Quantcast
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

War games at Twenty-nine Palms

If they want to have a war the Marines want to fight it

General Glasgow claimed that the desert battle would cost $120,000 or $500,000, depending on how you figured it. - Image by Charles Landon
General Glasgow claimed that the desert battle would cost $120,000 or $500,000, depending on how you figured it.

We’re sitting at the bar rail in the officers’ club at Twentynine Palms. It’s crowded with desert-tanned Marines in camouflage utilities and combat boots. Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It’’ is playing on the juke. I’m talking with Ron Frazier, the public information officer who’s been prepping me and a photographer on the plan of battle for tomorrow’s big war game, a “combined-arms exercise,” Frazier calls it. Talk naturally turns to the failed rescue mission in Iran. “If I were the president, I’d give them forty-eight hours to return our captives, then I’d go in and level the country,” Frazier says.

Eric Huffman: “This here’s a survival vest.” He pulls a gray lifesaver vest from under one of the seats. "It costs over $1000 dollars."

Another Marine comes over to greet Frazier. He’s about six-foot-three, with blue eyes, a blond crewcut, and a Mason jar full of beer in his hand. He looks to be well into his cups. Frazier introduces me to Lieutenant Hendricks, an air controller at the Twenty nine Palms expeditionary airfield. The lieutenant begins a harangue about how the press is out to crucify the military. Frazier defends the press, arguing that it’s “coming around to our side. ” But the lieutenant will have none of it. The press has no right to second-guess the Iran mission.

A couple of jets fly over and begin radar bombing beyond the next set of hills.

The RH-53 helicopter is one of the finest machines flying today, even if three out of eight did fail to function properly. “And this thing about lack of preparedness,” Hendricks says, as he turns to me. “We’re prepared. We’re ready. Remember: ‘A strong military will prevail where diplomacy fails. The opposite is not true.’ I read that in a magazine.” He likes the quotation and repeats it to me several times, enunciating it slowly. His eyes lock onto mine like a pair of azure leeches.

A starlight night-viewing scope runs around $75,000.

“I’m crazy, you know. I want a war,” he continues. “You know why? Because I’m tired of training. We’re ready for it. We’re the best. I can walk down the street in Watts and I can say, ‘C’mon motherfucker, I’m ready,’ and no one will touch me because I know I’m the best and so do they.” I steal a glance over his shoulder and notice there are no black faces in the officers club, though about half the troops in the field are black. He takes another slug from his Mason jar.

“It’s going to happen, you know. There’s no question in my mind. I have a wife and kids, but when the balloon goes up, I’m going to be a part of it. I’m ready to sacrifice. I’m ready to die. I’m very insignificant. I’m nothing. I’ll die so that my kids can live, free of fear.

“I remember the bomb shelters in the Fifties. I was in Vietnam. I’m going through this bullshit now. 1 tell you. I’m ready to die. My kids, they can die, too. I’d see them dead so that their kids might be able to live in a world without fear.”

“He just likes to preach,” Frazier explains later as we’re walking across the parking lot. “Don’t mind what he says. You’ll find a thousand guys like him around here.”

The Mission

The U.S. Marine Corp Air-Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, about 120 miles northeast of San Diego, occupies 932 square miles, or 596,000 acres, of the southern Mojave Desert. The base has an arid upland desert environment similar to that found in the Persian Gulf, Iran, Pakistan, and much of the Middle East. The Marines describe the area as “miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles.” It is a good place to practice war.

For the last five years Twentynine Palms has been the only desert warfare base in the country that holds combined-arms exercises in a “live-fire environment,” where planes, troops, and armor use real ordnance, including shells, rockets, and heavy machine guns. As one of the regular staff officers at the base put it, “This is as close to a real war situation as you can get. These people are getting bombs and artillery dropped over their heads; they’re advancing through areas that have just been blasted and strafed. The only difference between these exercises and real war is that they’re not bleeding, because of the safety precautions we’re taking.” Among those safety precautions are the denial of ammunition to the infantry for their small arms — .45s and M-16s. Since the inception of the games in 1975, no one has been killed as a result of live fire. There have been several fatalities, however, from Marines falling off trucks or getting crushed under the treads of M-60 tanks.

