The Resupply of Duffer's Drift
William C. Latham Jr.
Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov famously observed: “If you want new ideas, read old books.” The following narrative provides a fresh take on an old book, Ernest Dunlop Swinton’s The Defence of Duffer’s Drift. The 1904 novella recounts a series of dreams in which a British junior officer tries and fails to defend a critical river crossing, until he finally absorbs the lessons and accomplishes the mission. In light of the US Army’s renewed emphasis on platoon leader development, this updated story borrows from Swinton’s original work to illustrate core principles of small unit leadership in the twenty-first century.
Fresh from his basic course, Second Lieutenant Anderson reported to his first assignment just as Krasnovian forces invaded Palukistan. With the entire division preparing to deploy overseas, Anderson barely had time to in-process and rent an apartment before signing in as a platoon leader in the brigade support battalion’s distribution company. Now, nine weeks after graduating from Fort Lee, Anderson found himself on the ground in a combat zone halfway around the world, responsible for forty soldiers, twenty cargo trucks, and an arsenal of rifles, machine guns, and grenades.
Anderson had little time to shave that morning, much less sit down and eat a meal. Breakfast was coffee and an energy bar; lunch was a Snickers. While his soldiers spent the day pulling guard duty at the initial staging base (ISB) and shuttling equipment from the port, Anderson seemed stuck in a series of endless meetings, first with the company commander, then with the battalion commander, and then at a brigade rehearsal that took most of the afternoon.
At dinner, he ate a lukewarm plate of chicken cacciatore with his senior noncommissioned officer, Sergeant First Class Carroll, and shared as much information as he could recall while scribbling notes on the status of the platoon’s soldiers and equipment. Another commander’s meeting that evening took longer than expected, and it was nearly midnight before Anderson got back to his barracks room, brushed his teeth, and crawled into bed.
The First Dream: Troop Leading Procedures
He woke to the commander’s driver nudging his elbow: “Sir, Captain Bagley needs to see you right away.” Anderson slipped on his boots, grabbed his gear, and made his way across the darkened assembly area toward the generator hum that marked the command post (CP).
Inside the dimly lit tent, the lieutenant found his commander and Major Smith, the battalion support operations officer, crouching in front of a large map board. The commander nodded at him, and turned back to the major: “Sir, this is Lieutenant Anderson. He is new, but his platoon is near full strength and he has an experienced platoon sergeant to keep him out of trouble.”
The major glanced at Anderson, nodded his assent, and pointed to the map: “Okay, Anderson, this is a warning order; prepare to copy.”
Shortly after midnight, Krasnovian forces had attacked in strength throughout the brigade sector. Task Force Landry, a mix of armor and mechanized infantry units, lost several crews and vehicles during the initial engagement, including seven casualties and five prime movers in the forward support company. The task force occupied battle positions on Duffer’s Drift, a critical ridge overlooking the only bridge across the Meji River.
The major ordered Anderson to prepare to receive flat racks of Class V at the ammunition transfer and holding point (ATHP) and deliver them to a logistics release point south of the river, approximately 50 kilometers from their current location. Two convoy protection platforms from battalion headquarters would provide security. The convoy would move along Main Supply Route (MSR) Titans. Captain Bagley would provide additional information within the next two hours. Anderson’s platoon should be ready to move no later than 0700.
Anderson jotted down the relevant grid coordinates and checked his watch; it was already 0200. He had less than five hours to prepare. He had led convoys before, but never this far forward.
Captain Bagley interrupted Anderson’s racing thoughts. “Lieutenant,” said Bagley, “go make your preparations. Report back to me in one hour for more information.”
Anderson left the tent, marked his map, and checked the coordinates for Task Force Landry. Carefully tracing the route of MSR Titans, Anderson saw a paved, two-lane highway passing through rolling hills with farmland on either side of the road. He observed no bridges or overpasses that might interfere with the convoy’s progress. Travelling in broad daylight, he and his soldiers would be able to see in every direction for several hundred meters.
Next, he found Sergeant Carroll, shook her awake, and told her about the mission. “I need the whole platoon to assemble at my vehicle as soon as possible, fully dressed and ready to receive a warning order,” said Anderson. Carroll acknowledged and moved off to notify the squad leaders. Meanwhile, Anderson began jotting down notes for a five-paragraph order. In the distance, he could hear whispered orders and the clink of soldiers reaching for their gear.
Within fifteen minutes, the platoon had formed a ragged formation near the front bumper of Anderson’s HMMWV. Huddling the group around him, Anderson issued a brief warning order. Several noncommissioned officers (NCOs) asked questions he couldn’t answer. Running short on time, Anderson abruptly ended the briefing, telling his soldiers to follow the tactical standard operating procedure (SOP) in the absence of specific guidance. Turning the platoon over to Sergeant Carroll, he sprinted back across the moonlit assembly area to the command post.
Captain Bagley greeted him with a frown: “You’re late, lieutenant. That’s a bad habit to develop anywhere, but especially in a combat zone.”
Anderson responded with an apologetic “No excuse.”
Bagley’s update contained bad news. “The Krasnovians are still attacking along the entire division front. Our brigade continues to defend in place, but front-line units are running low on Class V. Your mission is one of several emergency resupply convoys going out this morning.”
The captain continued, providing many of the details that Anderson had been unable to answer earlier that morning. The weather would be sunny and warm. Enemy contact was possible but unlikely along MSR Titans. A recovery vehicle and ground ambulances would be standing by at the brigade support area in case Anderson’s platoon needed assistance. The security vehicles would report to Anderson no later than 0530. Anderson’s soldiers needed to be at their vehicles, ready for the commander’s walk-through at 0600. The ATHP would be ready to transfer flat racks to Anderson’s vehicles at 0730.
