On the 12th of January we got underway. Before heading east we sailed down to the Camp Lejeune coast to load all of our "heavy junk". Most of this stuff came aboard by LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion) aka a hover craft. Also the aircraft flew aboard. We filled the holds with combat vehicles of all type and covered the flight deck with CH53s, CH46s, AH1s, and AV8s. Around the 15th, we pointed her east and started shoveling coal.
The trip over was pretty busy for everyone. Myself and the rest of the Fires section worked in what is known as the SACC (Supporting Arms Coordination Center). We put in long days and night pouring over intelligence, our mission, and targeting the things we knew would support our mission. There was no time for fun and games. I made it a point to get up at 0300 every morning to get some time in the gym pushing steel and getting in some cardio on treadmill or bicycle. I generally got into my bunk around 2300 or so.
The rest of the Marines on board were equally busy. The grunts (an affectionate term for the infantry) were constantly busy with gun drills, live-fire, small unit tactics, weapons maintenance, PT, you name it. Another aspect of being aboard ship is that chow becomes almost continuous. Feeding around 3000 sailors and Marines 3 meals a day is no small feat. The chowline is nearly continuous from 0500 until 2000 in the evening.
Weather was decent all the way over. High points along the way were passing through the straits of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, and the Straits of Hormuz. We also did a "drive-by" shoot in an training range in Djibouti near the southern end of the red sea. We put some Marines ashore and ran some AH1 Cobra, and AV8 Harrier missions. We did a lot of training with our chemical protective equipment on the way over too, anticipating what never came to pass, thankfully.
Morale was very good all the way over. But, after we entered the Gulf, the demeanor of the Marines rapidly changed. We were prepared to go directly from the ship into Iraq, directly into combat. This fact was now our reality, and the reality of our near future. The smokin' and jokin' was over. It was replaced by stone serious faces on all of us from the 18 year old PFC on up to the old farts like myself.
The day before going ashore, we all drew our basic load of ammo for our individual weapons, 30 rounds of 9mm, or 180 rounds of 5.56mm, depending on your weapon.
On the 14th of February, the ATF (Amphibious Task Force) Commander came up on the 1MC and announced: "Land the landing force".
I went in on the 15th with the rest of Fires. Our helo wave was scheduled to leave the deck at 0700, and take us into northern Kuwait. I was up early that morning, as all were. It would be another "hurry up and wait" kind of morning. By 0600 we mustered on the ramp leading from the hangar deck up to the flight deck, with all of our gear. We were loaded down like pack mules, the additional weight of ammo, water, radios, batteries, and MREs put our average load at way too close to 200 pounds.
The morning air was nice, around 70 degrees or so, sunny and clear. We all got mustered and accounted for by 0630 and waited. The CH53s got running out on the flight deck, the roar of 6 or 7 '53s and the smell of the hot exhaust wafted through our staging area on the ramp. We were quiet. Then about 5 minutes till seven, we were led out onto the flight deck to our bird. There were churning '53s on each spot. I think 6 or 7 in our wave. The roar of the engines, and the almost sweet smell of the exhaust was nearly intoxicating. As we walked quickly in line the 100 yards or so to our bird, I felt great. The sailors on the flight deck were looking at us in a different way, I think they must have had a real respect for us as at that moment, knowing where we were headed would be stark and dangerous compared to the comforts of the "mother ship". The ramp of the '53 was slick with leaking hydraulic fluid, but no worry, that is normal. Don't slip, I told myself as I went up the ramp all the way forward, staged my pack in front of me on the deck. The crew chief passed out life vests fro us, since we were flying over water. We struggled into them. It sucks with all your harness and flak jacket on. I was hot, sweating. So were the rest of the leathernecks. We sat on the deck, turning and burning for about 10 minutes or so, until all the birds were loaded. When the ramp closed we couldn't see much. Then, the engines began accelerating, the bird began shaking harder and harder, and we thundered off of the deck.
The noise was somehow pleasant to me. Soon we were flying toward shore, low and fast. I could see the water out the crew chiefs door, as he had it open due to the M2 .50 BMG he was manning. The belt of shining ammo locked into it looked nice. We had one port and starboard. I could see another bird about 100 yards or so off our portside, and slightly lower in altitude. We were maybe 200 feet off the deck. After about a half hour I saw at a distance the towers of Kuwait city with the distinct looking ball on it pass by south of us about 10 miles or so away. Then we were over land. Dry khaki colored sand, not a bit of vegetation in sight. We flew another 20 minutes and then banked, landed, and got our $hit and got off the bird.
It was an administrative movement, landing in a secure staging area in northern Kuwait, so we did not need to disembark the helo in a tactical manner. When we cleared the bird, it roared back into the air, churning up an incredible sandblasting cloud of sand the dusted us good, covering us our weapons, and equipment in sand and dirt. It was to be an introduction to our almost daily weather for the next 3 months... Welcome to Kuwait.
(Continue to PART III)
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