3 Fired Over Fatal Mortar Training Explosion

Seven weeks after a night time training program in Nevada turned deadly for seven Marines, three officers with command responsibility, or oversight of the training mission, have been fired.

The Marine battalion commander, its Alpha Company commander and a warrant officer were relieved of duty on Wednesday, according to Marine Corps Times, which first reported the news. Seven Marines died from the explosion on the night of March 18 at Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada when a 60mm mortar round exploded in a mortar tube. Eight other Marines were injured.

The incident remains under investigation but the dismissal of Lt. Col. Andrew McNulty, Capt. Kelby Breivogel and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Douglas Derring, the battalion’s infantry weapons officer, are based on preliminary findings, the paper reported.

Lt. Oliver David, a spokesman at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where the Marine unit is based, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that no charges are expected to be filed against any of the officers. According to the Times report, all three remain on active duty, though it is not clear what their next assignments will be.

Killed in the explosion were Pfc. Joshua M. Martino, 19; Lance Cpl. David P. Fenn II, 20; Lance Cpl. Roger W. Muchnick Jr., 23; Lance Cpl. Joshua C. Taylor, 21; Lance Cpl. Mason J. Vanderwork, 21; Lance Cpl. William T. Wild IV, 21; and Cpl. Aaron J. Ripperda, 26.

At the time of the accident the Marines were assigned to Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., and were wrapping up winter mountain training.

After the accident the Corps immediately suspended worldwide use of the M224A1 60mm mortar system involved in the accident. The military’s Joint Munitions Command at Rock Island, Ill., suspended the lots of ammo fired at the Nevada depot pending the investigation’s completion. The moratorium, which remains in place, included an exception for discretionary use by battlefield commanders.

McNulty had taken command of the Lejeune-based 1st Bn., 9th Marines, less than a year ago. Brig. Gen. James Lukeman, commanding general of 2nd Marine Division, the battalion’s parent command, made the determination to fire the three. Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Peter Koerner told Marine Corps Times that McNulty was relieved due to a “loss of confidence in his ability to continue to lead the battalion.”

Battalion Executive Officer Maj. Thomas Siverts has been put in charge until a new commander is selected, which should take several weeks, according to Koerner. The leadership change is not expected to affect the battalion’s scheduled deployment to Afghanistan at the end of this year, Koerner told the Times.

At the time of the accident the Marines were close to wrapping up winter mountain training at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif.

About the Author

Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.
  • Proudmarinemom

    So what happened? Was the round faulty? When are we going to hear what happened? Sympathy to all families affected by this tragedy.

    • Michael Hasbun

      It would have to be safety related. Faulty ammunition is not a rare occurence. It’s not something that can be helped. Since they were fired, it can only be reasonably assumed a violation of safety protocol occured..

  • Sgt Heart

    I was not there so I can’t lay blame, but it seemes to be a lax in training. I am sorry for the loss for the familys. The men at the top are responsable no matter what.

  • Codylicious

    Former EOD. The only way a dinky 60mm mortar round could kill 7 is if they were all gathered around the tube. My guess, the cheese charges didn’t detonate, the round lodged in the tube, and the range NCOIC started messing around with it instead of calling EOD or range control. Eventually, a group of soldiers gathered round the tube, screwed around with it and functioned the fuze, detonating the round and cheese charges, unfortunately sending pieces of the tube and mortar into all of them.

    Think about it: 60mm mortar has only a couple ounces of HE in it. About same as grenade. Grenade at close range = maybe 1 or 2 dead And a few wounded.

    It’s similar to an idiot OIC of a grenade range who thinks he can detonate a dud grenade by chucking live ones at it. Best case scenario, he fails. Worst case, others pay the price.

    • FormerDirtDart

      My first thought at the report of 7 dead, and 8 injured, was that is a hell of a lot of people crowded around one tube during a live fire.

      I would also assume they are looking closely at the tube,as is was part of the new M224A1 light weight mortars. Whether it’s lighter structure led to more complete fragmentation, which could have expanded the lethality in the small area.

    • stefan S

      Dinky 60MM as you said? Killed a lot of people. I know I was an 11C. The 60 MM mortar has been in use since WW2. Comment on things you know. If it blows in the tube you ALL die. Maybe you’ve been too close to things that go boom and your brain wires are a bit off!

    • usmcoperater

      I was a mortar man, and if there is a misfire, you take care of it your self by 1. Yelling “Misfire!’ 2. Everyone backing away from their gun 50 meters 3. Remove the sight and unlock the barrel from base plate and slowly lifting the barrel, “Lifting”, “Level”, 4. Catch the round with the meaty portion of your hands. 5. Prior to firing any rounds on the gun line an ammo pit is dug 50 meters or so (can’t remember everything) to the end gun. This is also where the excess increments get placed as well for disposal when all missions are complete before you CSMO (collect shit and move out) E.O.D. is not needed for the removal from the barrel. E.O.D. is called afterwards. I have done this in real world three times. Once in S.O.I. and twice in the fleet. Thank god never in theater. The movie hurt locker sucked

    • usmcoperater

      E.O.D. only blows up the misfired rounds after the range has been completed. He doesn’t touch the weapons system because he is not an 03 anything. Not swabbing the barrel making too hot or maybe the trigger section switch may have something to do with it. Mortars have altimeters in them that activate the round at a certain altitude. Probably not swabbing the bore every 10 rounds was at fault. Semper Fi. You can only guess what happened but you were not there where you?

  • I was a Mortarman with 60s for almost 6 years including a combat tour. The system works great and is extremely safe when using the newer rounds and the weapon is in working order. Unfortunately there are Vietnam time period rounds floating around that ammo depots are trying to get rid of and we turn them back in anytime we could because they were unsafe. Sometimes EOD refuses to do their jobs. I had a malfunctioning/broken gun and a Vietnam WP round that got stuck in the tube. Not only did EOD refuse to come out when the round was in the tube (the weapon wouldn’t go on safe so the tube and round should have been a loss), and EOD requires us to bring the round to them at a designated area. So we rapped the round in a flack jacket and transported by Hummvee across 29 Palms. Luckily no one was hurt but my pucker factor was never higher. As a CPL I could only say no to so many people. When I refused to continue the malfunction procedure past a curtain point I was facing page 11 or worst…but worst then that the command was going to bypass me and have a junior Marine with substantially less experience continue the malfunction procedure. Once you get less to no experience up there could be a substantial accident. Even with our dangerous situation we made sure no more then 2 Marines would be hurt if the round detonated (2 people are required for the malfunction procedure).

    • mpower6428

      that is a scary story. and im not trying to being a fuckwad.

  • ms6

    Ben and Cody have my confidence. If one of you were there we might have some live Marines still around. Sad. The oldest was 26.

  • mpower6428

    my pop told me they double loaded the tube in a rapid fire exercise, i told him he was full of shit, and now i think ” I ” was right (doesnt happen often).

    moral of the story thus far… any officer who who gets fired for something like this… was 2 or 3 ranks down from any other officer who actually had responsibility. namely, the guy linking the logistics to the exercise.

    yes, i know that i know that you all now as much as i know…. bla bla bla…..

    • majrod

      How is an officer responsible for a mortar crew double loading a mortar?

      Do you really think (or want) an officer supervising the operation of every crew served weapon?

