Friday, August 12, 2016

My Luck in Observing the Leonid Meteor Storm of 1966

The current show featuring the Perseid Meteor Shower set me to reminiscing about my singularly envious, serendipitous opportunity to experience the full glory of the famous  Leonid Meteor Storm of November 17, 1966.

I was in the Artillery and Missile Officer Candidate School and we were six days from graduating and becoming prime fodder for Vietnam. (An Artillery Lieutenant's first assignment in-theater was for a couple of months as a Forward Observer (F.O.) in support of a combat unit of another branch, with a reported life expectancy (L.E.) of approximately two weeks. If you survived the first couple of weeks, the L.E. went up sharply. In my case, I walked with B Company, 2/35 Infantry for six months, since a dwindling number of  replacements were sucked up by outfits with F. O.'s who had been less fortunate than I, in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive of 1968.)

We were in Happy Battery - the final week of School - where we had no responsibilities but to navigate the Escape and Evasion Course and to run roughshod over the Lower and Middle Classmen. So, 16 November found us on the E. & E. Course, maybe 15 miles out from the lights of Lawton and the Main Post. The sky was crystal clear, and the moon was a thin waxing crescent, so that it set early in the evening.

The exercise started about noon. The hundred or so men in the Battery were divided into three-man teams, with each team being supplied one compass and one map with the intermediate checkpoint marked. We all took a long hard look at the map, especially noting the location of the checkpoint. Then, with the announcement, "Your position is being overrun! Run! Escape!", or words to that effect, we were off. The boundaries of the course were defined as the top of a rocky ridge line on the north and the middle of the valley on the south. we were to flee east and instructed to stay on the ridge for better cover. The Aggressors were dispersed along the course and would be looking for us. If we were captured, we would be taken to an Aggressor Camp and "interrogated". (This basically meant that these enlisted men would have a sanctioned free shot at guys that would become officers within a week! We had all been fed horror stories about the interrogation methods, so that was not in anyone's grand plan.) Two or three hours into the exercise, my group was spotted, and we flushed like quails in different directions. I'm not sure what happened to the other two, but no one pursued me, and I got away. Unfortunately, I did not have the map or compass, so, I was working on memory. An hour or so later, I came face to face with another Aggressor as I peeked up over a boulder. "Halt! You are my prisoner!" "Catch me, if you think you can, "some choice name"!" And I was off, bounding down the hill like I had nothing to lose! He did chase me, but, since he was in fighting web-gear and toting an M-14, I was able to put enough distance between us that I could cross a rise and disappear into a stand of bushes. He made a good effort to locate me, coming within about ten meters at one point, but finally gave up and went back to his post. I continued after a suitable wait, and was able to close on the checkpoint at about dusk. There I was fed, as I recall, and shown a map with the Objective marked. It was several kilometers further and up on the top of the ridgeline.

The best word to describe the next five hours or so is "gruelling"! A little moonlight early in the evening, but after that pitch black except for the stars and the occasional sweep of the Aggressors' spotlights, which, fortunately, were behind me. Those and the North Star were my navigation beacons. I stumbled and stumbled and stumbled through the loose rocky field that was the side of that ridgeline. At last, I stumbled into the Objective at about 10:00 pm, barely able to stand up on my tortured feet and ankles.

Three classmates had beat me in, but they had walked straight down the valley, staying ahead of the Aggressor deployments and spotlights. (I think mine is a much better story!) About an hour later, one other guy stumbled into the Objective. (As it turned out, we were the only five to close that night, and we had people coming in all of the next two days. My "Sick Puke" of a bunkmate, who got by on his father being a bird colonel, even after he was declared a safety hazard and banned from any contact with artillery, was located by a search party on the fourth day.)

After eating, we all fell into our racks, at least two of us totally exhausted. Then about 1:30 or 2:00 am, our Tach Officers rousted us all out of bed - "Get up! Get up!" "Wha'? are the Aggressors overrunning the Objective?" "No, no, no! You just can't miss this!" Outside the tent we were bedazzled by the most spectacular Meteor Storm of the 20th Century! Holy Cow! And we had the perfect observation venue - the top of a ridgeline relatively far from the small city's light pollution, with our eyes already adjusted to the dark, with a crystal clear sky, and the moon long since set! We were all simply stunned!

I have told an abbreviated version of this story to a few folks that I knew had some interest in the subject, and have, inevitably, drawn envious oohs and aahs. I thought it was high time I get the full tale down, for my family's sake.

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