U.S. Marine Corps
Ladera Ranch, Calif.
It was a midsummer afternoon. I had been in the Marine Corps about seven years and was a field artilleryman serving with India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines at Camp Pendleton. My unit had just completed a hugely successful three-week trip to the field at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. All of the Marines were ready to get back to our base in sunny Southern California, which was a lot different from the desert living we’d experienced over the past few weeks. The final step was to drive our vehicles home safely. The trip would take about six hours to complete with a couple of rest stops along the way.
Before departing, we had a thorough safety brief for all drivers and assistant drivers. We all knew our first stop would be at the two-hour mark so we could stretch and conduct a vehicle check and walk-around for about 15 minutes. That stop went off without a hitch, and we were back on our way. The next rest stop would be at a raceway in Fontana, Calif. We were all looking forward to this one because the raceway snack bar was going to open for us so we could purchase hotdogs, hamburgers and sodas. Once again, the rest stop went smoothly.
With our break time now over, we had another safety brief to notify all drivers and assistant drivers about the remainder of our trip. All was going well until we got on the section of freeway that led to the I-215 ramp en route to Camp Pendleton. Ahead of us, a 5-ton truck carrying an M198 howitzer got on the highway in traffic and moved over to the third lane of travel. We were able to remain in the slow lane, which was good because the ramp to I-215 was just ahead.
As the convoy ahead of us took the ramp, the 5-ton was still in the third lane. We’d always been told that if we were going to miss a ramp that we should go around and backtrack. The driver did not heed that warning and attempted to cross three lanes of traffic to make the ramp. Unfortunately, he did not take into account was that he was towing a 16,000-pound gun with tires that stuck out on both sides. The truck made the exit; the gun did not.
We watched helplessly as one of the tires hit the guardrail, causing the gun to become airborne. What happen next was unbelievable. The gun was hooked to the truck by a safety chain, which did not break. After the gun struck the ground, the truck began to flip over and over. In the back of the truck was gun gear, weapons, personal gear, a spare tire and, worst of all, nine Marines.
We pulled in behind the truck, which had come to rest upside down. Our primary concern was for the Marines. All had suffered varying injuries, including broken bones and deep gashes on their heads. One Marine was trapped under the spare tire bracket. We had to hook up the 5-ton to our truck and pull it far enough to free him. All were taken to local hospitals, where most were treated and released. In the end, six Marines were put out of the Corps due to the accident. I never again saw the Marine who’d been pinned under the truck.
The Marine Corps learned a valuable lesson this day. From that point forward, Marines were no longer allowed to ride in the back of a truck. They are now bused to and from training areas off base. Seeing firsthand the destruction caused by one unsafe act during a simple peacetime drive-back to base was an important reminder that we must be aware of our surroundings at all times.