The base itself is home to a number of support battalions, including infantry, tank, artillery, and communications, as well as a permanent expeditionary airfield (set up in 1976), a top-secret nuclear ordnance platoon, and the Marine Corps’ communications-electronics school. Eight times a year combined arms exercises — air and ground —.take place on the base. Two of these exercises involve full brigades, about 4000 men; the other six are battalion-size operations, about 1500 men. This weekend. May 2 through 4, the Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment from Camp Pendleton is to participate in the games. They will be provided with air support by the Third Marine air wing out of El Toro.

The Field

We departed for Twentynine Palms Friday afternoon, traveling northeast from San Diego along highways 15, 10, and 62, past Miramar Naval Air Station, the east side of Camp Pendleton, and March Air Force Base. After passing through a thunderstorm outside Yucca Valley, we finally arrived in the small desert town (which is correctly spelled without a hyphen, for some reason) and pulled up at the base’s main gate just before sunset. Although the MPs at the security hut did not have our names on their list, they passed us through anyway, giving us directions to the public information office. “Down to Sixth Street, turn right past the miniature golf course, fourth building at the top of the hill, you can’t miss it.” There we met Ron Frazier, who directed us to our billet, a charming, six-dollar-a-night facility with adjoining bathrooms, ice machines, color TV, and just a touch of Old World hotel gentility (the desk clerks wore uniforms and called everyone “sir”). Our VIP quarters were conveniently located halfway between the officers club bar and the motor pool.

We started the following day, slightly hung over, with a 6:45 a.m. briefing from the base commander. Brigadier General Harold G. Glasgow. Actually, what we got was a textbook lecture from a pair of majors and a slide show/movieola summary of what we were about to see.

During the course of this exercise, the U.S. Marines would face a Soviet-type threat consisting of a motorized rifle battalion. The enemy would be simulated by means of input from an “evaluation and control group’’ of monitors, who will feed information to the battalion commander, as well as by targets on the ground.

The control group of twenty to thirty monitors is to accompany the training battalion as it pushes through the desert. They will also maintain lookout posts on nearby hilltops. The battalion commander will direct his men through a series of advances against elements of the Soviet rifle battalion (smaller in size than its U.S. equivalent). Concentrations of enemy infantry will be identified as grid coordinates on a map. Tanks, missiles, gun emplacements, and bunkers are to be simulated by piles of tires, pop-up wooden targets, and steel-bonded railroad lies. Monitors will indicate which standing targets are “live” as the U.S. forces advance, thus adding an element of surprise.

The plan calls for the battalion commander to lead his forces some fifteen miles through a series of open-desert attacks. He will manage defenses against a tank attack at night, and will (it is hoped) finally advance into a hilly area where infantry will lead his armor against a series of fortified positions. At the end of the maneuvers, the battalion commander and his aides will meet with Twentynine Palms evaluators for several days of criticism and feedback on the effectiveness of the exercise.

In a brief question-and-answer period after the show. General Glasgow claimed that the desert battle would cost $120,000 or $500,000, depending on how you figured it. Additional costs will tend to sneak up on you, however. A midair collision during an exercise last year turned a pair of A-6 jets into $40 million worth of desert scrap.

My photographer and I luck out; we get to ride in the back of a jeep with Major Michael G. Hire and his driver, Lance Corporal Ray Govan, while the rest of the press (a three-man French television crew and a couple of local reporters) have to climb into the back of an M-880 (known to civilians as a Dodge flatbed truck) for the ride out to the line of departure.

We head out into the high chaparral, bouncing across rough desert tracks, past rock-studded red clay and sandstone hill formations covered with yellow flowers, shrubs, and yucca. After passing through several checkpoints, we arrive at the base of a large rock outcropping, where we spiral around to the top and get out. On the desert floor 200 feet below, a dozen M-60 tanks are lined up facing north. Off to their left, a number of mortar positions have been dug in. Heavy trucks, jeeps, and tracked assault vehicles are moving about the base of the hill. Steep-sloped mountains to the east and the west create a valley and focus our attention to the Marines’ first objective, a series of low hills off to the north.

Hidden among the rocks we find the battalion commander’s communications center, an armored, tracked amphibious assault vehicle bristling with antennas and camouflaged in mottled desert browns and yellows. In the paint on the side of the vehicle, someone has scratched out “Fuck Russia and Iran” along with a picture of a swastika and a hand giving the finger. Inside. some twenty young Marines talk on telephone headsets.

