Beware this story contains language of war…
The small pistol grip of the M1919A4 Browning machine gun looked more at home on the six-shooters in the American cowboy films he and his friends used to watch in seedy old film theaters in downtown Haifa than on the large black weapon that was mounted on a swivel just ahead of him. A perforated thermal shroud covering the entire length of the barrel gave the gun a much more menacing appearance than its caliber warranted, but that was the least of his concerns. The mountain road was bumpy and the gun, locked and loaded, had a hair trigger and no safety. He tried not holding on to the grip at all, but the gun immediately swiveled and hit him hard on the elbow. When not trying to hurt him, the gun seemed to be most at rest pointing straight down at the head of the reservist driver poking out from his hatch. So he had no choice but to hold the grip, trying to keep as far away from the trigger as he could. The merciless Mediterranean sun was baking him alive in his Kevlar helmet and body armor and the battle vest around his rib cage with its six magazines and two hand grenades left him virtually no room at all in the narrow hatch of the M113 armored personnel carrier. His right foot and shin felt like they were crawling with ants, probably because the straps on his thigh-mounted gas mask pouch were too tight. There was no fixing it now. The long, full-stock M16 automatic rifle they not-so-affectionately referred to as “broom” in basic training, with its 30-round magazine had nowhere to go but rest on top of his battle vest, locking him in place like a retaining pin on a machine gun swivel. It was only ten in the morning and they had been crawling along the steep mountain path since six. He was about to nod off.
Five o’clock that morning, at the staging ground already deep inside Lebanon, a reservist officer in brand new fatigues that had, prior to that morning, lived for decades in plastic wrappers deep inside some military warehouse, with no insignia other than three dark-green bars on his shoulders and a shortened M16 rifle slung casually behind his back shone his flashlight at the five soldiers lined up in front of him. Four were reservists, which could be immediately surmised by the fact that their battle vests, gas mask kits, helmets, and body armor were all piled in heaps in front of them. Their shirts, freezing cold notwithstanding, had the top five buttons open, showing hairy chests with varying degrees of grey. But their rifles were slung at their hips, barrels pointing down at the ground, right hands on the grips, and trigger fingers within milliseconds from reaching. One magazine was in the receiver and another attached to it at a 90 degree angle with plenty of duct tape. Everything about their casual stance told the careful observer that if they had to put sixty 5.56 NATO rounds on a target in the next thirty seconds, it wouldn’t be their first time.
“Good morning, I’m Tomer,” the officer swept his flashlight beam across their faces just below eye level. “Briefing before departure. We are going to open the route to the top of Mount Barouk, so that the HAWK battery can follow us and deploy there. The route should be clear, we had a couple of tanks go that way yesterday, no incidents.” He nodded towards the huge hulk of the Merkavah main battle tank sitting to their right. “Tank driver?” The oldest reservist whose gut spilled over his belt and whose male pattern baldness had long since gotten the best of him raised his hand. “Yes. That’s me. Yaron.” “You know the way?” “Yes, I was there yesterday. Steep, narrow and winding, right flank hard by the rocks, left flank exposed. If we get hit, we’re fucked, that’s for sure.” “Let’s not get hit then. You take point, five clicks per hour max. If you hear me fire, full stop until further orders. Gunner?” A lanky guy with a full head of black curls raised his left hand and gave a shy smile. “Yes. Haim. Good morning to all!” “Point the turret to the left and keep the cannon looking down no more than 500 meters range. Load with anti-personnel. If you hear me fire, fire two right were you see me hit and wait for my orders. Understood?” “Yes, sir.” “Radio?” A guy in his mid-thirties smoking a cigarette and keeping himself away from the group as if to say that he really wanted to be quite somewhere else, waved his left arm, the lit ember in his hand sparkling with increased oxygen flow. “You keep in touch with the APC driver. At all times, you hear me? And load the cannon, motherfucker, or I’ll shove that cigarette up your pussy.” “I got it. Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on them,” he waved his cigarette in the direction of the APC “and I’ll load. That 120 millimeter will fire on automatic.” He gave a shy grin, quite at odds with his nonchalant airs.