  • leftoftheboom

    I can only think of two other senarios that would result in this. The 60mm tube can be fired in hand held with or without using the trigger. But only charge zero or charge one and the base plate has to be firm. I have seen hot dogs fire charge one and lose complete control of the gun. We were on a hilltop firing point so the round made it to the impact area and there were no trees in the way. It was a VERY short round.

    Someone may have tried a charge two and lost it all together. There is also a gas seal because you can remove the trigger mechanism. Failure to properly maintain that gas seal could result in a blowout that allowed the round to fire, but vent propellant and not have enough to clear the round much beyond the tube. And all respect to Cody but the 60MM HE is just a bit more powerful than the hand grenade. Kill radius is 25m.

    Done guessing. Rest In Peace Brothers. The watch is done.

  • Phillip Smith

    Not sure why these three were picked?

    Did they know:

    – That there was a problem with the rounds?

    – Did they have the crew by pass safety rules?

    So not if a Marine or Soldier is killed in Combat, with Officer’s be rrelieved of duty?

    Sorry the marines died in training, but accidents happen

  • Leon Suchorski

    Like the saying goes in the Corps, the sh*t rolls uphill, not down hill. If you are in charge, you are responsible, whether you were there or not. That is how we get our leaders, it is hands on training all of the time. We lead from the front, not the back.

  • neverenoughammo

    Good day

    First, I am sorry for the loss of so many young Marines.

    I ran a 6 tube mortar pit in Vietnam. Four 81MM’s and two 60MM’s. The 60MM’s were mainly for in close proximity fire (in case of attempted over run) or illumination because of ground sensors indicating movement.

    We ran all types of ammo through them. HE, WP, AP, ILLUM munitions and the various fuses PD, VT, and TD. All of those rounds were TUBE safe! There is a safety pin in each round. The shock of the firing pin striking the primer when the round hits the bottom of the tube when dropped kicks the pin out, however the pin is still engaged and held in place because the lengthof the pin, it rubs along the inside of the tube during its upward travel. Once the round reaches the rim of the tube the safety pin kicks free and you have a live round.

    The only two situations i encountered where a round could explode in the tube were ammo malfunction which would be NO PIN or the PIN itself being defective by being bent or too short. The other situation would be manual removal of the pin prior to dropping in the tube or the mishandling of the round during a manual clearing of the tube.

    Not sure if firing the officer’s did any good. I did note the absence of Sergeants mentioned or listed. Everyone is a safety observer. Where was the direct on site experience that a Sergeant generally represents?

    Again…So sorry for the loss.


    • Derek

      Sergeant are very rare in a infantry company. On my last deployment the 60 platoon was all PVT, PFC and LCPL. The section leader was eventually promoted to CPL and he was the only one to have taken Advanced Mortar leader course.

  • majrod

    Officers are responsible for everything their troops do or don’t do. It’s an incredibly high standard. If there were any shortcomings or discrepancies in the running of the range whether they caused the accident or not it’s customary to relieve all the officers in the chain. Not fair but it’s what’s done to ensure standards are maintained.

    So if the safety officer didn’t have the required fire extinguishers or didn’t have the ammo issue point the required distance the firing line officers will be relieved even if the issues had nothing to do with the incident.

    Those that hate officers rejoice at these firings and you’ll hear the commentary that the officers were responsible. The officers were, they were there. That’s what it means to be an officer.

    Note: No NCOs who were responsible for the training, supervision of execution of the exercise have been fired. The same guys blaming the officers and jumping for glee aren’t asking what about the NCO’s. Not that I want them to be, the investigation isn’t complete. I’ve observed a growing chasm and hate for officers by enlisted. Disconcerting in the least. Back in the day NCOs would police the malcontents.

  • scott

    where was the explosion??????

  • DB Cooper

    DB Cooper,

    As a CPL you didnt have the experience to know that when it concerns safety you can tell the president “NO” and there isnt a damned thing they can do about it. Willie Pete is some nasty shit and if it was old and improperly stored it it extremely dangerous and you don’t put a junior person in the position they put you in. As a LT and a CPT I told several full COLs and Maj’s if they wanted X done they would have to do it themselves. I was not going to endanger the lives of my men. Guess thats why the #1 question Co’s askedme was “Just who the Fuck do you think you are?” I’d smile and tell them. Every EOD tech should have been relieved as well asanyone in your chain of command who ordered you to do it.

  • DB Cooper

    I saw a mortor crew double load a 81mm once. The loaders got hurried and the second guy dropped a round down the tube just before the previous hit the bottom of the tube. The rounds coming back out broke both of his arms.

    I am self admitted non-subject matter experts on mortars but does sound like a double load with the second round jamming the 1st in the barrel. That would cause an over pressure problem in the lower part of the tube causing it to explode. Being a lightwieght tube would only make it weaker.

  • Sauerkraut

    Officers are relieved, Staff NCO’s and NCO’s are Court Martialed at a

    later date..

    • majrod


  • MSG R (ret)

    I have served in both the USMC and Army National Guard as an 0341 and 11C, including service in a Marine Weapons Company both on the mortar firing line and later in the Fire Support Coordination Center at BN HQS. I also served as a Mortar Section Sergeant in the Cavalry and a Mortar Platoon Sergeant in an Army National Guard HQs Company. This involved use of 81s, 4.2″ and 120mm mortars. Frankly, my experience with 81s on the gun line is minimal. The last time I fired the 60mm was in Infantry Training School at Camp Geiger/Lejeune, so I would defer to others above as to issues of performance of that weapons system.

    Still, there are several themes mentioned in the posts above which seem to me to be on the mark and about which I want to elaborate.

    First, there is no way that such a large number of Marines could be killed in a single mortar training accident involving a 60mm mortar UNLESS the Range Safety protocols were being violated. The point about clustering of Marines around the weapon is almost certainly correct.

    Larger mortars typically require two Marines or soldiers to fire, a gunner and assistant gunner. The position of “ammo man” really only reflects that the high rate of fire of the weapon necessitates having at least one other to readily transport additional ammo from a safe storage position near the mortar firing position while the gunner and assistant gunner fire the weapon.

    In the Army Cavalry and Infantry, 120s are carrier mounted because of the size and weight of the weapon makes dismounted transport of the weapon impractical for more than very short distances. Each mortar carrier had a four or five man complement to include a Squad leader, Gunner, Asst. Gunner, and Driver/Ammo Man. Some organizations had a separate driver and ammo man. Smaller guns require fewer personnel with the 60mm requiring the least.

    When employed on a mortar firing line, tactical employment of such weapons systems typically involve spacing of the weapons at distances which relate to the casualty radius of the weapon to create a sheaf on the target with rounds ordinarily landing at intervals reflecting the pattern of weapons emplacement. To achieve good target effects throughout the sheaf, weapons are situated within the casualty radius of one another, but to maximize the size of the sheaf the distance between weapons is typically about two thirds of the casualty radius of the weapon. So with the 120s with a 70m casualty radius, these would tend to be spaced symmetrically at about 40 to 50 meters apart.

    It is important to bear in mind that a casualty radius is just that — an area where serious casualties are possible. This does not reflect the probability of casualties. The blast effects diminish with the inverse square of distance to the blast. At the limits of the casualty radius the chance of serious injury from a single blast would be minor and the nature of the injury usually minor. At the point of impact death would be almost certain even if wearing body armor. To achieve good target effects within a sheaf, multiple rounds would be fired from each gun landing in an area of overlapping casualty radii.

