Salon.com and the Ft Sill Friendly Fire Ambush Story

 
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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.

 

Posted in the burner | 27 comments
 
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Comments

Outstanding research--many thanks!
I noted also the sheer coincidence that all this should have been "uncovered" by a Creative Writing Ph.D...

Thanks for doing the hard work I was too tired to do. ;) I want the truth to come out AND I want to hear the author talk about how the story was written.

She should be shamed for any outright fabrications but I believe she should be forgiven for repeating any vetern's hearsay.

Like one commenter said. These things are fishing stories that grow in the re-telling.

By the way, I once killed 7,777 Koreans with a P-38 can opener.

Food poisoning doesn't count. :)

7,777 Koreans with a P-38! WOW!
You're AMAZING!
Do you write articles of semi-historical fiction too? lol.

But seriously. This is GREAT work. Leave it to you to uncover the truth in short time.

Thank you for the full details. I only found the one article in the Lawton paper to squint at. I now see there were mitigating circumstances for Lt. Lovelace but I'm surprised he wasn't convicted. I remember those BFAs from my army training. Hard to miss that suddenly disappearing and what that indicated.

Great work! But in fairness, the Salon story is a memoir, not a work of history. She's reporting what she was told, and she was evidently told that seven soldiers died (or she just misremembers), The difference between two and seven doesn't really change the story anyway, so who cares? (Obviously, I am glad it was two rather than seven, but story-wise it's a small detail.)

I have no problem with the writer punching up the dialogue or even compressing events to fit the needs of a short story. As far as I am concerned, if the following is true, then she deserves an all-clear:

1. She personally met Lt. Lovelace, he recognized her father's name, and he personally told her the story of the ambush.

2. She brought up the story with her father, who had never previously discussed it with her, and he confirmed it.

If those things happened, then I'm ok with the story-telling flourishes, even if the guy didn't really smoke and the author leads us to believe--but never actually says--that Lovelace was booted out of the Army.

But, really, great detective work. Thanks.

I suppose yes, from a "story wise" angle, but I am more concerned with the implication it leaves about the military being screwed up from the ground up.  In particular, that US Army Rangers aren't bright enough to check the ammo.  And the implication that it was an entire platoon.  Also, whenever the word "Rangers" gets thrown into things, I start doing research, because in 9 out of 10 cases, stolen valor types stories talk about Rangers, SF or SEALS,

Good point! Trainees are always blowing off arms and legs. Any Ranger who did this would immediate die of shame.

Thank goodness someone is doing this. There are far too many true and heroic stories to be told for fabricated tales about true military events.

No s***, there I was. Poo Tang, Viet Nam. 69'. Knee-deep in grenade pins, spent brass, and dead VC dressed in drag as nuns. My buddy was bleeding out next to me with a halberd wound to his coxis from charge from the Swiss Guard since we all know the Vatican was in cahoots with the Russkies in training Charlie in those days. I had just loaded my blunderbuss for the 57th time that day and I was bringing it to bear on a VC hovercraft when a Zulu spear hit the barrel from the side and knocked my aim off. I ended up shooting my buddy. It's always hard to commit fratricide, but doubly hard when your victim has trained so hard to become an Army SEAL. I was so beside myself with grief that I decided commit a self-inflicted wound that would send me home so I gave myself the clap.

That was a great story. I'm sorry for the loss of your brother? father? Ah, I see, he's both. ;)

It's surprising how many times I've heard the VERY SAME STORY. And as I remember the military, an ordinary day contained many circus acts that were just as believable...

Since he stayed in and made it Major, was he found not guilty?

Yes sir: 

 

On September 7, after just 1 1/2 hours deliberation, a jury will clear him of wrong doing.

I went to BCT, AIT (11B10), thence to OCS. I fired a huge number of blank rounds starting in BCT. The ROTC guys got their summer camp which doubtless included a lot of blank firing, and then their Officers Basic.
'course, Sill is FA and the amount of rifle training they did may have been less than at INF bases, but still, I can't see anybody getting to E2 without having fired a bunch of blank ammo.
"not familiar". Not getting that.
Always wondered what happened if you fired a live round through a BFA. You'd think the crash at the muzzle would have gotten somebody's attention. And do you--I suppose you might--take accurate aim at somebody when trying to simply "make noise" in a blank exercise?
Unfortunate result, but the whole thing as explanation is missing something.

