To pick up this tale where we left off: our joint mechanized raid complete, we returned to the USS Denver and prepared to join the rest of the ARG in pulling into port at Subic Bay the next day. This port call would signal the kick-off of PHIBLEX, with all three ships disgorging their contents onto the pier at Subic and then trucking, busing, flying, and otherwise burning fossil fuels to get all the MEU elements to their various sites around the island for about ten days of training with the PHILMARs. The process of pulling into the bay and tying up at the pier provided an educational look into Navy ops, something which we on the ground side alternatively viewed as transparent when it didn't affect us, and annoying - see previous comments on whistles, chains, announcements, etc - when it did. I stood on the weather deck at the bow to watch the ship's "sea and anchor" detail prepare the various and sundry ropes and chains required to park a ship where one wanted it. Above me, next to the bridge, were the ship's captain, other officers and senior enlisted, and the "pilot" who'd been picked up first thing that morning. One could feel centuries of old naval traditions permeating the whole evolution; apart from the presence of modern gadgets like defensive machine guns, radios, and turbine engines, I was sure an old tar from the wooden deck of the HMS Victory or USS Bonhomme Richard would have felt right at home.
Orders were relayed from the captain and pilot - a Filipino civilian with intimate knowledge of the harbor - either to the steering detail or sea and anchor detail. The senior chief with sea and anchor yelled out the commands to his worker bees, who scurried around tying, untying, releasing, and securing as required. As we closed in with the pier, a pair of tugboats approached and received lines thrown from our bow. The tugs alternately pushed and towed us to the pier, where finally docking this beast became a game of inches. Ever so slowly, with refinements given to the pilot and relayed to the tugs who were on the starboard side of the Denver and couldn't see the pier, we were pushed forward, then back, and always closer to the dock until the captain was satisfied and again lines were thrown from the ship to dockworkers who secured them. 'Parking a ship' might seem fairly bland and mundane to you landlubbers; but I'd like to see you stop a 10,000 ton warship exactly where you want it. Myself and many other Marines hanging off the rails had front-rows seats to see the Navy do what it does, and I'm forced to admit: they do it well.
Now that we were in port, I had to grab all my junk and walk my happy ass back to the Essex for a night, as I was still administratively attached to H&S company and would be part of their bus movement the next morning. Leaving the Denver was a little depressing, since I'd enjoyed my few days there more than the average week on the Essex. Being on the Essex, and hence right next to the 'flagpole' where the powers that be make all the big decisions, inevitably sucks you in to all the friction, scrambling, and planning and re-planning that goes in to those decisions. There are many meetings at many command levels, and then sometimes more meetings to tell you that what was discussed and 'decided' at the last meeting has been undecided or 'overcome by events', and now there will be more meetings, scrambling, and planning in order to develop a new course of action. To put it mildly, this generates more than little frustration in those who are whip-sawed back and forth by change 10 to plan W. On top of this, the Essex isn't the greatest place to get to know your fellow Marines and sailors. The ship's company - i.e. only the Navy or 'blue' side of the house - contains over 1200 sailors. Throw the Marines on board, and that's another 1800 sets of elbows. It's going to take more than a few weeks to get to know everyone on our floating town of 3000. The Denver's total complement, with Marines embarked, is less than half that of the Essex. It was a pleasure going into the wardroom and actually seeing and eating with the same small group of people each time. I think I touched on this in an earlier post, and you'll hear it again about later in the patrol, but: life's good on the Denver.
Anyway, the day after pulling into port, me and my roommates hauled all our gear down the pier and awaited the buses that would take us to Crow Valley, where H&S would be setting up its camp and we FACs would be doing some CAS training in a few days (or so we thought . . . remember the portents and omens . . .). The buses arrived and took us on a three-hour ride from Filipino civilization to the Filipino wild. I'd fallen asleep during the ride right after we pulled out of Subic, a major port town; I woke up as we bounced up and down on poorly paved roads, passing homes thatched with palm fronds, surrounded by goat and chicken enclosures, and populated by hoards of children in various stages of undress. We were not in Kansas anymore. We stopped at the camp where we'd be staying for the next week and disembarked to pitch our tents. The camp had been under construction for the last few days courtesy of the Combat Logistics Battalion (CLB) attached to the MEU, and the Combat Engineer Platoon (CEP) attached directly to our battalion. Not to be uncharitable, but from what we heard when we got there, it sounded like CLB's contribution had been limited to simply getting all their vehicles and personnel to the site and then rapidly turning to on chow and PT. The hard work required to scrape a sanitary, well-protected expeditionary encampment from the sand of Crow Valley fell almost exclusively on our engineer platoon, who worked many long hours, in the dark, to build a FOB that could house over a thousand Marines in the field. They did so, uncomplainingly, and in an incredibly short amount of time.
I pitched my tent, dug some drainage ditches around it to keep from getting swept away by rain in the night (like my ditches would've mattered; Crow Valley is not just some lower land sandwiched between higher ground, but a river valley that's only a few degrees less wet than the Great Flood when it rains during monsoon season), and turned in. The next day, we were to inspect the various ranges we planned to use with the PHILMARs during our joint training, and then myself and several other officers were to catch a helicopter ride to Clark airfield to meet with our career monitors and find out just what we'd be doing after this deployment. I rode along to inspect the CAS range, which we'd already heard about from some of the pilots who'd flown in Crow Valley during previous 31st MEU deployment. Seen up close, however, this range was truly special. I'd been told about the "bomb circle" which helped the Filipino Air Force find their target from the air. It was, truly, a circle; several concentric rings of brightly painted orange tires, in fact, with a nice orange VW Bug sitting in the center, ready to be blown into little tiny pieces. If only our enemies had the courtesy to mark important structures and vehicles with large orange circles, thought I, a FAC's job would be so much easier.
