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Investigation: Mortar explosion that killed 7 Marines result of double-loaded round

Jan. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Marines conquer and learn in squad maneuvers
A Marine loads a 60 mm mortar during training at Hawthorne Army Depot, Nev., in July 2011. An investigation into a deadly mortar accident at Hawthorne in March 2013 concludes that it resulted from human error, due in part to inadequate training and some Marines' lack of familiarity with the weapons system. (Lance Cpl. Christofer Baines / Marine Corps)
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A newly released command investigation into the horrific mortar explosion last spring that killed seven Marines and wounded eight more concludes that the accident occurred when a Marine double-loaded rounds in a mortar tube.

The March 18 explosion occurred while Marines withAlpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., were conducting nighttime live-fire training with 60-millimeter mortars at Hawthorne Army Depot, Nev.

Killed in the blast were Pfc. Joshua M. Martino, 19, of Clearfield, Pa; Lance Cpl. David P. Fenn II, 20, of Polk City, Fla.; Lance Cpl. Roger W. Muchnick Jr., 23, of Fairfield, Conn.; Lance Cpl. Joshua C. Taylor, 21, of Marietta, Ohio; Lance Cpl. Mason J. Vanderwork, 21, of Hickory, N.C.; Lance Cpl. William T. Wild IV, 21, of Anne Arundel, Md.; and Cpl. Aaron J. Ripperda, 26, of Madison, Ill.

Obtained by Marine Corps Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, the 19-page investigation into the incident — and the hundreds of pages of accompanying interviews — show that human error was to blame, but attribute some responsibility for the error to training deficits, exacerbated by some Marines’ lack of familiarity with the weapons system.

Freshly back from a four-month deployment to Kuwait that ended in January 2013, Alpha Company had been training at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in nearby Bridgeport, Calif. The company’s mortar section had not trained with their weapons in Kuwait, and the Marines at Hawthorne that night first conducted mortar training together two months earlier, in January. Also, several Marines in the section had recently transitioned from the larger 81mm system to the 60mm mortars, the investigation shows. Overall, however, witnesses called Alpha Company highly trained, competent and ready.

Prior to the unit’s night mission, the Marines had conducted a day attack, firing 12 rounds from three mortar tubes. But one of the mortars failed to fire properly, so section leaders decided to move forward with just two weapons systems for night training, shifting some Marines around to different positions.

Training started off well that night. As they had done in day training, the Marines fired their weapons in handheld mode, using a trigger to fire the rounds. Because of the terrain, the Marines were grouped tightly around the two weapons, in a position known as a “lazy V.” The mortars shot off several illumination rounds first, then several high-explosive rounds, according to the report.

The next explosion came from the mortar position itself. The investigation found a Marine was loading a second round into the mortar tube when a round already in the tube was detonated, shooting the half-loaded round out and causing the deadly blast.

The chaos and horror that followed is captured in some 28 interviews with Marines from 1/9, from then-battalion commander Lt. Col. Andrew McNulty down to mortarmen from Alpha Company who witnessed the explosion.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Douglas Derring, the battalion’s gunner, called a “Red Blanket,” alerting Marines to casualties. Corpsmen rushed to the scene as others identified the wounded and moved gear out of the way for a casualty evacuation. Casualties of the blast were medevaced to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, but some of the Marines died before they reached the hospital.

The investigation concluded that four factors contributed to the tragedy: inadequate training and preparation for the complexity of the exercise; improper mortar gunnery commands and firing procedures; a “perceived sense of urgency and resultant haste” within the mortar section during the exercise; and a systemic lack of supervision of the mortar section during the exercise and in the months prior to it.

It found, among other things, that the Marines with the mortar section were lacking sustainment training with their weapons and that the Marines were used to the 81mm system, which cannot be handheld and is “nearly impossible” to double-load in the conventional drop-fire mode, which doesn’t use a trigger. The tight spacing of the two weapons systems contributed to the number of casualties, it found.

These problems were due “to high key leader turnover and a perceived reputation of Company A’s mortar men as being well-trained, experienced and highly proficient,” the investigation found.

It notes that the troop deaths and injuries as a result of the blast “occurred in the line of duty and [were] not the result of misconduct on the part of any of the victims.”

The investigation recommends that McNulty, Capt. Kelby Breivogel, the commander of Alpha Company, Derring and another unnamed official be relieved for cause and that two other Marines be reprimanded for failing to ensure safe conditions, proper training and proficiency. Other recommendations call for new Marine guidance regarding minimal distance between mortar systems and use of the handheld mode, and better training and procedures for safety officers and live-fire exercises.

McNulty, Breivogel and Derring were all relieved as a result of the investigation’s findings. Marine Corps Times has reached out to them for comment.

But not all testimony supports the findings that training or preparation was lacking within the unit.

A chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear officer for 1/9, whose name is withheld, said he didn’t see any warning signs leading up to the tragedy.

“At no time did I have a feeling that something was off or we shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “In my opinion, we were doing all right ... it was just a freak accident.”

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