“All right, APC driver?” The last reservist in the group raised his hand. He must have been released from regular service only a few months earlier and called up on a Tzav 8 , because he alone had his enlisted man rank insignia sewn on his sleeves; three green stripes with a bronze oak leaf at the center, making him out to be a sergeant, first class. “You ride right up my ass, you hear? I don’t want anyone popping up behind me and putting an RPG in my exhaust. If you see anyone, and I mean anyone or anything get between you and me, both sticks full forward and smash whatever it is against my armor. Got it?” “Completely, sir. There will be nothing left of them but a small wet spot on my armor, you can count on it.” Tomer’s gaze finally came to rest on him, the last one in the row, with all his accoutrements hanging off of him, his helmet riding down on his eyes and his rifle yet unloaded. “So, I see the HAWK battery sent us their newest piece of meat here,” the reservist officer’s teeth flashed in the semi-darkness. Makes sense, they need all the guys that know what they’re doing to get ready for deployment. Just off basic training, eh?” “No, sir, that is, kind of sir, I just finished the HAWK fire control officers’ course a few weeks ago.” “Right, See that machine gun?” he pointed to the machine gun mounted in front of the APC’s main hatch, barely visible against the background of the predawn sky. “What is that?” “Ought-three machine gun , sir.” “Correct. Have you ever fired one?” “Yes, sir, a few bursts in basic training.” “Great. So you will be on that machine gun. Your fire azimuth is 90 to 180 degrees that is straight to your left and through to the back. Never point it forward. You look at the bushes. Look good. Anything moves, and I mean anything, anything out of the ordinary at all, you fire. Short bursts, don’t get that barrel to melt. Like in basic training. I will join you from the ought-five . If you see me fire first and you can tell where I’m aiming at and it’s I your fire azimuth, you can lay some fire in the same direction. Got it?” “Yes, sir.”
The officer took a breath and turned off his flashlight. “Now listen to me. The worst we’ll see out there will be some kids with RPG’s and Kalashnikovs. The RPG will do nothing to the tank here, but it will go through the Zelda like butter.” He looked at him and at the APC driver directly. If you get hit, you jump out, straight out, as fast as you can to hill side and take cover behind the tank. Don’t worry about returning fire until you know that you are not hurt. We’ll cover for you. Do we understand each other?” The driver and he nodded. This was sounding all too serious. Anti-aircraft batteries were not supposed to engage in fire fights and he assumed the track has been cleared by infantry and armor. He was, apparently, wrong.
“Arms inspection!” The reservists exchanged glances; this kind of shit was for new recruits, but an order is an order. They took the magazines out of their weapons and cycled the loading handles to eject the rounds from the chamber. The radio guy caught his ejected round mid-flight with the same hand in which he was holding the magazine. It was quite a trick. The rest of them were bending down, looking for their rounds on the ground. Finally, they were all lined up, rifles pointing up at 45 degree angles. Tomer stopped by each in order, cycle twice, hold back, inserting his pinky finger into the receiver to check that it was empty. “Lock and load”, he joined their line, facing in the same direction down range and away from the vehicles. The distinct sound of magazines being thrust into the rifles and the cycling of bolts was instantly heard. “Fire check down range, three rounds on semi-auto. Fire at will.” He hasn’t fired a single round since the end of basic training and the idea of just firing willy-nilly at no particular target, simply into the wadi below seemed preposterous and dangerous, but looking to his right he saw everyone rifles ready, left thumbs moving the safeties to semi-auto position and he hastened to do the same. Suddenly the early morning peace was shattered by the sound of massed gunfire and tracing rounds could be seen flying into the vegetation below. It hadn’t rained in weeks and a brush fire was a distinct possibility, but no one seemed to care.
