Marines ready, waiting

Mission: Well-armed amphibious squadrons cruise the Arabian Sea, with little idea of when, where or how they will be used.

War On Terrorism

Military Response

November 03, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS PELELIU - Marine Cpl. Curtis Holmes will never forget the last night of leave in Darwin, Australia, when a staff sergeant barked at him to get back to the ship, telling him the twin towers were gone, the Pentagon was hit and the Peleliu was leaving early the next morning.

"I thought it was a hoax," Holmes, 21, of Landover, Md., recalled yesterday while sitting in the ship's mess. "I started to walk back and people kept yelling, `Everyone to the ship, now.'"

Cabs pulled over. Marines were given free rides. The Peleliu left Darwin Sept. 12 and sailed to the Arabian Sea.

Weeks later, some Marines, like Holmes, continue to wonder what comes next for the three-ship amphibious ready-group led by the Peleliu.

"We always practice, we always train, we always get ready for war," said Holmes, a forward observer for the ship. "Now that it's in our face, we now know everyone's life is in the hands of each individual Marine. It's no longer we have to be good at our job - we have to be experts. A lot of studying is going on, a lot of practice."

And seemingly a lot of waiting.

There are 2,200 Marines and 1,900 sailors in the group led by the Peleliu, a 20-story-tall amphibious assault ship with an aerial armada poised to jump off its 820-foot-long steel deck.

Yesterday, a pair of screeching Harrier jets hovered for precision landings. In the air cargo bay, crews carefully parked Cobra attack helicopters and the bulkier heavy-lift CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters. A lower deck was crammed with Humvees topped by Stinger missile systems, light armored vehicles and fast-attack vehicles. Still lower were amphibious landing craft.

Yet for all the firepower, little has been revealed about the exact mission of the amphibious ready group other than to support Operation Enduring Freedom. Under Pentagon rules, reporters on the ship can only detail activities that occur onboard. So news has barely seeped out, although a detachment of Marines was observed leaving the ship in three helicopters Thursday.

Last month, CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters dispatched from the ship came under fire as they sought to recover an Army Blackhawk helicopter that had crashed in Pakistan. Two Army Rangers were killed in the Blackhawk crash.

Marine Col. Thomas D. Waldhauser, commanding officer of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said the Marines went to refuel at an intermediate base and came under small-arms fire. A decision was made on the ground to leave the wreckage of the Army helicopter and return to get it another day.

"The Marines performed with quiet confidence and professionalism and were able to react to a very dynamic situation almost in a routine manner," Waldhauser said. "We're talking about young men going out, and under adverse conditions, they had to make snap judgments. It was a success just by definition. The mission was accomplished. It took a little bit more time and effort than we thought."

The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit is a self-contained force, capable of fighting on land, sea and in the air. It can also handle such missions as reconnaissance, peacekeeping, search and rescue and evacuating civilians.

Asked what the Marines' role would be in six months, Waldhauser said, "This whole campaign is in its infancy stages. Things are changing as the campaign goes on."

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