    Thus, when employed in a training setting (as opposed to combat) an exceptionally serious training accident involving a single gun would often involve the death of the firing gun crew and some target effects to adjacent gun crews. But the chance of death of an adjacent gun crew wearing body armor at a correct distance would be minimal. Personnel at an adjacent crew might well be hit by shrapnel and suffer injury and this certainly could result in death or serious injury, but if the guns are properly spaced the likelihood that there would be multiple deaths on an adjacent crew would be quite low.

    With a 60mm gun crew, the crew would be inherently smaller. There isn’t going to be a driver or a squad leader for every dismounted gun. The guns would be spaced closer together than with a larger gun, but the casualty radius would be smaller, too.

    Thus the comments about clustering of Marines around the firing gun seems to be correct.

    Admittedly, I have been to ranges where the geometry of the mortar firing point required us to emplace our guns at intervals much closer than called for doctrinally (usually due to overhead cover of trees). But if the space was too confined then safety issues would dictate emplacing less than all of the weapons and letting crews train in turns. Firing in Nevada or at Twenty Nine Palms, CA, or Ft. Irwin, CA, wouldn’t usually present problems of confined mortar firing points.

    Training and safety regulations usually add MANY additional safety features, often dictating that only those firing their weapons be at the firing point, that everyone wear their flak jackets and Kevlar helmets, that guns be spaced at proper intervals, that minimal ammo be kept at each mortar firing point, that safety pins remain in the rounds until fired, etc. Smoking bans would be in effect with a segregated smoking area well away from the ammo, etc. All of these various safety rules would be the things that the younger soldiers and Marines would often find inconvenient or boring. On a hot day in the desert, no one likes wearing the helmet and body armor, but it is a safety requirement in training and also a requirement in theater. Of course, this accident happened in March.

    Others have speculated that the accident happened after a misfire. While I have no specific knowledge of the accident or investigation, this speculation also makes sense. When a mortar round misfires, extracting the misfired round is the most dangerous thing that a mortar crew typically does.

    Safety guidance at most ranges dictates that the first thing that happens when a misfire occurs is that the Range Officer and Range Safety Officer clear ALL PERSONNEL from the firing line. One reason to do this is that sometimes a round just “cooks off” by itself after a few seconds, even a minute or so, especially with a larger gun hot from firing on a hot day. When the firing line is cleared, after a quick safety review/briefing to include a review of the doctrinal misfire protocols, the gun crew returns to the gun to perform its misfire procedures. Misfire procedures are different for each gun and quite different for a 60mm compared to a 120mm.

    Usually, Range Safety guidance specifies that the firing gun crew performs the misfire procedure for its own gun. This makes more than a little sense, but can also result in a situation where less experienced enlisted personnel are performing the procedure. But the way that the mortarman becomes experienced is by clearing misfires from his own weapon! In my experience, very often more senior personnel become personally involved in clearing a misfire when the initial steps are ineffective.

    Even so, the ONLY personnel that ought to be at the firing point when working to clear a misfire would be the gun crew (Gunner and Asst. Gunner) and possibly an NCO or senior NCO. No one would be at the adjacent guns, because the firing line would remain cleared until the misfire was resolved.

    Thus, if the explosion was a result of clearing a misfire, it would be an impossibility for there to be more than two or three deaths as long as the safety protocols were being correctly followed. Everyone else at the firing point would be well outside of the casualty range.

    If the explosion took place during firing without a misfire, then the immediate gun crew might be killed (as when a round goes off in the mortar tube), and while personnel at adjacent firing points wearing body armor might well be injured, they would usually escape fatalities.

    Thus, the death of seven junior enlisted Marines cries out that safety protocols must not have been being followed.

    At many training ranges, an E7 can be assigned as a Range Officer for a mortar weapons range and an E6 can be assigned as Range Safety. In the Cavalry, there was typically no Mortar Platoon and thus no Mortar Platoon Leader, only a Squad Leader in charge of a two gun crew. In an Army Infantry Mortar Platoon there is a Platoon Leader (O1 or O2) and a Mortar Platoon Sergeant (E7 or E8). Range Safety regulations almost always also require that both the Range Officer and Range Safety Officer be familiar and qualified for the weapons system they are supervising. Unfortunately, for a typical infantry officer or infantry NCO not specialized in Indirect Fire, their training probably consisted of only two to three days. Commanders sometimes make the mistake of appointing officers or NCOs who lack familiarity with a weapons system and those serving in these rolls sometimes treat the assignment as if it is the same as supervising a rifle or pistol range, though it is not the same thing. Those appointed who are not already intimately familiar with the weapon may neglect to sufficiently review the published manuals and safety guidance specific to this dangerous weapons system.

    When I served in a Marine Weapons Company, there was a Mortar Platoon Leader (O1 or O2) and Mortar Platoon Sergeant (E7). But in a regular Marine Rifle Company, the 60mm mortar is more integrated into regular company/platoon operations. Having never served in one of these, I am less familiar with the training and dynamic. One rather inherent problem is that leadership in a Rifle Company is going to be far less experienced in the tactical employment of mortars and mortar safety protocols than those who train with mortars on a more dedicated and exclusive basis.

    I want to also comment on one of the other posts above relating to aging ammunition. In my experience, this continued to be an ongoing problem throughout my career while I remained in Indirect Fire Infantry. The U.S. still seems to have a very large stock of exceptionally old mortar ammunition. The idea seems to be that this should be disposed of through training use. I have gone to the range with new ammunition where gun crews have put hundreds of rounds downrange without a single misfire. I have also seen situations where we are presented with an older lot of Vietnam era ammunition where one round out of five to ten misfires. This was a worse problem with the 4.2″ and 81 ammo. Since the 120mm was a much newer weapons system, we didn’t have to deal with a legacy ammo problem.

    Having never worked on the logistics side, it is unclear to me WHAT HAPPENED when we turn back in ammo lots that we found to present an exceptionally high number of misfires. My impression was that it just went back into a bunker to be re-presented to another unit rotating through a training location. Perhaps someone with EOD or logistics experience can comment. Frankly, the really, really old ammo lots need to be retired and disposed of. Older ammo lots that present high rates of misfire also should probably be retired when misfires reach a certain threshold, though I am unsure what that ought to be.

    The comment above about safety trumping orders is a good one. It is often overlooked, especially in the Marines where discipline is revered. Part of the problem is probably that both the Army and the Marine Corps are probably NOT pushing down the written safety and training regulations to the lower echelon soldiers. I don’t recall ever seeing a written Range Safety or Training Regulation during the six years I served in the USMCR in a junior enlisted position. What we knew about safety was what was orally taught at ITS and what was related to us by senior enlisted personnel or officers.

    We are all obliged to follow lawful orders, even when we are being ordered to do something we perceive to be dangerous. (Nothing can be quite so dangerous as charging into enemy fire when ordered to do so.) But we are also entitled to refuse or resist those orders which are not lawful. Being ordered to do something that is a violation of law or regulation is not a lawful order. But if the young Marines do not know what the safety regulation says, he can not reasonably resist.

