In the shadow of Mount Fuji
CAMP FUJI, Japan — Newly minted Marine Sgt. Donald Horn was deep in unfamiliar territory.
Not only was the squad leader in the bone-chilling shadow of Mount Fuji — far from the desolate deserts he had deployed to in his Marine career — but he was about to deliver a battle plan that called for his unit to assault two People’s Chinese Defense Force sandbag bunkers, anchored by machine guns.
The live-fire maneuver would offer his unit from 3rd Platoon, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment its first chance to fight on Asian soil — even if it was just a training exercise against a fictitious enemy. After always following orders, Horn was getting a taste of giving them.
The 3-2’s training regimen was moving into hyper-drive, several months into the unit’s deployment from Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Writing assault orders was still relatively new to most of 3rd Platoon’s squad leaders, and each would have a shot at it before leading an attack. Horn spent the better part of a day drafting his, intently crouched over loose sheets of paper, looking more like a bespectacled university student than a battle-hardened grunt.
The assault would be complex, and the squad would be strategically complemented by mortars (the only part of the assault that would be simulated), machine guns and a Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon, courtesy of elements of the company’s weapons platoon that had been attached for the mission. Any mistakes in timing could expose the Marines to friendly fire.
The day before the assault, Horn laid out his plan under the watchful eyes of platoon leadership, 1st Lt. Matthew Mannion and Staff Sgt. Mark Mlachak. Horn issued precise instructions for each team – where to be, when to be there and what to do with their firepower.
Lance Cpl. Kyle Littell moved pieces on a model of the battlefield that symbolized the Marine fire teams moving through one objective to the next. Horn’s Marines listened intently and took notes.
Afterward, he explained the process.
“I look at what I have available, assets wise and manpower wise, and I figure out the best way tactically to execute” the mission, Horn said.
“I’m probably going to need a support-by-fire, I’m probably going to need to maneuver. If I have machine guns, I need to figure out where I’m going to set them up. … We can’t afford to have somebody go too far left and run in front of a machine gun.”
Misery that binds
The 3-2 arrived in Japan in February through the Unit Deployment Program, which brings stateside Marine units to Asia for six-month rotational deployments.
The program cooled during the height of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, then ramped up again in 2012 as the Obama administration launched its “pivot” to the Pacific, home to key shipping lanes and a region where tensions among the major powers date back centuries.
The 3-2 Marines’ evolution in training for Asian contingencies began in March when they headed for the Jungle Warfare Training Center in Okinawa’s remote north. The Marines — nicknamed the “Betio Bastards” — slogged through a week of hellish mud, water and dense bush.
A month later, they traveled to Camp Fuji, a small Marine base, for the next leg.
At Fuji — named for Japan’s tallest peak, which towers over the base and its blooming cherry blossom trees — they would experience a new kind of hell: freezing temperatures, heavy rain, sleet, several feet of snow and, of course, more mud.
Though each platoon had temporary barracks, grunts don’t do comfortable. They slept out in the field, holed up at the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s Military Operations on Urban Terrain town, or MOUT.
The mock town was an eerie, empty city center with large concrete structures and intersecting paved streets. Other than portable toilets, there were no other conveniences — no windows, no heat and no furniture except for a random chair.
Cold during the day, temperatures cruelly plummeted at night. Marines dressed in layers with winter hats and gloves. The concrete on which they made their beds was capable of sucking the warmth out of a Marine in minutes. Reports spread of alleged cases of hypothermia as sleet and snow caught units exposed in the field.
The Marines wore their misery on their faces at dinner until Capt. Jeffrey Cummings — a hard-charging, barrel-chested Iraq War veteran with an enthusiasm for discomfort and danger — arranged a rare hot meal to boost morale. As officers served the enlisted ranks first, Horn’s squad was rife with smirks and wry grins as if they were getting away with mischievous behavior.
To pass the time and take their minds off their general discomfort, they had given each other women’s names and a matching persona and staged “fights,” in character, on the third floor of the building.
Mannion smiled and shook his head. He was used to such acts of dark comedy between bursts of gunfire, knowing they help the Marines persevere through adversity.
