Selected Operations 1970s-1980s
The Battle of Grossman Hammock
On a dark night in early December 1974, a young game warden in the Florida everglades conducted his usual motorized patrol along the Grossman Hammock State Park. His route included an obscure radio navigation tower owned by the Federal Aviation Administration. It was usually deserted, but on this particular night it was surrounded by vehicles and a handful of men.
Curious, the game warden stopped his car and got out to investigate. Within moments, the men dived into the underbrush and, according to the game warden, began shooting at him --with machine guns! Flares were thrown. Tear gas was thrown. The terrified warden radioed frantically for help. Were these Cuban exiles undergoing paramilitary training? Were they terrorists preparing to blow up the radio tower? Whoever they were, the game warden aimed his 12-gauge shotgun in their general direction and fired three live bursts into the air.
The machine guns ceased. Soon the beleaguered game warden was reinforced by some twenty-three sheriff's deputies armed with shotguns and the sheriff's helicopter overhead. For thirty tense minutes, the deputies and the mysterious handful of men stalked each other. Neither side fired a shot. Eventually a police lieutenant took out his bullhorn and, after identifying himself and his deputies, demanded to know who his opponents were.
From out of the underbrush, Captain Ron Mongole of Miami's 3rd Battalion, 11th SFGA, identified himself and his four men as Army reservists on a routine training exercise. They had been ordered to "defend" the radio tower and, accustomed to being vastly outnumbered and attacked by helicopters, thought the police were part of the exercise.
The reservists had attacked the game warden with blank ammunition. 18 Both sides subsequently retreated, equally dumbfounded and annoyed. Thus ended the Battle of Grossman Hammock State Park. The incident was widely covered in the newspapers, including the Miami Herald.
An account by United Press International even appeared in the respected (although now defunct) Washington Star. According to Captain Mongole, it was the game warden who fired first. "We fired back and I gave the order to pull back to the tower," said Mongole. "I guess the warden got mad when we fired back at him and he called the Metro Police for help."
Everyone knew, of course, that the situation could have proven very deadly for the unsuspecting reservists. Prior to the exercise, the 11th SFGA had notified the authorities by letter that an exercise was planned for that evening. Somehow the letter either got lost or forgotten. But the authorities did not forget the Battle of Grossman Hammock. Thereafter, all reservist exercises required their prior notification in person.
from The Official History of the 11th Special Forces Group (Airborne)
Colonel Kenneth S. Bergquist, Commanding
Robert M. Doyle, Command Sergeant Major
by First Lieutenant John G. Heidenrich S-2 Section, 11th Special Forces Group (Airborne)
Fort George G. Meade, Maryland
12 September 1993
My notes: I remember this event vividly. I was just over a year out of SFQC and back at 3rd Battalion as a E-5 radio operator. While I didn’t participate in the operation itself, I know we all had more than a few beers and laughs to celebrate Mongole and his team surviving the unexpected live fire exercise.
Major Exercises of the Seventies
As in the Nineteen Sixties, the 11th SFGA continued to conduct exercises in America's national forests, albeit less frequently and with less civilian participation. Nonetheless, the exercises were large and complex, especially for a reserve unit in the later Seventies, when defense spending was extremely limited.
One such exercise, Operation Cabana Strike, was conducted in June 1977 in north-central Florida's Ocala National Forest. Cabana Strike involved the entire 11th SFGA --from the Group Headquarters, down to the operational detachments --as well as numerous units from the Army Reserve, the National Guard, the active Air Force, and the active Army.
Fort Rucker, Fort Benning and Fort Stewart were all used as staging areas. The area of operations encompassed some 1,000 square miles, most of it jungle and swamp. Daily temperatures rose well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (once as high as 138 degrees), with humidity to match.
In addition to tropical insects like mosquitos, the participants had to contend with rattlesnakes, cottonmouth, coral snakes, scorpions, and alligators. There was some civilian participation in Cabana Strike, although not as much as in years past. Residents served as guides and provided their homes as temporary safehouses. A few joined up as guerrillas.
Most of the guerrillas, however, were played by active Army personnel from Fort Benning's 193rd Infantry Brigade and by junior ROTC cadets from local high schools. Civil Affairs personnel played the roles of civilian mayors and minor officials forced to contend with the foreign occupation.
My notes: I remember this operation most vividly as a very long truck ride home from Ocala to Miami. As a member of the HHD commo section, I worked as a radio operator, receiving morse and burst communications from teams in the field.
Operation Cascade Laurel was held in July 1979 in the Susquehannock State Forest in north central Pennsylvania. The enemy troops were now called Opposing Forces, although the acronym OPFOR had not yet been coined.