I thought so too.  Trying to get the transcripts of the case, but no luck as yet. I can only base it on the contemporary news articles, and some of the explanation seems to be missing.  I also would think you would notice the BFA getting fired off.  Maybe it was at night and there was a ton of commotion?  Who knows.  As for hitting someone, he was apparently REALLY close to the vehicle when he was firing the rounds.  Even so, you'd think he would see the holes in the canvas covering the back of the vehicle, but I guess not.

I still think the real story is about Lt (and then Maj) Lovelace's redemption after this horrific event.

inc wall of text

I wanted to defend the author, I really did. Too many people were picking on her. There were two kinds of comments against her. There were some overly snarky comments with completely valid questions. Then there were the trolls that pilled on and started screaming about some of the most minor points. The latter really wasn't helpful and made my blood boil.

So the sane, inquisitive people did some research and surprise! Thanks, Mothax. You've just been complimented by a socialist agnostic bill-of-rights-loving retro-libertarian techno-anarchist!

I wrote the Eds, pointing out there were problems with the story, and got a "Thanks!" in return. I assume others did too.

This morning the article dropped right off the front page. WTF? In fact, I couldn't find it in the recent stories list. The page is still there, you can get to it. You can Google it. Salon just "un-indexed" it. WTF x2?

Times are tough and I know Salon must have a staff consisting of a janitor and a half-starved intern so they are trying to avoid the business of mediating disputes with authors. Except they should, because they claim they are a NEWS site. I'm not a journalist but I thought shepherding words to meet a certain standard was what editors were all about. JFC, the name of the section was REAL Families!

Salon has a section named Open Salon that runs some people's blogs and it is painfully obvious that it's open season on any old opinion. That's cool. Everything else on the site, however, should be news, i.e. truth, or opinion, which is labeled correctly.

So at the minimum I expected a post or a story addendum from the editor. A simple "we forwarded your messages to so-and-so" and "here's the response from the author" if there is one. Then we could bash each other to death about how much exaggeration is forgivable or who knew what and when.

But we got jack and shit.

Take a breath.

Maybe they un-indexed the story, are contacting the author, and we will hear about it in a few days. But they could have said that, too.

As for the author. I believe she got her facts wrong AND exaggerated because she wanted to write a short piece with maximum impact. I just don't know what the real deal is and I'd like to be enlightened, thank you very much.

She wrote: "The people you know best in the world will never be fully known to you." Well dammit look them up for starters and it might help - especially if you are publicly writing about them! When I wanted to find out about what was going on when my mom testified in favor of the continued distribution of Deep Throat,. I asked her AND looked in the newspaper microfiche files.

If the author was more careful she could have made sure that any attribution of fact about the incident were quoted or paraphrased directly from the source. Sure, he had a Ranger lighter but don't assume everyone is a Ranger. Dad SAID seven dead. Trevor SAID he was courts martialed.

Instead she wrote a narrative which makes her voice the source of the facts. So, yes, people are going to personally pissed at you when things look fishy. She's a novelist and has completely failed to grasp what makes the real stories genuine.

I hope it's just a case of her father and Trevor delivering puffed up stories and her blindly scribbling everything down. Regardless, she's going to be bloodied by this. Let's hope it makes her a better - more thoughtful - writer.

Thanks for reading.

Slashdot, you just made my day.  Thank you so much.

"As for the author. I believe she got her facts wrong AND exaggerated because she wanted to write a short piece with maximum impact."

That was my take as well.  She wanted to set up a dichotomy between the poor dude who shot folks up, and her wildly successful Dad.  That isn't fair to either, but particularly so to a man who dedicated his life to serving in the military.

I may save this as my desktop, as it marks the first time a "socialist agnostic bill-of-rights-loving retro-libertarian techno-anarchist!" ever said a nice word about me!!  Cool

Well, rather tepid response but at least they are acting "editorialy":

*** Salon was alerted this morning by a reporter at the American Legion that some details in this story were not adding up. Salon looked into it, and unfortunately did need to make some key corrections to the story; most important, the number of casualties in the incident totaled two -- not seven, as the original piece stated. We have corrected -- and regret -- these errors. ***

We all know there should be more. But I need to re-read this article by this eagle-eyed American Legion reporter first to be sure I have the facts straight.

Lt. George B. Lovelace III didn't get courts martialed. That needs to be added to the correction.