Cummings said sharing the misery brings the men closer. But as he prepared to sleep on cold concrete in the building next door, he wrestled with pulling them out over safety concerns: When does it become “too” miserable, where the Marines lose focus and don’t retain their training?
He would give them a few nights in the barracks when the temperatures and weather became untenable.
But not this night.
After chow, 3rd Platoon conducted fire-team night raids. The Marines found an unoccupied building and climbed to the top floor. In silence, except for the pounding rain outside, they took turns creeping through the halls in night-vision goggles, rifles at the ready.
As they approached each door, they would stack to cover all angles, then tap each other on the shoulder to signal readiness and movement.
The sounds of doors being kicked in echoed throughout the dark, dank passages. As they moved into a room with lightning quickness and precision, they flicked on rifle-mounted flashlights to blind any enemy that lay in wait. No live rounds were fired; instead red dots on chests indicated scores.
“We haven’t really done a lot of night training, and it is important,” Horn said later. “But they did better than I thought they would” with their limited night-vision goggle experience.
‘Just keep going’
Most of the Marines woke the next day saying they had stayed warm overnight. Privately, though, some admitted the cold had worked its way into their bones.
“Out here is frustrating,” the 19-year-old Littell said days later, sick from an apparent cold. “It’s cold at night. Generally, it’s been cold and raining during the day. … But, can’t complain.”
Horn summed up the Marine mind-set.
“If I’m hurting, I just sit there and talk myself through it, in my head, ‘Just keep going.’ If it gets cold, just think, ‘At least it’s not raining.’ If it’s raining, be glad it’s not cold. If it’s cold and raining, just be like ‘Wow, this sucks.’ ” He smiled. “It’s all about mental toughness.”
Under a heavy fog and sporadic showers, Horn took his squad to the far edge of the mock town, out of sight of other Marines who waited to start the day. He wasn’t leaving anything to chance. When it was game time, he wanted his men ready.
They found an empty building and went inside. Horn stood outside facing the facade. He timed them as they ran out, provided security and leapt over a concrete barricade in full gear, rifles up, searching for targets.
“Slow down,” Horn told Lance Cpl. James Spooner and Littell as they passed him. “You guys have to slow down.”
More practice followed, kicking in doors and making entry.
In a stack outside one room, Littell was in the lead, followed by three others.
Littell spun in first in one fluid motion and immediately wrapped around the door, checking behind it. All four swept into, and through, the room. Horn followed, watching intently.
“Hey Littell. When you come in, don’t [expletive] spin,” he said softly as he mimicked what the young Marine had done. “Your back’s open. If you’re the first one in, you ride the door.”
Horn pinned the open door to the wall with his hip. He then scanned the room with his rifle, checking every corner.
“Everyone else comes in, picks up the room,” he said. “Then you can [expletive] check behind the door.”
Horn’s experience, gleaned from multiple tours of Afghanistan, is highly valued, his Marines said.
In a subsequent practice run, with Spooner going first, the New Jersey native forcefully pinned the door to the wall as Horn had done.
When it was show time, they took a position on the first floor of a building across the street from the target and did reconnaissance.
“You know what you’re doing when you hit the building?” Horn asked the first team. “When you come in, look at me, I’ll tell you where to go. I have no idea what it looks like in there.”
With one team covering the far door of the target building, another jumped out of the window and quickly made their its way across the street and stacked at the door.
Hands were placed on shoulders, fleeting glances were exchanged and nods provided confirmation of readiness. One team member kicked in the door.
The Marines quickly poured in and discovered a labyrinth of hallways and rooms. They paused as if frozen, rifles trained on every angle and opening.
Horn began barking orders and moving Marines into place as they began searching the area. Finally came the verdict: “Building clear.”
The second building not only contained myriad hallways and rooms, but also staircases and a balcony with a brilliant field of fire on a large, open room below. Enemy footsteps echoed ominously.
Lance Cpl. Tyler Thompson and Lance Cpl. Ryan Foret entered a room and eliminated one enemy.
“Bang-bang-bang-bang,” they shouted.
Lying on the floor wounded, an enemy fighter let a grenade roll from his fingers with the pin pulled. Foret looked up for Thompson, but he was gone. He ran to the nearest door and looked at it painfully, not wanting to kick it down to escape, and realizing he was likely a casualty.