Bagley asked if he had any questions. Anderson couldn’t think of any. “Good luck,” said Bagley. “I’ll be in your area at 0600.”
The lieutenant hustled back to his platoon area. In the darkness, he could hear his platoon sergeant chewing out one of the squad leaders because of a filthy crew-served weapon. “I am sorry to interrupt, Sergeant Carroll,” said Anderson, “but I am going to need another platoon formation in fifteen minutes.”
“Okay, sir,” responded his platoon sergeant. She turned and gave the squad leader a last look conveying her displeasure over the weapon, then strode off toward the other squad leaders.
Within ten minutes, Anderson began another, longer briefing. Reading from notes, he talked his platoon through the situation, mission, execution, sustainment, and command and control for the convoy. Aware that time was short, he briefed as quickly and concisely as possible, but received several more questions; some he couldn’t answer. When the briefing finally ended at 0445, Anderson directed his platoon sergeant to get the vehicles ready for movement and set out for the company command post to get answers to the questions he hadn’t thought of earlier.
Captain Bagley was surprised to see him again, but decided not to point out the time remaining. When Anderson got back to his platoon, the first rays of sunlight were glowing on the eastern horizon. He trooped the line of vehicles, checking that all vehicles were mission-ready and all soldiers were in uniform and had their weapons.
The two protection platforms did not arrive at 0530. After waiting ten minutes, Anderson sent a runner to the command post to report their absence. Moments later, he heard the growl of engines as the two heavily armored HMMWVs crawled toward him behind a ground guide. While Anderson’s soldiers took a break to enjoy their meal ready to eat (MRE) breakfasts, an embarrassed staff sergeant saluted and apologized for showing up late.
Anderson began briefing the two new crews on the convoy plan when Captain Bagley and First Sergeant Doubletree arrived. Anderson interrupted his briefing to greet the commander.
“Carry on, lieutenant,” said Bagley. “The first sergeant and I are fine.”
Sergeant Carroll immediately intercepted the first sergeant and guided him toward the left side of the trucks. Seeing their approach, crews put aside their MREs and rose to their feet, like dominoes in reverse.
Anderson resumed briefing the security crews, and Bagley strolled around to the other side of the truck line, where news of his arrival quickly brought the remaining crews to their feet.
After finishing his briefing, Anderson noticed the commander and first sergeant in deep conversation. He moved toward them, but Bagley held up a hand warning him to stand fast. The first sergeant was clearly upset about something, and Bagley was nodding in agreement.
Their conversation finished, Bagley summoned Anderson to join him. The first sergeant walked over to speak with Sergeant Carroll.
“Lieutenant Anderson, have you reconnoitered the ammunition transfer holding area yet?” asked Bagley.
“No sir,” responded Anderson. “I haven’t had time.”
“Then how are you going to find it with twenty-two vehicles behind you?” asked Bagley.
“Sir, I have the grid coordinates. It’s right down the road,” replied Anderson.
“Have you been there before?” asked Bagley. No, Anderson had never been there.
Bagley shook his head. “Okay,” he continued, “have you done a rehearsal yet?”
Anderson responded with an embarrassed look: “A rehearsal?”
“Yes,” said Bagley, “a rehearsal for actions on contact. A rehearsal in case one of your vehicles breaks down. A rehearsal for actions at the transfer point. A rehearsal for actions at the logistics release point.”
“Sir, I hadn’t scheduled one yet,” said Anderson. “I was going to give a final mission brief, then do pre-combat inspections (PCI) with Sergeant Carroll.”
“Fortunately, your platoon sergeant initiated movement and began doing PCIs on her own,” observed the commander. “But you have wasted too much time doing everything but get this platoon ready for its mission.”
“Sir, I was just trying to ensure they had the right information,” responded Anderson.
“I get that,” said Bagley. “But we don’t have time to run down every answer. The battalion staff are doing their best to push us good information as soon as they get it, but in the meantime, you have forty soldiers and twenty-two vehicles to prepare for movement into a dangerous forward area. There’s an entire battalion up there depending on your platoon.”
Anderson nodded. Bagley continued, “We can’t afford to fail this mission. I have no choice but to relieve you. The company executive officer will take your place and lead this convoy. Report to my CP and stand by for further instructions. We’ll sort this out if and when we make it through this day. In the meantime, I want you to review the Army’s troop leading procedures. If you had followed them, you would have gotten more done in less time and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
Anderson saluted, turned, and walked slowly toward the company command post, his mind reviewing the last four hours. What had he done wrong, and how could he have done better? Regardless of his future, he was going to spend the next few hours learning everything he could about the troop leading procedures. Gazing at the pink clouds in the eastern sky, Anderson swore that given a second chance, he’d do a much better job.
The Second Dream: Use Your Team
Anderson sat straight up in bed. As his eyes adjusted to the darkened room, he realized he was back in the ISB barracks. There was no summons to the command post, no emergency resupply mission, no darkened assembly area. He hadn’t been relieved. Out of habit, he reached down with his right hand to check his weapon and protective mask. The commander’s guidance about troop leading procedures was ringing in his ears.
He rolled onto his back, staring at the dark ceiling. His Fort Lee instructors had made a fuss about the troop leading procedures, but he had few chances to use them during his first few weeks in the brigade. Besides, the unit SOP seemed to cover many of the functions that his platoon might have to perform in combat. He remembered there were eight steps, and dozed off trying to remember all of them.
He awoke to a hand jostling his shoulder. Captain Bagley’s driver crouched beside him, summoning him to the command post. Anderson reached for his gear, pulled on his boots, and followed the soldier through the darkness toward a humming generator and the tent beyond.
Inside, Major Smith and Captain Bagley huddled before a dimly lit map. Bagley turned to acknowledge Anderson’s arrival, and introduced him to the major. It all seemed familiar somehow.