    Happily, both in the USMC and in the Army National Guard I served under a number of exceptionally able NCOs and officers. There were a few occasions when serious safety challenges were presented, but when brought to the attention of those in authority, they usually did the right thing. I always placed a focus on safety and instilled this in both NCOs and junior enlisted. The most serious training injury our Marines and Army mortarmen ever experienced in training was a severe sunburn. We never even had a heat injury. This often slowed down training and made things less “fun”. It wasn’t as “macho”, but it was safe.

  • MSG R (ret)

    Several in this thread have mentioned double loading. Has anyone seen any written report or news account (other than speculation) that double loading was implicated in this accident?

  • MSG R (ret.)

    If, in fact, the proximate cause of this training accident was a double loading of the 60mm gun, this would generally tend to at least somewhat absolve the CO CDR, Range Officer and Range Safety Officer of much, but not all, of the responsibility for the training accident, especially when the weapon was being fired at night. But there is also an exception to this general statement which involves both the training regimen and the training tempo.

    In typical employment of mortars, whether by use of an FO and computed mortar data by the FDC, or even in direct lay, a single gun is first used to bring the gun on target. Only after the rounds from that gun are adjusted onto the target would multiple rounds be fired in a “fire for effect”. It is essentially impossible for anyone except for a total moron to double load a gun when adjusting. Double loads (still moronic) would tend to only be presented when firing for effect.

    Firing for effect is FUN. The gun crews love this. Adjusting can be much more boring and tedious with the single gun making adjustments and other crews merely applying the same data as the FOs give adjustments to the FDC. But the real TRAINING VALUE in most live fire training exercises comes from setting up the guns and the FDC and adjusting rounds onto a target. Direct lay, while fun, usually means that the mortar platoon is set up in the wrong spot and has been emplaced far too near the enemy (though this is less so with 60mm guns).

    Those supervising a live fire training event ought to be assuring not only safety compliance, but also that the event itself has legitimate training value. During my military career, I have on numerous occasions seen situations develop where events unrelated to gun crew performance result in a slow training tempo which leaves a large portion of the allotted ammo expended as the time scheduled for training draws for a close. For example, a safety incident or injury at another different training range or whether event (such as thunderstorm activity with lightning) may cause Range Control to put ALL guns in a check fire. Similarly, a range fire (all too frequent in wooded or grassy areas during dry periods) may result in a long period of check fire. Training air on station (e.g. A-10s firing on targets in a smaller range area) can also result in artillery and mortars being put in check fire while the aviation assets are given priority (Army aviation is far less accomplished at coordinated live fire with indirect fire assets than in the Marine Corps).

    When a company has been allotted a certain amount of ammo, there has historically been a bureaucratic and laziness mindset to USE all of the expended ammo. Logistics personnel do NOT want to go through the paperwork of turning in both unexpended live ammo and dunnage. Lore is that if you don’t use the ammo, a request for similar amounts may be denied the next training event, etc.

    Thus, I have repeatedly seen command guidance given orally that the allotted ammo must be used. We have probably all seen this situation on a rifle or pistol range. At the end of regular firing, Marines or soldiers are encouraged to put their weapons on fully automatic and burn off small quantities of unexpended ammo. Usually ammo forecasts for individual weapons fire are subject to fewer uncertainties and errors than indirect fire weapons.

    It is probably worth noting that I have seen occasions were .50 cal machine guns were glowing red and barrels even warped and damaged from irresponsible burn off of unexpended .50 cal ammo at the end of the day.

    I mention this NOT because I have any reason to believe that this sort of activity was implicated in the deadly Hawthorne incident, but rather only to point out that as long as the accident occurred during regular routine training which had REAL TRAINING VALUE, those in command would be far less culpable. But if the same accident were to occur in a climate where junior enlisted troops were being hurried and encouraged to burn off unexpended ammo quickly, especially at night, that really would change the complexion of things.

    Again, I mention this NOT to accuse any of the Marine officers or NCOs at Hawthorne of this kind of mistake, but rather as a point of reflection for any others in leadership positions who are presented with a situation where someone is encouraged to rush or hurry to do something of questionable propriety or training value at a sacrifice of safety.

    A similar and related issue is presented in respect of the Range Officer and Range Safety. Almost every range training activity involves decisions about appropriate training tempo: Crawl, Walk, Run.

    I have no information whatsoever about the phase of the training during which the Hawthorne accident occurred. Maybe it happened at the beginning of training. Maybe it happened in the middle or near the end.

    Responsible training, even of experienced Marines and soldiers ought to involve some recognition that skills become rusty with disuse and that after some refresher training everyone tends to get better and faster.

    Thus, one of the key leadership responsibilities of the Range Officer and Range Training Officer (responsibilities that ought not be shared with those generally commanding those being trained) is to assure that an appropriately paced and graduated training tempo suitable to the skill level, experience and conditions is employed. The training should probably start slowly, rotating everyone through various positions, picking up tempo as skills and confidence improve.

    Since most of the training value is in setting up and aiming the guns and computing firing data, etc. This usually would also mean that there would be relatively few “fires for effect” early in training and that these would usually be limited to a 3 round volley. The early fires for effect should also usually be “at my command” with a person in charge directing that each round be hung and dropped (“Hang It”, “Fire”) as opposed to a “fire at will” where each gun crew fires as quickly as possible.

    This accomplishes two things. First, it really SLOWS the tempo of fires for effect to a VERY SAFE level. Those on each firing crew can concentrate on deliberate mastery of tasks TO INCLUDE AFFIRMATIVELY OBSERVING THAT EACH ROUND HAS CLEARED THE TUBE BEFORE HANGING ANOTHER ROUND. Those new or unsteady gain experience and confidence before they are encouraged to rush. Firing at will is inherently a RUSH. Each gun crew is competing to drop the allotted number of rounds as quickly as possible.

    Second, the Range Safety Officer can readily observe that every round has cleared the tube before another round is dropped. When rounds are fired at command as opposed to at will, it isn’t merely the Range Officer who would be observing. The command to fire would typically be coming via the Squad Leader, Section Sergeant or Platoon Sergeant. And whoever was calling these ought to also be observing the safe discharge of each round before calling for the next round to be loaded.

    Thus firing the fire for effect volley “at my command” allows for the deliberate and mostly unhurried loading of each successive round with multiple checks on double loading.

    By contrast, double loading is most likely to occur during a fire for effect, fire at will mission. Such missions are particularly dangerous at night.

    There are many additional challenges of nighttime firing not the least of which is that the Range Safety Officer cannot nearly as readily fully observe the safe operation of every gun.

    Since night firing presents a number of safety challenges on top of daytime firing, a thoughtful Range Officer and Range Safety Officer might very well take additional safety measures in respect of night time firing. The very first of these involves training tempo. If a unit is going to be at a training range for several nights, it is probably better to completely forgo night time training the very first night. It would usually be better to get in two full days of daytime firing before moving to much more dangerous night time training.

    When night time training is first being done, it is often better to adjourn training at the close of a long and rigorous day and give the mortarmen an opportunity to rest a bit before the night time operations get underway. For full training value, the night time training should usually be in reasonably total darkness after EENT, but shouldn’t be of such long duration that the men get fatigued. There are enough training challenges without adding fatigue to the problem. Except, perhaps for a very advanced activity such as a capstone combined arms exercise, the regular night time training activity probably only ought to last a couple of hours.

