Wednesday, February 10, 2016

California Week #2—Chicago's few, the proud, storm California beaches

     I'm on vacation in sunny California. So as not to leave those back in Chicago not only cold, but without anything diverting to read, I thought I'd feature some of my favorite bits of California reportage over the years, like this story, where I join a Marine exercise near San Diego. 

     ABOARD THE OGDEN — Assault Amphibian Vehicles rarely sink, we are told. Hardly ever. Not a worry. Still, before we can climb into one, we have to learn what to do in case ours does, against all odds, sink. The AAVs — large, 25-ton monsters with treads and sloping sides, studded with square, wartlike nubs to screw on additional armor — wait like sleeping dinosaurs, one after another, in the well deck of the Ogden, an odd-looking ship with two steel doors at its stern, now open, to let the sea in. The waves roll up the sloping "false beach," to just before where the AAVs sit.
     The nine Marines, and me, who are going on a practice raid in the back of AAV No. 3 gather around its driver, a Marine from Florida, and listen closely.
     "If it starts to sink, strip off your helmet and your flak jacket. Puff two puffs of air into your Mae West," he says, referring to our black rubber life vests, named after the chesty star. "Just two, or you'll be pinned to the top as it fills with water and you won't be able to get out. After it fills, you'll be able to pop the hatch and get clear. Once you do, pull the cord to your CO2 canister. That'll shoot you to the surface."
     No problem at all. No sirree, Bob. I am not concerned. We all haul ourselves through the hatch — not the easiest task in metal frame backpacks, canteens, helmets, flak jackets, radios and weapons. We all take places on a pair of long benches, facing each other. I feel calm. But I also notice, when they fire up the 500-horsepower Cummins engine in the AAV, that my hand snakes under my flak jacket, to find the CO2 cord. Just in case.
     About 600 Marine reservists from the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines, based in Chicago on Foster Avenue, spent two weeks in August training in California, first at Camp Pendleton, then at sea on the Ogden and two other ships from the U.S. Pacific Fleet off the coast of San Diego.
     They were joining several thousand Marines from around the country in "Exercise Summer Storm 98," practicing attacks from the sea.
     I met the 24th's inspector; instructor, Lt. Col. John A. Morrow last spring, when the Marines conducted urban warfare training in Chicago. Morrow asked me if I was interested in coming to California. It seemed like it would be fun.
     With the back hatch closed, it is very dark in the AAV — a single, yellowish bulb illuminates the coffinlike interior. An AAV can in theory hold 23 men, but given how snugly 10 men and their gear fill it up, that is hard to imagine.
     In the dimness, I can barely see the Marine across from me. Because his face is painted with camouflage makeup, it disappears utterly. His helmet seems to float, faceless, above his uniform. As time for the raid approaches, conversation dwindles. Just after 9 a.m. we hear noises outside. A shout. Then a boom, and a low rumble. Somewhere, the sound of a bell. More shouts. The AAV suddenly jolts forward. Stops. Then begins again, tilting down the false beach and into the Pacific Ocean.
     We can't see outside — there are no windows in the back of an AAV. But we know we are seaborne by the water that starts pouring in around the front of the roof hatch, like a steady rain.

                                                             *  *  *

     "The occurrences of war will not unfold like clockwork," the Marine Warfighting Manual states. "We cannot hope to impose precise, positive control over events."
      Reading over the Marine strategic materials, on the plane to California, I was impressed by the lack of B.S.
     Words such as "chaos," "uncertainty," "disorder" and "horror" are used liberally. "Everybody feels fear," the manual says.
     I sure did. Not fear of the physical peril. I figured I'd be OK. Or, as I told my wife: "It's bad form to get the reporter killed."
     Rather, I was worried about spending time with a bunch of Marines. I'm not exactly a cringing coward, but I couldn't imagine they would take a look at me, a nerdy guy with glasses, the body shape and muscle tone of an overripe pear, and like what they saw. It might sound juvenile, but I was afraid they'd be mean. Being scorned by Marines, I thought on the plane, would not only sting, but it would be the kind of sting that lingers with a guy.

