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Posted on Apr 28, 2006 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

Marines in the Garden of Eden

By Richard S. Lowry

This is an excerpt from Richard Lowry’s latest book, due to be published on June the 6th, 2006. Purchase information is located at the end of the article.

rs0.jpgChapter 7 Bloody Sunday

“Being ready is not what matters. What matters is winning after you get there.” Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, USMC

HMM-162 The Golden Eagles

At 0500 Garcia, Schroeder, Hetterscheidt, Lewis, Morton and Griggs got an early morning wake up call, rousing them from their clean sheets and soft mattresses on the USS Saipan. Eric Garcia opted for a few extra minutes of sleep instead of getting up for breakfast. Captains Garcia and Morton had drawn the assignment for the next cas-evac rotation. Garcia would lead the two-ship mission. Soon he and Morton would move into Iraq in their CH-46 helicopters. They would replace the two Sea Knights that had relieved them the day before. Garcia and his crew would not miss the action after all.

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For this mission, Captain Eric Garcia’s call sign would be Parole-Two-Five. Lieutenant Tod Schroeder was Eric’s copilot, Gunny Hetterscheidt was the crew chief and Corporal Lewis was the aircraft’s door gunner. Because they were set up for casualty evacuations, Eric also carried two Navy Corpsmen, Doc Mark Kirkland, a Search Air Rescue Corpsman, and Doc Moses Gloria, a veteran of Afghanistan. This was the best overall crew in the entire squadron. Garcia was undoubtedly the best pilot in the squadron; Gunny Hetterscheidt the best crew chief in the Corps; and Gloria was a war-hardened veteran of Afghanistan. They jokingly called themselves the “A-Team.”

Captain Billie Morton flew the Dash Two aircraft. His call sign was Parole-Two-Six and he flew in the squadron’s 03 aircraft. Captain Eric Griggs was his copilot. Corporals Ryan and Allen, plus Doc Scott Reid and Doc Peyton rode in the back of Dash Two. Griggs explained, “As the second helicopter in the section, it was our job to keep up and shut up.”

The crews of Parole-Two-Five and Parole-Two-Six each moved through their morning routine in preparation for the mission. Garcia, Schroeder, Morton, and Griggs attended briefings while Hetterscheidt and the other crewmembers checked their aircraft. Doc Gloria nervously smoked cigarette after cigarette on the smoking deck.

Gloria had learned in Afghanistan to never smoke his own cigarettes before a mission. He never knew how long he would be ashore. So, Gloria stuffed his pockets with his own cigarettes and bummed a new cigarette from every sailor and Marine who appeared that morning. Everyone knew that Gloria was headed inland and that he was one of the few veterans aboard, so Gloria paid for each newly lighted cigarette with a “war story.” His storytelling had become legendary aboard ship to the point that his friends would joke him every time he started a new story. Gunny H was the worst. Whenever Gloria started, he would interject, “Yeah, one time, in Afghanistan,” parodying the phrase from American Pie. Gloria passed the time smoking and joking until it was time to board the aircraft.

Finally, everything was ready and the two helicopters launched at 0830 on a warm, clear Sunday morning. Garcia’s two “Phrogs” flew west in formation. Soon the azure Persian Gulf waters gave way to the khaki colored Kuwaiti desert floor. Garcia made a quick stop at Camp Ryan to drop off a bag of mail then lifted off across the Arabian Desert. An hour and a half after leaving the metal flight deck of Saipan, they arrived at Task Force Tarawa’s Headquarters at Queensland, between Jalibah and the intersection of Highways 1 and 8.

The Navy-gray CH-46 Phrogs, actually designated as Sea Knights, have been the Marine Corps’ flying workhorse for twenty-five years. Most of the aircraft are older than the Marines they carry. The Sea Knight is a scaled down version of the Army’s CH-47 Chinook. Its smaller size is more suited to the Marines mission aboard amphibious carriers. They are a little over 45 feet long when their rotor blades are folded for storage. The Phrogs can carry twenty-two combat loaded Marines and can be armed with two .50-caliber machine guns, one on each side of the aircraft.

rs1.jpg
Phrogs at RCT-2 HQ, south of An Nasiriyah

These airplanes, nearly the oldest in the Corps’ inventory, are held in high esteem by veteran Marine aviators. Colonel Milstead described them like they were a living entity, “I call them the old war horse. They flare their nostrils. They can smell the cordite. They hear the sound of cannons.” When they are not being used for combat assault, the Sea Knights provide support to the Marines ashore by ferrying mail, supplies and standing ready for rapid casualty evacuations.

Now there were four CH-46s at Queensland: Garcia’s section and the 46 section that he would relieve. Lieutenant Colonel Vazquez and his cas-evac crews had been up most of the night running missions. Garcia and Morton’s crews went over to one of the other 46s for a short briefing and handover so that the exhausted crews could return to the ship for some much needed rest.

General Natonski’s Huey also sat ready at Queensland. Hueys are the most widely used helicopter in the world. The Marines have been using them since Vietnam. If the Sea Knights are the airborne buses of the Corps then the Huey is its airborne taxi. The smaller capacity aircraft is used for many utility functions. Unit commanders use the Huey as an airborne command center. It can also be used as an ambulance and fitted out for special operations missions. The General’s Huey was armed with 2.75 inch Zuni rockets and a 7.62mm mini-gun.

A Huey pilot who had been flying all night with the 46s was also at the turnover. The Marines sat down inside the 46 and began their handover. The Huey pilot said, “It’s starting! They’re shooting at us."

"Oh yeah?” Gunny Hetterscheidt cynically inquired.

“Yeah!” The Huey pilot excitedly replied. “It sounds like – It sounds like – you can hear it. It sounds like it does when you go to the rifle range and you are pulling butts. You can hear it!”

Gunny Hetterscheidt thought to himself, “Yeah, right!” Then he brushed off the pilot’s description saying, “Yeah. OK. Whatever.” While they were talking, a Marine came running out of the Main CP and said that they had a need for an immediate cas-evac. Garcia interrupted with, “We will take it.”

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