By Spc. Andrew Valenza, New York National GuardMay 29, 2018
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- A 93-year old who fired 258th Field Artillery guns at Nazi troops in World War II was on hand as the New York Army National Guard battalion's artillerymen fired the Army's latest towed cannon for their first time.
Charlie Brown, a veteran from Olean, New York, joined members of Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 258th Infantry in firing the first rounds from their new 155 millimeter M777A2 howitzers here on May 23.
The M777A2 is the Army's newest towed howitzer and comes with the capability to fire precision munitions. The training event capped the battalion's two-weeks of annual training.
"It was exciting! It sure does bring back memories. I can recall when we were firing at the enemy," Brown said.
Brown was outfitted with a helmet and protective gear and pulled the cord which fired the high-tech artillery piece.
Charlie Battery was created by taking Soldiers from the battalion's Alpha and Bravo batteries and making a new unit. Artillery battalions used to have three batteries but that was over 10 years ago.This change is part of the Army's Brigade redesign, explained Lt. Col. Peter Mehling, the battalion commander.
During their annual training, the 54 Soldiers from Charlie Battery were issued and trained on the M777A2. The Soldiers worked hard to learn to use the new, more sophisticated system, Mehling said.
The M777A2 employs an onboard GPS and digital fire control system to calculate the howitzer's position on the Earth and the target's location. This enables the gun crew to fire faster and more accurately.
It also takes less time to emplace the gun than the older 155mm towed cannon (M198) it replaced. The M777A2 is also much lighter than the towed 155mm howitzer it replaces because many parts are now made of titanium.
The M777A2 requires only five artillerymen to operate. The M198 155 millimeter towed howitzer it is replacing needed a crew of nine.
The new howitzer uses hydraulics to operate the breech, loading tray and suspension system, which reduces crew size and crew fatigue.
Each recoil of the cannon charges and pressurizes the hydraulic system so the crew can elevate the gun tube, open and close the breech, and conduct other functions very quickly, Mehling explained.
The combined effect of these changes is increased reliability and the ability to fire more rapidly, he added.
The M777A2 can fire a maximum of four rounds per minute and has a sustained rate of fire of two rounds per minute.
The new cannon can also fire up to 37.5 kilometers, compared to the 19.5 kilometers range of the 105mm cannons.
"We're a much more lethal battalion than we were," Mehling said.
Maj. Gen. Steven Ferrari, the commander of the 42nd Infantry Division, visited the training to observe the new gun firing.
The battalion will now be configured with two batteries of 105 mm guns, and one of 155 millimeter cannons, instead of just two batteries of 105 millimeter guns.
The transition has been a deliberate process, Mehling said.
Contractors taught classes on the new howitzer which included maintenance training, how to fire it, and how the computers work.
Crews found the transition to be very easy, according to Sgt. Johnathan Johnson, a gun crew chief.
"The best part was everyone only had to learn one position…that's on our level to cross train, so other than that it was very easy," Johnson said.
When live fire day arrived, the Soldiers were very excited, Mehling said.
"One of the Soldiers said it was like Christmas and your birthday, and the best day ever, all rolled up into one," Mehling said, "the motivation level and the attention to detail in the Soldiers has just been incredible."
The battalion's 2018 annual training was a success all around, Johnson said.
"It's one of the best annual trainings I've been to," Johnson said. The new guns are "very easy to adapt to and learn in the field… [the Soldiers] have been excellent. Everyone's eager to learn and play with the new toys."
This annual training was a first for Pvt. Wilfred Camacho, who just graduated from advanced individual training.
He got a kick out of firing the guns, Camacho said. "It's a good concussion, especially if you like explosions," he said.
By the end of the day, the Charlie Battery artillerymen had sent 82 rounds down range in its qualification of all crews and sections.
The Charlie Battery Soldiers said they really liked to opportunity to meet and talk with Brown, who had been invited to pull the lanyard on the new guns by the battalion commander.
When Brown served, the battalion fired 155mm self-propelled howitzers. As a member of the battalion's headquarters battery, Brown kept detailed records on the battalion's actions and recorded 33,902 rounds fired from Normandy to the heart of Germany in 1944 and 1945.
Brown watched throughout that day as the cannons fired, and he shared stories of his war. The reception he received was very emotional for him, Brown said.
"What really amazed me was seeing all these guys cheer for me," he said. "I have tears seeing [the Soldiers] here."
The 21st Century howitzers being used by the 258th now are very different from the guns Brown and his colleagues fired in World War II.
Those self-propelled howitzers had a maximum range of 12.5 miles, compared to the 22 miles range of the M777A2. The World War II cannons were area fire weapons, while artillery today can use guided munitions to destroy point targets.
Also, the 1st Battalion 258th Artillery today has female officers and enlisted Soldiers in the ranks. That was unheard of during World War II, Brown noted.
Being in the 258th Field Artillery is still special, though, Brown said.
"I lived a good life, and maybe it was because I was in the 258th," he said.