Cascade Laurel was smaller than Cabana Strike, but still fairly large. Six Pennsylvania counties participated, with an enthusiasm in stark contrast to the generally anti-military attitudes that prevailed nationwide. Local newspapers and radio stations publicized "appeals" from both the guerrillas and the enemy occupiers. Statements by unit leaders and "prisoner confessions" were given front page coverage.
Some newspapers even took editorial positions supporting one side or the other. The general population treated both sides with helpful courtesy. Some civilians were recruited as pro-guerrilla spies, but none were recruited as guerrillas themselves. Instead, A-teams trained reservists from non-SF units and some midshipmen from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
The energy crisis was especially acute in mid-1979 and was even mentioned in connection with Cascade Laurel: "Army Reserve Special Forces In Area to Stage Mock Battle" --The Potter Enterprise (July 11th, 1979) 19 (Coudersport, Pennsylvania) Leading the troops participating in Cascade Laurel is Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Chambers, Commander of the 11th Special Forces Group. According to Lieutenant Colonel Chambers, Cascade Laurel is similar to operations held annually by US Army Reserve Special Forces. Since 1973, three exercises have been conducted in Pennsylvania, including one in the Allegheny National Forest in 1976. Chambers emphasized that there would be no interference with traffic or tourists in more populated areas. Fuel for the exercise is from Army stocks at Fort Indiantown Gap near Harrisburg, and civilian allocations for the six-county area will not be affected.
My notes: I remember that the 82nd Airborne had conducted operations in the area not long before ours. The local population was decidedly hostile to the off-duty antics of the 82nd personnel. I truly believe that the professionalism displayed by members of the 11th Group helped to right the wrongs perpetrated by the immature 82nd Airborne troops.
Training in the Eighties
With the advent of the Nineteen Eighties, the US Army placed an increasing emphasis upon its Reserve Components and the concept of the "Total Army" ceased to be a mere slogan. The 11th SFGA experienced this change with the assignment of an actual wartime mission, with specific targets, to be accomplished in Europe if a conflict ever erupted between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
With this assignment came a more focused training agenda. The US Army's European Command (EUCOM) and Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) required the 11th to determine what training and skills were necessary to accomplish its missions per target. EUCOM and TRADOC then expected the 11th to prepare its A-teams accordingly.
Annual Training 1982 - Cold weather operations were emphasized and, in 1982, elements of the 2nd Battalion were sent to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Many personnel had not received cold weather training in ten years. This was permanently remedied as Fort McCoy and other "winter wonderlands" became familiar places for unit training throughout the Eighties.
My notes: In 1982, 3rd Bn deployed to Ft Devens, MA to train with the 10th Special Forces Group
Annual Training 1983 (3rd Bn) - Otis AFB ANG Base, Cape Cod, MA involved the entire 3rd Battalion. This AT was unique in that the entire operation was conducted under a cover and deception plan so that only the base commander and provost marshal knew that elements of the 11th Group were on base. The battalion needed to conduct airborne operations in support of the exercise, so it took on the identity of a fictitious unit in the 97th Army Reserve Command - the 202nd MP battalion (Abn). All POVs were required to be stripped of SF stickers, license plates, etc. All footlockers and containers were stenciled with “202nd MP Bn”. Public areas of the barracks contained no materials relating to SF. The door guards wore MP arm bands (borrowed from a real MP unit in Miami). Members of the unit who were police officers in civilian life set up traffic checkpoints on the base as “training”.
A Teams in isolation prior to deployment were treated as “prisoners” to justify them being escorted to and from the mess hall by their assets.
The personnel assigned to Battalion HQ wore badges like the one at left.
(more to follow)
Annual Training 1985 - Exercise Golden Glacier involved the 1st and 3rd Battalions in two weeks of winter warfare training in early March 1985. In their quest for arctic conditions at New York's Fort Drum and Vermont's Camp Ethan Allen, the units were not disappointed. Evening temperatures dropped to minus-seventeen degrees Fahrenheit. The weather changed from mild and sunny, to rain, then freezing rain, followed by heavy wet snow, culminating in sleet. Some areas received six hours or more of freezing rain, followed by eighteen inches of heavy wet snow.
Not only did the snow pose a barrier itself, but it also concealed forest brush, stumps, small streams, and manmade obstacles. Mobility was almost halted. At one point, the water storage trailers ("water buffalos") broke down and the cooks had to cut holes in Lake Meachem to draw water. The A-teams slept in frigid two-man tents. Yet the participants persevered.
