PHOTO COURTESY DALLAS WALKER
First Lt. Sam Tagavilla, right, of Company C, 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment, hands some small arms ammunition to Spc. McHuy McCoy while searching for weapons caches in Albu Krawar village, near Balad, Iraq.
Treasure hunters of Balad
A platoon from Hawaii's famed 442nd Infantry Regiment has perfected the art of locating insurgents' weapons caches
BALAD, IRAQ » They were the last platoon from their company to start doing patrols. Composed of cooks, communication specialists, medics and a couple of infantry guys, the soldiers of the Cobra Black One platoon, Company C, 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment, took to the streets outside of Logistical Support Area Anaconda with not much of a mission at all.
"We were like the black sheep of the battalion," said Sgt. Alika Naluai, Co. C section leader. "We would just sit on a route and pull security."
After a couple of weeks, someone gave them an idea -- one they weren't thrilled about in the beginning, but paid off in the long run.
Master Sgt. Beau Tatsumura, from the battalion S3 shop, helped show the platoon the ropes of hunting for weapons caches in June.
"He really motivated and encouraged us to go out and find weapons caches," Naluai said. "We figured we'd give it a try."
The platoon spent several weeks searching, but to no avail.
"We really hated doing cache searching at first because we had no method," said Spc. McHuy McCoy, Cobra Black One medic. The team would go out and find nothing.
They ended up getting advice from 1st Lt. Ranjan Singh, Co. B platoon leader, Naluai said. His platoon had led the battalion in caches found at that point.
Singh's platoon started out much like Cobra Black One did -- unsuccessful.
"We decided we needed a system," Singh said. "One day, we were out on patrol and we saw something we thought could be used to mark an area for future reference. We saw a pile of brush near the marking. When we moved it, we found a mortar tube."
From that point on, they looked for areas with similar markings and soft dirt, Singh said.
"We didn't have mine sweepers at the time, so we would look for soft dirt and stab at the ground with bayonets," he said.
Singh's platoon found 44 weapons caches, most between April and June.
"It kicked off a cache craze," Singh said. "Everyone wanted to check out a mine sweeper and look. Of course, they found nothing."
They found nothing because they didn't know what to look for, Singh said.
Singh and his soldiers changed missions to finding high value individuals, so he decided to share his secret to finding caches with the soldiers of Cobra Black One.
Then it happened. It was a day these soldiers would never forget -- July 27.
"Sgt. Naluai and 1st Lt. (Sam) Tagavilla came over the radio and said they think they found something. Everyone got excited and waited by the radio to hear what was going on," said McCoy, who was pulling security at the time. "Then they pulled out a mortar. Then they pulled out 10 mortars. Then they pulled out 30 mortars."
According to Naluai, there were 49 mortar rounds in that first cache -- 30 60-mm rounds and 19 82-mm rounds.
"After that, we were hooked," Naluai said. "We would sit on a route pulling security and decide to search a canal road."
After that first find in July, the platoon found 52 caches during their deployment.
"We had to prove ourselves to the battalion," Naluai said. "After we started to find the caches, our status has risen among our peers and our command."
Finding caches has become like second nature to the Cobra Black One soldiers. It is the main focus of their daily mission, McCoy said.
"We find scrap metal all the time. All day, you long for a cache. Finally, you hit something and you hear that clunk. Now you have to dig a little more (carefully). Eventually, you find that burlap bag. Everyone comes and waits with anticipation to see what's in the bag," McCoy said, smiling. "Then it comes across the radio -- 'Cobra Black has done it again!'"
The platoon is so successful at finding caches, members share the tactics, techniques and procedures they have developed on finding weapons caches with other platoons, including the one that helped them get started.
"It's beginning to work because elements who have never found a weapons cache before are beginning to find them," McCoy said. He produced the presentation the company uses to learn how to find caches.
"For us, it's exciting. It's like a treasure hunt. It made us feel like we were contributing to this war," Naluai said. "That makes less ammunition on the streets and less IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that can be made."
"It's hard work," Naluai added. "This is the glory of cache hunting. Sometimes you get it. Sometimes you don't. You have to be self-motivated. It's a job with no glory. I guess the trick to success is to think like (the enemy). You have to learn to read the land to know how they would find it again."
The team has found that not every mission will be one where they return with a large stash of weapons, but every mission is one where they make their presence known in the villages they patrol.
"I can truly say it has reduced enemy activity in our area tremendously," McCoy said. "We are coming from a point where we were dealing with (a lot of) IED attacks a week."
McCoy said the number of attacks has decreased tremendously. "It has made (terrorists) back out of this area."
On more than one occasion, the platoon has come across a site that is freshly dug up, indicating they are putting pressure on the enemy to move their activity, McCoy said.
Starting off their deployment as the "black sheep" platoon, with a mix of military occupational specialties, the soldiers of Cobra Black One have made their time in Iraq invaluable to many.
"Being a medic, this job is far from what I thought it would be," McCoy said. "I'm OK with it because we have cooks driving and we have commo guys gunning. This war is different. As a medic, taking IEDs off the street, I am still saving lives, just in a different way. To me, that's satisfying enough."