From 1972 till 1975, the First Cavalry Division at Fort Hood was an experimental test bed for the US Army, trying all kinds of innovations. The division was called TRICAP [Triple Capability] because its first brigade was an armored brigade, the second brigade was the Air Cavalry Combat Brigade, with three different types of aviation units, and the third brigade was an airmobile infantry brigade. When I took command of Charlie Company, 8th Engineer Battalion [“SkyBeavers”] in 1974, it was organized and equipped as an airmobile combat engineer company which directly supported the third brigade. These airmobile troops are transported to the battlefield by helicopters from their own division unlike airborne troops that jump out of airplanes flown by the USAF.
During 1975 the Army converted the 1st Cav to a conventional armored division, with three brigades of mixed tank and mechanized infantry battalions. On paper, C/8th Engineers was reconfigured as an armored engineer company, with M-113 armored personnel carriers as squad vehicles for each of the nine combat engineer squads. In reality, creation and conversion of the division’s airmobile infantry battalions to mechanized infantry took up all the M-113 APCs in the Army’s stateside inventory.
Eventually, the Army learned that the North Carolina Army National Guard had a cannibalization lot of old M-113s they had junked for new APCs years ago. So, the NCARNG transferred nine of these old junkers to Charlie Company, Skybeavers. I was fortunate to have the finest maintenance section in the whole 1st Cav, but even so, it took my guys several weeks to get all those old rags off deadline and operational.
Next mission was to qualify my tracks and their crews in their new equipment. First step was taking my engineers to the range and qualifying them on the nine M-2 Cal .50 machineguns that came with their APCs.
Finally, we had to demonstrate the amphibious capabilities of the tracks by taking them swimming. Fort Hood has a designated track swimming site located on the banks of Lake Belton, many miles from the cantonment area of main post. I submitted my training plan for the upcoming week through our S-3 Operations Officer to the battalion CO to swim our tracks Thursday morning.
On Thursday morning, as we were forming up in the motor pool to move out, my second platoon leader rushed up to me and said excitedly, “Sir, we don’t have to go all the way to Lake Belton to swim the tracks. I found a perfect place, and it’s really close to us.”
I made a command decision on the spot, and said, “OK, Rob, show me what you found.” So, our convoy moved out, with my second platoon leader in his Gama Goat (a six-wheeled semi-amphibious vehicle that my platoon leaders each had) leading my jeep.
Behind us came my two other platoon leaders and our nine resurrected APCs.
Each track had a driver and the squad leader as track commander.
My lieutenant led us to a beautiful pond about 200 meters in diameter, just a few miles distant from main post, with a really fine ramp for entry and exit. The most important item to check on APCs before taking them into water is to ensure that the hull drain plugs are installed good and tight. Many an officer has seen his career dissolve when he discovered that APCs without drain plugs sink to the bottom in about 20 seconds. I wasn’t going to make that mistake.
After final drain plug checks, we began swimming the tracks, one at a time, starting with my second platoon. Gently drive into the water, steer forward about 100 meters using the tracks for propulsion, turn around, and drive back up on land. Mission accomplished. Next track. Everything was going smoothly.
With just one APC left to swim, I told my first platoon leader, my senior lieutenant, to go ahead and take everyone who had finished swimming back to the motor pool to begin the post-swimming maintenance. I would bring the last APC in myself as soon as we finished.
Before he rolled into the water, the last track commander told me, “Sir, my bilge pump ain’t working.” I told him we were just going in and out, so that wouldn’t be a problem. So out he went.
About 75 meters into the pond, his track began to turn left. Confused, I watched him swim two circles. Then he stopped, and began to reverse, re-tracing the circles he had just swum. When I finally signaled him to idle the engine, he hollered to me, “Sir, we threw the left track. With only the right track working, all I can do is go in circles.” Meanwhile, with no working bilge pump, the APC was riding lower and lower in the water. He continued telling the driver to go forward and reverse, hoping that something would enable him to get to shore. With just my jeep, there was nothing I could do but watch.
About this time, we heard the” WOP, WOP, WOP” of the division commander’s helicopter landing behind us, and out stepped the two-star general, followed closely by my battalion commander. Unbeknownst to me, the division staff had forwarded our swimming exercise to the Commanding General as “training highlights.” They had flown out to Lake Belton looking for our swimming exercise and were quite unhappy not to find us. Just by chance, the pilot had seen our track in the pond. Surprise, surprise!!
In the 30 seconds it took me to describe what was happening in the pond, I could see steam rising from my colonel and the general. They walked down to the edge of the pond and offered a few inane suggestions on how to get the APC ashore, just in time to watch the M-113 abruptly sink to the bottom. Fortunately, my track commander and his driver escaped and swam for shore.
It turns out the pond was the Fish and Wildlife fish hatchery, completely off limits to all military traffic. When the M-113 sank, about 50 gallons of diesel fuel got released and killed some 30 million baby fish. My battalion CO was severely embarrassed in front of his Commanding General. That was not one of my better days as a commander. That single ‘aw shit’ wiped out several hundred ‘atta-boys.’ But we all survived.
I had made the command decision to change the swimming location without telling my chain of command. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I owned full responsibility for everything my company did or failed to do and took my ass-chewing like a gentleman.
On top of that, the 50 gallons of diesel completely contaminated the entire fish hatchery, and the USDA wound up spending $2.3 million in remediation expenses [in 1975 dollars].
Here are the leadership lessons:
1. My battalion CO never burned me for that. He certainly could have. All he ever said to me was, “I wish you hadn’t done that.” [I continued in service, getting accidentally promoted two more times after this event.]
2. The Division CG never burned my Engineer battalion commander, who went on to pick up two stars of his own.
3. The Division CG got his third star when he left the Cav.
4. That lieutenant was the best platoon leader I ever had, and I maxed all his report cards. I don’t know where he ended up. [No one but he ever knew why I made that fateful command decision.]
5. I spent the rest of my time at Fort Hood being known to 42,000 troops as the ‘fish killer.’
Stuff happens in training. Sometimes you survive, sometimes you don’t.