Missiles and Drones

All the discussion about missiles and drones in the Ukraine Russian War reminds me of my missile shooting days.


The Marine Corps decides what job you will do based on the needs of the service and your aptitudes. The Marine Corps in its infinite wisdom made me an Anti Air Warfare Electronics Operator, a.k.a. a Scope Dope. I was trained in a seven week long school in tracking airplanes with radars. I was number one in my class. One of the valuable skills taught was printing backwards with wax pencils on large Plexiglas plotting boards depicting the location of aircraft so that officers in front of the boards could follow the air war. I still have that skill, which of course is very helpful in civilian life.

After finishing schools I was transferred to the Fleet Marine Force (FMF). The Marine Corps put me in a LAAMBn (Light Anti Aircraft Missile Battalion) that shot HAWK (Homing All the Way Killer) Missiles at enemy airplanes. The North Vietnamese had few planes to spare for sorties to South Vietnam.  By the time I joined the unit the other HAWK units were withdrawing from Vietnam. So I defended Yuma Arizona from low flying communist aircraft. We shot old missiles at targets towed by very nervous and unhappy pilots. We also fired at small drone aircraft controlled from the ground. We were proficient at missing our targets and blowing large holes in the desert. Some missiles exploded on the launching pad, some disappeared in the sky, some flew a short distance and exploded near us, and a few hit the target.

The high point of the tour was when we shot a missile at or near a low flying smuggler. I was on the scope. We had been in the desert for four long very hot days. The next missile that we fired would be the last and we could return to the base. As the drone target approached our position, I noticed another aircraft on the scope. "Sir, the range is cold", I said, informing the Major of the other aircraft that had blundered into our range. No civilian aircraft were allowed on the range for obvious reasons.  The Major watched the scope for a while and ordered that the drone be turned around.  The controllers would send it back close to the Mexican border and then fly it back again to our position.

As the drone approached I again noticed another target. It was moving independently from the drone and so was not just an echo of the target. It was moving north from the Mexican border and was probably a smuggler, since the target would appear on and off the screen. It was flying very low and moving on and off the radar screen. I told the Major the range was cold.

The Major watched the screen for several seconds and saw the drone target and the other aircraft. We watched closely to make sure there were two aircraft, not just an echo of the drone. I was sure it was not an echo.  Then the Major said, "fuck it, shoot". We shot. Large explosion followed and both targets disappeared from the radar screen.

My assessment at the time was that we had probably scared the smuggler with the large nearby explosion and he had exited the area fast near the deck. It was also possible that we had blown him up. A third possibility is that I was wrong about the aircraft and that it was an echo of the target, but I don't think so.

The air conditioning was broken all summer in our barracks in Yuma. The temperatures were scorching. In the desert we measured the temperature in three different ways - on one measure it reached 138 degrees. When off duty in the barracks we would shower, then lay under a fan and pant and then shower again. 

Once in a while I would hear about the guys I went through Boot Camp and Infantry Training. Most of them went to Vietnam and were in Infantry Units. I am sure some were killed or wounded but you lose track of people pretty quickly. Later on at a Boot Camp Platoon 50 year reunion I found out that five of the eighty or so boot camp mates were killed. https://platoon350.blogspot.com/.

One of the guys in our unit was under investigation for selling drugs. He murdered the investigator by shooting him down in the doorway of the investigators home. The next day they searched our barracks very thoroughly looking for the murder weapon. We all knew he did it - don't know if he was ever convicted.

The runway was next to our Battalion. The jet fighters made incredible noise each time they took off or landed. Flying those very high performance aircraft was a dangerous job. An F-4 taking off from the run way turned upside down and the pilots ejected straight into the runway.

Once I was standing in the chow line with another Marine.  I noticed he had a black widow on his collar.  "Hold still" I said, and tried to brush the spider off his collar with the brim of my cover (hat). Mrs. Spider ducked under my brim and ran under the Marines shirt.

"Hold on" I said, while I slowly and carefully unbuttoned his shirt - this looked kind of funny to the other Marines. When I finished unbuttoning his shirt he ripped it off and did a war dance. He did not get bit by the spider.

"Next time, don't help", he said. The ingrate. After all I did to help him. (This actually happened years later at 29 Palms, but it is a good spider story and it fits here so I moved it here.)

I also had a nest of black widows under my desk in Yuma. I would periodically burn them out or beat them out with a broom. But they liked me - they always came back and they never bit me.

We also saw lots of scorpions and the occasional rattlesnake. I killed a number of rattlesnakes until my friend Mike Nielsen impressed on me their value to the natural ecosystem. Now I leave them alone. Ditto the black widows.

I quickly became bored with shooting missiles in Yuma. I volunteered to go to Vietnam and also to go to OCS.

While playing basketball for the Battalion basketball team I made two errors that hurt my chances for assignment. I played with the same skill and finesse that I demonstrated with the Morgan Park High School team and I broke the Captain’s jaw with an elbow. And the 1st Lieutenant who was handling my requests asked me to write the number 15 on his jersey just before the game. As an air controller you become a dyslexic. You print backwards on plotting boards and forward for other things. I managed the 1 ok on his uniform with the magic marker, but proceeded to write a backwards 5 on his chest. He was not impressed with my acumen and I did not get my assignment until after he left the unit for Vietnam.


My First Sergeant saw me hitchhiking, gave me office hours, a thorough Marine Ass Chewing, and 30 days of mess duty. This last 30 days brought the total days of Mess duty I served up to 100 days, more than any other Marine or serviceman that I ever met - I believe I have the record. Mess duty was typically 16 to 18 straight hours a day and as many as 31 straight days without a day off, cleaning the galleys, scrubbing pots, etc. I served on Mess duty at Parris Island SC, Camp Lejeune NC, San Diego CA, 29 Palms CA, and Yuma AZ.

The nasty First Sergeant also threw out my application for OCS, so I gave up on that idea. However, after several more months the First Sergeant retired. A new Lieutenant who had not played basketball with me took over the career planning job and resubmitted my applications. 

The Major called me into his office and asked me if I still wanted to go to Vietnam. “Yes Sir!” I said, very happy to be finally getting out of the US and going to the war. "Too bad", he said, "you are going to OCS", and so I found myself back in boot camp for a second time. My second Marine Corps boot camp was no more fun than the first. My Staff Sergeant motivated me to succeed by guaranteeing that he would kick my ass if I did not successfully complete the school.

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