    All of the above combines to reflect that there is both command as well as safety leadership culpability if the training regimen is not appropriately graduated or undertaken without consideration of skills, experience and conditions. Experienced Marines or soldiers under experienced NCO and officer leadership can reasonably begin at a high level and advance through a graduated training tempo than those less experienced or with lesser leadership. Those directly in the training command chain ought to be responsibly advocating for greater challenges. Those in safety roles ought to be weighing the factors and imposing some discipline and restraint.

    If the written training plan and the live fire records reflect that the training was thoughtful and deliberate and this accident occurred during a regular training progression, this would tend to somewhat exonerate both Company and safety leadership from culpability in the proximate cause of the accident. By contrast, if there wasn’t a training plan and Marines were left to train for themselves without adequate leadership and safety supervision, then those in leadership positions are far more culpable.

    Whether or not the Company and safety leadership is culpable as to the proximate cause of the accident, for the reasons set forth in my other earlier post both would also be much more responsible for the extent of injury which might have otherwise been avoided by proper adherence to the Safety and Training Regulations. In my view, it would be an impossibility for a 60mm mortar training incident to cause this level of casualties if there was a proper compliance with regulations. This is consistent with the relief of the BN CDR, CO CDR and weapons officer.

    • mpower6428

      it would be nice if any “findings” were made public.

    • majrod

      MSG – great comments and education for the uninitiated. Concur across the board.

    • BLACK

      BZ MSG

  • Daniel

    It may have happened as a safety problem on the leadership part. Something as small as attempting to reduce cycle time could of lead to a round being cooked off. I believe that their are established guidelines for this safety specific issue that may have been overlooked or simply ignored.

    • MSG R (ret.)

      Most mortars are designed to fire 30 rounds per minute (one round every 2 seconds) for the first minute and about 20 rounds per minute (one round every 3 seconds) thereafter. As a practical matter, this is much faster than even the very best gun crews can sustain consistent with published Range Safety Regulations.

      In training, the ammunition is usually required to be sufficiently far away from the gun that neither afterburning residue naturally flying out of the tube nor detonation of the round in the gun would ignite the stored rounds. If you separate the ammo from the gun by a safe distance, you just cannot pass the rounds to the gun line fast enough to get the rounds down range at one every three seconds. Trying would require violation of the safety guidelines as to ammo storage or number of personnel present and operating each gun, etc., inherently creating a safety violation.

      Sustained fire at such a rate will almost surely exhaust available nearby ammo very quickly. In a training setting, firing more than a 3 to 5 round volley per gun in a fire for effect has only modest training value and risks to the personnel on the gun line increase exponentially when such rates are exceeded.

      Even attempting to fire a mortar in training this fast presents serious safety issues. Two in particular would be careless double-loading after a misfire of the prior round and premature ignition of the propelling charge as the next round is being hung and dropped before the afterburn of the propelling charge of the prior round is complete.

      Even trying to approximate the maximum rate of fire of the weapon is appropriate only when your position is being completely overrun by a superior force, etc., as with a final protective fire in combat. The additional risk of firing this fast would never justify such a cycle rate in trying to protect those under attack elsewhere since an extra second or two between round to allow completion of afterburning residue would add more safety to the firing personnel than the additional risk to others under attack in almost every case. Firing near the maximum rate of fire is something that should almost never be attempted in a regular training exercise due to the excess risks to personnel. (Firing a round every five seconds is plenty exciting!)

      If either company/platoon leadership or safety leaders were to allow a gun crew to knowingly attempt to fire a mortar weapons system at or near its theoretical maximum rate of fire for more than a few rounds in a training setting, then these leaders should be relieved!

  • Oatmealcody


    60 is a fine piece of ordnance, but is seriously not much more powerful than a hand grenade. A normal m67 grenade contains 6.5 ounces of comp B . Almost the exact same as a m720 60mm HE mortar. Even with the cheese charge you’re looking at less than 1 lb of explosive weight (TNT equivalent). It may seem powerful from afar, but its far from powerful. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be used at all, it just means dinky; it’s not a 155 or a 260 lb gp bomb. It’s a tiny, squad portable mortar.

  • mpower6428

    i have not.

    then again, none of us have seen a god damn thing other then the casualty figures….

  • a0001craig

    I don’t think anyone has suggested this so here it is:

    Perhaps it was a faulty round, which when it exploded, caused other rounds stored near-by to also be detonated, causing a rather larger explosion.

    Respect to the deceased and their families.

    • MSG R (ret.)

      For those well familiar with this weapons system and the safety regulations, this is a rather unlikely explanation.

      Subject to the discussion in prior posts about the unique challenges of legacy ammunition, the rounds themselves are usually very safe when properly handled. Though I am far less familiar with 60mm rounds, most mortar rounds have a fuse for the main charge which is actuated by propulsion from the mortar tube with a delay to assure that any round clearing the tube will not ordinarily ignite until well clear of the cannon. Double loading presents the unique challenge that there is enough energy in the propelling charge of the second loaded round to sometimes ignite the main charge in the first loaded round despite the safety features of the fuses with disastrous results.

      Safety regulations in effect at nearly every range require that the ammo supply point be well outside of the casualty radius of a 60mm mortar round and that rounds at the mortar firing point be stored in a way that makes ignition of these rounds by a round detonating in or near the cannon unlikely. The firing pins in the rounds at the firing line are also to remain in these rounds until they are actually used. No more rounds are to be stored at the gun line than necessary for the mission then underway (e.g. usually 3 to 5 rounds per gun for a fire for effect). Even if these rounds were to be ignited by an accidental explosion a more likely occurrence would be the ignition of the propelling charges first (which are external to the round) which might or might not cause the explosion of the main charge when not confined to a cannon.

      In any case, though a secondary explosion would increase the volume of shrapnel and the danger to everyone within the blast radius, it would have only a very minimal effect of the size of the blast radius. That is, there would be more dangerous shrapnel and a higher incidence of injuries with greater severity within about a 30 meter distance. Thus, if the guns were properly spaced adjacent gun crews wearing body armor would be unlikely to be killed. An exception might be if there was an initial explosion and fire with personnel arriving at the point of impact of the accident to render first aid with a subsequent secondary explosion.

      As discussed above by those well familiar with the weapons system, an accident during clearing of a misfired round or double loading is a far more plausible explanation, but still, neither can be reconciled with adherence to safety regulations.

      That the officers were relieved speaks for itself.

      Discussing the safety issues is not at all disrespectful to the deceased and to their families, though it is easy to see that such discussions are fraught with the potential to be hurtful. Thorough investigation, as well as discussion and understanding about the causes of such accidents as well as appropriate protocols and disciplines to avoid future recurrences, present the best way to salvage the most good from an impossibly sad and unfortunate occurrence. The least respectful approach would be to ignore the lessons and allow the loss of these Marine’s lives to accomplish nothing useful at all.

  • R.G. M.

    It’s easy to lay the blame on the officer’s in charge (OIC). The 60mm mortar has been a Company level peace of artillary. I don’t feel it was the ammunition but maybe the gunners themselves. Could it be possible the the mortar had a cook-off or maybe a double feed (It happens). We are too quick to lay blame on the wrong people. As sad as it sounds, I witnessed such incidents while in the Marines. I was lucky to have caught Marines double feeding rounds because their mind are not on safety but on something else. These Marines are proffesional and they know their trade. even so it happens.

