Saturday, January 09, 2010

Ice Age Accoutrements

A rare snow fell here at the northern end of southern nowhere this week. With the white stuff still filling the air, the Colonel layered up, grabbed his trusty musket, and headed out into the storm to conduct a security patrol of the back forty. I enjoy the change of scenery winter brings to the landscape. I like the long, stark views afforded by the leafless woods--even more, the dramatic change wrought by a blanket of snow and ice. I was ostensibly looking for deer or a pesky coyote, but sighted snowy memories instead.

Standing next to a tall cedar as the snow swirled, the Colonel's mind drifted back to other cold, snowy adventures. Thirty years ago, this January, a brash young Lieutenant Gregory was volunteered to attend the Mountain Leader Course at the Marine Corps' base in the Sierra Nevadas. There, in a month's time (amazing, the Corps' economy), this thin blooded southern boy was transformed into an Arctic Warfare "Expert." So tagged (erroneously, at best), I became a member of a small cadre of Marines tasked with leading the transformation of a jungle-fighting Corps into a force capable of fulfilling our Cold War mission of engaging the Godless Soviets on the flanks of the NATO main effort. One said flank was Norway.

When I returned to the swamps of Camp Lejeune from the mountains of northern California, the "word" was our battalion, Second Battalion, Second Marines (2/2), was scheduled to participate in an exercise in Norway in the coming fall. In preparation for subsequent deployments to Norway, battalions would go to Minnesota or Wisconsin to train and prepare for their arctic adventure. To prepare for our upcoming Norway deployment, the Second Marine Division sent us to the Mojave Desert--at the height of the summer. There's just nothing like 18 hours a day of sunlight and 115 in the shade to get you in the mindset to handle 18 hours a day of darkness and 20 degrees in the sunlight.

Luckily for the Marines of 2/2, and this one in particular, our exercise, Teamwork '80, took place in central Norway, before the snow began to fall.

Not a week after our return to the relative warmth of coastal Carolina, I was summoned to the battalion operations officer's office and told that I had been "volunteered" to join a small cadre of "officers with arctic experience" charged with preparing the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines for their imminent deployment to north Norway for the aptly named exercise, Cold Winter '81. In preparation for this exercise 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, 1/6 received a couple of weeks of "classroom" instruction (provided by yours truly and three other lieutenants) at Camp Lejeune, and three weeks of field training at Camp Ripley, Minnesota before boarding amphibious shipping and sailing for Norway. The instructor cadre, of which I was a part, flew to Camp Ripley a couple of weeks ahead of time to set up the field training, and then flew to Norway a couple of weeks ahead of the arrival of the ships bearing 1/6.

During all of this "advanced party" partying, we American Marine arctic warfare "experts" got some very valuable training from the Royal Marine Commando, Captain J. J. B. Lear, who was assigned as to the Second Marine Division as part of an ongoing exchange program. Lear, a giant of a man with cauliflower ears from years of rugby scrums, knew his stuff. The Royal Marines had been exercising in Norway for decades and Lear put us "experts" through a crash course designed to impart as much of his knowledge as possible in the short amount of time he had available. Most of the arctic survival lessons I can still bring to mind are accompanied by the visage of Lear's face and the cockneyed, "Got it? Right, then!"

Reassigned as 2/2's assistant operations officer upon my return from Cold Winter '81, I was given the task of preparing the battalion for it's participation in Teamwork '82, this time in the same northern Norway training area in which 1/6 had floundered and frozen in inadequate clothing and equipment. I was as determined, as any brash lieutenant could be, to right all the wrongs of poor preparation and outdated clothing and equipment foisted on 1/6, and prepared a plan for 2/2 that included some equipment requirements currently not available in the Division.

Most of the clothing and equipment we Marines were still using in the early 80's was Korean War vintage, and it hadn't been very effective in the winters of Korea, for that matter. What we needed, in my not so humble opinion, were the much better arctic clothing, tents, sleeping bags and mats, and stoves used by the Norwegians and Brits, and I dutifully submitted a report to my boss saying so. He passed it to our battalion commander, who drug me along on an office call to our Division Commanding General, then Major General Al Gray. General Gray had been an enlisted man in the 1st Marine Division in the bitter cold days of the Korean War, and was revered as a tough, no-nonsense Marine. My battalion commander had served with Gray before and after brief pleasantries between the two, the general turned to me and said "Well, Lieutenant?"

I handed a one page summary of my brief, which included a laundry list of cold weather clothing and equipment requirements, to Gray and launched into my spiel. I had barely begun, when the general huffed and pitched the piece of paper back across the desk at me. He growled something to the effect of "We didn't have all of this stuff in Korea, and we did alright...," to which I responded with some inanity about the number of cold casualties exceeding that from enemy fire at the Chosin Reservoir. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my battalion commander blanch, and then saw Gray's face redden. But, I was committed and figured that since I had just clinched achievement of my terminal rank, I might as well leave my lance embedded as high up in the windmill as possible.

"General, if you are serious about this Division being able to survive and fight in Norway, we need this equipment." I stole a glance at my colonel and he was glaring at me like I had just dropped trou and mooned the CG. When I looked back at Gray, he too was glaring at me, and I figured I had better shut up--reaching terminal rank is one thing, being beaten to death for my insolence by a couple of combat veteran Marines is something else entirely.

After a stony silence that stretched past what seemed like several chow calls, and during which my, vastly, superiors maintained glares that threatened to set the sparse hair on my head on fire, Gray turned to my colonel and dismissed us with promises to find what we needed and instructions about the proper care and feeding of his lieutenants.

Turns out General Gray was already several miles down the ski slope ahead of us. He knew what we needed, and he got if for us. By the time I made my next trip to Norway in 1987, the Marine Corps had, in the words of a Royal Marine officer who saw our new cold weather clothing, "cornered the market on Goretex." By the time Gray and the next couple of Commandants that succeeded him were done, the entire Marine Corps was outfitted in state of the art individual gear and clothing that made moving and surviving in arctic conditions much more effective.

A wind gust blew light snow in my face and broke my reverie. In the long cold walk back to the big house I tried to think about something warm. The hottest thing I could envision was the butt-gnawing I received from my colonel all the long walk back to our battalion area after leaving Gray's office.
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