Mortarmen: The dark horse of the Infantry

By Sgt. David VermilyeaOctober 23, 2017

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Mortar Night Fire
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- U.S. Army Paratroopers assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade fire the M252A1 81mm Mortar System during a night fire range on October 20th, ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- Indirect fire infantrymen, colloquially known as mortarmen, are often shunned in the community of grunts. They participate in the same mission as their compatriots who hold an 11B military occupational specialty designator, they carry asinine masses of weight on their back, they hunker down in the nasty crags of the bush, yet they constantly fight to be recognized as members of the infantry. In the 173rd Airborne Brigade, they are also Paratroopers who willingly leap from aircraft with ambitious intent to rapidly deliver death at the doorstep of the enemy.

According to the National Park Service, American mortar utilization in warfare dates back to the Revolutionary War, when General George Washington's Army defeated General Lord Cornwallis' Army in the battle of Yorktown. However, in those days, mortarmen were not considered part of the infantry, but instead the artillery. It was not until WWI in the midst of austere trench warfare that mortarmen were integrated into the infantry because, as the adage goes, 'necessity breeds innovation.'

"With both armies dug in and facing each other in heavily wired and fortified lines of trenches, the need for some type of close artillery support controlled by infantry units asserted itself almost immediately," Virgil Nye wrote in Evolution of the U.S. Army Infantry Mortar Squad: The Argonne to Pleiku.

The exploding capabilities of the round allowed shrapnel to shower down on the enemy, multiplying the lethal effects and securing a clear advantage over the entrenched army. It was the Germans that invented the first trench mortar system, the Minenwerfer.

To match and then overwhelm German firepower during WWI, British engineer Sir Wilfred Stokes invented the Stokes 3-inch Mortar System, which spawned the conception of 7 different mortar systems used in WWI.

In 1935 French ironworker Edward William Brandt engineered the Brandt mle 27/31 mortar system which the United States studied, derived from and transmuted into the M1 81mm and M2 60mm mortar systems. Both were liberally utilized during WWII.

Today, within the world of mortars, there are two factions. First, the Soldier who is attached to and embedded in the battalion's line company. Company mortar assets use 60 millimeter rounds for portability purposes, though the current M224 system itself still weighs 41 pounds, not including rounds.

"Ideally, it's a squad of six Paratroopers attached to a platoon or with the Company Headquarters element," said Section Sergeant, Sgt. Joshua G. Lipham of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. "We are internal; another squad within whatever element we are with."

Being assigned to the company level serves as a rite of passage for the individual mortarman. He must do his time on the line and does it willingly, for the opportunity is earned, not given.

"If they've done their time in Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) and we think they would develop more on the line we send them to a 60mm section" said First Lt. Daniel J. Leininger, Platoon Leader of HHC, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. "It helps career progression for the individual Paratrooper because once they reach senior rank, they are expected to know all systems."

Second, there are the battalion mortar assets constructed of an entire platoon with farther reaching capabilities than the company assets.

"The role of the mortar platoon is to support the rest of battalion with timely and accurate indirect fire," said Leininger. "There is only one platoon with 81mm rounds and 120mm rounds, so we support Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Hotel Company and any other attached units with indirect fire support."

The company-used 60mm rounds can effectively hit targets 3,490 meters away, while battalion-used rounds can destroy targets over two times the distance with a larger kill radius.

"81mm rounds have a maximum effective range of 5,608 meters," said Leininger. "120mm rounds can reach 7,200 meters and the kill radius spans 76 meters in diameter."

All mortarmen follow the same general principles guiding operation success.

"For a mortar section, we send a reconnaissance element out to the tentative position, so our guy will know exactly where their guns will be laid, and this will be decided by the Fire Direction Center, which is the team that will get the data for the guns," said Lipham. "They'll take the call for fires that we receive by Forward Observers or from maneuver elements at the front line and turn it into information that the gun line uses to aim their mortars."

Once the guns are emplaced, it is time to go through the scrupulous procedures of firing the rounds.

"Deflection: 2892, charge 4, elevation: 1121," says the squad leader, denoting the horizontal and vertical planes which determine where the round will go.

"2892, Check. 1121, Check. Good Data," says the gunner, confirming the direction was heeded.

"13 rounds, let's go. It's going to be a half-turn down elevation between every round," the squad leader says to his gun team.

"Roger, 2-gun, copy. Half-turn down between rounds," the squad leader returns affirmation to the fire direction center.

"Ready?" says the squad leader to his team. "Hang it. Fire! Hang it. Fire!"

And the commands are repeated 11 more times until all 13 rounds have rocketed into the sky.

Accompanying the normal stressors of being an infantryman such as carrying astronomical amounts of weight, walking unforeseen distances and being on the front-lines of combat, mortarmen possess a technical expertise that, if not properly mastered, can swiftly turn circumstances awry.

"If your mils are off, you can make that round go to the completely wrong location," said Mortar Team Leader Pvt. First Class James S. Gillihan of HHC, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. "If it's not within the safe zone you could kill 11B's [infantrymen]."

Luckily, the 173rd Airborne Brigade fervently advocates for its Paratroopers to be adroitly competent, exceeding the standard in all they do.

Along with precision, comes the necessity for speed. The best can set up shop, from a state of total disassembly to one ready for fire commands, in less time than it takes to brush your teeth.

"Expert time is one minute," said Gillihan. "You got to get it up, because the quicker you get the gun up, the quicker the rounds go down."

And the quicker the rounds go down, the more firmly the 173rd Airborne Brigade places trust in its indirect fire infantrymen. So, the dark horse rides on, into battle, bringing unexpected destruction to its enemy and unwavering confidence to its Allies.