    I lost members of my band of brothers. I lost part of me. God bless my brother and their families.


  • R.G. M.

    I find it hard to think that there are Viet-Nam era 60mm rounds floating around. It has been almost 40 years since that war has been over and training since then has used all surplus rounds. Do you think that my Marines would risk the lifes of Marines with defective rounds, give me a break. I know these three officers feel responsible, but the Marine Corps will hold them responsible to make the public happy. The polititions are just as stupid and ignorant about this matter as always. The Commandedr in Chief should be held responsible because he is in charge of all Arm Forces (who will punish hime?).




    • MSG R (ret.)

      MSG R. G. M.:

      It has been almost a decade now since I was actively engaged in mortar training. But at that time, I continued to see legacy 81mm ammo in the system (our 120mm guns had a sub-cal cannon insert that allowed us to train with and fire 81mm ammo with the 120 mm guns). Very often Guard and Reserve forces were stuck with not only older equipment, but also older ammunition. You might be very surprised to find what remains in bunkers at sleepier locations where there has been a major drawdown due to base closures, etc. Often, when active bases were turned over to Guard or Reserve use, it was easier just to leave the legacy ammo in place in the bunkers.

      It has been almost three decades since I was last in the USMCR and as a junior enlisted soldier in the Marines I didn’t have as clear an appreciation as to where our training ammo was coming from back then.

      Since leaving the Corps, I spent twenty years in the National Guard. I KNOW that the Guard was still working through legacy 81mm ammo a decade ago. Whether this was true of 60mm ammo is unknown to me, because I haven’t trained with the smaller guns since ITS.

      I would point out though that when Marines train at non-Marine installations, ammo is probably procured locally through DOD requests. While in the USMCR there were a few occasions when my unit rotated to Camp Lejeune, Twenty Nine Palms or a similar Marine installation for training. But we also more often trained at nearer Army or National Guard training facilities and ranges, including places like Camp Edwards, Mass., Fort Devens, Mass., and Ft. Dix, NJ. Thus, ammo may be requested by type for a training event and when the unit shows up for training one is presented with an old ammo lot. Some officer in logistics signs for it and the privates are told to load it on the truck.

      The privates in supply lack the knowledge or experience to immediately recognize the markings of the legacy ammo while it is in the ammo crates, though the rusted banding is usually an indicator. Everybody follows their orders and instructions and the vintage of the ammo is then discovered for the first time when it is unloaded at the ammo point. By then, trying to negotiate another different lot may result in a completely wasted training day.

      More seasoned and experienced Marines with 0341/11C experience might well know about these kinds of challenges and anticipate the problems. Then the task organization of a 60mm 11C Section is led by a buck Sergeant (or a Corporal promotable) the young leader is likely to lack the experience or training to readily anticipate the problem and an E5 in a Rifle Company isn’t going to want to get in a pissing match with a Captain in logistics at BN.

      Sheer inertia will dictate that well motivated Marines will tear open the ancient packaging and make due with the ammo issued. Even when the misfire rate for a lot is exceptionally high, it often takes someone with a little weight on his collar to step forward and demand that the legacy ammo be turned back in and replaced with ammo that actually works. This tends to be possible and plausible only when a unit is occupying a range for multiple consecutive training days and the push back happens early.

      I am NOT asserting that this is what happened at Hawthorne. I have no specific knowledge of the ammo condition or situation there. Rather, I am only pointing out that there exist circumstances where one can be presented with less than ideal ammo. Push back is far easier in a Marine Weapons Company with a confident and assertive Lieutenant as Platoon Leader and experienced Gunny (or in the Army where a Mortar PLT in a Weapons Company rated an O-2 and an E-8). Even the most hard charging E-4 or E-5 Marine squad leader isn’t going to get a lot of traction in a spat with BN logistics types.

  • Todd

    No the marines that were firing it put it in the tube wrong and the tried to fire it and boom.

    I guess there is a pin that prevents the round from going all the way down that was Still in when the round was all the way down so they fired it and it hit the pin and exploded. Hope that make sense, thats the way my Mortar buddy explained it to me.

  • Gary Taylor

    Marine 0341 – 60 & 81’s – I’ve seen many “fire for effects” almost go wrong – this is when the A/gunner does not realize that the round he just put in the tube has gone down, hitting the pin and shot out… Most gunners and A/gunners have to be taught to watch and hear the round go out ! Another example is the “short round” – takes more time to slide down and hit the pin – whether its because of water, weather (cold or hot), or heat from the tube (and believe me, that tube gets HOT)… When working with mortars it was always a practice NOT to wear hearing protection because we needed to hear the round come out of the tube – possibly this is what happened ? No one heard the first round go down and out, resulting in another round being placed in the tube. Pin hits the round – round strikes round… No ones fault, this was an accident, I do not see fault in any of the Marines. Semper Fi ! Train-train-train…

  • Gary

    It seems too early to decide what actually happened. We may never know exactly. But that is the price of war. I saw a howitzer split like a banana from an HE round. We had a marker round fall apart and spread phosphorus over the rice paddy. Nice glow.

    • MSG R (ret.)

      When our Marines are in theater and engaged in combat operations, we all recognize that the safety regulations and many of the safety protocols appropriate for use in a training setting simply do not apply. When Marine’s lives are at risk, a fire for effect to get rounds down range cannot be conducted in a slow, safe and deliberate way.

      But when Marines are training at stateside training ranges where they are not under enemy fire, for the protection of all our fine young Marines we must insist on adherence to well thought ought and responsible safety protocols. Moreover, by inculcating safety into every live fire exercise, we teach and drill adherence to sound safety standards also appropriate for use in combat. Through repetition, safety becomes a discipline and Marines instantly know what to do when the gun misfires.

      Even when under attack, if a round goes down the mortar tube and doesn’t come out — a misfire — some sort of misfire procedure needs to be executed OR the gun needs to be simply abandoned, at least for the duration of the firefight. Putting another round down the tube with a misfired round resting on the firing pin simply isn’t an option!

  • ted nichols

    Same thing happened in 1965 to 1/7 Marines at Chu Lai.

  • Knuckledragger

    Seeings how those three were relieved…I’m guessing that weapon system either failed it last bore scope, or was over due for its bore scope. For those not in the know a bore scope is a safety check where an armorer will shove the bore scope into the tube, and detect any pressure cracks, or stressed areas which could lead to a safety issue for the mortar team. I’m guessing the BN CDR, signed off on the tube to be used trusting the warrent officers judgement.

    Accidents happen, but I’m wondering if the tube in question belonged to the mountain warfare school, and how many rounds had been fired through it before the incident happened.

    I’m just assuming that’s what happened and we all know what happens when you assume…..

    • MSG R (ret.)

      Interesting question and good point! In my experience, one of the safety disciplines frequently overlooked by those with less seasoning is keeping accurate round counts by tube at both the gun line and by the FDC. This discipline can often break down even in larger units with well defined and experienced leadership and a well staffed FDC squad because keeping accurate round counts is time consuming, boring and tedious.

