Donny Rafford, currently a CW3 with the Maine Army National Guard, tells us what it’s like to make the biggest boom of them all.
Having only ever shot a .22 rifle with my father and grandfather, and then the M16 at training, the first time I got to even stand next to an M198 Howitzer, I was impressed. On a howitzer, there are several positions, and my AIT class learned each. There’s the Gun Chief, gunners, and the number 2, 3 and 4 man. But where we all want to be is the Number One Man. The one who makes the boom.
A 155 mm artillery shell hurtles out of the barrel of a 11th Marine Regiment M-198 howitzer during live fire and maneuver training. DoD photo by Cpl. Branden P. O’Brien, U.S. Marine Corps.
Finally my day had come. I remember hearing the radio squawk and the thunderous confirmation from the crew as we repeated in unison, “Fire Mission!” We sprang into action like a kicked anthill. The massive weapon began to whirr as it was turned and raised to aim, and the crew and I start our choreographed dance. The Gun Chief confirmed each step we took. “Verified,” he yells as the right munition and fuse were loaded. “Ready? Ram!” I call as the number 2 man and I ram the round home and seat it firmly into the bore. “Closing! Closed!” I continue, then, “White witness marks aligned!” The thunderous response, “Aligned!” The dance continues, “Priming! Primed!”
Then finally, “Permission to hook up?!!!” The silence…Oh, the SILENCE!!! I can hear my pulse throbbing in my ears! Pulse racing, heavy breathing…then finally the silence broken by the Gun Chief, “Hook up!” I swing my hand up to the breech, and hook the clasp of the lanyard onto it. Everything is ready, and I turn my body away from the breech and my eyes back toward the Chief. One of his hands is elevated into the air, his other holding the field phone against his ear anticipating the order. Silence…silence. Then the thunderous roar of the Gun Chief’s command, “FIRE!” I hold the lanyard tight, and rotate my body left, feeling the tension relax, a moment of slack…BOOM!!!!
I just fired a 96-pound projectile down range and by the time it hits the ground we will have another loaded and ready to join the party. The blast had knocked dust up off the ground and there’s no breeze so it sits eerily two feet off the ground. I unhook the lanyard, grab the handle on the breech and swing it up. Water sloshes as I jam the swab into the tube, pull back hard and duck. I get a face full of smoke and momentary blindness. My lungs burn as I inhale the sweet smell of gunpowder and wait for it to pass. “Bore Clear!”