                                                              *  *  *

     After a minute that feels like 20, the water stops raining in. The AAV reaches the beach along with eight others, and cuts left — exactly as planned.
     In the movies, military assaults just unfold; men are pointed toward the target and rush at it. In reality, military operations are rehearsed as meticulously as formal weddings.
     Two days before we hit the beach, Maj. Frank Halliwell, the commander of Fox Company, the group making the raid, stood in the Ogden's ward room before a crowd of officers.
     "Good afternoon, gentlemen," he began. "We are about to conduct a raid to destroy missile radar sites in order to eliminate the threat to U.S. amphibious shipping."
     The raid was simple, on paper. His Fox Company would hit the beach, destroy any defenders, cut north, turn under an expressway, go to the site of an enemy missile radar site, blow it up, interrogate prisoners, then hightail it back to the beach and return to the ship.
    The briefing was a curious mix of concerns both military and mundane — naval bombardments and the importance of not crushing any passing bicyclists. Fact and fantasy blended; there would be an actual F-18 in the sky, for instance, along with two real Cobra gunships. But any fire from the aircraft would be "notional" — the impressive-sounding military word for "make-believe."
     The radar site would be blown up at H-50: 50 minutes after the AAVs hit the beach. The high-speed raid would take exactly two hours and 20 minutes. There was no discussion of what to do if the radar site wasn't there.
     The concept of the Reserve might be alien to some. Keeping a standing military is expensive. Military leaders realized they could maximize their muscle by keeping a reserve of trained men who aren't full-time soldiers.
     The Marine Corps Reserve was created in 1916, just in time to send reservists to World War I. The idea took hold — about 70 percent of all the Marines who served in World War II were reservists. Today, 25 percent of Marines are reservists. They train one weekend a month and two weeks a year to keep their edge.
     The first illusion shattered by watching the reservists train is any idea that it is a lark, a summer-soldier, party-with-the-buddies kind of thing.
     Everyone took the training in deadly earnest. Nobody was dogging it — the guy who came down with conjunctivitis refused to drop out and kept going, his eyes blood-red and weeping.
     The complaints I got — the late-night, bottom-rung, belly-aching gripes — were not about the pay (low), or the food (raves for the new MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. They've got Skittles), or the quality of superiors.
     What really cheezed the men off was that Camp Pendleton was on alert for fires during their training, and thus certain exercises were curtailed. Live-fire drills were restricted. A Humvee squad could not take its Humvees off the road for fear of fires.
     "We do this two weeks a year, and it's pretty important to us to get all the training done," fumed Sgt. Tuan Best, from a Kansas City unit. "They know how essential this is to us. We need to do what we do. . . . I've got new Marines in my squad. I'm not able to do my job the best I can, which is to make sure my Marines get back from the next war."
     Then again, 2,000 acres of Camp Pendleton burned days after the 24th left.
     The AAVs pull up to a group of trucks. This is where the radar site should be, but it isn't here. The trucks are from another Marine unit, doing something completely different. There isn't much time to assess where the site might be.
     "Got an enemy vehicle coming up the road!" Halliwell shouts. We spot the enemy — actually units of the California National Guard — coming over a bridge, and rush in that direction, huffing along in our heavy Kevlar body armor, then flop face-down in the dirt, which gets kicked up everywhere. The M-16s chatter, blanks.
     Halliwell crouches in a stand of scrubby weeds and talks into the radio, strapped to the back of the lance corporal at his side.
     "We are at our objective but the unit is not here," he says. He listens a moment, then shouts to his men. "We need to move north two kilometers." The officials monitoring the raid decree the enemy destroyed, with the help of two Cobra helicopter gunships fwoop-fwooping overhead. We head north.

                                                    *  *  *

     Marines are used to, paradoxically, being both looked down at and up to.
     "You get a bit more respect in the suburbs," said Benjamin Ouwinga, 23, a corporal from Tinley Park. "Downtown, people look at you and think you're probably a cold-hearted person and have no education."
     "It's almost like an aura," said John Balcazar, 22, a corporal from Buffalo Grove.
     "People see the fact you're disciplined, the fact you do things in a certain way. In today's society, having any kind of mental stability is almost an oddity. There are so many flakes out there."
     The Marines are all about suppressing flakiness. Individuality is out. The Marines had me wear a uniform — I never imagined they'd do that; I figured I'd tag along in slacks and a golf shirt. They gave me the uniform of a guy who was bedridden with poison oak. I thought about it a long time, then put it on. They may have done it for appearance's sake, but I found dressing the part educational. I never worried so much about whether my hat (whoops, my "cover") was on or off. I tried to roll my sleeves the way the Marines do, but got it wrong, and two Marines did it for me.
     I felt like Richard III awaiting his armor at Bosworth Field, standing, with my arms straight out, while these two big Marines fixed the sleeves. There was a constant checking of each other, monitoring the angle of the cap, the blousing of the trouser at the boot. It might sound like fixation on petty detail, but in reality it was a form of maintaining the image and looking out for one another. I grew to like it. 

