By the end of May, I was back at Fort Jackson for eight weeks of A.I.T. (Advanced Infantry Training).
The Infantry is known as “The Queen of Battle” and it’s the infantry that is usually on the front lines in any war. The Infantry is the “boots on the ground” of whom our government leaders often speak. They’re usually the first to go into any hostile environment and the last to leave. Consequently, they suffer the greatest casualties.
If you want to die a hero, join the infantry.
The weather had improved mightily since my previous stint at Fort Jackson in February and under the careful direction of some experienced combat veterans, we new recruits quickly set about familiarizing ourselves with the Infantry’s small arms arsenal.
On a typical day that summer, about sixty of us future officer candidates would be seated on the ground or in this instance, in bleacher seats, similar to those in a small town high school football stadium, while a staff sergeant, wearing the Combat Infantryman’s Badge (an experienced veteran of an actual war) would instruct us on the finer points of each Weapon-of–the-Day. After each lecture, an expert marksman on that particular weapon would be called forward to demonstrate each weapon’s accuracy and effective range. I was most impressed by the M-60 machine gun.
“…the M60 is a gas-operated, air-cooled, belt-fed, automatic machine gun that fires from the open-bolt position and is chambered for the 7.62 mm NATO cartridge. Ammunition is usually fed into the weapon from a 100-round bandolier containing a disintegrating, metallic split-link belt….”
A series of white cut-out targets about 36 inches high, roughly in the shape of a human being and each with a black bulls-eye in the “chest” region, had been set up in the field before us. On an order from the NCO (non-commissioned officer) a two-man crew consisting of gunner and an assistant gunner jogged out from the side, carrying the weapon, which had a small tripod attached to the front of the barrel. The two men dropped to the ground behind the weapon and lay there awaiting orders to fire.
The first target lay flat on the ground at a mere 100 meters distance. On a signal from our instructor, it popped up. No sooner had we seen it pop up, than it was falling back over again with a hole in its center of mass. One round from the machine gun sufficed to drop it about a second later.
Then the sergeant called for the target at 200 meters. And there it was. As quickly as it popped up—just as quickly, the M-60 made a single pop and in about a second and a half the 200 meter target fell silently back, the victim of the second bullet from the M-60.
Then it got really interesting.
The sergeant called for the target at 500 meters to be erected. Every man eagerly trained his eyes on the distant horizon and in a second or two a slight white speck appeared off to the left. A short burst of three rounds took it down. I looked around at my fellow trainees. Everyone was now clearly enjoying the show.
Then the sergeant called for a target at 1,000 meters. I looked to the front and squinted– but all I could see were gently rolling hills dotted with some small scrub brush– and way off in the distance some dark grey trees. At least, I think they were trees. They could have been clouds. Then, as I vainly scanned the horizon for the distant target, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I detected some tiny movement. Yes, there was indeed something white out there that hadn’t been there a second before. I could no longer discern the familiar shape of a human form, but down on the ground in front of us, what was clearly a human form shifted his body slightly and squeezed off a burst of five. There was a delay of about three seconds before the target rolled over backwards just as silently as it had arched up. I was impressed. Everyone was impressed. Except maybe our instructor, who had seen it all in training, so many times before– and no doubt, even seen it kill.
The sergeant dismissed the two-man machine gun crew and they jumped up and trotted off with the weapon. I felt like applauding, but it just didn’t seem right somehow.
Later in the afternoon, we had been split up into small groups and were inside a building, standing at a big table practicing disassembling and re-assembling the M60 when a low-ranking enlisted man, a clerk carrying a clipboard, appeared in our midst.
“Anyone here ever had any math?”, he asked.
I wondered if flunking out of college after only one year with a 43 average in math counted for anything.
I spoke up.
“I had two years in college!”
He wrote down my name and my service number, US 53417848, and went away. Apparently, he needed to fill a quota of just two candidates to send to the United States Army Field Artillery and Missile Officer Candidate School. Artillery, the “King of Battle” uses trigonometry to accurately “put his balls where the queen wants them”. All the rest went to Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia to become platoon leaders in Infantry Companies in Vietnam.
And so it was, that math, cursed and blessed math, which had caused me to get drafted into the army in the first place, would prove my salvation… and save my lying ass.