They practiced cross-country skiing and learned to build survival shelters, snow caves, and lean-to windbreaks. They learned downhill skiing and how to transport equipment on an ahkio (a sled pulled by two men, anchored by a third behind). They learned that, with good physical conditioning, suitable equipment and proper training, soldiers can become adequately proficient in winter warfare within a few hours. More importantly, they learned how to turn arctic conditions to their advantage.
They used snow to enhance their speed and exploited the vulnerability that snow places upon conventional units. Once minor roads become impassable, conventional units are forced to rely upon a mere handful of cleared main routes. By the end of Golden Glacier, the participants had learned to appreciate relative degrees of frigid cold. One participant noted, "Some people recommend bringing a candle into the two-man mountain tent, but it causes the tent to sweat and freeze up. The best idea, if you don't have a stove, is to do without it." Other cold weather lessons became increasingly ingrained as the 11th SFGA conducted arctic exercises on an annual basis.
My notes: HHD was at Fort Drum during this operation. John Nettles was our Commo Chief at the time. I was the Senior Radio Operator at HHD. One of my underlings was Mike Bell. One of the skills we were to learn was downhill skiing. As Floridians, many of us had never been on skis. This was about to change. A civilian ski lodge in nearby Watertown was our training venue.
Although a training regimen was set up, Mike and I decided that wasn’t going to be any fun, so we informed the instructors we were experienced skiers (a complete lie) and went off to figure it out on our own.
This actually worked out pretty well, being the studs we were (not to mention Commo guys with obviously superior intelligence), and soon we were whistling downhill past the other unit members and their instructors.
This two man show became known as the Joslin-Bell Ski School and was memorialized on the unit graffiti board we (as a unit) created at each annual training.
Chinooks were used for ODA AirOps at Ft Drum in 1985.
Annual Training April 1986 - The 11th Group deployed to RAF Sculthorpe in the UK for three weeks in support of Operation REFORGER (an annual exercise than ran from 1969 to 1993 - REturn of FORces to GERmany). HHD set up a SFOB at the base and deployed teams to the European Continent.
Coming home from RAF Sculthorpe - UK - Bob Sullivan and the author (1986)
Annual Training October 1987 (3rd Bn) - Most of the battalion deployed to the hell hole known as Camp AP Hill, VA in 1987. Selected personnel (including members of HHD, 3rd Bn) were deployed to Bad Toelz, Germany to work with the 1st Bn, 10th SFGA in support of Operation Flintlock, an annual training exercise (a special operations sub-set of REFORGER) of the times in Europe.
Annual Training Notes (by the author)
Not every year’s Annual training included a major training exercise or deployment. In the mid seventies, Ft. Devens Massachusetts was a common destination, due to the alignment of the 11th with the 10th Group. Another year, the Battalion went to Ft. Stewart, GA for range firing and foreign weapons familiarization.
One year in the 80’s (probably 1981?), the 3rd Battalion spent its Annual Training at Camp Edwards, near West Point. At least one year, AT was at Ft. Meade at a gathering of the entire 11th Group
In keeping with the cold weather mission of the battalion, another winter training was at Fort Greely, Alaska (made Ft. Drum in March look like a day at the beach) where the unit attended Winter Warfare School. The highlight of that training was a survival training with couple of nights in snow caves dug into a glacier and the cross-country biathlon course with live range fire for scores.
Funding was almost always an issue in the Reserves and Special Forces was no exception. Particularly in the 1970s. Our training demands didn’t come cheaply. Most deployments were by air. If we only used the Air Force as an aerial bus ride, the Army had to reimburse the USAF for the costs. However, if the deployment involved an airborne operation, which as also then training for the aircrew, the USAF picked up the tab.
Therefore, we always planned an airborne operation in conjunction with our arrival at our annual training site. Not every jump actually took place, due to weather at the drop zone, but since one was planned, that fulfilled the USAF requirement. When we didn’t manage to get at least one or more sticks on the DZ, it was often after a very long ride in the back of a C-130 or C-141. HHD was further from training sites than the Companys (A Co in Tampa was a little bit closer, but not by much) and had the longest plane rides.
On our deployment to Camp Edwards, HHD flew in a USAFR C-141. We knew it was going to be a joyous ride when the pilot greeted us on the ramp at Homestead AFB wearing a Budweiser baseball cap. We had an airborne operation planned for our arrival in New York to fulfill the Air force training for transportation arrangement, but the aircrew had additional plans to fly nap of the earth for the last 500 miles or so.