Smith talked, and Anderson took notes. The enemy had attacked, Task Force Landry had suffered losses, his platoon needed to prepare for a resupply convoy. Bagley would give him more information in an hour.
Anderson asked a few questions. What was the communications plan for this operation? Would indirect fire support be available? What about vehicle recovery and medevac? Was there an alternate route if the main supply route was blocked?”
The major finally cut him off. “These are all good questions, lieutenant, but we are still working out some of those details,” said Smith. “Your commander will have more details soon. We’re giving you a warning order now so that you can start your own preparations.”
Outside the tent, the lieutenant reached for a three-by-five card in his pocket and looked at it under his flashlight. The card contained a handwritten list of eight steps: the troop leading procedures. He figured he suddenly had more to do than he had time to accomplish; a checklist would at least point him in the right direction.
His watch read 0215. Anderson had already completed the first step (receive the mission), but he had less than five hours to accomplish the other seven steps and prepare his platoon. He walked quickly back to his platoon area and woke the platoon sergeant.
“Sergeant Carroll, we just received a warning order directing us to prepare to conduct a resupply convoy,” said Anderson. “Battalion is sending us two convoy protection platforms for security. The platoon needs to be ready to go no later than 0700. The commander will give me additional information at 0300. Notify the squad leaders now to get their soldiers and vehicles ready.”
“Okay sir,” responded Carroll. “Do you want me at the 0300 brief?”
“No thanks,” responded Anderson. “We’re short on time, so I want you to focus on preparing the soldiers and their equipment. I will brief the whole platoon as soon as I have the details.”
Carroll nodded, and began pulling on her boots. Anderson took out his notebook and started planning backward, assuming he would need to initiate movement at 0700 hours.
He figured he might need thirty minutes right before the deadline to provide any updates, such as changes in the friendly or enemy situation. Having sat through battalion rehearsals, he figured he could use a similar format to rehearse actions at the pickup and drop-off points and discuss other contingencies, such as a broken vehicle. If that took an hour, he was already back to 0530. Before that, he’d want to do final PCIs and give soldiers enough time to correct minor issues. That was another thirty minutes. Thirty minutes to reconnoiter the transfer point and thirty minutes to brief the platoon moved him back to 0400.
The commander would provide him with more information at 0300, and it was already 0245. At some point, he was going to have to put all that information into an operations order and brief the platoon. Anderson decided he’d figure it out once he knew more. He took two minutes to roll up his sleeping bag, brush his teeth, and jot down his timeline, then walked back to Bagley’s tent.
The update contained grim news. The enemy attack had forced withdrawals in several sectors. The brigade continued to hold, but every unit was running low on ammunition. Anderson’s convoy would be one of several emergency resupply missions going out that morning.
Bagley’s briefing answered several of Anderson’s earlier questions: the weather forecast was clear and sunny; the enemy threat to MSR Titans was low; indirect fire support would be available on a general support basis; recovery vehicles and ground ambulances would be standing by to provide support from the BSA (brigade support area). The protection platforms from battalion would report at 0530. The commander would do a walk-through at 0600. Anderson’s platoon needed to be at the ATHP no later than 0730 to receive ammunition flat racks. Bagley agreed to provide an extra HMMWV so Anderson could take two vehicles on his reconnaissance.
Bagley wished him luck, and Anderson walked back to his platoon area. He checked his watch: 0345 hours.
He found his platoon sergeant lecturing one of the squad leaders on weapons maintenance. He waited a moment before interrupting: “Sergeant Carroll, I am going to do a quick recon of the ATHP. Captain Bagley is providing a second HMMWV and driver, but I’ll need an NCO to ride shotgun. When I get back, I will brief the platoon on our mission.
“Okay, sir,” responded the platoon sergeant. “I assume we’re hauling ammo. Are we still leaving at 0700, and do you know where we are going?”
Anderson told her about the 0730 pick up at the ATHP and showed her the route on his map.
“Roger, sir,” she acknowledged. “If it’s okay with you, I will send Sergeant Velasco on the recon mission.”
Anderson nodded agreement, and began reviewing his notes.
“Sir, did the commander say anything else about our mission? What’s the threat level on that MSR?” asked Carroll.
“The two protection platforms will be here at 0530. Minimal threat along the route, but medevac and recovery vehicles will be on standby here at the BSA in case we need them,” he said.
Carroll paused, waiting for more information, but Anderson turned back to his notes.
“Your vehicle should be ready to go in fifteen minutes,” said Carroll. Anderson gave a distracted thumbs-up gesture, and his sergeant moved off into the darkness.
Twelve minutes later, Anderson heard the rumble of the extra HMMWV arriving from the company command post. He could see his own driver doing checks and services. A moment later, Sergeant Velasco from third squad arrived. Anderson summoned the two drivers and briefed the small group. With Anderson leading the way on foot, the two vehicles crept across the assembly area, past the security checkpoint, and out onto the MSR.
Four kilometers south of the brigade support area, a small white sign marked the turn-off for the ATHP. Again, Anderson got out and ground-guided his small convoy toward the security checkpoint. A bored sergeant called in his arrival and allowed him to pass through. Creeping forward, the two vehicles emerged from the tree line into a large open area. In the darkness, they could make out cargo trucks coming and going, their movements orchestrated by a dozen flashlight-wielding ground guides. Small white signs marked lanes and directed one-way traffic toward long, straight rows of flat racks awaiting retrieval.
Wary of the time, Anderson walked his two vehicles past the activity and toward the exit. When they got back to the MSR, he asked his driver to hurry. He was already twenty minutes behind schedule, and still needed to brief the platoon.
By the time Anderson returned, his soldiers had gathered in a loose formation before the lead cargo truck. Working from an outline in the brigade tactical SOP, Anderson began briefing his order. Sergeant Lewis asked a question about enemy activity along the route. Anderson reiterated the low threat, but promised to get a more specific answer before the convoy departed.
