Indirect fire infantrymen, colloquially known as
mortarmen, are often shunned in the community of grunts.
They participate in the same mission as their compatriots
who hold an 11B military occupational specialty designator,
they carry asinine masses of weight on their back, they
hunker down in the nasty crags of the bush, yet they
constantly fight to be recognized as members of the
infantry. In the 173rd Airborne Brigade, they are also
Paratroopers who willingly leap from aircraft with ambitious
intent to rapidly deliver death at the doorstep of the
According to the National Park Service,
American mortar utilization in warfare dates back to the
Revolutionary War, when General George Washington’s Army
defeated General Lord Cornwallis’ Army in the battle of
Yorktown. However, in those days, mortarmen were not
considered part of the infantry, but instead the artillery.
It was not until WWI in the midst of austere trench warfare
that mortarmen were integrated into the infantry because, as
the adage goes, ‘necessity breeds innovation.’
October 20, 2017 - U.S. Army Paratrooper Pfc. James West, a mortar
team member assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd
Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne
Brigade, prepares to fire the M252A1 81mm Mortar System during a
live fire range on October 20th, 2017. The 173rd Airborne Brigade is
the U.S. Army’s Contingency Response Force in Europe, providing
rapidly deploying forces to the U.S. Army Europe, Africa and Central
Command Areas' of Responsibility within 18 hours. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander C. Henninger)
“With both armies dug in and facing each other in heavily wired
and fortified lines of trenches, the need for some type of close
artillery support controlled by infantry units asserted itself
almost immediately,” Virgil Nye wrote in Evolution of the U.S. Army
Infantry Mortar Squad: The Argonne to Pleiku.
capabilities of the round allowed shrapnel to shower down on the
enemy, multiplying the lethal effects and securing a clear advantage
over the entrenched army. It was the Germans that invented the first
trench mortar system, the Minenwerfer.
To match and then
overwhelm German firepower during WWI, British engineer Sir Wilfred
Stokes invented the Stokes 3-inch Mortar System, which spawned the
conception of 7 different mortar systems used in WWI.
1935 French ironworker Edward William Brandt engineered the Brandt
mle 27/31 mortar system which the United States studied, derived
from and transmuted into the M1 81mm and M2 60mm mortar systems.
Both were liberally utilized during WWII.
Today, within the
world of mortars, there are two factions. First, the Soldier who is
attached to and embedded in the battalion’s line company. Company
mortar assets use 60 millimeter rounds for portability purposes,
though the current M224 system itself still weighs 41 pounds, not
“Ideally, it’s a squad of six Paratroopers
attached to a platoon or with the Company Headquarters element,”
said Mortar Section Sergeant, Sgt. Joshua G. Lipham from Charlie
Company, 2nd Battalion 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. “We
are internal; another squad within whatever element we are with.”
Being assigned to the company level serves as a rite of passage
for the individual mortarman. He must do his time on the line and
does it willingly, for the opportunity is earned, not given.
“If they’ve done their time in Headquarters and Headquarters Company
(HHC) and we think they would develop more on the line we send them
to a 60mm section” said First Lt. Daniel J. Leininger, Mortars
Platoon Leader of HHC, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne
Brigade. “It helps career progression for the individual Paratrooper
because once they reach senior rank, they are expected to know all
Second, there are the battalion mortar assets
constructed of an entire platoon with farther reaching capabilities
than the company assets.
“The role of the mortar platoon is
to support the rest of battalion with timely and accurate indirect
fire,” said Leininger. “There is only one platoon with 81mm rounds
and 120mm rounds, so we support Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Hotel
Company and any other attached units with indirect fire support.”
The company-used 60mm rounds can effectively hit targets
3,490 meters away, while battalion-used rounds can destroy targets
over two times the distance with a larger kill radius.
rounds have a maximum effective range of 5,608 meters,” said
Leininger. “120mm rounds can reach 7,200 meters and the kill radius
spans 76 meters in diameter.”
All mortarmen follow the same
general principles guiding operation success.
October 20, 2017 - U.S. Army Paratroopers assigned to Headquarters
and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment
(Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade fire the M252A1 81mm Mortar
System during a night fire range. The 173rd Airborne Brigade is the
U.S. Army’s Contingency Response Force in Europe, providing rapidly
deploying forces to the U.S. Army Europe, Africa and Central Command
Areas' of Responsibility within 18 hours. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander C. Henninger)
“For a mortar section, we send a reconnaissance element
out to the tentative position, so our guy will know exactly
where their guns will be laid, and this will be decided by
the Fire Direction Center, which is the team that will get
the data for the guns,” said Lipham. “They’ll take the call
for fires that we receive by Forward Observers or from
maneuver elements at the front line and turn it into
information that the gun line uses to aim their mortars.”
Once the guns are emplaced, it is time to go through
the scrupulous procedures of firing the rounds.
2892, charge four, elevation: 1121,” says the squad leader, denoting
the horizontal and vertical planes which determine where the round
“2892, Check. 1121, Check. Good Data,” says the
gunner, confirming the direction was heeded.
let’s go. It’s going to be a half-turn down elevation between every
round,” the squad leader says to his gun team.
2-gun, copy. Half-turn down between rounds,” the squad leader
returns affirmation to the fire direction center.
says the squad leader to his team. “Hang it. Fire! Hang it. Fire!”
And the commands are repeated 11 more times until all 13 rounds
have rocketed into the sky.
Accompanying the normal stressors
of being an infantryman such as carrying astronomical amounts of
weight, walking unforeseen distances and being on the front-lines of
combat, mortarmen possess a technical expertise that, if not
properly mastered, can swiftly turn circumstances awry.
your mils are off, you can make that round go to the completely
wrong location,” said Mortar Team Leader Pvt. First Class James S.
Gillihan of HHC, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne
Brigade. “If it’s not within the safe zone you could kill 11B’s
Luckily, the 173rd Airborne Brigade fervently
advocates for its Paratroopers to be adroitly competent, exceeding
the standard in all they do.
Along with precision, comes the
necessity for speed. The best can set up shop, from a state of total
disassembly to one ready for fire commands, in less time than it
takes to brush your teeth.
“Expert time is one minute,” said
Gillihan. “You got to get it up, because the quicker you get the gun
up, the quicker the rounds go down.”
And the quicker the
rounds go down, the more firmly the 173rd Airborne Brigade places
trust in its indirect fire infantrymen. So, the dark horse rides on,
into battle, bringing unexpected destruction to its enemy and
unwavering confidence to its Allies.
By U.S. Army Sgt. David Vermilyea
Comment on this article