By Mike Vrabel, Virginia National GuardMay 15, 2019
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the Norfolk-based 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team conducted a historic waterborne artillery live-fire exercise during Operation Gator April 24-25, 2019, at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The exercise marked the first riverine artillery fire mission for the Army since the Vietnam era.
The Soldiers partnered with active duty Soldiers from the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story-based 11th Transportation Battalion, 7th Transportation Brigade for the exercise. The teams met at the Mile Hammock Bay boat docks, with the 1-111th loading one M119A3 howitzer and two Humvees onto the 11th's mechanized landing crafts before making the 90-minute boat ride up the Intracoastal Waterway to the designated fire point. That journey wasn't as simple as just moving equipment and troops.
"With today's weapons, the gun will actually track its location and know its direction at all times," said Lt. Col. Shawn Talmadge, commander of the 1-111th, also known as the Thunder Battalion."The gun had no issues initializing, finding its location, understanding where true north is. We went underway along the Intracoastal Waterway and the gun continued to track its GPS location and direction, which is a huge win."
Once at the firing point, the LCM, or "Mike Boat," carrying the howitzer was anchored against a mud flat to provide stability to the craft, while the support vessels staged a safe distance away. After a day of rehearsals, planning, and adjustments, the 1-111th began their live-fire missions the morning of April 25.
The unique setting provided some unusual challenges for the gun crew on board the LCM.
"Every time we shoot, we get a certain amount of recoil, called displacement. Being on the boat, we had to situate sandbags behind the tires as well as the spade," said Staff Sgt. Ryan Turner. "It's definitely a challenge. What we've rigged up seems to work."
Turner said any turbulence in the water can also impact their fire missions.
"We've blocked off each side of the channel so we don't have any kind of traffic making wakes, which has helped out a lot," said Turner. "It's pretty calm today, and that helps as well."
Those first shots made history as the first U.S. Army artillery fire missions from a landing craft since the Vietnam War. The 1-111th hopes it's a capability that catches on.
"In Vietnam, this was a doctrine that was not only developed, but actually utilized and employed," said Talmadge. "Today is a proof of concept to say hey, we can still do this. We'll provide information to the Fires Center of Excellence down at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey to start taking a look at this to determine if we need to develop new doctrine using today's weapons."
"Reaching back to veteran doctrine and utilizing it in today's military environment, to be on the forefront of operational change, and to potentially affect how the Army fights is extraordinary," added 11th Transportation Battalion commander Lt. Col. Damien Boffardi.
The historical significance of Operation Gator doesn't end with Vietnam. For the 1-111th, it's a first that dates back to World War II.
"I tell this story all the time. In a couple of months, it will be 75 years since D-Day," said Talmadge. "What's really unique - the gun that is on the LCM is from Bravo Battery, 1-111th Field Artillery Regiment. Technically, the last time this battalion had guns on a landing craft was D-Day.
"That talks about our incredible history of the men and women that served before us, and we're just continuing the lineage of honorable service."
Not to be lost in the historical significance of the mission is the growing partnership between the 1-111th and the 11th Transportation Battalion, a unique bond between active duty and National Guard component.
"They're out here in addition to all their extra training to help us demonstrate this," said Talmadge. "It's great training, and the relationship between the 11th Transportation and the 111th Field Artillery - we're looking at this as a long-term partnership. This is just the tip of the iceberg."
"I believe opportunities like this training mission are vitally important," said Boffardi. "Being able to integrate active, reserve and National Guard forces and assets at the tactical level not only increases readiness, but it also expands the ability of a maneuver commander to integrate the capabilities on the battlefield."
"We embrace every opportunity we get to train with reserve and National Guard units, knowing that we will certainly work together in any real-world contingency," added Col. Beth Behn, commander of the 7th Transportation Brigade.
Representatives from the Camp Lejeune-based 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division and the Fort Sill-based Fires Center of Excellence were also on hand to observe the historic training.