Range reconnaissance complete, we returned to camp, and I grabbed an overnight bag and was trucked out to the LZ for my trip to Clark. Clark was only about a fifteen minute flight by CH-46 from Crow Valley, and I eagerly disembarked after touching down, ready to solidify my post-1/7 plans with my monitor and enjoy a night under a roof instead of the stars (yeah, I'd only spent one night thus far in the field, but Crow Valley and the Philippines in October were like every other island I'd slept outside on during the MEU thus far: hot, humid and without a breath of wind to make things moderately more comfortable. Hey, at least I had a tent this time). Immediately after landing, however, things took a turn. Remember those portents, omens, and Fates I talked about, that signaled PHIBLEX might be a little star-crossed from the get-go? As soon as we landed at Clark, they showed up. No sooner had we hauled our luggage away from the aircraft and asked the ACE's OpsO where to meet the vans that were supposed to take us to the hotel - and our monitors - the OpsO got a phone call telling him that the monitor visit had been cancelled in its entirety. Why? Because a large typhoon had set its sights on northern Luzon and the monitors didn't want to get stranded in the Philippines when they had several other stops to make around the Pacific. But this was chump change compared to the bigger news: thanks to this typhoon, PHIBLEX - the major scheduled event of our patrol with the 31st MEU - was now cancelled too. A typical monsoon rainfall would make life challenging in Crow Valley; a typhoon, even if it hit the northern part of the island, would wash everything away. The ACE's aircraft, sitting in the open at Clark with no hardened shelters available to them, would be at the mercy of hurricane-force winds and all the crap they toss through the air. The order came down: we were getting out, re-embarking the entire MEU as quickly as possible, and sailing south before the storm came. This news caused no small amount of consternation, because it meant that everything we'd assembled at Crow Valley would have to be broken down, repacked on vehicles, and hauled back over a week early. Given that the MEU had contracted many local vehicles to move all our trash, this meant re-arranging all the contracts we'd made on the back end. That's kind of a big deal. But there was little choice. This typhoon, dubbed "Megi", was brewing up into a powerful storm, and we had to get out of its way.
Monitor visit or no monitor visit, we weren't scheduled to go back to Crow Valley until the next day, so we had no choice but to try and enjoy ourselves on Clark for a night. We did. The next day, a couple of Phrogs flew us back to Crow, where the camp breakdown was well underway. The battalion spent one more night under the stars, and then began the long process of convoying everything and everybody back to Subic to re-embark on our ships. The buses and trucks moved back and forth long into the night, but in a testament to the flexibility and professionalism of the MEU's Marines, the onload was finished in record time without losing or damaging a single piece of rolling stock. First thing the next morning, our ships pulled out and steamed south. PHIBLEX had come to an ignominious end, but the storm gave us something new to focus on: disaster relief. Megi hadn't changed course during the last 48 hours and was poised to give northern Luzon a direct hit. Since the order first came down to pull out, the storm had strengthened into a true monster: winds were well over 150 knots and waves were 30 feet and higher. It was bigger than a Category 5 storm in the Gulf, and predicted to weaken only slightly before making landfall. The potential for catastrophic damage was high, and though the Philippine government had not yet asked for any outside assistance, it was obvious that it was only a matter of when, not if.
The next two days were spent transiting the southern islands of the Philippine archipelago in order to get ourselves into a position to help on the eastern side of Luzon as soon as the storm had passed. Incidentally, we passed through some of the same straits that Japanese and American forces had maneuvered in some sixty years earlier, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf (one of the last and largest naval battles of World War II; I won't go into all the details but a good rundown can be found here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Leyte_Gulf ). Though subsequent fighting on the islands themselves would be long and bloody, the Battle of Leyte Gulf broke the power of the Japanese navy, which would never again sail in force. Once we'd positioned ourselves off the coast of the Cagayan district (hardest hit by the typhoon), we waited for the call to come. Unsurprisingly, the call came, but it wasn't quite what we expected: the Filipino government only asked for a few aircraft to help survey and assess the damage. Our visions of heroic assistance by all hands were dashed, but it was still a real mission, so we started to plan our small part.
In the end, only a handful of personnel from the MEU went ashore to assess damage and distribute aid, and this is less an indication of the storm's destructiveness than a testament to the readiness of the Philippine government. Oh, there was damage - the affected area was heavily agricultural, and many fields and rice paddies were destroyed - but the loss of life was surprisingly minimal. Given that its island are in a 'typhoon alley', the Philippine government has had a great deal of experience in preparing for major disasters, and that showed in the aftermath of Megi. The regional authorities in the north knew that it would be some time before government aid could get to them, and so they'd evacuated civilians and identified aid distribution points well before the storm hit. They were ready, and it saved lives. Many of us noted that the municipal and regional leaders of this relatively poor nation were far more adept at recovering from a major disaster than were their counterparts in the Gulf when Katrina hit.
We spent about two days providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and then we were off again to Subic, to pick up a small amount of gear that hadn't been re-embarked. After another couple of days steaming, we pulled back into port and got a few hours' liberty. We were restricted to the immediate area around the port, so there wasn't much to see, but it was good to get off the ship and grab some real food (and souvenirs) before getting underway again. Next morning we were off again, this time heading southwest to Singapore for our first real port visit. To put it mildly, Singapore was a hell of a good time; but more on that later :).