      In a 60mm gun squad operating without a formal FDC section at all and with only an E4 promotable or E5 in charge, the round count discipline would be especially easy to overlook. As mentioned by Knuckledragger above, cannon borescoping is a regular preventive maintenance/safety procedure.

      The cannons are required to be borescoped at regular minimum intervals, defined both by time and round count. Usually, a current borescoping is one of the conditions precedent to use of the tubes in a live fire exercise. Very often the borescoping procedure is performed by an armorer at a higher echelon, rather than the Company or BN level armorer. That is, borescoping, at least in the Army, is often happening at an echelon higher than Brigade or Regiment. It has been so long since I was in the USMCR that I have long forgotten anything about Marine borescoping protocols, if I ever knew about these at all. (I think that any borescoping was completely unknown to me as a junior enlisted Marine.)

      When the discipline and protocol is overlooked until the last minute, suddenly the mission to send the tubes out to external maintenance, often at some distance becomes a major training distraction. The temptation to “pencil whip” the log book for the cannons, thereby showing the cannons as being properly inspected when this wasn’t actually done may overcome good sense and discipline.

      During my career, on several occasions I encountered Guard soldiers who thought that it was more convenient (and less work) to pencil whip the round count / borescoping log book records. It required rather concerted supervision to assure that the proper borescoping was actually completed in advance of scheduled live fire.

      As with all other prior posts, I am still most inclined to believe that the direct proximate cause of the accident was most likely either double loading of the gun or an accident or mishandling involving a misfired round. Catastrophic failure of the cannon itself during firing would be unusual. But it is precisely this sort of failure that borescoping is intended to prevent through identification of wear and small defects that are signs of metal fatigue and cannon failure. Borescoping cannot prevent every accident any more than inspecting the tires on a HMMWV can prevent every tire blow out. But as with almost any well thought out maintenance protocol, identification of unusual cracks or wear and service or replacement of the worn part can at least often reduce unexpected failure. When the tread wears thin, it is time to change the tires. This can be done before a critical mission or later under fire.

      One other note is also appropriate as to the round counts. In a training setting or even in combat there may be a natural tendency to use a particular gun to fire the adjusting rounds. For this reason, unless either the guns are occasionally rotated between and amongst gun crews OR the identity of the adjusting gun is alternated, round counts can become asymmetric between guns. One gun can wear more than the others.

      Every round fired down range takes a little bit of the interior of the cannon with it. As cannons age and the metal wears thinner, the danger increases. Heating and cooling of the metal of the cannon also contributes to accumulated metal fatigue. To the extent practical, keeping accurate records of round counts by tube helps to even wear and to keep the safety of the guns in a section or platoon somewhat uniform. This also keeps the rounds fired in a tighter downrange sheaf.

      As a cannon wears, the round does not fit as snugly and more of the explosive propulsion from the propelling charge will escape past the round preventing the round from carrying quite as far. If one cannon has a significantly higher round count, its rounds will tend to fall much shorter than the other guns. This is easiest to see when the guns are first fired in extremely cold weather. The round coming out of a cold gun will carry much farther than the rounds in a hot gun. If a squad or platoon adjusts onto the target with single gun and then does a fire for effect using cold unfired guns, at least the first couple of rounds out of the cold guns will carry much farther, often well past the placement of the adjusted round from the hot gun. (Happily, after the guns are fired and warm up, the latter rounds will tend to fall back in a tighter sheaf defined by the adjusting gun.)

      With a cannon that has a significantly higher round count than the others the firing data as to range is going to be different making it difficult to establish a parallel sheaf throughout various target ranges. You wont find this in any manual, but I promise you that if you keep honest records of round counts and properly calibrated measurements of cannon diameter you will find this to be true.

      A post accident investigation would probably include some verification of the borescoping records shown in the cannon log books (or the failure to keep up the log books). This could certainly lead to a relief of those in command positions if the failure was due to a catastrophic failure of the cannon itself.


    USAF AMMO Vet: You expose the minimum amount of people to the minimum amount of Explosives for the minimum amount of time. My God, we learned that in Block 1 of training. Sure, accidents happen. Hence, refer back to first sentence. So sad.

  • Retired Chief

    I was a mortar man in the Army circa 1973 t0 1977. Never saw a 60mm but did fire the 81mm and the 4.2 inch track mounted guns. Only had one misfire during any fire mission and that was at Ft. Carson, CO. They got everybody except the gunner and assistant gunner out of the vehicle and completely away from the vehicle before they attempted any removal of the round. It was due to a large accumulation of the clips used to hold the charges on the bottom of the round in the tube (it was the #2 gun and used the most until we fired for effect). Even back then we had old ammo though. They would always issue us about 2 or 3 times what we needed just so we could fire it up. Same thing in Germany at Wildflicken (SP?), old ammo and a lot of it (and that included the Shillelagh missiles the Sheridan’s fired, use up the old ones first). We still have WWII era rockets and artillery rounds stored in Pueblo and Richmond Depots waiting to be dismantled and destroyed. It would not be hard to believe that there are still Vietnam era munitions still sitting in depot bunkers somewhere.

    • MSG R (ret.)

      One of the major design improvements of the M120 120mm mortar over the M30 4.2″ mortar was replacement of the fixed firing pin with a retractable firing pin that has a “Safe” setting, though this improvement is also a double edged sword. With the 4.2″ the firing pin remains fully exposed to the round during misfire procedures, thus pouring water into the barrel to cushion the round and inhibit full combustion was part of the regular misfire procedure.

      The trouble presented by the retractable firing pin on the M120 is that if the crew mistakenly places the firing pin selector on safe and drops a round, it will “misfire” every time, since the primer is NEVER exposed to the firing pin while on safe. Thus, the round must be extracted.

      The M29 and M29A1 81mm mortar also used a fixed firing pin, thus making misfire procedures inherently more dangerous. The newer M252 81mm mortar has a firing pin that can be and must be manually removed by removal of the breach plug during misfire procedures.

      The M224 60mm mortar, by contrast, has a trigger fire mechanism actuating the firing pin with three settings: Drop fire, Trigger fire and Safe. This allows for performance of misfire procedures to include both attempts to fire the misfired round by use of trigger fire or ultimately setting the selector to Safe for extraction of the misfired round without danger of the round interacting with the firing pin.

      Each weapon has unique characteristics and misfire procedures which require training and familiarity to master. Newer designs are inherently safer when properly operated, but present additional sources of misfire, as with dropping a round into a 60mm or 120mm mortar while the weapon is on Safe. (This can be most easily resolved with the 60mm gun, by simply selecting Trigger fire and treating the drop fired round as a loaded round in Handheld Mode, etc.)

      The Retired Chief probably was dealing with the older M29 and M29A1 81mm and M30 4.2″. The “pucker factor” associated with misfire extraction is inherently greater when clearing a misfire from the larger and older guns while the firing pin remains exposed to the primer of the misfired round. Modern 60mm misfire procedures, properly performed, are far safer than those our older Veteran brothers faced a generation or two ago.

      Clearing excess personnel from the misfired gun is always part of the safety protocol. At most ranges, the entire gun line is cleared. This is appropriate due to the casualty radius of a mortar round to assure the safety of all other personnel.

