Marines move out of shadows and into fray

After weeks of training, jets hit Afghanistan, rescue unit gets mission

War On Terrorism

November 04, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS PELELIU -- Now they were cruising into the wind, four steel gray Harrier jets on the flight deck armed with bombs scrawled with messages such as "Made in USA," work crews arranged in a single file on a steel drag strip, other flight crews and workers perched eight decks high, taking in the scene with videocameras, flashing photos for posterity.

Yesterday, after weeks of training and supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in near seclusion, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit came out of the shadows and went publicly to war against terrorism.

Three of the Harriers roared out of the Arabian Sea and dropped bombs in southern Afghanistan, aiming for command-and-control targets. A fourth returned to the ship because of radio problems.

One of the pilots who dropped his bombs called the mission "a big morale booster" for the crew, which has watched Navy and Marine pilots on other ships and Air Force fliers provide the bulk of the fight in the air war.

Another pilot, who shook hands with the crew after returning, said, "I think they were just happy to see us launch and not bring ordnance back."

Those involved in flight operations appeared pleased that the ship had joined the fight.

"We hear all the news, see some pictures of powerful aircraft carriers doing their thing," said Andy Bowman of York, Pa., a Navy airman who plotted the aircrafts' route in the primary flight operations room. "But you've got this capability that we can show."

The Peleliu, lead ship of an amphibious ready group, has maintained an extremely low public profile during the war's opening weeks.

Yet with the launching of the Harriers, some elements of the ready group's mission are being seen and reported on for the first time.

"We don't want to overstate what we're doing," said Marine Col. Thomas D. Waldhauser. "That would give a false sense of expectation, a false sense of reality.

"The worst thing we could do is say, `We won the war.'"

A few hours after the Harrier launch, though, another telling moment occurred as one of the Marines' crack units, a TRAP team, made its way to the flight deck.

These are Marine riflemen adept in Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel -- potentially a vital search-and-rescue component for an air war being waged hundreds of miles away.

The 24 Marines, wearing flak vests, bearing M-16 rifles and carrying 100-pound rucksacks, marched in single file, calmly entered a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter and lifted into the hazy morning sky, accompanied by two support helicopters ferrying equipment. Including pilots and other personnel, about 40 Marines left the ship.

Their destination could not be disclosed because of tight reporting restrictions.

But they said they were prepared to meet any challenge.

Their platoon commander was Capt. John Warren of San Antonio, who said he had received a call at 6 a.m. to get his men ready. He said he went to their sleeping quarters and told them: "Hey, we've got a mission. Let's go."

Marines don't travel lightly. Warren said they brought equipment totaling about 200 pounds per Marine.

"Eighty to 100 pounds of it is body armor, water, radio," Warren said. "In the rucksack is survival gear, cleaning gear, shaving gear."

Their gear also included night-vision goggles, gas masks, camouflage atop helmets, mortars and AT-4 anti-tank missile launchers.

But in a recovery operation, intelligence may be the most valuable asset, Warren said.

"Getting ready is the easy part -- the hard part is having the right intelligence," he said. "It's like finding a needle in a haystack."

The Marines rushed to prepare, checked their equipment in a cargo bay, ran up a steep incline and then sat for around an hour.

"It's kind of like being a firefighter," said Staff Sgt. James Byer of Melbourne, Fla. "You're used to getting the call, and every time it happens you're still pumped up and want to help."

It was all pretty standard for the Marines' ultimate 911 emergency force.

"We've had a ton of false alarms," said Marine Cpl. Jayson Arozamenaj. "We've been ready to get on the bird [helicopter] and gotten bumped. We've actually been on the bird and been bumped. We've been getting bumped a lot."

Not this time.

"This has been rehearsed and done so many times," Warren said. "Everyone has their own role, where to go, what to do, getting the radios, filling the water, getting the gear. I give them the final brief, do my inspection and we launch."

By 10:30 a.m. they were airborne.

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