Recollections of a USMC 81mm mortar section forward observer RTO in Vietnam

Page Title - US Marine Corps
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81mm Mortar Section Forward Observer
Submitted by Michael Pomakis, RVN '66 - '67


Mike,

Would like to help you out with your research but since I was a radio operator attached to mortars as the forward observers comm man, I knew little about the organization and deployment of the mortar squads. I know that they were attached to the companies in a like manner.

Sand-bagged gun pit with US 81mm mortar in position
81mm mortar gun pit

Your best bet would be to contact a mortar man on this subject. One that may be able to help you out is Mike Stewart.

Good luck with your research. I hope these answers help you out. I'll do my best with them.

In your capacity as the comms man to the mortar FO you still may be able to help me. Was the FO team integral to the mortars and were they attached to the company HQ?

As far as I know the FO team was attached to the company with the mortar squads. We had three guns on Hill 52 and the FO and I were an integral part of the mortar attachment. We were used for all size patrols from squad to company.

Also, when the mortar FO was working, who was he in contact with? Did you communicate with the Company/Battalion CO as well as the mortars he was directing?

The mortar FO was in direct contact with the mortar FDC at all times. Communications with the company and battalion elements was done through their channels.

Could the mortar FO also call in air/artillery and/or act as observer for same?

Yes. I can remember calling in close air support, artillery, naval guns, naval rockets and even tank fire.

How many of you were there in the FO team, was it just you and the FO or were the teams larger than that?

The FO team consisted of two people, the Forward Observer and his radio operator. I don't think that there were any larger mortar FO teams.

I hope this helps you out. I can only give you info on what I lived and experienced. It may not be accurate for all scenarios.

Was there only a single FO team per company?

One 81's FO, one 60's FO and one arty FO. Not all went out on every patrol. It was up to the company elements to decide whether or not they wanted an FO team with them and which one they wanted. This is why we also called in arty and other stuff when we were out because we were the only FO team with the patrol.

USMC 60mm mortar in action and being fired over open sights
USMC 60mm mortar

You also mention that you were in constant contact with the FDC - did you pass your corrections for artillery, Tacair and NGS to them or were you in contact with those supporting units directly?

As far as I can remember we spoke directly to the units we were using. I remember one time when I was in actual contact with the pilot of an F-4 Phantom that was giving us close air support.

Similarly, if your Company CO wanted to request support fire (whether it be mortars, artillery, Tacair or NGS) did he pass this request to you for communication to the FDC or did you communicate with higher command centres?

The command element (could be a squad leader - depended on the size of the patrol or operation) would pass their request for a fire mission to the FO team who would then take the ball.

Did you only carry the PRC-25 for your communications?

Only the PRC-25. They sent us a smaller unit to test but it wasn't worth a damn. It was light but had no range. Photo of some of the testing of this unit is on my site in the India Company section.

I understand that in order to observe the fall of shot it was quite often necessary to be close to the enemy positions, or at least have a line of sight, and hence be subject to enemy fire? Who provided you with security? Did you have a security element to look out for you?

We had to observe the rounds when they landed and call in any corrections that may be required. We were usually located with the command element while on patrol and went directly to the area needed when the call for "mortars up" came down the line. If we had to leave the security of the patrol we would be given a security element of at least a fire team.

Mike, are you able to tell me anything about the procedure for calling and correcting fire?

When the call came for "mortars up" the FO team would hustle to the area where they were needed and where they could see the target. This quite often put us in very precarious positions subject to heavy enemy fire. Once we could see the target we would determine the target's coordinates and our own coordinates. Then FDC would be contacted with the request for a fire mission. Both sets of coordinates would be radioed to the FDC. They required our location so that they could plot our position so that they would know where we were looking from when we sent in correction. Our "go left 50 meters" could be "go up 50 meters" from where the gun was. If they didn't know where we were looking from it could get very hairy.

81mm mortar gun pit busily engaged in a fire mission
81mm mortar 'round on the way'

Usually one round of Willy Peter (White Phosphorous or WP) would be called for as a spotter round. WP was used because of its high visibility (Very large cloud of white smoke). Once the round was on target a "fire for effect" order would be sent with the number and type on rounds required. Basically we used WP and HE (High Explosive) rounds. Once the "fire for effect" order was sent we would head for cover if the need arose, and usually did.

Whiskey was the call sign for mortars with the 7th Marine Regiment. So, Whiskey India was the 81's with India Company. The FO was "Whiskey India Forward" usually shortened to "India Forward" to speed up communications.

A fire mission may sound something like this:

  • FO: Whiskey India, Whiskey India, India Forward, India Forward. Fire Mission. Over
  • FDC: India Forward, Whiskey India. Go ahead, India Forward. Over
  • FO: Whiskey India, India Forward. Fire Mission. Target Coordinates 895642, I say again Target Coordinates 895642. Forward coordinates 894647. I say again Forward coordinates 894647.  Request one round Willy Peter. Will adjust. Over
  • FDC: Roger India Forward. Target Coordinates 895642, I say again Target Coordinates 895642. Forward coordinates 894647. I say again Forward coordinates 894647.  One round Willy Peter. Over
  • FO: Whiskey India, India Forward. That affirmative. Over
  • FDC: Roger, India Forward. Wait one.
  • (Elevation, declination and charge would be calculated and sent to the gun pit. Gun crew would set up the gun and get the round off as quickly and accurately as possible)
  • FDC: Round on the way, India Forward. Over
  • FO: Roger. Wait one.
  • (Due to the high trajectory of the mortar, it would take a few seconds for it to reach the target. Once the round is spotted, any corrections would be sent in. This may happen a few times before the round is actually on target.)
  • FO: Whiskey India, India Forward. Correction. Left 50 meters. I say again, left five zero meters. 10 rounds Hotel Echo. Fire for effect. Over
  • FDC: Roger, India Forward. Left 50 meters. I say again, left five zero meters. 10 rounds Hotel Echo. Fire for effect. Over
  • FO: Whiskey India, India Forward. That's affirmative. Over.
  • FDC: Roger, India Forward. Wait one.
  • FDC: Rounds on the way. Over

You can hear what goes on in the gun pit during one of these missions on my site. Attached to a photo of the 81 is a sound file of a fire mission that took place in that pit with that gun and crew.

Semper Fi,

Mike Pomakis
Whiskey Forward

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My sincere thanks to Mike for his help in answering my questions. You can visit Mike's web site, Visions of Vietnam and check it out for yourself.

Were you a mortar crew member or otherwise involved in the operation of mortars in Vietnam, either Army or USMC? If so I would like to hear from you in order to expand on this section and on mortars generally. Please contact me with your comments, all information is treated with the strictest confidence. Mike R.


 

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