The AWOL M16
8th in a series by Tom Rozman
A forward deployed mechanized battalion in Germany had received the “end of exercise” (Endex) radio communication from its brigade control headquarters. A more than two week deployment was concluding.
The exercise was being conducted on the major maneuver training center available to forces in the Southern half of Germany in Northeast Bavaria. It had been a grueling two plus weeks in November-December, with freezing rain, sleet and snow.
The rugged terrain of the training center had become an even greater challenge with paste like mud in some places several feet thick. It was a mud that got into everything, grabbing loose equipment and boots and sucking them into its gelatinous mass.
From years of movement by armored vehicles, all roads and trails were sculpted into rough track by the tanks, armored personnel carriers and tracked recovery vehicles. In late fall and early winter, precipitation turned many into rivers or gooey to gelatinous mud, creating dangerous slicks on the grades for inexperienced drivers or sucking morasses that swallowed vehicles whole. Even the open fields and meadows were treacherous as one 5-ton fuel truck when it became mired in ground that looked solid but was a bog.
Many tracks through the low mountain passes or off the ridges had steep grades that with the chewed up uneven muddy surfaces and rocky sections, became highly treacherous and difficult to negotiate, particularly 2 ½ ton and 5 ton trucks, unsecured cargo in the truck bed taking a severe beating as the truck attempted to descend from the higher ground.
As well, Endex was a whirlwind of activity for a tired unit that had been fully engaged against man and nature on a demanding multi-week around the clock tactical exercise. Not only did all the equipment need to be recovered, repaired and cleaned from an extended tactical footprint sufficient to meet return to garrison standards, this had to be done in a very short time window to free up the training center for following units in the extremely time sensitive scheduling that exited to allow units this vital readiness preparation for their General Defense Position missions.
Adding to the challenge was the policy in Germany at the time to entrain armored units from garrison to the training center to avoid armored vehicle column movement on the Autobahns. On more than one occasion civilian casualties and fatalities had resulted from driver impatience with the long armored columns taking risks by driving in and out of the columns or by a mechanical failure by a tracked vehicle such as a track breaking.
Additional funds had been budgeted make all armored vehicle movement from the garrisons to the training center by rail. But, the arduous, intricate and involved work with the Bundesbahn to move a battalion’s worth of armored vehicles to a training depot and load and secure the vehicles to the flat cars and unload them at destination added a significant amount of work to an exercise, especially at Endex.
The Bundesbahn was efficient and handled the process very well but the rail loading remained a significant and time consuming step in the process of a deployment to the center. Once Endex was announced, the schedule was tight to gather in the unit, stand down and clean and account for equipment and personnel and still meet the rail loading and road convoy movement schedules.
The magnitude of the rail loading challenge becomes more clear given the number of vehicles. In the mechanized battalion at the time over 120 armored vehicles had to be loaded and transported by the Bundesbahn under this program. These same vehicles had to be thoroughly “demudded” before movement to the rail head and loading on the flat cars.
To address the time crunch involved, the battalion had developed Endex procedures for handling small arms. In some situations where elements were to begin the vehicle movement to cleaning sites, parties under NCOs moved to appointed locations to recover and secure small arms to a designated site for later cleaning. The procedure retained full control of the weapons throughout under normal conditions. This procedure was about to be challenged by the worse than usual weather and found conditions being confronted at Endex.
The battalion executive officer (XO) who had the responsibility for orchestrating Endex operations was monitoring Endex operations from the battalion’s trains location. Endex had been called shortly after 0200. A radio transmission from the weapons consolidation point reported that one of the recovery party NCOs had identified a missing M16.
Army procedures of the day outlined very specific and immediate procedures for reporting a missing weapon and measures to be taken to attempt location of the weapon or determine its status. Specific times were assigned to progressively higher level command reporting all the way to the national level if the weapon remained absent. For any unit experiencing a missing weapon activation of this process was like a red flag for the unit bringing potential unwanted by the unit leadership attention and possible censure. A missing weapon was a big deal and could reflect adversely on the unit leaders.