  • Jim Burke

    From a veteran 0302 USMC Infantry Officer

    It is most probable there was a double feed. If there was a double feed there will be evidence in the form of either shrapnel in the effective casualty radius of the explosion exceeding that possible of one round, or the second (top) round remains will be found downrange, well short of the target, fully or partially intact,not exploded. The answer lies with the location/status of the second round.

    The second piece of evidence is the condition of the tube. What does it look like? If the top of the tube is damaged(pealed back) that lends support to the first round impacting the second round after it hit the firing pin and was traveling up the tube, exploding while still in the tube. If the tube is intact, a round could have exploded immediately after leaving the tube. I doubt that happened because there would be no contact on the nose (top) of the round to initiate explosion.

    How could this have happened?

    This was a night firing exercise. If the Marines were rapidly firing many rounds, at a maximum rate of fire, simulating a final protective fire, and Marines were loading the 60 from both sides, there would be plenty of noise from the other tubes in the section, making it more difficult to identify the “shot out” from the event tube. If one Marine loaded a round, and the second Marine had head down, turned away from the tube while picking up the next round to be fired, did not see the load and heard the POP from an adjacent tube, he easily could have failed to realize his teammate had just loaded a round. In his haste, he placed the second round in or over the tube where it collided with the exiting round, point detonating the first round.

    The speculation that a 60MM round could not have caused so many casualties is off base- it did. Comparisons to a hand grenade or 40MM M79 or 203 rifle grenade are erroneous due to their effective casualty radii and the weight (mass) of their respective casings.

    The locations of the Marines in relation to the explosion will be determined during the investigation.

    This was an avoidable tragedy. While the relieved Officers may or may not have caused the incident meaning that it was their fault, they are responsible, a fact of life for Marine Officers, especially COs, not understood outside the Marine Corps.

    God bless our Marines and Their Families.

    • MSG R (ret.)

      I completely agree with you that the forensic evidence associated with the blast and the condition of the cannon will clearly show the nature of and proximate cause of the accident. The nature of the problem as to double loading or with a single round is hardly likely to be in doubt to those conducting the accident investigation.

      I also agree that double loading could easily happen at night during a fire for effect and especially if more than one Marine was dropping rounds from each side of the cannon. This is precisely WHY night time fire for effect missions should involve only a small number of rounds and probably ought to almost NEVER involve dropping rounds from both sides of the gun to achieve a maximum rate of fire.

      As I pointed out in a prior post, if high volume night live fire was done near the conclusion of a live fire training exercise after a progression of other live fire training events, it might be justified. But this is still especially dangerous.

      I completely disagree with you as to the number of casualties. This number of casualties is simply not possible if the guns are properly spaced on the firing point and only the personnel necessary to operate each weapon are present. Of course, if there was some cross-training going on involving letting others not regularly involved in mortar training drop rounds (e.g. letting one or more visitors enjoy the rush of dropping a round down the tube), this would justify bringing another single Marine to the gun line to drop a round under the supervision of an experienced mortar crew. That would put three Marines at the gun.

      But even allowing others (not qualified on the weapon) to drop a round or two could NEVER be justified in a night time fire for effect mission!

      Again, as mentioned in a prior post, there are some firing points where firing point geometry dictates that guns be placed in closer proximity than otherwise desired. Gun spacing is supposed to be at least 25-30 meters for 60mm, 30-35m for 81mm and 75m for 120mm. This places 60mm guns at a safe distance from one another while giving good overlapping target effects of rounds impacting in a sheaf. But if the weapons are set up well within the casualty radius of a single round (30m for 60mm, 40m for 81mm, 75m for 120mm), then other more conservative safety countermeasures and disciplines would especially need to be employed. When doctrinal gun spacing is used, it would be impossible to have this level of casualties from a single accident, even with a double feed unless excess personnel were clustered around a single gun in violation of safety protocols.

      • Charles


        You hit the nail on the head regarding pit spacing. The Mountain Training Center has pre-established mortar pits with safety seperation. It is possible that during the exercise, the Captain or Gunner could have had the crews dig new pits and fire from them ignoring separation guidelines. If they had proper separation of pits, it would have been impossible for the 60mm to kill and injury the number of Marines that it did. As you said, night ops should prohibit anyone other than the experienced mortar crews from firing. There should have been no one else in the pit beyond the normal three Marines that would be there.

        Semper Fi, USMC-Retired

  • benny vento

    Good comments. I think a major issue was the emergency response procedures trying to get the injured medivacced out of there to hospital. Unfortunately the military resonse in all catastrophic incidents is that the man/men in charge are relieved of command, rather at fault or not. Lok at Qantico, the commander was relieved of command because one soldier shoots his girlfriend, her new beau, and himself. COME ON. Who would evreer see that coming. It is the military way. SEMPER FI!

  • Charles

    YOurs is the most logical and technical explanation to date. The mortar should have had no more than 3 in it. Safety is one of the primary reasons for mortars being fired from a pit enclosure. The number killed and injured indicated that safety was lax since only three should have been killed or injured.

    The range officer must have the CWO-3. The OIC was also there and should have ensured that pit safety rules were maintained. Wonder why the senior staff NCO was crucified as well? The CO probably wasn’t directly on site but he was the CO.

    Semper Fi

  • Charles

    AMEN to your statement. I retired as a LtCol and one thing I learned early, when it comes to safety, listen to the troops! A hot round is a hot round. EOD is trained to handle rounds that exceed the technical parameters of the mortar crew (or any other weapon muntion). Additionally EOD has the safety gear to minimize injury should a blast occur.

    I would not want to be EOD, BUT they are trained and paid little extra to handle situations such as what occurred. Worse case, pack the tube with the hung munition with C4/C5 and blow it in the pit. As a commander, I can write off the tube and base plate but cannot write off my troops.

  • Charles

    As you know, the officer is responsible for all aspects of his unit regardless of whether he is there or not. He is responsible for training and all safety procedures. In this case, it appears that safety procedures were ignored based on the number of casualities. Three at the most should be in the mortar pit. That means only three would have been killed/injured. Plus this was a night firing mission when the pucker factor could be very large.

    So far the report has not been released explaining why so many Marines were in the danger radius of the weapon. Maybe a round got stuck and someone decided that it would be a great time to show how to remove a hot round to newbies. If so, a really bad decision. Regardless, safety procedures were obviously violated which appropriately resulted in the reliefs of the three officers. This won’t be the last of the professional hits. Once the report is released, some JAG will try to find a way to bring charges against someone.

    LtCol USMC-Retired

  • Charles

    MajRod – Officers are responsible for every aspect of their unit especially safety. Could an officer prevented a double loading, a bad round, etc – NO. BUT an officer could have ensured that firing pit separation is maintained and that no more than the assigned mortar crew are in the pit. Obviously, based on the number killed or injury, officer supervision failed (as did senior NCO supervision – e.g. the Gunny/MSgt) and pit separation was insufficient or more than the mortar crew were allowed in the pit.

    LtCol USMC-Retired

  • Pat

    You obviously know your stuff. I’ve only seen 81’s used.

  • I M Schindler

    During basic training at Camp Blanding ,1944,my buddy and I tried to fire a 30 mm. for effect. Fortunately I didn’t get the second round in fast enough and the round coming out hit the fin on my shell and it landed near me. Lucky a great training sargeant got it and quickly tossed it over a retaining wall. Didn’t try that again

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