“Tank crew, get your coveralls on and jump in. Engine start followed by final fire check.” Walking into the Zelda via the rear loading ramp helpfully opened for him by the driver was easy; fitting in through the main hatch from the bottom up required some finagling. “Listen kid,” the driver was all of twenty-two, maybe three years older than him, but he seemed to cherish his status as the senior guy in the vehicle, “lose all of that stuff, keep it below. Your rifle, your body armor and one magazine is all you need. You won’t be able to breathe in there.” That was good advice, but he was more afraid of Tomer the captain than death by suffocation. With some maneuvering, he finally poked through the hatch and immediately felt Tomer’s serious, but simultaneously amused and somewhat fatherly gaze. The captain was half exposed in the Merkavah turret, wearing his body armor and helmet, resting his elbow on the heavy M2 machine gun. He tapped the headset that was built into his tank-crew helmet and looked at him rather impatiently. The driver intercepted the look and pushed the swivel mic on his headset closer to his mouth; “the Zelda came with only one comm,” he said into the mic. “I thought I’d take it.” He listened for a few seconds and said: “our commander says load the ought-three and fire three bursts into the wadi to clear the barrel.” Before he was done speaking, Tomer fired three short bursts from the M2 as if to say “follow me”.
Now all that he remembered from basic training was that the antiquated M1919 was a real bitch to load. There was no cover that conveniently opened up to receive the belted ammo like in the FN MAG machine gun that they spent much more time with in basic training. The first, empty link in the belt had to be placed just so in a small loading port on the left side of the receiver and the loading handle pulled back against a super long and stiff retaining spring, hopefully sufficiently advancing the belt so that the next cycling of the bolt would chamber a live round.
The steel knob on the loading handle was well-worn with age, no surprise, considering the last M1919 was made in 1945. He warily eyed the huge slotted retaining bolt at the butt end of the pistol grip handle and remembered the instructor’s admonition that often these guns haven’t been loaded for ages sitting in emergency stores and there was a good chance that the thread on the retaining bolt would be stripped, sending the one inch diameter monster straight into the gut of the hapless operator. The less than comforting solution was to first load the weapon while bending one’s head so that the bolt would impact the helmet rather than the solar plexus. The choice between concussion and evisceration having made in favor of the former by the IDF, he allowed himself to reconsider. If his old-style, thick Kevlar body armor was good for anything, surely it would stop the bolt from doing a hara-kiri job on him. Concussion, on the other hand, was a less pleasant prospect. “Here goes nothing,” he thought and yanked on the loading knob with all his might. Surprisingly, the retaining bolt held, and the gun cycled with a satisfying sound, advancing the belt. A second yank on the handle chambered a round; he allowed himself to exhale. Apparently, the driver was observing him all the while, because he now said: “Point that thing into the wadi and let it rip. Captain’s orders.”
Placing his left hand on top of the pistol grip and acquiring through the iron sights a large acacia bush still retaining a few springtime yellow blossoms, he advanced the trigger gingerly upwards. The big machinegun roared to life, releasing ten or twenty rounds before he could let go of the trigger. To his right, he heard the even bigger M2 come to life, firing at the same bush. Clearly the captain was a pro; three bursts of three rounds each was all he fired, no more and no less. The gunpowder and burnt oil smoke was still wafting from the M2’s long barrel as the captain gestured with his Nomex gloved hand. They were under way.
