Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Firebase Four-Papa-One, Korean DMZ, 1978

By Donald Sensing

Originally posted at donaldsensing.com on Jan. 14, 2003.

I talked about the Korean DMZ and the Joint Security Area in my last post. Just outside the DMZ during my tour in Korea (77-78) was an artillery firebase called 4P1, pronounced Four-Papa-One. Because the DMZ runs north-south in that part of the country, 4P1 was actually east of the DMZ.

I spent my Korea tour as a lieutenant assigned C Battery, 1st Battalion, 38th Field Artillery, whose motto was "Steel Behind the Rock." "Steel" referred to artillery fire, "the Rock" was the 38th Infantry Regiment, which earned the nickname Rock of the Marne for its heroic defense near the Marne River in France in 1918. My battery's standing mission in Korea was to provide artillery fire for the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry. We were all part of the 2d US Infantry Division, which is still stationed in South Korea.

In 1978, 4P1 was the only combat firebase in the Army. The division's artillery units took turns rotating through duty at 4P1. My battalion's turn came up in the summer of 1978. There were five batteries in the battalion, three of which were firing batteries with howitzers. Each of those three spent 35 days there. We went up with our six 105mm howitzers in late May, commanded by Capt. Bill Brophy, an outstanding officer. (Bill retired in 1999 as a colonel and is now a vice president of Usibelli Coal Mines, Inc., in Alaska.)

I was the battery fire direction officer (FDO), in charge of the fire direction center, FDC. (Yes, I know, you didn't sign up for an acronym lesson, but that's what the military uses.) We also had three lieutenants as forward observers (you guessed it, "FOs"). Our FOs went to duty inside the DMZ.

There were two guard posts inside the DMZ. One was called GP Ouelette, so close to the boundary line with North Korea you could have spit on communist soil. The other GP was maybe 400 meters further away; I don't recall its name. Under the terms of the armistice, only military police are allowed inside the DMZ. So we had two infantry military police detachments inside the DMZ, one detachment at each of two guard posts. Each was at least of platoon strength and very heavily armed. Every time I went to Ouelette I became a military policeman, too, complete with arm brassard, rifle locked and loaded the whole time.

Our guns fired shells weighing 35 pounds with a maximum range of 11 kilometers. A 105mm high-explosive projectile had a casualty radius of 30 meters. Our six guns could fire a total of 180 rounds the first three minutes of a fire mission, then for weapon-safety reasons, had to drop to three rounds per gun per minute for sustained firing. The guns were arranged in the open in a pattern we called a "lazy W,"with 25 meters spacing between guns laterally, and alternating front to rear about 15 meters.

My FDC was inside an underground bunker at one end of the gun line, about 30 meters up a rise. The FDC served as the operations center for the battery, with our bunks at the far end. We had radios to talk to the division command post-forward, which had a secure line to the main division command post in the south. We also had radio to the infantry operations center at Camp Liberty Bell, just outside the DMZ, where an infantry battalion was stationed at high alert. We had a radio to each guard post to talk to our observers and we had field phones to Capt. Brophy's ready room, each of the guns and the executive officer's battle station. We were up and running 24/7. Our main job was calculating ballistic firing solutions for the guns.

There were 125 prearranged targets inside North Korea and the DMZ for which we had to recalculate firing data four times per day. Weather has great effect on artillery ballistics, and four times per day a "metro" section, not part of our unit, flew weather balloons that collected weather data and radioed it back to the ground. These data were converted into a very lengthy numeric voice message which was radioed to us. Receiving metro messages was very exacting and time consuming. Fortunately, 4P1's bunker had an electronic artillery computer called the Field Artillery Digital Automatic Computer (FADAC, of course, pronounced fay-dack), but only my FDC sergeant, Sgt. Gosinski, and I had been trained on it. Without it we could not possibly have manually recalculated data for 125 targets four times per day. Sometimes, we got the weather data on punch-hole tape, which FADAC could read.

The permissible response time for fire missions was very short. The guns were laid on a target inside the DMZ, which we could have shot within seconds of receiving the radio call for fire. To keep us on our toes, the division had a practice mission called, "speedball do not load." At any time of day or night, no matter the weather, a division-staff officer could direct an FO to radio a call for fire to us - but obviously not to be shot. The stopwatch was ticking, and excuses were not accepted!

A breath away from war

To distinguish these missions from real missions, the call for fire was slightly changed. The FO would call us and say, "adjust fire, speedball do not load, over." That way we knew it was a practice mission. As I recall, though, we only had three minutes to report ready to fire, except that we did not actually load a round into the howitzer.

We'd flip a light switch by the radio that started a siren above the bunker. Across the fire base, every cannon crewman and battery NCOs sprinted to their guns if they weren't already there. Meantime, the FO completed the target information, we computed the firing data and read it on the field phone to the guns.

After just a few days we in the FDC could tell right away when the FO had a SDNL mission because of the stress in his voice.

So one afternoon the radio comes to life and I could tell it was a SDNL mission. But instead of saying, "Adjust fire, speedball do not load, over," he said, "Fire for effect, at my command, over." That was a real call for fire. I hit the siren.

There had been a breach of the MDL by a platoon of 40-50 North Korean troops. They had crossed to our side of the DMZ. On the division radio network I heard the infantry military police on patrol inside the DMZ being ordered to set up an ambush and kill them. Capt. Brophy was off site in his jeep. I called him on the radio and gave him a code phrase to return immediately.

We quickly computed firing data. I directed the mission be fired with three rounds of high-explosive per gun, using impact-detonating fuzes instead of air burst fuzes. Sgt. Gosinski sent the firing data to the guns. Some gun chiefs were a little confused about whether this mission was practice or real - the ones who were Vietnam vets weren't confused! I briefed the XO by field phone and he got the gun chiefs straightened out. Each crew loaded a high-explosive round and placed two more, ready to fire, in the ready rack. Things were very tense. The battery commander came in and I briefed him, then he went to the gun line.

I don't know how long we stayed ready to fire, probably 20 minutes. Then the FO called. My FDC soldiers were wide eyed when they heard him. I probably was, too! We knew that 4P1 could get hit by more than 600 North Korean artillery rounds within 10 minutes. We would have been atomized in such a barrage.

"End of mission," said the FO.

The enemy had crossed back over the line before they reached the ambush. So they lived to see another day, and so did we.

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