He continued the briefing. Sergeant Carson asked about the possibility of follow-on missions. For example, might the platoon need to make a second turn to this same location?
Anderson responded that he had no information about that at the moment, but a second mission was a possibility.
Specialist Johnson asked about artillery support. Good question, but the interruptions were extending the briefing. Anderson finally asked his soldiers to hold their questions to the end.
At 0540, the arrival of two protection platforms from battalion caused another delay. Anderson directed his platoon sergeant to flag down the two vehicles, then pressed on with the convoy order. He finished at 0555 and gave the platoon a ten-minute break to hit the latrines before reporting back to their vehicles for pre-combat inspections.
At that moment, Captain Bagley and the first sergeant arrived.
“Is your platoon ready to go?” asked the commander.
“Sir, I am just getting ready to do PCIs now,” said Anderson.
“Have you done any rehearsals?” asked the commander patiently.
“We will do those right after I conduct PCIs,” said Anderson. “I still think we can make our start point at 0700.”
“Okay, lieutenant,” said Bagley. “The first sergeant and I are going to get a cup of coffee, and I’ll be back in twenty minutes. I expect to see you doing rehearsals when I return.”
That didn’t happen. With the platoon sergeant at his side, Anderson began spot-checking soldiers and vehicles. Private First Class Holliday had forgotten to fill his camelback, and Specialist Turner was missing the signature on his dispatch, but there were no major problems with the first five vehicles. The sixth vehicle, however, was missing its tow bar. Specialist Lowe swore it had been there before the last mission and stated flatly that somebody must have stolen it. His squad leader, Sergeant Velasco, could not verify whether it had been there yesterday.
“Hey sir, we’ll borrow a tow bar from Bravo Company,” said Sergeant Carroll. “We can figure this out later.”
“I don’t understand how a tow bar could just walk off in the middle of the night,” said Anderson, losing patience.
“Sir, that stuff happens all the time,” said Sergeant Velasco. “We don’t do it, but some of the guys in other companies have no problem making midnight requisitions.”
Carroll glared at Velasco. This was the wrong time to complain about pilferage. “Sir, let us fix this,” she added. “We still have rehearsals to do.”
“Oh shoot,” said Anderson, too late.
In the morning light, he could see the commander returning. Anderson directed his platoon sergeant to call another formation, and strode out to intercept Captain Bagley.
“I don’t see any rehearsals,” commented the captain, his earlier patience gone.
“We’re starting them now,” replied Anderson.
“I tell you what, lieutenant,” said the commander. “This is an important mission, but I don’t want to rush so fast that we get soldiers killed. So—take these rehearsals seriously and do them right. Make sure every soldier knows what to do, including your protection platform crews. I will call battalion and try to adjust your pickup time. When I get back, you need to be ready.”
“Yes, sir,” he responded. The young officer’s head was buzzing from the lack of sleep and the indirect reprimand. He walked back to his platoon, trying to look confident.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “We are going to spend the next thirty minutes doing rehearsals. Line up in chalk sequence, drivers on the left, assistant drivers on the right.”
The commander and first sergeant returned at 0705. Bagley informed Anderson that battalion was trying to coordinate a later pickup time. The commander and first sergeant split up and walked down the two sides of the vehicle line, asking soldiers about the mission, and checking their weapons and radios.
They completed their walk-through in less than ten minutes. Bagley wished Anderson luck and told him to move out. The convoy reached the ATHP at 0745. The lieutenant in charge hadn’t heard anything from battalion. There were two other serials in line, and no, he couldn’t move up Anderson’s convoy.
Anderson reported his situation to the company CP, and was told to stand fast.
After an hour-long delay, ground guides finally called the convoy forward to load its flat racks. By 0915, Anderson’s trucks were back on MSR Titans heading toward Task Force Landry and the logistics release point. Black smoke drifted toward them from a ridgeline to the north.
Halfway to their destination, Anderson received a change of mission. Task Force Landry had gone black on ammunition and was withdrawing from Duffer’s Drift to occupy hasty defensive positions farther south. His convoy should return immediately to the BSA and await further instructions; Anderson should report to the company CP.
When Anderson got there, he found Captain Bagley in the midst of three different radio conversations. The battalion support operations office was trying to coordinate a new logistics release point for Anderson’s convoy. The fuel and water platoon had lost a rifle. The first sergeant’s driver had just received a Red Cross message.
Bagley finally noticed Anderson standing by the tent flap. “Let’s talk,” said the commander, grabbing his helmet.
Emerging from the tent, the two walked toward the mess tent.
“We will get you back on the road as soon as we identify a new logistics release point,” began the captain. “In the meantime, how did things go this morning?”
“I got behind in my timeline, sir,” responded Anderson. “Because of that, we missed our SP (start point) time, which may have impacted the mission.”
“That’s true,” said Bagley. “If your vehicles had made their original pickup time, Task Force Landry might still be holding its position. On the other hand, you were trying to pull things together on a pretty short timeline. Is there anything else you would have done differently?”
Anderson shrugged: “I’m not sure, sir. I had a lot on my plate.”
“How much help were your NCOs?” asked Bagley.
“They were great,” responded Anderson. “Especially my platoon sergeant. They got the troops and the vehicles ready while I did the reconnaissance and put together the plan.”
“I agree that you have good NCOs,” replied the captain. “But here’s what I saw. You seemed to be working through the troop leading procedures by yourself. Those steps are a good place to start, but don’t forget to leverage your NCOs. Every one of them is an experienced leader. You seemed unwilling to delegate responsibility, much less share the information necessary to prepare for this mission. You have a pretty good leadership team in your platoon, but they can’t help you if you don’t let them.”