As the 1st Squad Marines proceeded up the stairs, an enemy soldier stood in a doorway shielded from sight, with a perfect line of fire.
“Bang-bang-bang-bang,” he yelled as the Marines appeared. They answered with “Bang-bang-bang-bang.”
At the end of the training scenario, 1st Squad stood around as Mannion and Mlachack critiqued their performance.
“For working as a squad on a building with this layout, you did well,” Mlachack said. “You went through. At least you made a decision to go a certain way. It may not have necessarily been the best, but what’s not to say if you had come this way. …”
He made a gesture with his hands, singling out the large room where they were standing.
“Maybe somebody over there had a view on you that you couldn’t have covered. That’s the problem with MOUT. It’s risky, no matter what you do. You could do everything right, cover every [expletive] aperture, but there’s something you don’t see.”
Littell said the training would come in handy anywhere.
“We’re going to go fight people, and people are generally going to be in buildings,” he said. “The more we do, the better we get at it.”
‘Know what cover is’
Finally came the week’s culminating event, the assault on the bunkers.
The weather cleared after a day of heavy rain. The Marines appeared at ease even though they would be running and gunning while avoiding friendly machine guns and shoulder-fired rockets.
The bunkers were essentially dark depressions in the muddy earth, with berms in the rear, targets for people and pallets for cover.
“Aggressiveness, and the second law of the infantrymen are going to be huge out here: Know what cover is,” Cummings bellowed before the exercise’s start.
Protected by a berm, Horn crouched in the reeds and observed the battlefield. Then he clicked the radio and gave coordinates for a two-minute burst of suppressive fire.
Moments later, there was a whistle, followed by the boom of a simulated mortar. Then another.
On Horn’s signal, his squad leaned over the top of the berm and concentrated rifle fire on the first target. It sounded like a shooting gallery, and the enemy soon pinpointed their location.
“You’re taking heavy effective fire!” Mannion yelled from behind their position.
The Marines went over the top of the berm and charged their target. They fanned out on the field below and dropped to their stomachs, shooting back at the bunker. Horn paused momentarily, watching. Then he, too, went over the top.
The rat-tat-tat-tat-tat of machine guns rang out from the left. Horn’s squad attacked up the middle and veered to the right like a swinging gate, then jumped in holes in the ground that looked as if they had been caused by shells.
“Increase your rate [of fire],” Horn yelled.
“I’m out,” a Marine shouted.
“Reloading,” said another.
“I got you,” came a reply.
“Covering,” said yet another on the right flank.
“Rocket,” yelled a Marine from Weapons Platoon on the right. There was a deafening bang as the rocket zipped toward the target. The air filled with smoke as it struck its intended target with withering effect.
“Move, move, move, move,” Horn yelled. Marines poured out of their positions and approached the target up the middle.
They ran forward, staying low, trying to maintain their balance on the uneven terrain. They jumped over ditches and ran through thick reeds that crunched under their feet.
Horn and three others were in striking distance now. They closed on their target, changing magazines as they walked, and eliminated all inside.
They then took the position and turned on the second target, which was being peppered by Weapons Platoon machine guns and surrounded by Marines.
Littell ran forward, hit the deck in front of the bunker, then popped up and lobbed a grenade. Horn and four other Marines charged the second target much as they had the first.
“Western objective destroyed,” they shouted. “Cease fire.”
The next day, Mannion and Mlachak threw the Marines a curveball. Instead of giving the current team leaders some extra practice with their M203 under-the-barrel grenade launchers as scheduled, they calculated who would likely be getting out when they returned to Lejeune, and gave the training to the next crop of team leaders instead. This included Littell and Lance Cpl. Andrew Luna from 1st Squad.
The two were grateful for the opportunity to lead and even more grateful to shoot high-explosive anti-tank rounds.
“We’re getting toward the end of the deployment,” Horn said. “Lot of guys are going to be leaving. Those that are staying, we need to start building their confidence in themselves. Because all they know is, ‘This guy tells him, and he tells me.’ That’s all they understand.
“It’s all about getting them confident in leading someone else because they’re so used to following. And just getting them spun up on everything they need to know so they can teach guys coming in under them.”
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