The battle begins in the jungle, the thickly-canopied mountains where instinct and cunning provide keys to survival. The enemy thrives here. All others trespass.
American infantrymen lumber through in search of the foe. When the enemy is detected, one man's voice relays their location to an artillery firebase. Immediately, the artillerymen behind the tubes of the large guns on the hill miles from the enemy receive the order of "Fire mission!".
Within minutes, the battle ends in the jungle. The shrapnel, blast and shock of a heavy round kills or scatters the enemy.
The successful outcome of battles as violent and real as this hinges on the knowledge, initiative, and finesse of the Forward Observer (FO) on patrol with the infantry. The artillery FO, wheter accompanying a squad, platoon, or company must know where both he and the enemy are to correctly direct the artillerymen to the enemy. In battle, where life and death could be manipulated by seconds, he must coordinate rapidly and accurately. In emergencies, he must be able to function in place of a dead or wounded infantrymen--from the commander to an M16-toting young private. As one company commander indicated: "On patrol, Foxtrot Oscar (FO) is just one more man. But once we make contact with Charlie, he's a mighty valuable man to have around."
The platoon of weary soldiers from the lst Battalion, 50th Mechanized Infantry, slipped cautiously along a narrow trail winding parallel with a plummeting mountain creek. Stoic faces instinctively pivoted left and right for signs of the enemy.
Days of plodding through the prickly undergrowth, scouting ravines, straining up mountains, and watching mud-caked boots pounding out the rhythm of marching time showed: sweat-flushed faces, scratched hands, and torn fatigue pants. Ahead loomed yet another steep hill. As the recon platoon neared a bend in the trail, the first shot screamed through the trees. A second later a barrage of bullets ricocheted around the infantrymen who had walked into a VC ambush. Instinctively the men of the platoon retaliated with an unrelenting volley of M60 and M16 fire. While the platoon fought back, the "Foxtrot Oscar," a young San Franciscan from the 5th Battalion, 27th Artillery, yanked a wrinkled contour map from his pocket. The FO, First Lieutenant John G. Frank, studied it for an instant, glanced at the hillside and the flash of the enemy weapons, surmised their location, and plucked the radio receiver from his RTO's hand.
"Hotel Top, Hotel Top, this is Echo Palace," droned Lieutenant Frank into the receiver. "We're receiving fire from Charlie. Plot grid four-three niner five. Bring it down in intervals and fast. How's your copy?" When a voice in the Fire Direction Center (FDC) of an artillery firebase several hilltops away acknowledged and repeated the coordinates, 23-year-old Lieutenant Frank responded "Roger transmission," dropped the receiver, and began firing his rifle at the enemy several hundred yards away.
Suddenly an eerie "WWHHOOOEEE" whistled through the air. A flash and convulsive earth shudder followed immediately. Pausing briefly to watch the dust cloud settle, th einfantrymen resumed firing as now only sporadic shots from the slope whirred past them. Seconds later another blast shook the ground, and then another. The firing stopped as the platoon began maneuvering up the hill after a fifth round silenced the enemy. Lieutenant Frank again picked up the radio receiver and relayed the message: "Nice job. We're on our way up to see what's left. Thanks again. Foxtrot Oscar, out!"
Lieutenant John Frank, Charlie Company, 1/50th Infantry Forward Observer, is one of hundreds of Foxtrot Oscars operating with American, ARVN, Mobile Strike Force, and Regional-Popular Force ground units throughout the Republic of Vietnam. Neither representative nor non-representative of other FO s, Lieutenant Frank summed up his role in providing infantrymen with. artillery support: "My job, the job of any FO is to communicate with the commander in the field. I can suggest something that I think might work. But it's his option to take or leave what I recommend. More often than not he listens. The main thing though, he supplied as an afterthought, "is to keep the guy in the field alive. That's what we think of when they need support fast. Stay alive."
Short, dark-haired, and wearing an almost constant smile, Lieutenant Frank commented that "The FO's job, according to some people, is supposed to be a breeze. They think that we've got it easier than others. They don't realize that we've got to hump as much gear and walk as far as the guys we're with." Formerly a Shakespearean actor and singer in New York and San Francisco, Lieutenant Frank continued: "Other people can screw up out there, but if we ever make a mistake, not only our own lives, but the lives of dozens of guys we're out there with could be lost."
