The Forward Observer

by LtCol Larkin Spivey, USMC, Ret


AN ARTILLERY unit combines men, vehicles, and big guns into a force capable of delivering devastating firepower in support of troops engaged with the enemy.  The firing battery, the fire direction center, and all the supporting elements of the artillery unit operate in close proximity – all except one man: the FO.  The FO is the man on the ground with the infantry unit, charged with coordinating the artillery fire.  As one officer charged with training this highly skilled position explained:


The FO is essentially the “eyes” of the artillery.  The responsibilities of the FO are immense, and a great amount of skill is needed to perform the job.  He cannot rely on other people for assistance.  One mistake can be very costly to friendly troops.  The final outcome, the success or failure of the mission, can depend on the actions and proficiency of one man on the battlefield – the forward observer.


In Vietnam I was often impressed with the critical role played by a few particular men.  Sometimes an entire battalion in the field was dependent on one point man leading the column into enemy territory.  An artillery battery had to rely on the one FO to find the targets and direct the fire.  The point men and the FOs have been called the “tip of the spear” as the men at the focal point of the action.