It has been awhile, hasn’t it.
Let’s see, I think I left off with our mighty mini-fleet steaming its way toward the Philippines for a couple of weeks of bilateral training. That was the plan, at least. With CERTEX complete, PHIBLEX – Philippines Bilateral Exercise – was our next major MEU event. We were going to spend almost two weeks at several locations around the island, training with our counterparts in the Filipino Marine Corps and, as always, sweating our balls off in the jungle while doing so. The Fates, however, had a different plan. It began, as these things do, with portents and omens; in this case, with the complete and utter cancellation of one of our major training sites at Fort Magsaysay. This was due to some sort of contract dispute, though the actual causes were quickly overshadowed by other events, but it was not a promising start. Our attached artillery battery was going to use that site for some much needed training (and time off the boat; through all of CERTEX they were the only guys who hadn’t set foot on shore and they were getting very, very antsy); indeed, it was the one major training evolution they would get during the course of the float. Alas, it was not to be. There was much weeping, gnashing of teeth, and schedule refining in our Ops department during the last few days before PHIBLEX thanks to this development.
Once we reached the Philippines, things seemed to get back on track. The first big event of PHIBLEX was a serious of joint raids in which each company in the battalion would take a contingent of PHILMARs (Filipino Marines, in case you couldn’t guess) along and demonstrate their particular raid specialty – boat, mechanized, helo, etc. I wound up flying over to the USS Denver, where our mechanized company was embarked, to support their raid. After six weeks on the Essex, the Denver was a breath of fresh air. One of the other FACs had regaled us with stories from his first MEU float about the glories of the “small deck”, that class of amphibious ship to which the Denver belongs. According to him, the accommodations were better, the food was great, the sun shone brighter and birds sang louder and more melodiously. I didn’t see any birds, but I think everything else turned out to be true. On the Essex, I shared a closet-sized room with three other people; on the Denver, I had a room to myself and it was twice as big as the one on the Essex. On the Denver, you write down your own custom meal order and hand it to the cooks, who then bring out to your table; on the Essex, you’re rammed through the chow line with the hundred other officers on the ship and unless you get there within three minutes of the wardroom opening, you’ll be standing in line for a long time. And I don’t know if it was because we were closer to the equator or some unusual solar activity, but I would swear under oath that the sun was brighter and more glorious on the deck of the Denver. Life away from the flag pole has much to recommend it. Fewer meetings, less stress and higher morale were among the perks (as were nightly Risk tournaments in the company commander’s stateroom).
The PHILMARs embarked the same day I did, and that night the mech company commander briefed the mission. It would be pretty benign so that we could focus on training the Filipinos rather than concern ourselves with varsity-level tactics: get to the beach, drive to the objective, run around the objective for a little while, drive back to the beach, wade back to the ship. I was less concerned with my responsibilities as the FAC (though the air piece was actually pretty intensive, since our mech raid would be landing simultaneous with a helo raid on an objective just a few klicks to the south which meant lots of aircraft buzzing around) and more with the transit to the beach via Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV). The next day’s raid would be my first time actually ‘splashing’ and swimming to shore in one of these things. For those unfamiliar with the AAV, it’s a piece of 1980s technology which still bears more than a passing resemblance to its 1940s forerunners. Picture a steel box with tank tracks on the side and some holes on the top for the vehicle commander to look around and shoot things. It weighs tens of thousands of pounds and supposedly floated, most of the time anyway. I wasn’t sure I believed it, but tomorrow I would find out.
D-Day dawned, and I grabbed my gear, my weapon and my radios and headed down to the well deck for what I hoped would be the first of many non-sinking AAV rides to come. The well deck was a hub of activity, with diesel engines cranking and roaring, sticks of Marines lining up and climbing into their vehicles, and sailors prowling around the catwalks giving the impression of being very busy. I joined my stick and mounted up inside the company commander’s vehicle. Once our stick was onboard, the rear hatch was shut and (I silently prayed) watertight. But it wasn’t quite time to go yet; the ship was still maneuvering, so we sat there in semi-darkness, engine running, and after a few minutes I started getting a strange tearing-up sensation in my eyes. No, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the immensity of the mission we were about to undertake (this wasn’t the charge of the Rohirrim, after all); it was the engine exhaust from over a dozen AAVs idling right next to each other, getting blown by the interior fan right into my face. I now understood why the other Marines in the cabin all had their eyes closed. They weren’t napping, they were waiting out this unique misery until we finally plowed into the ocean. Fortunately our wait wasn’t long, but we only exchanged one misery for another. Outside, we began hearing the countdown for the AAV launch; then, suddenly, our engine roared louder, our amtrac lurched ahead, and I hoped the next sensation would not be fountains of water rushing into the cabin. There was a brief sinking feeling as we left the launch ramp and plowed into the water, and then there we were gently bobbing along with only a few trickles of water from the cabin roof to indicate that we’d hit the ocean. Well, thought I, these things DO float. How nice. I’ll live to see my wife, son and embryonic daughter again. I did have a few moments of concern when I looked back to crew doors we’d climbed through to get on the track and saw that they weren’t 100% watertight. A small but steady stream of water was bubbling through the bottom of the hatch, and as a diligent passenger I pointed this out to the crew chief. He just smiled and said that the leak was nothing; every track leaked a little and he’d seen much worse than that. I nodded and sat back, confident that either nothing was wrong or the crew chief was feeding me a pile of BS so that I’d die happy.
(clearly I did not die as I’m now writing what will end up being a very long series of posts. That said, it is now late at night and I’m a tired old man. So, more in the next post)