We move off to the side of the hill. In the distance, white puffs of smoke begin to appear as eight-inch and 175mm naval gunfire. (In theory, this battle began with an amphibious landing; the line of departure is supposed to be an imaginary beachhead.) A few seconds later the sound of the explosions reaches us. Off to our flanks, thin-bodied Cobra helicopter gunships begin searching the nearby foothills for enemy infantry. The mortars open fire, joining in with the artillery. It’s 8:05 a m.

After several minutes, the “naval” artillery fire lifts. We can see a pair of A-6 jets banking to the east, the early morning sun reflecting off their wings. They come in low and fast across the valley floor. First one then the other drops its load of 500-pound bombs. We can see the cannisters tumble. There is a flash of bright orange flame and then a cloud of brown dust rises hundreds of feet into the air as the guppy-shaped jets bank and roar off over the mountains. The Marines on the hill break into a cheer at the sight. Again the sound reaches us, a string of firecrackers going off. A smaller A-4 jet moves across the valley dropping a line of smoke behind it. Wispy tentacles spread out from the main line like split ends of hair, and then slowly drop through the air as a curtain of white descends across the valley. Behind this wall of smoke, the Marines can maneuver without being seen by the enemy. The Cobras hammer the nearby hills with 20mm cannon fire as the tanks begin moving out north across the desert floor, leaving plumes of sand and dust rising up behind them. Every so often one of the tanks fires its cannon at a large pile of tires that an evaluator has just designated a live target. A: 8:45 a.m. the command vehicle moves out, the first objective of the day having been secured.

Breakdown

We follow the action down onto the desert floor, heading toward the next range of hills, keeping an eye out for dud shells and fast-moving vehicles. Suddenly we come upon the command vehicle, broken down in a clearing among the boulders and yucca trees. The big metal-snouted amphibious assault vehicle sits dead on the ground, the victim of a mechanical failure, one hundred miles from the nearest ocean. Support vehicles begin circling around like worker ants climbing over the body of a dead queen. A five-ton truck moves up and Lieutenant Colonel Wydo, the battalion commander in charge of the operation, begins transferring his communications gear into it.

A couple of infantry wiremen are lounging nearby. One of them, Frank, a tall, skinny trooper with a ragged mustache, is hobbling around on a crutch. “They told me I wouldn’t have to do any field duty after I turned my motorcycle over on my leg,” he complains. “I don’t know what you call this.”

"Recreational therapy?” suggests his friend Robert, a three-year volunteer from Missoula, Montana. "I’ve only got a year left before I get out,” says Robert. "I sure hope there’s no war. Of course, I can see how the officers would feel differently. They ’re much more highly motivated toward that kind of thing.”

The colonel moves to the big truck and roars off to the next line of departure. By the time we get there, the artillery has already started blasting into the neighboring valley. Hueys, Cobras, and RH-53 supply ships are buzzing around our perimeters. There are dozens of trucks, jeeps, and other vehicles laagered around the command vehicle. The only thing that might prevent an enemy spotter from targeting this concentration would be if he mistook it for a large, dusty town.

A pair of A-6s come screaming over our heads. The first one drops napalm about a mile ahead of us and the sticky orange flame splashes across a small hillock. The second plane banks away without dropping its load. An OV-IO Bronco prop plane flys by and drops a smoke flare to mark the target. The smoke dissipates. The second A-6 makes several more passes without loosing its napalm. Apparently the plane’s communications system has failed, and the ground spotter cannot instruct it when to "pickle” its bombs. Sporadic artillery fire begins to blow around the valley.

Colonel Turley, director of operations and training, shouts up to Colonel Wydo on the back of his truck. “Work to put it back together. Go back there and bang some heads together if you have to. Don’t let this thing fall apart on you.” Wydo calls a cease-fire to reassess his situation.

We talk to a couple of troopers operating the jeep-mounted, TOW wire-guided missiles. Vince Krizan is the gunner on one of the TOWs. He lets us look through the viewfinder. The crosshairs are electronically adjusted for range and trajectory. Pull the trigger and two needle-thin wires attached to the rear of the small antitank missile will keep it on course. “You can’t miss with this, as long as you keep your eye on the target,” Vince explains. “Of course, at $4000 apiece, we don’t get to fire a whole lot of ’em. ” The jeep with the launcher mounted on it, a couple of missiles. and a starlight night-viewing scope runs around $75,000.

