Salon.com and the Ft Sill Friendly Fire Ambush Story
I got a tip from an email last night about a story that Salon.com had up entitled The friendly fire ambush my parents kept from me by Constance Squires. Blackfive had sent the tip along, which he in turn got from one of his readers. And Jonn Lilyea (as always) was the first to run with it. A quick glance at the basic premise of the article, and my BS detector was pinging pretty hard:
It's the early '90s, and I'm sitting at the bar of a Mexican restaurant in Norman, Okla., next to a disheveled guy in his late 40s who is exactly what you picture when you hear the song "Margaritaville." As I drink my own margarita and wait for my college roommate to finish her shift, I'm hoping he won't hit on me and rapidly realize he isn't that kind of guy. He's in his own world. He lights his cigarette with a Zippo that has the "Ranger" insignia on it. That gets my attention -- Rangers are a special ops combat formation that comprise less than 1 percent of the Army. Small club.
I point at his lighter. "My dad was a Ranger."
"What's his name?"
I tell him, and he snaps his head away from me, blinks at the stuffed rattlesnake above the bar while I study the back of his OU baseball cap and the curly blond hair escaping from the opening above its size adjuster. He takes a drink. He takes a drag. I figure he's PTSD.
When he finally turns around, he repeats my dad's name like Citizen Kane muttering "Rosebud," and I realize the guy is utterly stunned. "You look like your mama," he says, and that's right. I do. Turns out he knew my father. At first I don't believe him -- what are the chances? -- but he knows too many specifics. He goes on to tell me the most amazing story I've ever heard about my dad -- one this guy never recovered from.
"I know it's not your dad's fault, exactly," the guy says. He pushes the salt around the rim of his margarita glass. "But I hate him anyway."
Very compelling, but unfortunately, my later research would prove the underlying premise pretty thin. The "Citizen Kane" like guy here was not a Ranger, not then or later (Wrong, see UPDATE below). Her dad may very well have been, I didn't pull it up, but the incident that she goes on to explain occured not with any rangers, but between the Battalion in the 79th Artillery, and the 593rd Engineers, neither of which was attached to the 75th Rangers. (In fact, there wasn't a Ranger unit at Sill in 1967 that I can find.)
Her article continues:
While my dad and mom were zooming down I-35 listening to Creedence, my dad's friend -- we'll call him Joe Trevor, the same guy I met in the bar 20 years later -- led a group of soldiers, Team A, in a mock-ambush of a military vehicle full of soldiers, Team B.
Team A's job was to jump out from hidden positions along the side of the road and "kill" all the soldiers on Team B as they came by in a tactical vehicle. Team A checked out guns full of dummy ammo from the supply personnel on duty at the arms room that night and headed out to the ambush spot on one of the many dusty roads that crisscross the training areas of Fort Sill. But the ammo was live, and before they realized what was happening, Team A killed -- really killed --seven American soldiers on Team B. A friendly fire episode.
Lt. Trevor was court-martialed.
"Joe Trevor" is actually Lt. George B. Lovelace III, and I have spent the bulk of the morning reading through the 1967 Lawton Constitution newspaper articles about his trial. But we have fact problems already. There were not 7 men killed in this mishap, it was 2, as one can see from this newspaper article from June of 1967:
If you've ever taken part in exercises like this, you know that the guns are not stored in the armory with the ammo already loaded in magazines and in the weapon. It's just not done. Ammo comes seperate, in ammo boxes. She makes it sound here like what happened was "Team A" (20 troops from 2nd Batt, 79th Art.) were all loaded with live ammo. In fact, only Lt. Lovelace had the live ammo.
What really happened, as can be gleaned from Newspaper and Reports from the trial itself is that Lt. Lovelace was concerned that the amount of ammo (blank) he had been given for the exercise would be insufficient. He went to higher and requested more ammo (speficially from Major Alford, the S3). Eventually he ended up getting more ammo from Spec. Leo Carmosky, the Armorer for 3rd Batt, 38th Art, Carmosky called Lovelace and told him to come get the ammo, and set it to the side for him. Unfortunately for them some of it got mixed in with a box of live ammo that was used for Crypto Security personnel. What made it worse was Carmosky, who might have fixed it at the time of issuance, actually got sent out, so when Lovelace arrived, another Sergeant dispursed the ammo, and missed that there were live rounds at the bottom of the box. When Carmosky got back and realized the entire box was gone, he notified another NCO, and they immediately hopped in a jeep to head out to the range to stop the LT.
So, Lt Lovelace is out in the box getting ready for the mock attack, and somehow managed to load live rounds into his magazine. Or, if the ammo was in the mag, managed to lock it in the weapon. This part is confusing. Granted, Lovelace had been an LT for only6 months, but still, wouldn't you know the difference? Here is a image Lilyea had that shows the difference (edited to show 7.62 rounds, not 5.56):
Apparently Lovelace didn't know, because the headline of the front page of the Lawton Constitution looked like this:
OK, so, as most of you know, Officers don't generally have rifles. Lovelace borrowed his from another troop, and as the article above states:
The 23-year-old Shawnee, Okla. officer also said that he did not know his borrowed rifle was loaded with live ammo and did not think did not think the rifle he was usuing was pointed at the men during the attack. He said he placed the magazine of live ammunition into the rifle while he was walking, and did not see the shells or examine them closely, and was not aware it was live ammo.
