The .30 Pencil…

My brother Steve and I were sprawled on the couch in front of the TV, watching the Muppets, idly wasting some time before heading up the Quaker Hill Rod and Gun Club for our weekly Mohegan League Rifle League match. The show was suddenly interrupted by a news alert and all of a sudden there appeared on the screen the mother of all fireworks displays as Coalition of the Gulf War bombers, dropped tons of ordnance on Bagdad, greeted by intense Iraqi antiaircraft fire. Green tracer arced into the sky as  2,000-pound GBU-24 Paveway-guided smart bombs dropped by radar-evading F-117A ‘Night Hawks” exploded and Tomahawk Cruise missiles joined in the mayhem, launched from surface ships and submarines cruising in the Persian Gulf.  

At  the range, the club’s TV was entertaining all with the start of Desert Storm, or what eventually became known as Persian Gulf War I. The pyrotechnics on the screen made the rattle of musketry coming from the basement range insignificant. Oddly enough my thoughts fell to a scene from a favorite move, Casablanca. It was January 16, 1991 in Connecticut but January 17, 1991, in Baghdad. How would the historians mark this date?  

History books tell us the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, pulling the United States into World War II on December 7, 1941, “…a date which will live in infamy….” according to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But it was already December 8th in the Philippines when the Japanese raided Clark Field and effectively eliminated US air power in the region. 

In Casablanca, a drunken Rick Blaine played by Humphrey Bogart is musing about with his faithful companion and piano player Dooley Wilson’ Sam after Ilse Lund, a long lost love, performed by Ingrid Bergman, who shows up in Rick’s Café Américain

Rick: If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York? 

Sam: What! My watch stopped. 

Rick: I’d bet they’re asleep in New York. I’d bet they’re asleep all over America 

I really should have been thinking more about the ramifications of the last four or five drills at my National Guard Unit, the tongue twisting Connecticut Aviation Classification Repair Activity Depot (1109th) instead of, as Rick put it, ”…the problems of three little people which don’t amount to hill of beans in this crazy world.” 

Since Operation Desert Shield began in August of 1990 rumors ran rife at every drill about a possible deployment to Southeast Asia. In general it seemed a little preposterous to me as we were a technical unit whose wartime mission was to mobilize in place, provide back up support to other deployed AVCRADs, support a deploying force with aviation maintenance, provide workload expansion capabilities, and provide support at ports where aviation units were deploying overseas or returning from deployment. 

Ominously though, over the last few drills we had been lined up for a plethora of shots, panorex x-rays of our teeth-which I later learned was not for our dental health put for identification purposes, dog tag check, meeting with JAG lawyers to ensure we had valid wills, a complete barracks bag inspection, and other such administrative folderol. 

Called up in February, we moved to Fort Devens, Massachusetts for training.  Just as the ground war ended notification came that we would be sending a detachment of 100 souls to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia to carry out helicopter retrograde operations. 

As the unit’s Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare NCO I had conducted extensive training in the months leading up to our activation so all I needed to do was to run a short refresher to certify the forward element. However, I was also the resident small arms expert and we had not been to the range in almost a year. On the plus side I had a small group of fellow state team rifle and pistol shooters in the AVCRAD. The full time Fort Devens range staff would handle running the qualification and the safety brief. Our armorers would take care of issuing M16A1s, ball ammunition, and any mechanical issues that might arise, although, secretly, their only concern was getting back 100 clean rifles and 4,000 pieces of expended brass. I would review basic marksmanship skills and, with the help of my teammates, remediate any soldiers who did not qualify.  

The job was made easier because Devens only required us to shoot the 25 meter Scaled Target Alternate Course, 20 rounds in prone and 20 rounds supported out of prepared fighting position,. After zeroing in, and a practice session, each soldier had 40 rounds to engage the target in two strings of 20 rounds in 120 seconds each. We would also be required to fire a familiarization course wearing the M17 protective mask, but that did not count for qualification. 

Qualification day dawned with snow on the ground, and more promised, with a cold breeze, typical of mid-February in northern Massachusetts. Sustained by a hefty, comforting, and artery clogging Army breakfast of juice, eggs any style, SOS, home fries, toast and coffee, a meal guaranteed to provide sufficient energy to qualify and calories enough to keep us warm, we bussed to the range. A rely would take about an hour so we would be done before lunch, even with an extra relay for bolos who had to fire again after remediation. Those that qualified, 25 hits or more, moved to a different range for the gas mask familiarization and then back to the warm barracks for hip pocket training before lunch.  

When firing was done 97 soldiers had qualified. Justly satisfied with the results I headed to the Mess Hall to warm up and have a hot lunch with the scorecards in hand. Just as I was tucking into my well-deserved meal the AVCRAD’s hoary old sergeant major sat down next to me, coffee cup in hand, and asked how we had faired. 

When I told him 97% he smiled and teased me with, “You know in my day those three would have qualified, even if it took a .30 caliber pencil. I replied, “Maybe, but the M16 is not like your old M1 or M14, it’s caliber is 5.56mm and, in my day, my pencil is not.” 

See the source image

Rick: If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York? 

Sam: What! My watch stopped. 

Rick: I’d bet they’re asleep in New York. I’d bet they’re asleep all over America 

About Hap Rocketto

Hap Rocketto is a Distinguished Rifleman with service and smallbore rifle, member of The Presidents Hundred, and the National Guard’s Chief’s 50. He is a National Smallbore Record holder, a member of the 1600 Club and the Connecticut Shooters’ Hall Of Fame. He was the 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, the 2012 Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion a member of the 2007 and 2012 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the United States 2009 Roberts and 2013 Pershing Teams. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. He is, along with his brother Steve, a cofounder of the Corporal Digby Hand Schützenverein. A historian of the shooting sports, his work appears in Shooting Sports USA, the late Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career,
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