The XO like many in the unit had gotten little sleep over the last three days. Grogginess had to be shaken off and laser focus would be necessary. The first order of business was to redo the physical inventory and confirm or deny the initial findings and to do it in a calm controlled manner. The XO immediately put this action in motion and then started the process of identifying every soldier involved in the handling of the weapon to its last none and confirmed location. The battalion commander was immediately notified and further informed of what immediate actions were being taken.
The battalion commander was a tough old soldier who didn’t panic easily. A veteran of the Canadian and U.S. Armies and a battle tested he had full confidence in the XO and left the operation in the XO’s hands.
The verification weapons inventory confirmed that the M16 was missing. The XO immediately assembled all parties associated with the weapons collection and transport of that group of weapons at the trains location to begin a process similar to the Ranger patrol process of post patrol debriefing of every individual. The XO was careful to keep any negative comment to any soldier away from the process. Soldiers needed to be in a no-threat environment to free them from any inhibitors that might compromise their ability to provide the critical information anyone of them may have that would locate the weapon quickly.
As well, never mind any crippling affect on information gathering, any implied or open censure of any soldier at this time was unnecessary. These were veteran soldiers in a crack unit. Every soldier was well aware of the issues around a lost weapon report. The XO was moving quickly to gel a team approach by all associated with the weapon to make each member feel committed to the team goal to locate the weapon.
As the weapon location team assembled in the trains, the XO began the process by having the NCO in charge narrate the sequence of events from the point the weapon was known to last have been under positive control to when the weapon could not be accounted for. Other team members were then in turn asked to provide their memory of the sequence of events. As well, each soldier was encouraged to comment if something of importance occurred to him during the narration.
Time was tight and daylight was coming. Not only was there a concern for locating the weapon. But if for any reason the weapons had somehow managed to be left in a muddy roadway, timely recovery was critical to avoid damage to or destruction of the weapon as a result of a tracked vehicle particularly moving on that section of road.
What became apparent early in the narration process was that in the cold, dark and wet conditions some of the procedures for physically securing the weapons in the bed of the 2 ½ truck being used for collecting and moving the weapons had not been followed. As well, the route taken had a long section of dirt road that descended from the ridge top where the weapons had been gathered with some down grades at better than 30%.
Because of the conditions of the road there movement in the bed of the truck such that any unsecured object could leave the bed by several feet and due to the forward momentum of the vehicle pass over the tailgate and drop to the road bellow. Even with the rear flap down, if it was not tightly secured, the weight and momentum of the suspended item might be sufficient to move the flap enough to allow a free object to be literally bounced out of the covered truck bed.
As the BMNT approached the XO formed a theory that the latter situation had occurred. This was reinforced by several soldier’s comments to a particularly violent episode while descending from the ridge. To further refine the theory, the XO honed in on fixing as thoroughly as possible the last “positive” control of the weapon.
As well, a focused inquiry began on the exact location of the location where the truck had almost lost control in the descent due to the violent movement caused by the exposed rock encountered on the roadway. This was not as easy a process as one would think as there were other situations and pinning down the location took focused narrating back through the truck’s movement down the slope.
Meanwhile, the XO had alerted a unit selected to move immediately to the location to initiate a physical search. The soldiers were to be equipped with prods to penetrate into the mud.
The inquiry into location fixed the most likely location though at the time this location was still theoretical. But with the “scoping” that had been done, as the sun came over the horizon, the search unit deployed.
Then began the wait.
About an hour later, the search unit leader came up on the radio. He reported that the weapon had been located at the location the search had been narrowed down to. It was found under the mud and definitely in the roadway.
The battalion continued its Endex recovery working hard on meeting its tight schedule to out process from the center, especially to make its Bundesbahn schedule for rail loading.
Because all concerned kept their heads and moved calmly but decisively in the weapon’s recovery operation and as a team, a virtual recovery miracle was achieved (note, the XO had deployed his company on a similar operation when a sister company had lost a firing port version of the M16 eight years earlier on a stretch of mud covered tank trail—that weapon was not recovered during the initial search). Some counseling did occur regarding the NCO but overall the operation brought credit on the unit, demonstrating its ability to recover even in a difficult situation by acting as a team.