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Lance Johnson - U.S. Army

Artillery is indirect fire.  A rifleman points at what he wants to hit, but the big guns fire in an arc, like shooting a basketball.  The coordinates came in over the radio from a forward observer on the ground actually looking at the target.  The fire direction control center used a table of formulas (or sometimes a slide rule) to turn that information into deflection and elevation settings.  Also, depending on the gun, they calculated how many powder bags to place into each round.  Those numbers then went to the gun crews who applied the settings to the artillery piece and fired the round.  The lieutenant’s job was make sure all this happened properly.  There’s a lot at stake when you give an order to fire, and you’d better make sure you’ve done it right.  

We drilled with 105s, 155s, 175s, and 8 inch guns.  As an officer, I showed up for work in the morning and went home in the afternoon.  We’d rented an apartment in Lawton, Joan taught school, we had a  large circle of friends, and we were happy.  

After training, my first regular duty assignment was with a newly formed battalion at Fort Sill equipped with M-107s, the latest, self-propelled 175mm guns.  Originally designed to move around the battlefield and provide a long-range umbrella of protection and destruction, M-107s looked like tanks but were fast and fired a 120-pound projectile thirty-three kilometers. Our unit consisted of three firing batteries, a headquarters battery and a logistics and supply battery.  Each firing battery consisted of four platoons of twenty-five men and one 175mm gun.  I commanded four guns and one hundred men.

After several months training, the entire battalion deployed to a huge Army installation in Bamberg, Germany.  Joan and I welcomed this change of scenery, and we quickly started enjoying life in another culture. 

Thirty miles north of Nuremberg, Bamberg had been a troop garrison for a thousand years.  In 1964, its function was to stop a Russian invasion of Germany through Czechoslovakia.  Our daily routine consisted of endless battle simulations and maneuver operations.  Weekends, Joan and I toured the countryside, hung out at the officers club and enjoyed the company of friends.

DusterChange being the only constant in military service, in just over two years, I received orders back to the U.S. to join a newly formed air defense unit at Fort Bliss, Texas.  Nicknamed “Dusters,” our weapons were 1940s era 40mm guns mounted on open tanks.  Originally designed to shoot strafing airplanes in WWII and Korea, the Duster’s new role in Vietnam would be perimeter defense, convoy support and sometimes, if absolutely necessary, direct-fire cannons on the skirmish line.  Highly mobile and with a crew of six, Dusters were equipped with twin 40mm cannons that fired 120 self-detonating rounds per minute to a range of 10,000 meters.  This was a real close-infantry support weapon, and we trained not in conventional, European theater tactics, but for guerilla warfare in jungle terrain, and for the first time, I saw myself eventually assigned to fight in Vietnam.  Our Duster unit was formed, equipped and ready, and then, don’t ask me why, but in its infinite wisdom, the army decommissioned the battalion two months before deployment. 

Joan and I knew I would have to serve a tour in Vietnam before I left the army, so we talked about it and decided then was a good time to get it over with.  I wasn’t getting any younger and didn’t care to put off the inevitable any longer, so we talked the whole thing out, and I requested a transfer.


1. Ordinary
2. Dating the class secretary
3. Artillery training
4. Special Forces Camp
5. Firing at anything that moved
6. You're not going ot believe this
7. Asked to accomplish the impossible
8. Welcomed by war protesters
9. Anger
10. Like a trapped schoolboy
11. Dissociative flashback
12. Still in love