Anderson returned to his vehicle and slumped into the passenger seat. The platoon was on standby until Task Force Landry established new positions. In the meantime, he thought about how to share more responsibility with his NCOs. As he replayed the morning’s events in his mind, Anderson dozed off in the midday sun.
The Third Dream: Rushing to Failure
A hand shook him awake: “Sir, Captain Bagley needs to see you right away.” Anderson looked up from his sleeping bag to see the messenger and, behind him, a starlit night sky.
“Coming,” he responded, fumbling in the dark for his boots.
Inside the company CP, Anderson received a warning order directing his platoon to prepare for an ammunition resupply convoy in support of Task Force Landry, which was under heavy attack. Anderson took several notes, asked several questions, and got several answers. Tentative SP was 07:00; weather was favorable; primary route would be MSR Titans; enemy contact was unlikely, but battalion would provide two protection platforms for additional security. Bagley would provide more information at 0300 hours.
On the way back to his platoon, Anderson checked his watch: 0215 hours. He had less than five hours to pull this mission together. He woke his platoon sergeant and directed her to gather the squad leaders. While he waited for them, Anderson began planning backward, jotting down events in his notebook.
If Captain Bagley’s briefing took an hour, Anderson still had thirty extra minutes for squad leaders to prepare their soldiers and vehicles. He also needed to send a team to reconnoiter the ammunition transfer holding area; he was not going to get lost trying to find a transfer point three klicks south of the assembly area.
Sergeant Carroll returned with the four squad leaders, and Anderson relayed the warning order. Two of the sergeants asked questions he hadn’t thought of. Writing them in his notebook, the platoon leader promised to get answers.
The meeting broke up, and the squad leaders dispersed. Reviewing his notes, Anderson asked his platoon sergeant who they should send to recon the ATHP. “Velasco’s got the most experience,” said Carroll, “but we’re going to need another HMMWV.”
“Roger, let’s identify that issue at the update,” said Anderson. “Did I miss anything else?”
“No sir,” said Carroll. “So far, so good. Of course, the night is young.”
Anderson smiled, vaguely recalling an old saying about no plan surviving contact. The two leaders walked back to the command post.
Sure enough, the update complicated matters. While their brigade continued to hold in sector, enemy pressure had forced several other units to withdraw. All combat forces were running low on fuel and ammunition. Anderson’s platoon would be one of several emergency resupply missions going out that morning. Recovery vehicle and medical evacuation support from the BSA would be standing by to assist, if needed. The protection platforms would join the platoon at 0530.
Carroll and Anderson asked several questions. Bagley answered to the best of his ability, and agreed to lend a vehicle for the recon mission. As part of his back brief, Anderson shared his tentative timeline, including the pre-combat inspections at 0600.
Nodding his approval, Bagley wished him luck. “I’ll be in your area at 0600,” added Bagley, “but I won’t need any special attention. You and Sergeant Carroll just go on about your business.”
It was already 0345. On the way back to the platoon area, Anderson and Carroll compared notes. “I’m worried about those protection platforms,” said Anderson. “Even if they show up on time, they’re still going to miss the orders briefing.”
Carroll agreed, but suggested there might be time to brief the crews at the ATHP.
“I am more concerned about coms,” she added. “If we can’t talk internally, any problem along the route could turn into a dumpster fire. And if we can’t talk to higher, we’ll be on our own if we make contact.”
Back at the platoon, Carroll moved off to organize Velasco and the reconnaissance mission, while Anderson began organizing his notes into a five-paragraph order. The vehicle from headquarters arrived a few minutes later. By 0415, Velasco and two HMMWVs were en route to the ATHP with orders to bring back a legible sketch of the transfer point.
By 0430, Carroll had organized the platoon’s vehicles into a single line, and the soldiers had assembled in a horseshoe formation by the lead vehicle. The convoy brief took forty-five minutes. Anderson delivered his five-paragraph order, then asked Carroll to speak. She emphasized the need to check vehicles, radios, and weapons before leaving the wire. After a short break, the soldiers reassembled, just as Sergeant Velasco and his team returned from their reconnaissance.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Anderson, “We are going to spend the next thirty minutes doing rehearsals. Line up in chalk sequence, drivers on the left, assistant drivers on the right…”
In the half-light of dawn, Anderson’s soldiers imitated the convoy’s movements like a camouflaged dance troupe, walking and talking their way through vehicle reactions, radio calls, weapons orientation, and rules of engagement at the pick-up and release points, and in case of accident or enemy attack. Halfway through the drill, two security vehicles arrived—late—from battalion headquarters. Sergeant Carroll intercepted and directed their crews toward the rehearsal.
The rehearsal finished, Anderson released the soldiers back to their squad leaders for pre-combat inspections. As they dispersed, Captain Bagley and the first sergeant arrived.
“Is your platoon ready to go?” asked the commander.
“Sir, we are on schedule. Doing PCIs now,” said Anderson.
“Carry on, lieutenant,” he responded. “Your pick-up at the ATHP is still 0730. Let me know if you need anything. We’ll just take a quick look and get out of your hair.”
Anderson acknowledged, grateful that he wouldn’t have to spend the next twenty minutes escorting Bagley. The commander and first sergeant headed down the right side of the lineup.
He and Carroll went down the other side—spot-checking weapons and vehicles while quizzing the soldiers. They spotted a few minor issues, including a missing tow bar on one of Velasco’s trucks and a dirty crew-served weapon on Sergeant Carson’s vehicle. Sergeant Carroll sent Velasco to borrow a replacement tow bar, and gave Carson and his squad leader a few choice words on weapons maintenance.
The security vehicles from battalion were last in line, their .50-caliber machine guns pointing menacingly from each cupola. While Carroll inspected the vehicles, Anderson talked with the senior NCO, Staff Sergeant Nelson, to ensure that he and his team understood the mission.