It was quite a roller coaster ride and was one of the few times anyone in our unit (HHD) ever broke out an airsickness bag (or helmet if a bag wasn’t handy.
Monthly Training Notes (not in chronological order - by the author)
In between annual training events, elements of the 11th Group had monthly training assemblies, of course. In HHD, that meant anything from simply working in your section on administrative requirements and/or MOS training to more exotic events in the field. We naturally preferred the latter.
During the ‘80s we often ran exercises that tasked A Teams from the companies (usually one at a time) with no-notice missions as fly-aways from their home stations during a drill weekend. The Company would be notified ahead of time that a Team would be tasked, but not which of their five ODAs it would be until 24 hours before they would be picked up at the airfield by an aircraft arranged by HHDs S-3.
Almost always, those exercises ended up with jumps into Son Tay Drop Zone on the edge of Everglades National Park. Members of HHD provided DZ and transportation support as well as acting as OPFOR.
These operations sometimes extended to units outside the 3rd Battalion. One such exercise involved a British SAS team flown from the UK to South Florida (they didn’t know their true destination). The teams parachuted into Son Tay DZ and were picked up by Spanish-speaking members of HHD in civilian vans with no windows to look out of.
They were driven through Miami’s Little Havana district (that convinced them they were somewhere in Latin America) to a location on the shore of Biscayne Bay. From there, they boarded RB-15s (rubber boats) and moved to a deserted island in the bay. From there, their mission was to assault a derelict multi-story hotel (largely gutted) on the bay side of South Beach to “rescue a prisoner” being held by guerillas. The guerillas, of course, were members of HHD. The abandoned building was liberally laced with booby traps and guards in ambush positions.
The building was one HHD used for urban warfare training and was (it’s now long torn down) in the city of Miami Beach. As always, the MBPD was informed of the exercise, so when all hell broke loose and unwary citizens started calling 911 about the gunfire and explosions (that caused no damage) their response was muted.
After the “prisoner” was freed by the SAS team and they made their escape via rubber boat, we went “admin” and the SAS team and prisoner returned to the hotel for a barbecue.
Their commander said the training was the most realistic they had ever experienced. If it weren’t for being issued blanks, they would have sworn it was real. When we told them they were on Miami Beach, they were stunned.
HHD frequently conducted joint-training exercises with other non-SF units in the USAR. The 324th General Hospital sometimes provided medical support for training. An Engineer unit in Miami played the role of OPFOR from time to time. a Medivac unit provided UH-1H Huey helicopters for transportation and/or airborne operations. Rules of the time required us to tape over the red crosses on the choppers when used for parachute jumps.
We also trained (once) with a Navy Reserve SEAL team based in Coconut Grove, FL. That weekend was most memorable for a drunken SEAL with a handgun with live ammo. After the actual exercise was over and we were all preparing to leave the field, he fancied himself as guarding a truck from us.
As Bob Sullivan and I approached the area of the vehicle away from the light of the campfire (to take a piss, actually), the old guy pulled out his handgun and pointed it at us, declaring that we were his prisoners. We took one more step (in his general direction) and the gun went off, the round passing between our heads (I heard and felt it go by, inches away. Fortunately, he seemed surprised (and spontaneously sobered up a bit) and a second later, we had him face-down on the ground with the weapon safely removed from his grasp.
Given his drunken state, we turned him over to his team for disposition, rather than kicking the living shit out of him. That ended our training relationship with the SEALs.
Another, more successful, inter-service training relationship was with the USAF Air-Sea Survival School at Homestead AFB. One year, we made a water jump in Card Sound (water jumps allowed our SGM to join us since he wasn’t cleared for land jumps) from 5,000 feet (Hollywood style) from a C-7A Caribou with USAF equipment - orange and white parachutes and a football helmet. The jump was followed by a high-speed boat pickup.
Although jumping out of an airplane is dangerous work and those on jump status received hazardous duty pay, we rarely had any serious jump injuries in the unit (HHD). We all knew the danger. One dark night on the edge of the Everglades at the Krome Avenue drop zone, the danger became the ultimate reality and tragedy struck.
Our operation that night was out of Opa Locka Airport in north central Miami. The aircraft was a C-130. It was a night jump from 1,250 feet. Left door only. Winds on the drop zone were light and out of the east. Krome Ave DZ was a broad expanse of flat prairie, studded with small stands of pines and Australian melaleuca trees imported into South Florida to help drain the swamps (they sucked up a tremendous amount of water).
