their signal was getting out. Cox, looked back at Joe. He held up
two crossed fingers tight to his chest so the Major couldn’t see them.
Joe and Elmer stood in agonizing anxiety while Al Bajemi kept up his
commo check requests. The Fire Direction guys were just sitting there
doing nothing which was increasing the intensity of the wait.
So nice to hear from you.
The switchboard for the landlines was located in the Fire Direction
tent. When it buzzed Joe almost leaped. The switchboard operator after
responding extended his arm pointing to a field phone that was attached
chest high to one of the poles holding up the Fire Direction tent. His
back was to Joe when he said, “Murphy, on two.” Joe grabbed the phone,
“Sergeant Rattigan.” It was Tony, “Gangbusters, Murph! Your signal’s
pounding, loud and clear!” he sounded almost jubilant.
Joe almost fainted with relief. He turned to Meyer and snapped him a
thumbs-up. He did the same to Lieutenant Cox who looked back with a nod
and a smile. Meyer exhaled and sagged in relief. Joe then said, ”Tony,
go into Divarty and see if you can find the radio guys. Ask them if
there’s a problem. Act casual, you know just a trooper trying to find
out what’s going on.” Tony said, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.”
The significance of their signal getting through meant that Elmer and
Joe were off the hook. The failure was not because of them. Joe and
Elmer were quietly rejoicing when Tony called back. He said, “Murph
they’re not transmitting because they’re not set up yet. Said they’re
gonna do it right after breakfast. Asked me if I want to stay. What
should I do?
You said what?
Joe was in absolute disbelief. He dropped his head into his hand and
said to himself, Jesus, after breakfast? He responded to Tony. “C’mon
home, pal. You don’t want to be there when they find out we’re the ones
who ratted their ass out.” After a pause, he said, “Tony?” a soft
reply, “Yeah.?” “Nice job, pal.” Joe picked up on the very pleased tone
in his response. “Thanks, Murph.”
Joe and Elmer were together when Joe was filling in Lieutenant Cox that
the reason Divarty couldn’t pick up on our signal was because they
weren’t set up yet. In response to Cox’s question as to when would
Divarty be set up, Joe dropped the bombshell that it wouldn’t be until
after the Divarty guys had breakfast.
Cox dropped his head to look Joe directly into his face and said
incredulously, “Breakfast?” “Yes, sir.” Joe responded, “breakfast.”
Cox said Jesus, too. Shaking his head he said, “The Old Man is really
going to love this.”
Joe and Elmer at a safe distance watched as Cox related the story to
the Major who after hearing it closed his eyes, dropped his head back
and clenched the fists of the two hands that were extended straight
down by his side. He didn’t say a word.
...and how big is this?
It was beginning to dawn on Joe that this was a monumental screwup. The
entire 8th Field Artillery Battalion had been brought to a position of
readiness for nothing. Eighteen gun crews standing by their howitzers
waiting for a command that would never come. Obviously, the Divarty
radio guys had never been informed of the drill. It was almost
impossible to comprehend.
“Big time screw up fah’ sure.”, Elmer said softly to Joe. Joe was
considering Elmer’s observation. There was never a situation that was
just a plain screwup. There was a total screwup, an unbelievable
screwup, a royal screwup, a complete screwup, a hopeless screwup, an
indescribable screwup. There was always a modifier for screwup
depending on who related it. Joe wondered what you could call the
screwup they were going through now. Nothing seemed adequate.
He had a flashback to basic training and his barracks sergeant,
Sergeant Albetsky. A combat soldier who had joined the Army in 1940, he
had fought through all the European campaigns. When he would get
exasperated at the recruits his favorite expression was that they were
“Screwed up as Hogan’s goat!”
Joe could never figure out the reference,” Hogan’s Goat.” What the hell
did that mean? Before they moved on from basic training he got a chance
to ask the Sergeant what the reference to Hogan’s Goat meant. Albetsky
gave him a wry smile and tapping his finger on Joe’s chest said,
“You’ll find out.”
The meaning was beginning to manifest itself now. An entire artillery
battalion on hold because a few guys were having their breakfast? A
situation that was indescribable, a situation that was as screwed up as
Hogan’s Goat .
He turned to Elmer and said, “Did you say screwup? This drill is as
screwed up as Hogan’s Goat!”
Elmer, a Texas country boy seemed pleased with the barnyard description
and answered with a chuckle, “Reckon so.”
Lieutenant Cox looked over and gave them a little waist high wave which
meant they could leave.The drill, obviously, would be aborted.
As he and Elmer were trudging down the dirt road to their radio tent.
Joe was recollecting how sending Tony back to Divarty had been a very
good move and was silently praising himself when he heard Elmer snort
before he started laughing.
Joe turned, gave him a quizzical look and said, “What’s so funny?”
Elmer paused, then with another laugh, said, “Hogan’s Goat.”
Joe Sullivan uses the character Joe Rattigan to describe his experiences
March 3, 2017