Soon the operation’s moving forward again and we get in close behind some M-60 tanks. Five of them pull to a stop after locating a shallow, earthen revetment out on the desert floor. They fire their fifty-caliber machine guns and a few rounds from their 105s. The concussion from the cannons hits us like a gust of wind.

After they’re done firing, we go over to talk with one of the crews — a gunner, a loader, a driver, and the t.c., the tank commander. The tank commander is Sergeant Ronald Wilkins, a tall, young black man with a mustache and a woolen helmet lining pulled over his head. He is standing in the cupola atop the turret, behind his machine gun. "I signed up for four years back in Richmond, Virginia,” he says. "By signing up for that extra year I was able to pick my specialty, so I picked tanks. I guess I'll re-up if I get a staff sergeant rating. It all depends on like what the job situation is when I’m ready to get out or if there’s going to be a war. I’ll stay in if something happens. You gotta figure that like eighty percent of the guys want some kind of conflict. I mean, people are looking for that kind of intense situation. People say we’re not ready, but we feel like we’re ready. You think a war’s likely ?” he asks the rest of the crew. They all nod their heads in agreement. Wilkins shows me the inside of the tank, the computer-guided cannon. Sable armor-piercing shells, and coaxial gun. Then the driver calls down through the hatch. "We’re moving out. We’re alive.”

Anytime Anyplace

As the tanks are about to move forward, one of the nearby evaluators, who wears a white cloth band tied around his helmet, announces an unexpected live target. I turn in time to see a jeep-fired TOW flash like a small silver dagger across the desert. A thousand meters away a large pile of tires explodes into a shower of black rubber, a direct hit. The gunner and his crew dance around their jeep; it’s the first time they’ve ever fired one of their missiles.

We decide to eat lunch while the command convoy moves on to its night position. Boxes of C-rations, or "C-rats,” are distributed. The fruit cocktail is good. The canned foods are opened with small folding keys known as “John Waynes.”

“The Marines are unique. We’re the smallest of the services. There’s only 190,000 of us, but when we make an amphibious assault, when we go onto a beachhead, we go with everything we need. We’re a complete air-ground team, ” explains Major Michael Hire as he squats down on the ground and chews gum from his C-rats. A twelve-year veteran of the Corps who served in Vietnam and now works as the executive officer for an infantry battalion. Hire looks the part of the professional soldier. He’s of medium height, with a solid, stocky build, short, sandy hair below a billed fatigue cap. a smooth, slightly rounded face, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, neck reddened by the sun above the collar of his camouflage shirt. Hire not only looks the part, he deeply believes in it. “Like a lot of younger marines, I wasn’t sure whether I’d stay with the service. There was a lot of bitterness after Vietnam. But I decided to stay because the Marines are the most professional outfit I’ve ever been associated with. The camaraderie, the Marine family is what made me stay.

"You have to understand these young Marines today who tell you they want to go to war. It’s like a high school football team. You train them week after week after week and then after six or seven weeks, the coach calls them together and says, ’All right, we’re going to play a game tomorrow, are you ready?’ Of course they ’re going to be up for it. But those of us who’ve been to war, I think we know it’s not all that romantic. I hope we don’t have to go to war but if we do, it’s good to feel like we’re ready. We’ve had the Israelis come in here to observe our exercises and they’re impressed with the realism. They say the terrain and the situations are just like back where they come from.”

We move forward to where the battalion is setting up its night position in a gully at the base of a hill several hundred feet high. Beyond the hill lies another wide desert valley sprinkled with small boulders, chaparral, and sagebrush. Haifa mile off to either side the sun-bleached, orange-red stone of the Bullion Mountains rises several thousand feet above us. A Huey helicopter passes just overhead. Its twin blades raise up a dust storm as it settles noisily on a flat piece of ground fifty yards to our right.

The pilot, copilot, and regimental commander get off and walk away toward the newly established communications center. "Our mission right now is to act as a command and control observation deck,” explains the chopper’s crew chief, Lance Corporal Eric Huffman, as he shows us around his pride and joy. “This here’s a survival vest.” He pulls a gray lifesaver vest from under one of the seats. "It costs over $1000 dollars. It’s got a knife, flotation gear, a first-aid kit, pin flares that you can also aim at someone if you don’t have a gun; it even has a rubber, in case you find some jungle pussy.” He pulls a helmet off the deck. “See, I can tune into a rock station and listen to music while we’re up there. The pilot doesn’t mind; he can just lower the mix on his headset so that it doesn’t bother him. It’s only background music anyway; it doesn't interfere with regular communications. Of course, overseas we’d have to rig it to use tape cassettes. We couldn’t pick up any L.A. stations or nothing.”

