When some stories come to mind the first thought I preface it with mentally is, “and yet it happened,” usually followed by the subtle physical shaking of my head. Such is the case when I think of a particular mission against a hardened underground target complex we attacked in squadron strength deep in the hills of the Virginia countryside.

It came during an era when we found enemy infrastructures starting to migrate toward the protection of the underground into what military doctrine at the time coined Deep Underground Structures — DUGS targets. That evolved into Hardened Deeply Buried Targets (HDBT). While the doctrinal brass fenced over who’s acronym was smarter, Delta picked up a hickory Louisville slugger and headed for the plate.

“Sink or swim” was Delta’s attitude in approaching new threats, and we typically dove immediately head-first into the deep end of the pool. I’m not saying we didn’t look before we leaped, it’s just after the initial speculating and wringing of hands the Unit was very good at recognizing when it was time to stop playing “who’s the smartest guy in the room” and act. I got a healthy dose of that very lesson from Delta Commander Bernie McCabe

“What’s going on, fellas?” Bernie (probably out of sheer boredom one day) wandered out to the demolition range where my team and I were standing next to a metal door mounted in a steel standing frame for breaching practice. Our badass engineers built us a steel frame on top of a concrete slap that was sectioned off such that they could hang as many as ten doors sided-by-side of different types: hollow-core, solid wood, metal, composite. We could breach our asses off and never run out of targets.

Holding up a pistol: “Morning, Sir… we’re trying out a new breaching idea.”

“Do tell, fellas.”

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“Well, this is a 20-gage shotgun pistol with a revolving four-round cylinder. We’ve already popped a couple of wooden doors… right now were contemplating whether it will work on a metal door and if that would even be safe to try.”

We tested a similar shotgun pistol as this in 20 gauge as well as .410 gauge as an alternate breaching means; it was a single/double action pistol with a revolving four-round cylinder.

Then there we stood in clumsy silence, waiting for Bernie to say something clever and wise; Bernie waiting for us to say something that wasn’t stupid. Finally, Bernie reached over and took hold of the pistol, turned and walked to the metal door, raised the pistol and — BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM!! He turned the door hand and pushed — nothing. Returning to our group he handed off the pistol:

“It doesn’t work.” And he trod off. If that was the only thing Colonel McCabe had done all day, it was enough!

(Delta commanders’ checklist)

PT — check!

Attend high-level meetings — check!

Phone call to Sec Def — check!

Lunch — check!

Attend more high-level meetings — check!

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Impart words of wisdom and simple demonstration to the troops… CHECK!!

End of mission

Our first HDBT target was procured and prepared by our Log Cell brothers and named the “Million Year Target”, as they declared that we wouldn’t be able to get in there in a million years. We planned our assault on the objective with our intelligence brief announcing that the environment had a chemical threat component, meaning we would have to conduct the entire assault wearing protective “gas” masks.

“Judas Paste!” my mate Guido exclaimed, “Doesn’t anyone subscribe to the crawl-walk-run format around here?

“You need to check your badge, Guido…” our Team Leader retorted, “…remind yourself where you are.” Well, hadn’t THAT been one of the touché-est moments of the day?

Our squadron rotor-wing armada lifted off our compound heavily at dusk. We had a combination of Black Hawks for the assault teams, Chinooks for the heavy breach fleet, and AH-6s for flank and vanguard protection in transit to, and fire support on the objective. Not long into the flight, we were already given the hand-and-arm signal to mask up followed by an audible groan from the men. Guido and I sat together trying to figure out how to keep each other entertained on the flight while wearing protective masks (P-masks) on; it was challenging but we managed.

Military protective masks (P-Mask) are cumbersome, confining, significantly increase breathing drag, are hot, and narrow the field of vision.

Our 1-Troop had responsibility for one breach point, with our 2-Troop on a similar problem on the opposite end of the underground structure. Guido and I had a most unusual mission: an underground complex like this has to breathe somehow. There were ventilation shafts around the site that gave way to portals on the surface. Guido and I were tasked to gain entry into a designated vent shaft and check to see if the blast valves were open or shut. If open, they could be cut with a torch fording us another entry into the complex.

