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The Smoke Round

by: Hank Ortega, PA/C
(© Copyright, 1998)

The smoke round is an artillery shell that is fired for one of two reasons. The first and most common reason is to check the placement of a given fire mission’s coordinates. As a first round it allows by noise and smoke and, at night by burning hot and white a visual and aural reference. The smoke round is set to explode in the air, some several hundred feet above the ground. If the shot is off by some amount the artillery observer can call in adjustments for the next shots, usually the effect rounds such as H.E. or W.P.

The second reason as we used them, was for the F.O. to check our own position. This was done by having several persons agree as to where we were on the map, then calling the smoke round in several hundred yards away, in a given distance. Not only would that confirm our position, but the F.O. would then call in known targets based on that reference, for the purpose of having fire missions (called in this case “delta tangos”) already presighted, in case we got hit in the night. This enabled us to adjust from a given coordinate very quickly, since the sighting rounds had already been shot. Some times the guns would fire at those sites on a given schedule through the night just to keep the enemy on his toes.

When fired the smoke round behaves like any other shell until it explodes above it’s target. As mentioned above, it goes off with a loud report, that will call one’s attention in that direction. If the view is unobstructed by vegetation the day time display is of three smoking objects falling from the burst, trailing white smoke. The pieces make a roaring or bussing sound as they tumble in the air. At night the display leaves a trail of white light. If unable to see the round, the report and the noise of falling helps to define the direction. The pieces are several pounds in weight at least, and maybe more if fired from a 155 or 175 mm gun. I don’t remember the Navy ever firing a smoke round first, the few times we used them. The impression was that they always knew exactly where their rounds were going. The actual location of the infantry calling in artillery is the most important factor in where these rounds impact. I never really appreciated the danger inherent in these rounds until one night after a long and arduous walk.

We started the day off walking in rather open country, fairly widely spaced trees, slow moving creeks, some areas partly burned by artillery fire, some by bombs. There was a report from up front that there was a sick guy falling out. I was asked by the senior aidman to check him out, since the senior had already gone by his position. I pushed up ahead, and found a young soldier with a high temp, somewhat dry, but adequately hydrated. He was weak, and said he couldn’t go on. I reported his condition to the senior aidman and could overhear the CO shout at the radioman, “Leave his ass here, we’re not stopping.”

That didn’t leave me much choice, so I split his gear up between his team members, and unloaded some of my extra gear, then began the task of pushing and pulling the sick trooper along the trail. As we went, I kept feeding him water and canned fruit. Every time we crossed a creek, I would lay him face down in the water, and holding his belt would alternately lift and lower his body in and out of the cooling stream. He would rest his head on a rock, and quietly whisper that it felt good , and would thank me for not leaving him behind. I would have mixed feelings during all of this, telling him that I wouldn’t leave anybody behind but all the time thinking that I wished that damn captain would let me call a medivac in to lift this poor guy out of here.

The ground began to rise. I was able to get one or two guys to help me get the guy up the trail. As the afternoon wore on, the ground broke up into steep fingers, with narrow tops that we followed, ever upward, walking in trails that the rain had cut up to 3 feet deep. The ground dropped away on either side, and through the trees one could make out other fingers that also headed up the steep slope.

The sick soldier was improving. The aspirin and fluids had helped immensely and he was now walking on his own, carrying his own gear.

We began to set up for the night. Lt. Christian began to set up delta tangos, and I could hear him call his first shot, intended to burst over the next finger to the side of us, several hundred feet away. The radio whispered “Shot, over.”

Lt. Christian said “Shot, out.”

Off in the distance I could hear the muffled boom of the single gun firing the smoke round. I thought that I needed to get my spot finished so I could make rounds, and pass out medicines, and my other usual night time chores, before it got any darker. zszszszszszszszsZSZSZSZSZSWHAMBANG!

So fast that I could hardly grasp what was happening/had happened, the smoke round came in and burst just a few feet above us, possibly below the canopy of trees. A piece struck within our perimeter in a fraction of a second after the round exploded. Instant pandemonium! I scrambled from my half-erected hooch, and crouched there looking around to see who had been hit. There were so many cries of pain and confusion that I knew someone had been hit. I made my way to the closest position to mine, and found there two men lying against trees, each with several small shrapnel wounds in their arms and sides. Their hooch was collapsed onto a still form. I said I needed a flashlight, and the men who had come out of the hooch began to cry out, “What for, Doc? He’s dead, man, forget it man , he’s dead!”

I asked the other medics present to take care of these men, took a proffered flashlight, dropped to my knees, and lifted the poncho. I pulled the poncho down over my head, and shoulders and after making sure the edges were sealed against the light, I prepared to turn on the flashlight. I could smell burned flesh, and feces in the air, and in this tight enclosure, with the body of the man just inches from my face could feel the heat of his body, and that from the chunk of smoke round buried in the dirt below. I clicked the switch, and there revealed before me was the young soldier’s back, laid open and sealed by the burning chunk of steel, from his shoulders to his hips. Like an anatomy lesson, his organs lay there in perfect display, the smoke from the round curling up from the ground, his body slumped forward. Instantly dead.

I turned off the light, but that image was to be imprinted on my mind forever. I dropped the poncho back over the still form and walked away. The other medics wrapped his poor broken body in the poncho and prepared to evac him out in the morning.

30 years later I attended my first 101st Airborne Division Reunion. While there I met men I hadn’t seen or spoken to in the entire interim. This story came up for discussion. One of the men who was there at the time told me that the boy who died was the same young trooper that had fallen out earlier that day. I cannot attest to that, but if true, I cannot help but wonder at the irony of this young man’s fate. Not wanting to go further, the struggle that he endured that day to keep up, only to be killed that night by an errant round. Was this just bad luck or could some sort of future memory have been at work, trying to keep him from a place he did not want to go, because of the end that waited for him?

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