The APC must have hit a particularly large bolder, because he was jerked awake. Or maybe it was because the driver was yelling him at the top of his lungs. “Don’t point that fucking thing at me you fucking moron,” he said. “Watch the bushes if you want to come back home to mommy, idiot.” Just ahead, in the turret of the Merkavah, the captain was grinning from ear to ear. They were rolling on. Chastised, he refocused his attention on the dense Mediterranean brush to their left, scanning back and forth with a renewed sense of commitment and quite a bit of shame for nodding off on his first combat mission. After the last hairpin turn, the terrain leveled off quite a bit and whereas previously they were driving almost at the edge of a precipice, now the ground to their left was almost level. Suddenly, a flash of red intermingled with the greens, browns, and occasional yellows of the limestone rocks and bushes. Thinking that this was a late-blooming kalanit or poppy flower, he was not particularly surprised, simply focusing a bit harder on that general area. And then he saw them; two kids, both wearing dark-green camo, but one had unbuttoned his shirt in the day’s heat, showing the triangle of a bright red t-shirt underneath. The t-shirt guy was kneeling on one knee, an RPG on his shoulder, pointing straight at the APC. The other was lying prone on the ground, watching them through a pair of binoculars. For whatever reason, the only emotion that he felt was excitement; finally something was going to happen. He swiveled his gun and acquired the guy in red t-shirt through the sights. “A little lower,” he thought, remembering how the machine gun’s barrel tended to ride up with recoil. His gun was pointing somewhat forward, out of his firing azimuth as defined by the captain. Having no radio, he had a decision to make: yell at the driver and get him to alert the captain and risk being heard by the kid with the RPG, fire now, or wait until the target was in his assigned firing azimuth. He glanced at the captain; it was clear from his relaxed posture and the downward angle of the M2 that he was not aware of the threat. “He will fire as soon as we pull even,” he thought. “Looks like I’d better beat him to it.” He reacquired the target through the sights and all of a sudden he was scared to death. Somebody will now die. If he hits the target, it will be the kid looking at him from no more than a hundred yards away, if he misses and the kid fires, it will likely be him and his driver. He squeezed the trigger. The mountain slope erupted with hellish noise as his gun was firing ten rounds per second and the M2 from the tank turret joined in. Then the earth shook; the 120mm cannon on the Merkavah tank was firing. He realized he was still squeezing the trigger only when he couldn’t see past a shroud of burnt gun oil smoke rising from the barrel of his gun. He let go and heard his driver yelling “cease fire! cease fire, you moron!”
Smoke was still coming out of the muzzle of the 120mm, but the captain, replaced at the M2 by the gunner was already jumping down from the hillside-facing track cover of his tank and running towards the APC, rifle in hand. He took cover behind the sloping front armor and looked through his binoculars at the small fire that was beginning to burn where the red t-shirt kid was once kneeling. “Looks like you got the son of a bitch,” he said, “but still, let’s go take a quick look. You and I. Come down, let’s go.”
He somehow managed to clamber out of the hatch and down the side of the APC, with the driver replacing him at the ought-three. “Ready? Take your safety off and put your rifle on semi-auto. Let’s go, these guys will cover us.” The captain gestured to the two machine guns on the armored vehicles. And with that he simply started walking downhill towards the growing bush fire. There was nothing left to do but follow and within a couple of minutes of bushwacking they were there. There were two craters where the 120mm anti-personnel shrapnel rounds had hit and that’s where the brush was burning. The captain, a few yards ahead of him came to a halt. “Looks like our gunner is a bit rusty; overshot the target by twenty yards or so.” The captain pointed to what looked like a heap of used clothing between them and the craters. He advanced, motioning for him to follow. Needless to say, he forgot to use hearing protection when they left base and his head felt as if stuffed with cotton wool. A high-pitched whine was filling his ears. He was drenched with sweat and he hadn’t eaten since they had shared a “dinner” of candy bars and salty snacks sent to them by Israeli school children the night before, which was a godsend because they had exhausted their battle rations a few days back and somehow failed to be resupplied. He was in a state quite close to delirium.
The captain was moving some things with his shiny newly issued army boots. “You sure as hell got them, kid”, he said, gingerly using his foot to point the still-loaded RPG away from them. “He hadn’t even had the time to squeeze the trigger. Good job. Now these,” he was using his foot again to disentangle from the heap two AK-47’s with extended collapsible stocks, “are nice. I would take them, but then there’s all the paperwork.” He stopped as if to consider something. “Speaking of paperwork,” he seemed to have come to a conclusion, “these remains of enemy combatants killed in this action are unrecoverable due to fire.” He glanced at him as if searching for understanding and getting nothing but a bewildered look in return, gave a big smile; “come on, hero of the Nation of Israel, let’s get going before we get roasted alive.”