On patrol in the Saudi desert, December, 1990.

On patrol in the Saudi desert, December, 1990. (Rob Jagodzinski / ©S&S)

On patrol in the Saudi desert, December, 1990.

On patrol in the Saudi desert, December, 1990. (Rob Jagodzinski / ©S&S)

WITH THE U.S. FORCES, Saudi Arabia — Troops are learning how to dead reckon their way across the barren, often featureless landscape in. their corner of the central Arabian desert.

"There are very few terrain features that you can take a map out and just look it it," said Lt. Col. John Botch of the 1st Cav Div out of Fort Hood, Texas.

"What we're finding is, we're having to use the compass a lot more, vehicle odometers a lot more," said Burch, who commands the 1st. Bn, 8th Cav Task Force.

They also use stars, Burch said: "We don't know how to read them. If you navigate, just find a bright one and guide on it for dead reckoning.

Dead reckoning isn't quite as desperate as it sounds. An old seafaring term, dead used to be spelled "ded" and is short for "deducted reckoning." You keep track of the direction you're heading and how far you are at any given time.

Results vary. Christopher Columbus dead reckoned his way from the Canary Islands to the Bahamas. But his math was wrong, so he thought he'd gone all the way to Japan.

On a return trip across the Atlantic more than 400 years later, in 1927, pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh used the same dead reckoning as Columbus, but his math was better. Navigating from his last known point in St. John's, Newfoundland, be crossed 2,000 miles of stormy North Atlantic and, reaching landfall in Ireland the next day, discovered he was only two miles off course, an error of about 0.1 percent.

Once settled into the ocean of Arabian sand, GIs spend much of their time out on training patrols where, among other things, their commanders hope they'll learn to navigate with the accuracy of the Lone Eagle.

"There's always a danger of getting lost," said Sgt. David Stine, a light tank scout with the 82nd Airborne Div's 3rd Bn, 73rd Armd Regt.

"You've just got to keep your eyes open to where you're going," said the 22-year-old from Reedsville, Pa.

Staff Sgt. Shawn Wallace, another scout in the same battalion, hedged his words.

"I wouldn't say 'lost,' explained Wallace, 26, from Dayton, Ohio. "But we've been ... misoriented."

Getting servicemembers to admit they've been lost is akin to convincing a Detroit autoworker to buy Japanese. Some troops might be getting misoriented on desert patrols, but not Pfc. Eric Deninger of the 1st Cav Div.

"You're talking to an infantry soldier right now," said the 19-year-old from Downers Grove, III. "We do not get lost."

Why not?

Deninger, who's with Co A. in Burch's task force, said his answer might sound like so much military malarkey, but that it is true: "We have doctrines, lensatic compasses We use terrain association. We don't have maps, but I'm sure someone's working on that."

Maps are in short supply among the U.S. ground forces. Usually they're divvied up one per platoon. And instead of five-color topographical maps, they're often photocopies or aviation charts. Sometimes they're a combination of both.

"If we can operate off them, we can operate on the real ones real easy," said Sgt. 1st Class Willie Ramsey, 34, of Martinsville, Va.

More maps are on the way, said Ramsey, a Grenada veteran and platoon sergeant in Deninger's company. He pointed out that the map shortage is for Saudi training areas. "We'd get additional maps if we went to Kuwait."

Spotty maps are not uncommon in big military operations. Historian Cornelius Ryan wrote that U.S. scouts entering Germany near the end of World War II sometimes had to thumb through old tourist guides to get their bearings. And folklore in the 82nd Airborne Div holds that maps guiding many paratroopers in the 1983 Grenada invasion were based on a common road atlas.

Desert troops' biggest land navigation problem is the same one that plagued Columbus — accurately judging distances:

"You can sit and look at one spot, think it's 1,500 or 2,000 meters, but here it would be every bit of 5,000 or 6,000 meters," said Wallace, the scout from the 82nd.

A lot of units use a Global Positioning System, Wallace said. This is a high-tech black box that uses satellites to pinpoint within a meter its exact location anywhere on the planet — and, therefore, the location of the soldiers lugging it around.

The device is too expensive for everyone to have one, but Wallace said each member of his crew has access to another space-age marvel. His people use laser rangefinder scopes when their eyes are fooled.

"It's like a pair of binoculars. Look at it, push a button," said Spec. David Richardson, who works in Wallace's platoon. "When I got here, I'd look at an object. It'd look like it was 1,000 meters away. Then it would turn out to be 3,000 or 4,000 with the scope."

With practice, soldiers are getting what they call "desert eyes." They're learning to expand their depth perception to mirror the reality of Saudi Arabia's wide-open spaces.

Finding one's way in the desert isn't as tough as it might sound, said Richardson, who's 22 and comes from Los Angeles. "It's probably easier than land navigation, at Fort Bragg (N.C.). With all the terrain and trees, it's hard to see the bigger terrain. Here, major terrain features stick out."

Not that there are a lot of those around.

"The contours of the land are pretty much the same," said Pfc. Ray Leeds, an infantryman in the same outfit as Deninger, the man who does not get lost. "After a While you get to notice some landmarks," said Leeds, from Havre, Mont. "Everything doesn't look the same."

Squad and team leaders — the ones with the maps — do most of the actual land navigating, Leeds said. But they also let some of the lower enlisted troops help out so that they learn how it's done.

"We go out on patrol once or twice a week, usually at night to practice navigation when there isn't any light out," said Leeds, who's 28 and holds a degree in mathematics. "When the moon goes down," said Burch, the task force commander, "it's as dark as you've ever seen it."

Nine out of 10 times, said one of his company commanders, Capt. David Camps of Co A, "when we're in the desert, we'll fight at night."

Vehicle odometers and laser range finders are fine, but infantrymen also have to get out and march through the sand, said Camps, 30, of the New York borough of Queens.

Then they resort to the old trick of pace counting using soldiers who know how many steps they take to go 100 meters, said Ramsey, the platoon sergeant.

Leeds said they usually drive out about 10 kilometers, or six miles, in their armored Bradley fighting vehicles, "then road march a few kilometers from there."

"Higher-up elements" have the satellite navigation systems, Ramsey said. "But for us in the infantry — we use distance and degrees and azimuth on a compass."

The infantryman's standby, his compass, always points north. And GIs, whether they're lost or not, know the needle also points to Kuwait City and the Iraqi army.

Sgt. Theodore Johnson is a mechanic with Camps' Co A, and although he might not be as desert savvy as the infantrymen, the 32-year-old from Danville, Va., isn't too worried about getting lost.

If he gets cut off from the infantry during a battle, Johnson joked, "I'll pull my compass out and head south — the opposite direction."

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