Marines slogged through thick soupy mud stacking round after round onto wooden pallets, each steadily sinking into the earth. The icy rain and heavy wind crept into their bones slowing the pace of the day. In spite of the harsh conditions, the Marines stayed alert with their heads high and ears open. An order, muffled in static, came through over the radio calling “fire mission.” In less time than it takes most people to button up a shirt, Marines with India Battery, 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment snapped into their positions behind the M777A2 Howitzer and began sending rounds miles downrange with pinpoint accuracy.
Controlled chaos is common place for the Marines in India Battery and this training was just an average day on the firing line during their week-long battalion fire exercise.
“Our job is about speed,” said Cpl. Christopher Espinoza, an artillery section chief with India Battery, and a native of San Antonio. “Every second counts when we are sending rounds downrange to support other units. If we aren’t working quickly then we aren’t doing our job.”
Supporting their brothers on the front lines is what matters most to artillery Marines. Illumination, high explosive and white phosphorous rounds are just some of the tools they use to accomplish that goal. Artillerymen are trained to assemble the howitzer and fire on targets upwards of 18 miles away within minutes on nearly any terrain in all types of weather.
Each howitzer is operated by six Marines and led by a section chief. The jobs range from the recorder who is responsible for tracking and maintaining records of each fire mission, to the ammo team whose responsibilities include loading the proper round and preparing the howitzer for fire.
The close-knit coordination on the firing line creates an atmosphere of camaraderie in the artillery community that is rarely seen elsewhere, said Lance Cpl. Leland Crecelius, a cannoneer with India Battery.
Every Marine on the firing line plays an important role in firing the well-oiled artillery machine. They move autonomously, knowing exactly where to be and when to be there. Long stretches of dead silence can go by before the Marines receive a fire mission, but in the blink of an eye they are on their feet and perfectly in sync with one another to conduct the mission at hand.
“I can’t think of a more efficient group of guys to work with,” said Crecelius, a native of Sidney, Iowa. “I work with them every single day so it’s only natural to learn what works and what doesn’t. Being around the same group of Marines so often really gives everyone a chance to work out the kinks and really polish our skills for when it matters the most.”
The strong passion for excellence on the firing line stems from having pride in what they do, which helps save the lives of Marines while in a combat environment.
“If a unit is under fire and they need support they call artillery,” Espinoza said. “They put their trust in confidence in us. That’s a lot of responsibility and I take it very seriously. I have to make sure that all of my Marines are on the top of their game.”
Artillery is rarely seen but always heard. The deep earth-shaking rumbles in the distance are a constant reminder to Marines on the front lines that there is always a howitzer pointed in the right direction.