Fort Ord was nick-named “Planet Ord” or just “The Planet” sometime in the 1950s. It has its own geomagnetic field, its own weather patterns, and because the fog line can move unevenly across the base a long road march would often seem to start in a different country. The Army opened Fort Ord proper in 1941; its roads and ranges were laid out under the supervision of General Joseph Stillwell. If understand Stillwell then you understand that Fort Ord was designed for foot travel. Used for basic training for part of WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam as well as being home to a variety of units lead to ten million men and women passing through this base by the time it was shuttered in 1993. The last group is what interests me, the 7th Infantry Division’s “Lightfighters.” They were my generation born from 1963 onward (known as the “Baby Busters”), and they represent a brief moment in US Army history when the Army seemed to get it right.
The 7th ID Lightfighter stood out for two reasons; the first being their distinctive rag-top helmet covers that lead to their various nick-names: Cabbage Patch Kids, Swamp Things, and Bob Marlies, and they stood out because of their above average soldiering skills. The 7th ID was the first unit to be built upon the lessons of the Vietnam War, and its many officers and NCOs were veterans of that war. The Army raised its standards for fitness and performance in 1984, and the new Lightfighters responded to the challenges and then raised the standards to a new level. At the same time the Army instituted the COHORT (Cohesion Operational Readiness and Training) system wherein entire platoons would serve their entire four year enlistment together from Basic Training onward. These platoons were usually the various weapons platoons such as the mortar crews, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, engineers, and artillery. These platoons received an extra three weeks of training on their weapons before moving to Fort Ord. Upon arrival those Vietnam era NCOs could take the freshly minted GIs and mold them into soldiers in their own image.
Hiking the maneuver ranges of Fort Ord (known as the “Back Yard”) can be a lesson in infantry archeology. Fighting positions (Fox Holes) can be found in the textbook locations at trail intersections all over. Where the Lightfighters made their mark is where they put their positions. Well camouflaged holes can still be found almost intact throughout the entire base. These are invisible until one walks right up on them. The mark of the Lightfighter seems to be the impossible fighting position that can be found on the steep canyon sides. Even more impressive is that after the position was occupied another team of Lightfighters attacked this impossible position; the spent shells of .556 and .762 rounds complete with the rusting detached belt links from the assaulting SAW (a light machine gun) along with four or five pulled hand grenade rings still lay where they fell.
Over the next ridge from this forgotten skirmish site is Fort Ord’s MOUT-Site. MOUT stands for Military Operations in Urban Terrain; Fort Ord’s MOUT-Site is named “Impossible City” because its design made successful assault on any building impossible without massive casualties. Unlike MOUT-Sites at other Army or Marine bases Impossible City is one square mile of densely packed buildings with many tight allies and only one road. Here the Lightfighters trained for potential battles in Korea, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, and Peru. Impossible City is today owned by Monterey Peninsula College for its police academy, and it is routinely used by various military special operations forces and SWAT teams from all over California. It is here where the Lightfighters excelled in gleeful ruthlessness as the attacking forces would encounter booby-trapped staircases, hallways, and alley ways. Blackhawk Helicopters would swoop in and the men would “Fast Rope” sixty feet down onto the rooftops. The mock battles sometimes ended up in actual fist-fights as the OpFor (Opposing Force) laid waste to the attackers. The MOUT-Site was where the majority of Fort Ord’s serious injuries occurred as soldiers went flying out of third-story windows, or dove down flights of stairs avoiding improvised explosive devices made from the plastic MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) packs that were armed with the charge from a practice grenade and stuffed full of unpleasant bodily excretions.
Booby-traps were the 7th ID Lightfighter’s signature. Lightfighters booby-trapped their booby-traps, and it is unwise to pick up anything one might find walking through the back country. A few years back I was hiking with a friend who had been stationed at Fort Ord from ’89 to ’93. As we cut through an off-limits swath of land he suddenly stopped and told me in a hushed voice to slow down, and to walk directly behind him. He had walked me into a kill-zone where his unit had once operated in a defensive action. They had strung the trees with practice Claymore mines and when I suggested that they must have been cleared by that time he pointed to a trip-flare still attached to the nearest tree. Then he pointed to the second wire that leads away to where a Claymore had once been placed. Over time even the aging charges inside practice munitions can ruin your day.
It is eight miles from the brigade area to the rear gate of Fort Ord. Round trip is sixteen, and with creative trail use this can be stretched to twenty miles. Lightfighters could cover that distance in four and a half hours. Not as fast as the Ranger Battalion’s mandatory four hours but still respectable. The twenty-mile ruckmarch was performed once a month, but because the 7thID had few trucks their Lightfighters often logged ten or miles each day under full 70+ pound packs. They bitched about it too. Once a year some brigades would land the men on the Big Sur coast, walk into Fort Hunter Liggett, and then once the exercise was over they would then ruckmarch the eighty-five miles back to Fort Ord. Lightfighters were in great shape, and when they weren’t training they could play just as hard.
Basketball and football could better be titled murder-ball and the death-bowl as rivalries between the companies were fierce. It was so bad that the different regiments rarely played each other out of concerns by command of crippling injuries. The Enlisted Man’s club today is CSUMB’s student center and store. The Army named it “The Rallying Point”, and up until 1984 it was also a topless club. The Lightfighters nicknamed it “The Punch & Jab” because fights broke out early and often and only the base stockade can boast more murders, but not by much. The classic fight at the Rallying Point came in 1987. The 2-9 Manchus were celebrating the regiment’s birthday, and some guys from 3-17 decided to crash the party. What ensued was out of a John Wayne western as tables were overturned, chairs crashed into heads, bodies flew through the air, glass broke, and a blizzard of fists filled the place. A call went out to every police agency, and soon sixty police officers descended along with fifty MPs to shut the festivities down. However the Lightfighter is always in combat mode; as soon as the first cops were sighted the men exited the building and into the Oak forest behind the club. Lightfighters were masters of night warfare, and even though there were estimated to be three hundred men involved in the fight only nine were arrested. The rest simply used the darkness and their comfort with walking long distances to evade capture by walking the longest way possible back to their barracks.
Today I wonder about the kids who attend CSUMB. Do they understand that there is a level of excellence that was established by the men and women who had once called this place home? Do they know what is possible if they push themselves? Do they know that the only limits they face are the limits that they impose upon themselves? For ten years the Army challenged the 7thID’s Lightfighters and the Lightfighters took it all in stride. The Army quit on the 7thID, not the other way around. Although the transformation from military to university is complete this is still a place of transformation. The lesson to be learned from the 7thID Lightfighters is to face the challenge, stick out your chest, and ask “is that best you got?”