Fort McCoy News July 10, 2015

Big guns return to Wisconsin Army Guard

Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs

FORT McCOY, Wis. — Once upon a time, more than 1,500 Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers manned 54 155 mm self-propelled howitzers in three field artillery battalions — the 120th, 121st, and 126th.

Photo 1
Members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery fire their first rounds from their newly fielded M777 155 mm howitzers at Fort McCoy in June. Photo by Anita Johnson

By 2006, the 120th had converted to the smaller M119 105 mm howitzer, the 121st had converted to the Multiple Launch Rocket System and shortly would transition to the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, and the 126th turned in its field artillery mission to become the 257th Brigade Support Battalion. Outside of the 426th Regional Training Institute, Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers had not fired the large cannon in nearly a decade.

That officially changed June 26 as the 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery Regiment completed two weeks of training by firing the first live rounds from its new M777 155 mm howitzers.

"As a career Wisconsin Army National Guard field artilleryman, this day is significant," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kurka, commander of the 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery, "as Fort McCoy once again rings out with the roar of Wisconsin Army National Guard big guns."

The M777 howitzers are different from earlier 155 mm cannons in several ways. The M109 howitzers were self-propelled and often mistaken for tanks as the large cannon protruded from a sloping turret carried by a Bradley chassis. The M777, a towed cannon, looks more traditional, but it is hardly old-fashioned.

Photo 2
Wisconsin Army National Guard
Soldiers reload an M777 howitzer
during a test firing at Fort McCoy.

Photo by Vaughn Larson

Satellites are used to properly place and aim the M1777 in the field in less than three minutes — a task that used to take a dozen minutes using traditional methods. Secure radios allow artillerymen to receive missions from a fire-direction center that could be up to 10 kilometers away. And because the new howitzers are not required to be within shouting distance of the fire direction center, gun crews are not restricted to a firing line — they can disperse across a larger area, presenting a less-concentrated target for the enemy. In addition to a direct-support mission, the larger cannon diversifies the 120th's mission capability to include engaging deep targets 14-22 miles away and firing improved munitions to destroy the enemy's lines of advance.

"The biggest difference is a bigger crew — definitely a bigger piece," said Staff Sgt. Michael Sentkowski, a howitzer section chief with the 120th. "I think it requires a little more teamwork."

The M777 calls for a nine-person crew — six for the cannon and three on the ammunition team. The self-propelled 155 mm howitzers came with a hydraulic rammer, but the M777 requires the muscle of two Soldiers and a type of battlefield choreography to finesse a large, curved ramrod.

Pfc. Terry Tackes said the moving pieces of the M777 make it a little different from the M119, which also was a towed cannon. He said the best part of the new, larger cannon was "just working with these guys. The teamwork is outstanding."

The battalion also added a third firing battery, reactivating Battery C, which will be located in Oconomowoc, Wis. Capt. Jason Doro and 1st Sgt. Jaime Preder will lead the new unit.

"This is the first growth in artillery in the state since the 1970s," Kurka said, noting that Soldiers in maintenance, operations, and fire-direction control trained throughout the past few weeks to re-establish the 155 mm howitzer's place in the Wisconsin Army National Guard.

"I commend you for your effort," he continued. "It is with you that the enduring legacy of the Wisconsin artilleryman now rests. It could not be in better hands."