To prepare an FO for tackling the responsibility and knowledge of his mission in Vietnam, candidates for an FO's credentials must first pass a two-week Fire Direction Officer and Forward Observer school located in An Khe. FO candidates review old knowledge, build from it, and develop finesse in the tightly scheduled classes. The test ending the course consists of field simulated maneuvers in which the trainees pinpoint targets and locations and finally call in artillery.
The final test, the first real test, however, occurs perhaps a week, several weeks or even months later, when, in the grip of combat, an FO calls in his first round. . .
The 21-year-old PFC crouched between several Spec-4s sergeants. Opposite him in the crowded chopper, sat the platoon leader. The chopper flying inland from Phan Thiet was in the middle of a three slick formation. A platoon from Alpha Company, 1/50th, were to search an area where a helicopter had crashed and return with the survivors. The mid-afternoon sun, brilliant and unrelenting, shone on the PFC's face. Private First Class Doug Osborne, Norfolk, Neb., Alpha Company's newest FO, felt queezy but appeared calm. He had only been with the company for two weeks, had been on patrol before, but had not yet called in artillery.
The choppers landed one by one in a small clearing at the edge of a succession of hills. As the last of the platoon made their way from the clearing into the thickly vegetated forest, PFC Osborne studied his map and pulled out a compass. Not only did the platoon leader rely on him for a double check on their position, Osborne wanted to know where he was heading.
After an hour's march through the jungle in the sweltering heat, the platoon reached the site of the crash. All the crew and the passengers were shaken, some injured, but alive.
The pilot had made an emergency landing in a small clearing when his engines faltered. While the platoon's medic treated the wounded and prepared litters, a small squad conducted a cursory reconnaissance sweep of the crash site vicinity. Osborne and his RTO accompanied the patrol. They fought through heavy foliage for 15 minutes until one man sighted a platoon of pithhelmeted and sandaled enemy.
PFC Osborne confidently radioed an artillery battery atop a hill miles away, and, within minutes after clearance was granted, the shattering reverberations of the rounds -- direct on target -- shook through the forest. Several hours later, when the 1/50th platoon returned with the downed helicopter crew and the tension of awaiting his first fire mission order passed, Osborne, in his calm, sonorous voice recalled his feelings. "At first I was scared as hell, but once you get used to the responsibility and the fear-- well you can't let it bother you anymore. Too many guys depend on you for help. You just have to shove apprehension away and do the job."
Because of the shortage of trained officers, forward observers, normally requiring an officer's authority, must be recruited from among enlisted men. Volunteers such as Osborne, while remaining enlisted men, work like their officer counterparts charged with the same responsibilities. They become FOs for varied reasons.
"I guess the reason I volunteered to go to FO school," explained Osborne, "is because they promised me rank. Well, no that's not all of it. I heard that they needed somebody because there weren't enough FOs. I was cooped up in some FDC bunker in the rear, and frankly I wanted to get out for a while. So I thought, why not? And I don't regret that decision . . . "
Harboring the dream of becoming a professional baseball player, Osborne exudes the leadership quality and attitude in both combat or the frivolity of volleyball. As one commander put it: "We've had three lieutenant FOs and now Doug. I'd be hard-pressed rating them. Osborne's got the attitude that will make him succeed in anything he does."
During rests from patrols, forward observers are too busy preparing for the next operation to unwind. Before a sweep, patrol, or reconnaissance operation in which artillery support would be available, myriad details confront the FO: establish frequencies for communication, determine clearance necessary in the area of operations, find out about the range of artillery support, and study maps.
Responsibility is meted out to those willing to accept it and who demonstrate a capacity to cope successfully with it. In the pendulum of battle, Foxtrot Oscar, whether he is a young PFC or a lieutenant with a college degree, bears the responsibility of the foe's death and the friend's life.
Battles begin in the jungle. By helping to assure that battles end in the jungle, the artillery FO provides the trespasser with a way home and allows the jungle to keep the foe.