Huffman is a young, somewhat chubby recruit with blond hair and just the beginnings of a mustache. Like many of the recruits here, he’s from a small town; his is just outside Houston, Texas. He wears a one-piece green flight suit and a black trucker’s cap with his squadron’s emblem, an ace of spades with the words “Anytime-Anyplace” stenciled around it. “You know how in Apocalypse Now they go around putting aces of spades on the dead V.C.,” Huffman says. “Well, that’s where our squadron emblem comes from, from killing all those Viet Cong. See, I double as door gunner when we rig for combat. I fire this sixty-caliber Gatling gun with six rotating barrels that can shoot off 4000 rounds per minute. It’s just like in the movie. I didn’t like the last part of that film too much, but when they were flying into that village, blowing all that shit away. I thought that was fantastic. I must have seen that movie about five times now.”

What does he think of the possibility of war? “Everyone’s looking forward to it. I’d like to kick ass in Iran. ” What if we end up fighting in Pakistan or Guatemala?

“Anyplace is fine. I just want some action.” He smiles with adolescent enthusiasm. “You see, they try and keep us motivated that way. It’s all part of the plan.”

The Expeditionary Airfield

By late afternoon the air’s temperature has climbed to the high eighties, still well short of the 120-135-degree temperatures reached in midsummer. Lance Corporal Govan catches a lizard and lets it go. Ron Frazier, the public information officer, talks about the richness of desert history. Fluffy white cumulus clouds drift through the bright blue sky. An occasional artillery round can be heard going off in the distance. I finally feel as if I'm back in a real war zone — it’s boring as hell with nothing to do.

We decide to visit the expeditionary airfield, and take a bouncing ride back across the desert, turning northwest as we approach the main base. Some ten kilometers down a side road, past the rifle range, we come to the twin 8000-foot aluminum runways. A pair of Cobras hover above the field.then fly away. An RH-53 taxis rather than hops across the field before it, too, takes to the air. (I get the distinct feeling the 53s are being kept at a distance from reporters.)

There are eight Cobras on the strip, along with eight Huey and grasshoppershaped CH-46 copters, a couple of OV-10 twin-prop, fixed-wing aircraft, and a pair of British-made Harrier vertical take-off and landing jet fighters. The Cobra looks like something out of a nightmare, an evil, serpentine death machine less than four feet wide (the pilot sits behind and above the gunner), with a wraparound canopy, talonlike weapon racks that carry eight TOW missiles and fourteen rockets, and a belly-mounted 20mm cannon that can fire 750 rounds in less than a minute. A helmet screw-on sight allows the gunner to fire the TOWs simply by looking at his target and pressing a button. “We haven’t seen any additional build-up in our training schedule that would signal a war mobilization, but we hope to,” says a gunner as he and his pilot climb into their ship. A man on the ground waves them forward. The gunship lifts five feet off the aluminum surface, hovers for a moment, slides out between two other copters, then rises straight up and banks steeply around to its right.

At the same time a Harrier comes screaming in for a landing, slowing down on its descent till it just touches the runway. The massive turbine engines on this jet allow it to maneuver with many of the properties of a helicopter. The plane pulls off onto the taxi strip and moves down the line to where the other two Harriers are parked. Major Kolb, the pilot, climbs down from the cockpit. A local photographer asks him to pose and Kolb assumes a stance next to his plane. He stands about six-foot-two, with a full, dark mustache. In his flight suit, holding his helmet in the crook of his elbow, he looks like a model from a Marine recruitment poster. “A good day,” he says, turning to his mechanic. “Blew the shit out of everything. Those five-inch rockets came out of there like a freight train.”