Ok, so that is part of the mystery. But, as most of us know, when firing blanks, you need a Blank Firing Adapter, or BFA. Without it there will be no second shot, as closing the barrel is what allows the gas to kick free the other round and chamber the next. Again, the article explains:
He said that the M-14 malfunctioned the first time he squeezed the trigger, but that he cleared the weapon and fired a number of rounds trying to make a lot of noise during the fusilade that lasted 10-15 seconds.
Um yeah, it wasn't a malfunction, it was your BFA getting splintered by the live round. After blowing it off the front, I imagine your M-14 operated just the way it should. You know, WITH LIVE ROUNDS. Another article even talks about them finding the pieces of the BFA later.
So, to make it somewhat shorter, the ambushees come by in a truck, the ambushers open up, and all are shooting blanks except the LT, who puts 2 rounds in each of 2 riders, killing them, and injuring a third. At this point he figures it all out, and finds the live ammo etc. Just a horrible accident all around, and arguably incredibly negligent. On September 7, after just 1 1/2 hours deliberation, a jury will clear him of wrong doing.
But, that's not the end that the Salon Author was going for....
That night, I call my parents. My mom confirms it -- yeah, she remembers that. Sad deal. When I ask her why I never heard the story, she says, "Why on earth would we tell you that? It was a tragedy."
My dad agrees, except he has more details about the incident. The supply clerk on duty in the arms room who issued the live ammo instead of the dummy ammo was a private so ditzy the Army didn't know what to do with him. They even had to take him off kitchen duty because people were getting sick. They thought he would be safe passing out equipment, which was all color-coded and labeled. There was very little live ammo, and it was set apart from the rest of the equipment while the dummy ammo was right there where he could reach it. The guy had to go out of his way to get the live rounds.
I asked my dad, "Don't you feel guilty?"
He told me he felt terrible for the guy -- he and Trevor had been good friends. But guilt? Not really.
"Haven't you wondered why the supply clerk wasn't the one court-martialed?" he asked me.
"Yeah," I said. "That is weird. Why wasn't he?"
"It's very simple. Because it was Trevor's job to check the equipment and to make his soldiers check theirs. It's SOP -- standard operating procedure. And Trevor was a sharp guy, but that night, he just screwed up. I'm sorry as hell for what happened, but it was his fault. Straight up. I would have checked the weapons." After a pause, he said, "I guess if I feel guilty for anything it's knowing that those soldiers would be alive if I had been on duty because I would have caught the mistake. But," he continued, "you can't second-guess life like that. I didn't know."
This conversation may have happened, but I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that it wasn't exactly like this. The weapons were fine, and no amount of checking them would have changed anything. They fired rounds, blank and live, just like they are supposed to do. The problem was with the ammo, not the rifles. If I was an LT, and I was supposed to pick up blank rounds, and I found the box already opened, I would sure as hell make sure it is what it was purported to be. Why this girls dad would feel guilty is completely beyond me. In fact, I don't see anything that implicates the man at all, and there is no mention of Lovelace filling in for someone else. Frankly, I doubt this aspect to the story.
Just as sort of a final note, I couldn't find anything on Lovelace going to Ranger school subsequent to this screw up, and the article intimates he was put out immediately. Earlier the author states:
It was like the two of them, Lt. Trevor and my dad, were characters in one of those switched-identity movies, but instead of being the rightful king of France, my dad was the guy who should have been holding the smoking gun.
If I had a daughter and she said that about me, 20+ years old or not I would take up spanking again. Your Dad was probably smart enough to know that the malfnuction was the BFA flying off his weapon, and like he said (or probably said) he would have checked the ammo. This wasn't some mishap where no one was responsible. Lt Lovelace made a mistake, and he's been living with that mistake, and two families (not 7) would never have their sons back.
The whole story stinks, and should have been fact checked. I quoted heavily from the article here because it was neccessary to see all the false and misleading stuff that Ms Squires just tossed in without researching, and because I have a pretty good feeling that this post from Salon's is about to go down the bottomless memory hole.
UPDATE 1: Turns out he was a Ranger. I made the mistake of taking the article as correct in one place, that he got out over all this. Turns out he continued to serve, and even retired later on after service in Viet Nam. Looks like he learned from this early mistake. Here is his Obituary. It does however raise the question of how they knew each other from the Rangers. Presumably they knew each other from the start here, at Sill, and then subsequently they both went to Ranger School. That means they rather knew each other from service together, and not specifically because of the intimate and small number of Rangers. Just an odd happenstance apparently.
UPDATE 2: regarding the BFA. from the article about the incident, Lawton Constitution, Sep 6, 1967:
[Lovelace] said he later returned to his position and found two spent cartridge cases and the blank adapter that had blown off the rifle….
[The prosecutor] asked Lovelace “were you aware at the time of the ambush what M-14 blank ammunition looks like?”
Lovelace replied no.
Asked if a round ejected the first time he pulled the operating rod back on the rifle following the malfunction, Lovelace replied that he did not know.
Does that clear it up somewhat? He started with a BFA, and then it blew off. I assume that was the “malfunction” unless he had a blank that somehow didn’t clear, but which blew off the BFA, and the rest of the Mag was ball rounds.