Carroll rejoined them, her jaw clenched. “Sergeant Nelson,” she asked, “why are your vehicles half-empty?”
Nelson gave a lame excuse, citing last-minute notification and a problem rounding up the two crews. Anderson directed him to top off his vehicles immediately and rejoin the convoy at the ATHP.
“What do you think?” asked Anderson as they walked back to their vehicles.
Carroll paused before answering. “Those knuckleheads from battalion have spent most of this deployment in the TOC (tactical operations center),” she responded. “I don’t want them freaking out at the first sign of trouble.”
Anderson nodded, and stifled a yawn. He left Carroll at her truck and walked to the company command post for an update. Captain Bagley had no further information. He wished Anderson luck, and told him to get moving.
Anderson jogged back to his HMMWV, circling his arm above his head. Twenty-one engines roared to life, and he did a radio check on the platoon frequency. Each vehicle acknowledged, and the convoy moved forward. Anderson notified the command post, then heard gunfire crackling as his soldiers test-fired their weapons.
It was 0700, and the sun was shining over the tree line in the east. Anderson called the command post again, and the convoy crept out of the assembly area and onto the main supply route, with Velasco’s truck leading the way toward the ATHP.
The loading of pallets went smoothly. By 0800, the two security vehicles had rejoined the convoy, and the trucks were back on MSR Titans, heading toward Task Force Landry and a thin line of black smoke. The convoy drove north at a steady pace through rolling hills and farm country.
Anderson’s vehicles bristled with firepower. In each truck, a soldier manned either a machine gun or grenade launcher mounted on top of the cab. Bulletproof windows, armored plates, and chicken wire provided further protection. Though enemy contact was unlikely, open terrain on both sides provided good visibility and clear fields of fire.
From his map recon, Anderson knew the route would take them through two small villages. Entering the first village, the trucks drove slowly past a collection of boarded-up homes, looted shops, and stripped vehicles. The only occupant was a stray dog barking at them from the gas station. They drove past and back out into the open fields beyond the village.
Ten kilometers later, the convoy crested a low ridgeline and descended a gradual slope toward the next village. A stone bridge led over a small brook and into the deserted town. Underneath the bridge, Army engineers had built steel bars to discourage explosive devices.
This village looked similar to the last one, less the barking dog. As they rolled slowly down the main street, Anderson observed the same shuttered homes and looted storefronts, the same abandoned vehicles, and piles of refuse on the sidewalks.
Unsure why, Anderson called Velasco in the lead truck: “Delta Five One, this is Delta One Six: sitrep.”
Before Velasco could answer, Anderson heard a massive explosion. The trucks jerked to a halt. A black mushroom cloud of smoke floated up from the front of the convoy.
Buildings on the left came alive with muzzle flashes, and a hail of gunfire peppered the vehicles. Bullets thudded against Anderson’s windshield, leaving white spider webs that limited visibility.
Anderson squeezed the handset and stated the obvious: “All elements, this is Delta One Six. We are in heavy contact. Return fire and keep moving. Rally point is one kilometer north of the village.”
Anderson yelled to his vehicle gunner: “Watch out for RPGs (rocket propelled grenades)!”
To his driver, Anderson pointed forward and barked: “Johnson, get us up there.”
Meanwhile, a hail of return fire from Anderson’s vehicles perforated the buildings up and down the street, turning bricks and masonry into a thick grey dust.
Switching frequencies, Anderson called in his location and situation to Bagley, who echoed the initial guidance to get as many vehicles out of the kill zone as fast as possible.
Anderson’s driver maneuvered left around the next truck, and moved forward toward the gunfire at the front of the convoy.
Anderson flicked the radio back to the platoon network and called his platoon sergeant: “Delta One Seven, this is Delta One Six: sitrep.”
He paused a moment, then called the security team: “Bandit Two Five, this is Delta One Six. We are receiving heavy fire at the front of the convoy. I want both trucks up here now to provide suppressive fire.”
The radio crackled, and Anderson heard his platoon sergeant’s voice: “Sir, we’re taking sporadic small arms fire back here. I don’t think the enemy counted on this many trucks. Recommend we exit the way we came in.”
“Can you get out that way?” asked Anderson.
“I think so,” responded Carroll, “But it’s too tight to turn around. We’re going to have back out of here.”
“Do it,” said Anderson. Bandit Two Five came on the net to acknowledge Anderson’s order. Looking rearward, Anderson saw trucks slowly backing out of the village.
Ahead, one truck lay on its side, blocking the northern exit. Thick black smoke poured from the engine compartment. Behind this obstacle, three stationary trucks continued to exchange fire with the enemy. The drumming of bullets intensified as enemy fire shifted toward Anderson’s vehicle.
The lieutenant reached up and pulled his gunner down into the safety of the cab, signaling him to wait a minute. Cupping his ears to hear the radio headset, Anderson shouted into his microphone: “Bandit Two Five, where are you?”
“Sir, we’re heading your way,” came the answer. After a pause, he added, “But we have a problem. The .50-cal on Bandit Two Three is jammed.”
Anderson cursed, then squeezed the handset: “I want both vehicles here anyway, in case we need to evacuate wounded soldiers.”
Bandit Two Five paused before answering. “Sir, are you sure? My crew is basically unarmed. Why risk additional casualties?”
Anderson shook his head. “Bandit Two Five, I do not have time for a debate. Get both vehicles up here now to provide suppressive fire, and be prepared to evacuate casualties. That’s an order.”
Their HMMWV stopped next to Sergeant McDonald’s truck, Delta Six Eight. From his window, Anderson saw that McDonald’s turret was empty. The other two vehicles continued firing, their pace slowing to conserve ammunition. Over the radio, McDonald reported that they were out of ammunition.