Along the western edge of the DZ ran Krome Avenue, a two lane asphalt road connected Homestead far to the South with US Hwy 27 that ran from Miami in the SE to Lake Okeechobee to the north. West of the roadway was a canal, dug out for flood control and to obtain the material the road was built upon. Along the western side of the canal ran a berm wirh a dirt road/path on top.
The DZ party checked the winds (below 5 knots) and visibility (clear skies, partial moon) and the jump was a go. My stick was to go out on the second pass over the drop zone. More were to follow.
When the first stick went out, the DZ party was shocked to see their parachutes hauling ass to the west. By the time the ground party realized that the first stick would overshoot the DZ and left west of Krome, my stick was already on final approach and the green light came on. We exited the aircraft.
As soon as my canopy (a MC1-1B) opened, I felt the wind and started holding into it. It didn’t take long to realize that hitting the DZ wasn’t going to be possible. I looked over my shoulder and saw that I was approaching Krome Avenue and the canal beyond it. I made the decision that I’d be better off turning and running with the wind to clear the hazard than to try to land short of it. The wind was simply blowing too hard.
I knew that the DZ party couldn’t have known the winds aloft were high since there were no clouds to judge it by. that meant that the ground winds were light and the freight train I was riding would slow down at some point. I prepared for a water landing and prayed to the gods of Airborne that I wouldn’t need to make one.
I cleared the canal by a couple of hundred feet (vertically and horizontally) and sure enough, the wind died down and I started descending vertically, no longer moving laterally at all. I hit the ground softly, did my PLF, got out of my harness and started rolling up my chute.
I made my way the short distance to the east and climbed up on the berm and started moving north, to where I knew there was a bridge that crossed the canal. I met another jumper on the road and headed out. Moments later, we heard a commotion down by the canal, men talking and sounding frantic.
SP4 Ferguson, a member of my commo section, had been on the first stick and had landed in the canal. He was still in his gear, unconscious. A couple of the other guys on the first stick had seen him land and pulled him out of the water and were giving him CPR. I joined in to relieve one of them (SFC Nettles, I believe) and gave Ferguson mouth-to-mouth for what seemed an eternity as another trooper did compressions. We got a faint pulse before an ambulance arrived on the berm road, having to be called from some distance away in the city. We were in the middle of nowhere, a good 20 miles from most signs of civilization.
We got the canal water out of his lungs but he never started breathing on his own. Unfortunately, our efforts were in vain. Ferguson didn’t make it. He was pronounced DOA at the hospital he was taken to.
I was in the same stick position as Ferguson that night on the last pass that went out of the aircraft that night. The following sticks were scrubbed and the aircraft returned to the airfield to disembark the remaining jumpers.
No one made a mistake that night. Except for Ferguson. He knew the canal was there, yet he didn’t prepare for a water landing. We’ll never know why. He paid the ultimate price. Our professionalism and sheer luck made this a unique occurrence.
One result of the tragedy was a change in Battalion procedures that dictated that jumpers must wear water wings when a water hazard was within a certain radius of a drop zone.
Krome Ave DZ was abandoned not long after this tragic incident. Not because of Ferguson’s death, but because of a runway extension at Miami International Airport directly to the east of the DZ. The FAA would no longer permit military aircraft so close to the landing pattern.
Note: in the early to mid ‘70s, the drop zone used by the unit was Davie DZ, just north of Griffin Road before development moved westward far enough that airborne operations were no longer permitted. The 20th Group (FL ARNG), also used Davie DZ. One of my memories with Company F before I went off to basic training (and was still a “leg” of course) was riding in a CH-47 Chinook on an airborne operation as an observer. In those days, jumps were also sometimes made from a Army U-6 Beaver fixed wing aircraft that was based at Opa Locka Airport.
After Krome Ave DZ closed, airborne operations were moved southward to Son Tay DZ (named after the famous raid on an empty prison camp in Viet Nam). Air ops were moved mostly from Opa Locka Airport to the New Tamiami Airport close to HHD’s facility near Metro Zoo. Initially, high performance aircraft such as the C-130 weren’t allowed to fly in or out of Tamiami. We used Homestead AFB for C-130 and
C-141 aircraft. The workhorse of fixed wing for us was the C-7A. Much easier to get than the larger aircraft that were in much demand for active duty operations.
AFRES C-7A Caribou parked on the ramp at New Tamiami Airport prior to airborne operation - 1983
USAF C-130s and C-141s were sometimes unavailable for large movements and civilian charters were used. From Miami, we once flew in a DC-9 to Logan Airport in Boston and then buses to Ft. Devens. We flew a chartered Boeing 747 home from Alaska the year we went there for winter warfare training.
(more to follow)