Richard Rossi is the chief expeditionary airfield officer. A veteran of seventeen years in the Corps, he is white, short-haired, stocky, wears camouflage utilities and gold-frame dark glasses. “This airfield uses AM-2 interlocking aluminum matting for its surface,” he tells me. “It can and has landed aircraft as large as the C-5A transport. At twelve dollars a square foot, you can figure the price of this airfield at about $40 million. We own the airspace around here for a radius of five miles and upwards to infinity, although we will lend it to LAX for their traffic control when we’re not using it. We have a number of airfields like this one packed up in green boxes ready for deployment anywhere in the world at any time. We could put together a 4000-foot strip like this in seventy-two hours. The Seabees would come in with bulldozers, level out a piece •of ground, and then start laying surface over it. It’s been done once already, a couple of years ago in Rota. Spain, I believe. It’s very effective if you’re looking for a quick build-up of ground-based air support. We’re putting these airfields on the market. We’ve already sold one to Israel.”

Night Moves

At sunset we take the truck back out to Delta Quarter, that portion of the base involved in the battle, to watch the Third Battalion. Seventh Marines repulse a night attack. On the way out, we pass a jogger. Looking over the tailgate, we see him slowly disappear in the thick cloud of dry, brown dust we are throwing up behind us. “Sometimes during these exercises an A-4 will come over and drop CS gas on the troops to see how well they react to a chemical environment,” Ron Frazier explains. “Too bad the press doesn’t have any gas masks.”

We pass a battery of 105mm howitzers covered in camouflage netting. Their desert markings and the lengthening shadows of dusk enhance their near invisibility out here among the sage and the cactus. “It looks like a war movie,” one of the French film crew says as we arrive back at the battalion's night position. Dozens of jeeps, amphibious assault vehicles, bigwheeled Gamma Goats — like mechanical centipedes — and low-slung wire-stringing vehicles (for laying communications links) arc ground around the base of the big hill that protrudes at the foot of the valley like some great oil freighter heading out to sea. We climb a steep path around the side of the hill, following a procession of jeeps carrying observers to the summit, a flat area ideal for viewing. Just as the sun drops behind the mountains off to our left, we can see an RH-53 taking off from a 4500-foot peak in the distance; the copter is leaving observation post Crampton, the spot from which an evaluator known as “Snow White” will direct the exercise’s safety and evaluation functions.

The hilltop is crowded with dozens of high-ranking Marines and other spectators, including a couple of Canadian army officers, a young Ivy League type, a civilian, dressed in a corduroy bush jacket who doesn’t want to talk with the press, and two congressmen, David Evans of Indiana and Charles Daugherty of Pennsylvania. We spot the pit terrier visage of Brigadier General Glasgow as he moves through the crowd, taking one of the congressmen by the shoulder and leading him close to the edge. The panorama is remarkably similar to that from Masada, which overlooks the Dead Sea and which was the last holdout of the Zealots.

In the valley below, off to our sides, we can see lines of tanks stretched out toward the mountains. As the last light fades we begin to hear the drone of planes. Suddenly a yellow flare goes up. A series of parachute illumination flares drops from above. The valley floor in front of us lights up in a ghostly pale white. Beams like motorcycle headlights flash in different parts of the valley, marking the positions of wooden pop-up tank targets. There are more flares and then the orange muzzle flash and hark of a dozen tank cannons as red illumination rounds blast across the valley floor like UFOs, bouncing off the plain and shooting up into the sky before blinking out-of existence. Jeep radios begin chattering their static-laden fire coordinates as a missile misfires off to our left, splashing three times on the deck as it disintegrates in a series of white, sparking explosions. “A TOW's gone ballistic, sir.” one of the majors reports to the general who stands by his side. The pyrotechnics intensify. A second TOW fires off to our left. It looks like something out of Star Wars, a red circle of light whistling across the valley straight into one of the headlight markers. More flares drop from above until the entire valley glows and sparks. The illuminated tank fire gives way to fifty-caliber tracer fire and exploding white phosphorus artillery rounds. After ten minutes of this, three green flares go up and the guns fall silent. The parachute flares die out on the ground and the area is suddenly thrown into a quiet darkness. Smoke settles like smog across the valley floor and a star-bright desert sky appears above us. A satellite tracks its way across the eastern sky.

Snatches of conversation drift through the dark.. . . So the Syrians abandoned this T-62 on the Golan Heights. I climbed in and started it up. The Israelis jerked me right out of there. Boy. were they pissed. ’’ You could aim one of those TOWs at a window in the Pentagon and that's the window it would go through . . . .”We had these Warsaw Pact observers here, a Russian, a Pole, and a Hungarian. Every time the Russian wanted to know something, he’d call the Polish guy over into a huddle . . . .”