The two security vehicles arrived. Bandit Two Five’s .50-caliber machine gun poured heavy fire into what was left of the buildings on the left side of the street. Anderson checked the ammunition left in his vehicle—three canisters—and signaled his gunner to resume firing from the cupola.
Behind them, an RPG exploded against the third truck, Delta Seven Niner. When the smoke cleared, Anderson saw that the round had destroyed the two front tires on the driver’s side, immobilizing the vehicle.
Over the radio, Sergeant Carroll called in an update: ten trucks had evacuated with her to the south; two trucks, including Velasco’s, had made it to the rally point north of town. That left four more trucks and crews behind him.
Anderson directed Carroll to continue the mission to Task Force Landry, then contacted the remaining vehicles in the village: “Continue to suppress enemy forces on our left, but conserve your ammunition. Delta Six Eight, we will give you a can of our 7.62 ammunition. Bandit Two Three, evacuate the crew from Delta Seven Niner. Once you have them on board, we are going to back our way out of here.”
Johnson maneuvered the HMMWV toward McDonald’s truck. Anderson cracked open the door to make the transfer. Another RPG streaked toward their vehicle. Anderson’s world went black.
The Fourth Dream: A Good Decision Now
He woke to the sound of his name.
“Lieutenant Anderson? Lieutenant Anderson!” It was the commander’s driver, crouching beside him in the dark.
“Sir,” said the young soldier. “Captain Bagley needs to see you right away.” Anderson paused a moment. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t say what. He slipped on his boots and moved toward the CP.
Anderson found his commander and Major Smith examining the map. Bagley nodded and introduced him to the major.
Smith glanced at him and pointed to the map: “Okay, Anderson, this is a warning order; prepare to copy.”
Enemy forces were attacking throughout the division sector. Their brigade continued to defend in place, but Anderson’s platoon was ordered to prepare for a resupply mission shortly after sunrise. Captain Bagley would provide more information at 0300.
Anderson acknowledged, and hurried back to his platoon. It was already 0215. As he walked, Anderson began backward-planning the tasks he would need to complete to ready his platoon by 0700. He woke his platoon sergeant and directed her to gather the squad leaders. While he waited, Anderson looked at his map, reviewing the route they would take and noting the distance, terrain, and obstacles, including two villages.
Sergeant Carroll returned with the four squad leaders, and Anderson relayed the warning order, fielded questions, and promised an update before departure.
As the meeting broke up, Anderson and Carroll agreed to send Staff Sergeant Velasco to reconnoiter the ammunition transfer holding area. The two leaders walked back to the command post.
Bagley’s update complicated matters. The brigade continued to hold, but all units were running low on fuel and ammunition. Battalion headquarters was launching several emergency resupply convoys. Recovery vehicle and casualty evacuation support from the brigade support area would be standing by to assist. Two protection platforms would support Anderson’s mission.
Anderson and Carroll briefed their timeline and asked questions. Bagley answered what he could and wished them luck. “I’ll be in your area at 0600,” added Bagley, “but I won’t need any special attention. You and Sergeant Carroll just go on about your business.”
Back at the platoon, Carroll moved off to organize Velasco and the reconnaissance mission, while Anderson began drafting his order. His briefing to the platoon took forty-five minutes, followed by thirty minutes of rehearsals.
The protection platforms arrived late, halfway through the rehearsals. After they walked through actions on contact, Anderson released the soldiers back to their squad leaders for pre-combat inspections. As they dispersed, Bagley and the first sergeant arrived.
“Is your platoon ready to go?” asked the commander.
“Sir, we are on schedule. Doing PCIs now,” explained Anderson.
The lieutenant and his platoon sergeant walked down the line of trucks, checking equipment and quizzing the crews. They found no major problems until they reached the protection platforms. The security team NCO-in-charge, Staff Sergeant Nelson, seemed to understand the mission, but the fuel gauge on one of vehicles read half-empty.
Stifling his annoyance, Anderson directed Nelson to top off his vehicles, check-fire his weapons, and rejoin the convoy at the ATHP. While Nelson’s team moved out to the fuel point, Anderson and his trucks rolled out to retrieve their cargo.
The loading of pallets went smoothly. By 0800, the two security vehicles had rejoined the convoy, and the trucks were back on MSR Titans, heading toward Task Force Landry and a thin line of black smoke. The convoy drove north at a steady pace through rolling hills and farm country, Anderson calling in at every checkpoint to report progress.
Six hundred meters short of the first village, Anderson halted the convoy. He knew the mission was urgent, but avoiding ambush was worth a ten-minute delay. He ordered Nelson’s two protection platforms to reconnoiter the village. While the convoy gunners provided overwatch, Nelson led his heavily armed HMMWVs down the main street past a barking dog. On the far end, they u-turned and sped back.
“All clear,” reported Nelson.
The convoy moved forward, through the town and back into open countryside.
A half kilometer south of the next village, Anderson took the same precaution. Through binoculars, he watched Nelson’s vehicles drive north across a stone bridge and up the main street, weaving past garbage piles and abandoned vehicles.
At the far end of the village, a massive explosion shattered the morning stillness, followed by a deadly chorus of assault rifles firing at the two vehicles.
Over the radio, Anderson heard Nelson shouting over the gunfire: “Enemy contact! Left side of the road! Bandit Two Three is hit!”
Anderson tried to respond calmly: “Bandit Two Five, this is Delta One Six. What is Bandit Two Three’s status?”
“Vehicle’s flipped over . . . not sure about casualties,” shouted Nelson.
“Roger, Bandit Two Five. Continue to suppress enemy fire. We’ll get help to you ASAP.”
Anderson switched frequencies and called in his situation to Bagley and battalion headquarters. The battalion support operations officer responded: “Roger, Bandit One Six. We are sending the QRF (quick reaction force) now. We will re-route your convoy to Alternate Supply Route Chrysler. Stand by for further instructions.”