That article an object lesson on how creative writing isn't journalism. Regardless which side of the fence you are on in the writing domain you damn well better know where you are if you write publicly. (Quote needs work.)

Oh, and... Facts aren't plot points. When you start thinking like that it's too easy to manipulate the plot by manipulating the facts. In the real word, we call manipulated facts "lies" - also "statistics".

I write crazy stuff on the web from time to time and nobody argues with me. I tell everyone its fiction up front and then proceed to write the truth. It makes life much simpler.

So I have to admit I lied in a previous post about killing 7,777 Koreans with a P-38 can opener. T%he truth is my dad did it.

Caught ya slashdot! Yer Dad woulda called it a John Wayne (vice P-38). A whopper on top a whopper. It was probably (really) 7,776 and one water buffalo, and we all know buf's don't count unless done with a wooden dixie cup spoon.

Good write-up Greyhawk.

much thanks for your work in getting to the bottom of this story.

as others have said, i don't really understand why this man got off; it certainly sounds like negligence to me.

Is negligence a synonym for green. The year was 1967, as someone above pointed out it was a artillery unit with unknown experience with blank ammo or infrantry tactics. Had proper training preceded the field work? Many don't understand even a tiny fraction of the true cost of the training procedures they dismiss as mindless, boring, or chicken-shit. It virtually all is a result of bloody mistakes in barracks, not combat. Several years ago I read a book concerning the Army experience in Viet Nam (sorry can't give you author or title, all boxed up and ready to move) and the author makes a compelling case, through an examination of troop transfers and attrition rates, that the Army essentially cannibalized itself during this very period, especially its mid-grade professional NCO ranks; while at the same time destroying unit cohesion through piecemeal deployments and ad hoc replacements. Possibly a strong,experienced, Sgt would have told the Lt, "I'll check yours and you check mine. (Never proof read your own work)" Then again, maybe not. Perhaps those two training fatalities saved a hundred down the road (many others besides the Lt learned from being intimately involved in this event). Then again, maybe not. A whole raft of mistakes were made, from supply on out, any one of which, had it been caught, would have obviated the need for perfect performance by the Lt. He was aquitted, not necessarily absolved. He only made it to Major before he retired? Hello! mid-80's, Reagan build-up years, post Granada invasion when Ranger/SF's experience was at a premium, something wasn't right with his record. I leave it to the judgement of those in that time and place. As Hamlet said, "Treat each man as he deserves and who shall escape whipping?"
As an aside, during the 70's and 80's the Army sent NCO's and O's from all arms to Ranger school as a form of advanced leadership training. They could then wear the Ranger tab for the rest of their career, but may never have been actually assigned to a Ranger unit.

Don't understand what's supposed to be BS about this story. The guy she met in the bar was indeed the guy in the live-fire incident. I'm not clear on what role her father is supposed to have played in this - the bits quoted above shed zero light on it, and I don't care enough to go do any digging myself - but it sounds like the basic facts she was told are accurate, it's the interpretation of responsibility that differs. After that it's just finger-pointing and posturing. Who cares? It is indeed an interesting story that they should happen to meet like that, and it was perfectly legitimate to publish it as such.

All this energy put into defending the honor of the regiment or whatever it is you guys think you're doing is entirely wasted on normal people. I should also add that for all the talk about procedure and how "nobody would EVER do things this way", this is the same American military that regularly misplaces suitcases full of money in the Mideast and laptops full of potentally sensitive data in North America, and as a general rule whenever people start swearing up and down "ain't no possible way!" they're pretty much wrong. Human laziness is dependable.

The link to the original article is up top, but just for starters, she claimed 7 were killed, it was 2, she claimed a lazy and idiotic private was to blame, when that person doesn't exist, she intimated that the guy was thrown out of the military when he went on to serve for over 20 years including service in Viet Nam, etc,

Her basic "facts" were all incorrect, from the number of people killed, to how it happened, and to how the man's life was changed as a result.

 

 

First of all, I must admit that as a prior member of the United States Marine Corps, I regularly misplaced 2 suitcases full of money, 14 laptops, 4 boxes of unobtainium, and a water buffalo that was killed by a p-38 otherwise known as a John Wayne. I apologize to all the "normal" people out there that had to pay for my mistakes.
Oh, but wait, At the same time, You are welcome for your right to spout off at the face hole with whatever comes to your mind. Have a great day.

What a bunch of inaccurate BS

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.