  *  *  *

     Two kilometers north, Halliwell's raid bogs down. H-50 has come and gone. Still no radar site. The reconnaissance squad that led them here is missing. The radio in his helmet has gone dead. A strange squad of Marines — not enemies, not even part of the exercise — has turned up in the high weeds ahead of them. Halliwell doesn't dare move his vehicles forward until the unexpected Marines are accounted for. He doesn't want to crush anybody.
     Halliwell ends up with two handsets, one held to each ear. With the phones at each ear and a look of utter exasperation on his face, he could be any harried executive having a bad day — in civilian life, Halliwell, a resident of Bollingbrook, is the quality control manager at a Chicago plastic bottle factory. "There was no indication of a site," he says, grimacing, into one of the radios. "What should I do? Over."
     Fox Company gets back to the beach just as two AAVs break down. They will return to the Ogden two hours behind schedule, their mission unaccomplished.
     Like most Americans, I take pride living in the mightiest country in the world, without necessarily thinking about what it is that makes us so mighty. As powerful as our democratic ideals are, and as strong as our Coke; McDonald's; Microsoft economy is, they are not what permit us to blithely go about our business in Chicago, untouched by the threat of violent foreign intrusion.
     It's the Marines. And what makes our Marines the Marines, and not some dog-and-pony show that cuts and runs at the first sign of trouble, is training.
     The crucial thing about Halliwell's raid is not that it didn't succeed. The crucial thing is that it didn't succeed in California, and not East Africa, or North Korea, or the Middle East. This was a dry run. Practice.
     What happened is this. The National Guard expected to engage Halliwell on the beach, as he landed, then pull back south, setting up the radar site there so it could be blown up. But Fox Company was too quick, and hooked north before it could be engaged. So the Guard had to chase after them, coming over the ridge just in time to be destroyed. Halliwell went sprinting north after the radar site that wasn't there.
     That quick hooking maneuver, however, which caused all the trouble, also helped Fox Company two days later in a full-scale, amphibious assault. Halliwell's Marines punched through the defenders, and Echo Company came roaring ashore and wiped them out. Exactly as planned.
               — Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept,. 6, 1998


  1. Good to know that the Sun-Times management certainly does not shortchange you on vacation time.

  2. Very entertaining description successfully diverting our attention from the fact that we're freezing our asses off here in Chicago while you're lollygagging there under the California sun. A point to ponder: in the exercises preparing for the invasion of Normandy, 800 men lost their lives. I trust you weren't aware of that in '98 -- probably better not to know certain things.


  3. I participated in an AAV landing exercise some years ago at the Naval Amphibious Warfare base in Coronado. The Chief of the Boat told us that they rarely sank. Then he said he said that in the two instances he knew of nobody survived. Funny!

    Brings to mind crawling around in a WW II Lancaster bomber on display at RAF Duxford, near Cambridge, the aviation wing of the Imperial War museum. It carried a huge bomb load (more that the U.S. B-17), made possible by very cramped quarters for the crew. The museum guide pointed out that, as initially designed, the escape hatch was too narrow to accommodate a man wearing a parachute.

    War is still Hell, but more attention is paid to creature comforts these days.

    Tom Evans

    1. I was briefly stationed there in Coronado in 1965 before flying to Danang as part of an LCU crew. Combat pay for hauling beer from ship to shore (and bombs to Hue, but the beer runs were more frequent).


  4. I tip my cap to you John for being a Vietnam Vet.

  5. Thank you, Woodman2, but I soon came to believe that we shouldn't have been in Vietnam, even though I didn't see any carnage. It was enough to witness the way we demeaned our allies in their own country.


  6. Yeah. the dominoes didn't fall after all. Eisenhower advised against involvement, but fear of the red menace trumped caution. The late unlamented Robert McNamara put it well: "Everybody was for it until everybody was against it." I once heard a talk by the French journalist Bernard Fall, who probably knew more about Vietnam and its colonial history than anybody. He predicted the outcome accurately but his remarks were met with skepticism, and some hostility, by the audience of military officers bound for attaché assignments and Foreign Service officials.


  7. Yes, the French could have told us all about Dien Bien Phu.


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