Intel reported the vent shaft went vertical 50 feet, then “elbowed” horizontally another 20 feet where the blast valves were located. The portal at ground level was covered with a steel grating that had to be cut open with a torch. Guido and I planned to anchor off and throw a fast rope down the shaft to slide down on. How did we plan to get back out if the blast valves were closed? The plan was to flap our arms vigorously and fly out.

Our helos cycled onto the objective quickly as we scrambled out. Looking around there was nothing to see because, well, because everything was underground. Our 1-Troop found their breach point and mustered there. The heavy breach kit was coming from the Chinooks and ATVs were racing about all over. Little Bird gunships were buzzing overhead raining down peace of mind and comfort for the friendlies, and laying the scunion to the enemy. There was the sonic “BRRRRRRRRRRRP” of miniguns red-roping targets following by the double “WHOOSH-WHOOSH” of a pair of Hyrda rockets echoing solidly on both of our flanks.

Guido and I with our support team searched for the vent shaft.

We found our vent shaft and assessed the grating. An ATV pulling a small trailer with a breaching kit and a fast rope arrived. One of the team discovered a hinged door on the grating with a padlock. We could get in that way immediately while the team cut away the grating to give wider access. Guido and I tied off the fast rope using the ATV as an anchor point. A brother snipped the padlock with bolt cutters and threw open the hatch.

Vent shaft viewed from the top looking down

“I see rungs!” Guido discovered a metal ladder mounted in the concrete shaft leading to the bottom; we did not need to slide down the fast rope after all, and now we had a way other than flapping our arms to get out of the shaft. Suddenly the heat from the ATV’s motor caused the brush underneath it to ignite. Our EOD tech jumped onboard the machine and gunned it to move it away from the brush. Burning brush clung fast to the undercarriage of the ATV as he revved across the field, flames shooting out and back as he raced to try to blow the fire out before his ATV exploded.

Guido hollered: “Can you believe this $hite, man??”

“No, but it’s not our problem right now; right now we need to get down that shaft!”

We two scrambled to the bottom pointing assault rifles around and past the elbow in the shaft. Closing the last 20 feet, there were two blast valves one of which was open! Things were looking good. I radioed up that we had an open valve. The brothers topside went nuts and started to cut off the grating from several points. Guido and I had stepped out of the horizontal shaft to climb back out when the molten slag and spark cascades poured down the vertical shaft bouncing and splashing on the floor below. It chased Guido and me to the back hugging the blast valves.

One of the blast valves that was not cut. Valves such as these are designed to be slammed shut by (nuclear) blast over pressure thereby protecting the contents of the underground structure.

Other than watch the fireworks there was nothing for us to do but wait. I started feeling odd as the shaft became severely choked with smoke from the cutting; a tad light-headed… then alarmed:

“Guido! Do you feel alright? I mean can you breathe ok??”

“I feel odd about my breathing…”

“Hey man, all that burning is displacing oxygen in this shaft — we have to climb out now!”

I radioed up several times to topside ordering them to stop the cutting. There was no response. I started to climb and Guido was right on my ass. Hugging the side, if there was any slag hitting me I didn’t notice it. I could feel Guido’s head butting up against my feet in haste. There was a huge portion of the grating cut away so exit was elegant, but as my head crested the top edge of the shaft I discovered the vegetation all around the portal was ablaze.

Some of the brothers were beating the fire and spraying water at it from the breacher’s tank. Others were still cutting away at the grating with torches as if it were a fine Sunday afternoon.

“Ok, it looks like we’re fighting fire up here then, Guido!”

“Phuqit! I mean, that’s what we were doing down there — up here, down there… really doesn’t matter!”

“Guido, this is the very embodiment of the saying: ‘out of the skillet, into the frying pan!’”

With nothing left to burn, Guido and I collapsed down near our 1-troop’s breach point to cover their backs as they worked. We all understood that we could be here for quite a long time trying to breach these massive blast doors for the first time. We farther understood that we might never get through them in a million years.

Then it happened…

At the 18-minute mark into the breach I heard our master breacher, Crapshoot, call for cooling water. That couldn’t be right… just didn’t make sense; that indicated that he was through the door.

…to be continued in part II

By Almighty God and with honor,
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