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.
By 2006, the 120th had converted to the smaller M119 105-mm howitzer, the 121st had converted to the Multiple Launch Rocket System and would shortly transition to the High Mobility Artillery Rocket
System (HIMARS), 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 the earlier 155-mm cannons in several ways. The M109 howitzers were self-propelled and were often mistaken for tanks, as the large cannon protruded from a sloping turret carried by a Bradley chassis. The M777, a towed cannon, looks much more traditional, but it is hardly old-fashioned.
The M777 uses satellites to properly place and aim in the field in under 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 kilometer 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 smaller 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 between 14 and 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 made it a little different from the M119, which was also 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, Wisconsin. 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 over the past few weeks to reestablish 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."