[June 8, 2021] Decades ago, my first job after promotion to Sergeant in the U.S. Army was to be a mortar crew chief. It didn’t take long for our crew to become proficient at our jobs, but one day something unexpected happened. When my loader put a round into the tube, it didn’t come out. When this happens, the round is stuck in the barrel of the mortar; we call it a hang fire. Hang fires are dangerous.
In the ‘modern’ army, these soldiers are called Indirect Fire Crewmen; okay, but you get the idea. Our Platoon Leader, a new Second Lieutenant, was an Infantry Officer but not educated in the ways of motormen and their guns. Our M29, medium 81 mm gun mortar crew didn’t like the lieutenant.
He always appeared to wait until something happened before he would act. One night while firing on distant targets at Fort Polk, Louisiana, our lieutenant failed to notify range control that we were attempting a problematic shoot with flares. Flares illuminate the target. We had a fast crosswind on this night, meaning we had to shoot our flares outside the range safety fan. That way, the flares would arrive over the target about the time the high-explosive rounds landed. This required special permission. It also required considerable skill, which we had.
We got into a lot of trouble with this lieutenant. I had personally asked him politely to make the radio call to Range Control. His excuse was that he was waiting for me to give him the ‘go ahead.” That night we started calling him Lieutenant Hang Fire. From that night until the end of his time as our Platoon Leader, Lieutenant Hang Fire would be a dud (another mortar term).
Of course, we could not call him Hang Fire to his face, which would be disrespecting an Officer (a UCMJ offense). We knew better. We would never let him do anything important alone without one of us physically with him. That way, I could ensure the job was done and done right. Being an officer is not easy because of the responsibilities involved. He failed to do his job, but since it affected us, we made sure his job was completed.
Since this problem with our mortar occurred during a training exercise, there was no real emergency. We learned, however, the hard way that it takes more than just a good mortar gun crew to put rounds down range on target. It also takes good communications, planning, verification that soldiers are adequately trained, and keeping the right people informed.
This event would help me later in life as an Infantry Officer. Good officers work closely with their NCOs and, if they are smart, take the information their NCOs give men to heart. Lieutenant Hang Fire did not follow this simple lesson. Don’t wait for others to act. Don’t be like Lieutenant Hang Fire.