Switching back to the platoon net, Anderson summoned his platoon sergeant. Five vehicles back, Sergeant Carroll jumped down from her truck and ran toward his vehicle.
The lieutenant’s mind raced. He needed to get help to Bandit Two Five fast, but the cargo trucks were too big and slow, so he would need to send his HMMWV. If he went with the vehicle, he risked taking himself out of the fight. On the other hand, he didn’t have time to brief his plan and didn’t like sending an NCO in his place.
“We need to get those guys out of that kill zone,” barked Anderson.
“You’re going to need more suppressive fire,” responded Carroll. “The QRF will never get here in time.”
Looking past Anderson, she pointed to a farmyard 300 meters left of the road. “I think we can range the target with .50-caliber machine guns from over there.”
“Do it,” said Anderson. “I am going down there to get Bandit Two Three’s crew. I’ll call when we’re in position.”
“Sir, you don’t need to be a hero,” said Carroll.
“I’ll be careful,” replied Anderson. “If we don’t make it back, notify battalion and continue the mission.”
“Good luck,” said Carroll. “Watch out for RPGs.”
Anderson nodded. Carroll moved out to reposition the guns.
The lieutenant climbed back into his HMMWV, briefed his crew, and notified battalion.
The support operations officer answered: “QRF is leaving now. Estimated time of arrival at your location is twenty minutes.”
“Too slow,” Anderson responded. “We are going in now to help Bandit Two Three.”
Switching back to the platoon net, Anderson notified Nelson of his plan and warned that friendly fire would be coming from his nine o’clock position. Two trucks from the convoy were already rumbling toward the farmyard to provide fire support. Anderson’s driver pulled their vehicle onto the main road and sped toward the village.
The main street through the village was less than 200 meters long. Bandit Two Three lay overturned at the far end, black smoke roiling out of its engine compartment. Bandit Two Five was parked between Bandit Two Three and the enemy. Small arms fire poured into both vehicles. Approaching from their rear, Anderson’s gunner cut loose on his M249 machine gun, spraying fire into the right flank of the enemy position. Enemy fire shifted toward Anderson’s vehicle, bullets bouncing off the window shield.
Sergeant Carroll’s voice crackled on the radio: “All elements, this is Bandit One Seven. We are prepared to fire.”
“Marking our position with red smoke!” shouted Nelson, tossing a smoke grenade from Bandit Two Five into the street. Enemy fire subsided as Carroll’s two heavy machine guns perforated neighboring brick buildings where the enemy was hiding.
Anderson’s vehicle pulled behind the overturned HMMWV. His gunner continued firing short bursts toward the enemy position, while the lieutenant dashed to the driver’s door. Inside the cab, all three crewmembers lay prone, clutching their weapons, on what had been the vehicle’s roof. The two front seaters were able to crawl out, but the gunner couldn’t move. With Anderson’s help, the crew dragged the wounded soldier out the back door.
Anderson loaded the driver and wounded gunner into his HMMWV. The third soldier crouched by Anderson’s open passenger door. Bandit Two Five roared back to life and repositioned behind the lieutenant’s HMMWV to recover the third man. With both vehicles buttoned up, Anderson notified Carroll that they were coming out.
The hail of .50-caliber rounds from the farmyard halted. Seconds later, Anderson’s HMMWV and Bandit Two Five rumbled out of the village. Anderson notified battalion of their situation, and arranged to evacuate the three soldiers from Bandit Two Three. Reassembling on the road, the convoy turned east toward Alternate Supply Route Chrysler, and resumed its mission.
Later, after they delivered the ammunition, after they got back to the BSA, and after he had confirmed accountability of all personnel and sensitive items, Anderson reported to Bagley’s tent.
Anderson summarized the mission, then Bagley nodded. “Let’s take a walk.”
The two fastened chinstraps, grabbed their weapons, and strolled toward the mess tent. The late afternoon sun cast long shadows across the nearly empty assembly area.
“So,” said Bagley casually, “how would you rate your platoon’s performance today?”
“Sir, I thought we made a good plan and executed it okay,” said Anderson. “We had a few hiccups, but my NCOs made sure our crews and vehicles were ready and that we stayed on schedule.”
“Yes,” said Bagley. “Good use of troop leading procedures, and great teamwork with your NCOs.”
Anderson said an embarrassed thanks.
“But what about the ambush?” continued Bagley. “You lost one vehicle, the other got pinned down, and you basically led a one-vehicle rescue into a very hot kill zone. What were you thinking?”
“We didn’t have time to wait for the QRF,” explained Anderson. “My other trucks were too big and slow to send into that village, so my HMMWV was the only option. I know I risked taking myself out of the fight, but I didn’t have time to brief another NCO, and I wasn’t exactly comfortable sending someone else in my place.”
“I’m okay with it,” answered Bagley. “Under other circumstances, I’d rather not have my lieutenants charging into ambushes. If your vehicle had been hit, your only hope would have been the QRF, which was still twenty minutes away. I realize you had to make a quick decision, and you couldn’t abandon those soldiers. I think you made a good decision. You probably save their lives.”
“Thank you, sir,” repeated Anderson.
“Okay, lieutenant,” the captain finished. “You earned your pay today. Get some sleep.”
Anderson walked back to his vehicle, stripped off his gear, and crawled into his sleeping bag.
He woke up in his barracks room at the ISB.
There had been no assembly area, no ambush, and no rescue mission. He stared at the ceiling for a moment, then turned on the bedside lamp, grabbed his notebook, and wrote down what he could remember.
Anderson replaced the notebook, turned out the light, and drifted back into a dreamless sleep.
Lt. Col. (Retired) William C. Latham Jr. is the chief of doctrine for the US Army Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee, Virginia. He has written extensively on military affairs and is the author of Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea (2013).