“Sure I could kill the dog, but what would I do with my kids?”

After a wait of about five minutes, a couple of jets fly over and begin radar bombing beyond the next set of hills. The light from the bombs brings the low-lying hills into sharp relief. The blast wave and sound from the bombs follows some twenty seconds later.

Congressman Daugherty is a large, balding, overweight cx-Marine. A Republican from Philadelphia’s fourth district, he sits on the House Armed Services Committee along with retiring San Diego representative Bob Wilson. “Obviously, the most critical area in the world today is the Persian Gulf, a desert warfare environment,” he says as the jets continue their distant attacks. “Before committing American troops to desert warfare, you have to find out whether or not they’re ready to handle desert warfare. I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen here, particularly the caliber of the junior officers I’ve talked with. I think this is the best training you can get, short of actual combat.

“You know, we’ve passed through the phase of detente. The Russians have made very clear that they’re going to take what they want. They’ve developed an offensive capability. Up until a few days ago. the Cuban involvement in Africa, in Nicaragua, in Panama, throughout South America . . . The people in this country have to see that our reactions are based on other people’s actions. You reach a point in time where if the other guy’s going to play it tough, you have a basic decision to make — either give it up or respond.

“I consider the 1980s a decade of conflict. By the mid-Eighties the United States is going to be in a very, very, very difficult position because we’re not going to have the resources to respond, and the vital interests of this country may be at stake. The American people have to make a choice in 1980 and 1981. We need to build more amphibious ships. We need an amphibious naval capability. We need five percent real growth in the defense budget. In real terms, we’re spending less on national defense today than we did in 1964, while the social programs in this country have more than quadrupled in the last ten years. We’ve reached the point in time when we can’t have everything and we’re going to have to start listing priorities.” Given the choice of guns or butter, the congressman chooses guns.

End Game

As our open truck heads back to the main camp, through the dark and choking dust-filled night, I lean across the flatbed to put a question to Major Hire. I ask him what he thinks about the congressman’s prediction that the 1980s will be a decade of conflict. “Could be,” he says. “It’s not up to us where we’re going to fight or when: that’s up to the commander-in-chief.” We talk about possible areas of conflict in the world, of how the U.S. and Russia avoid direct conflict by using Third World “surrogates” in places like Vietnam. Angola, and Afghanistan. “What I learned in Vietnam is that you can’t go in and supplant the population.” he says. “If people want to change. it’s going to happen. I hope the United States has learned that lesson and won’t go in to support another bad cause or unpopular government.”

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

Luna Bay Booch's San Diego origin story

Woman owned hard kombucha brand brewed elsewhere, now sold locally
Next Article

The Tobacconist: Stogie story

His job is to sell pleasure and desire, cigars “hand-rolled tenderly by beautiful women on their thighs.”
General Glasgow claimed that the desert battle would cost $120,000 or $500,000, depending on how you figured it. - Image by Charles Landon
General Glasgow claimed that the desert battle would cost $120,000 or $500,000, depending on how you figured it.

We’re sitting at the bar rail in the officers’ club at Twentynine Palms. It’s crowded with desert-tanned Marines in camouflage utilities and combat boots. Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It’’ is playing on the juke. I’m talking with Ron Frazier, the public information officer who’s been prepping me and a photographer on the plan of battle for tomorrow’s big war game, a “combined-arms exercise,” Frazier calls it. Talk naturally turns to the failed rescue mission in Iran. “If I were the president, I’d give them forty-eight hours to return our captives, then I’d go in and level the country,” Frazier says.

Eric Huffman: “This here’s a survival vest.” He pulls a gray lifesaver vest from under one of the seats. "It costs over $1000 dollars."

Another Marine comes over to greet Frazier. He’s about six-foot-three, with blue eyes, a blond crewcut, and a Mason jar full of beer in his hand. He looks to be well into his cups. Frazier introduces me to Lieutenant Hendricks, an air controller at the Twenty nine Palms expeditionary airfield. The lieutenant begins a harangue about how the press is out to crucify the military. Frazier defends the press, arguing that it’s “coming around to our side. ” But the lieutenant will have none of it. The press has no right to second-guess the Iran mission.

A couple of jets fly over and begin radar bombing beyond the next set of hills.

The RH-53 helicopter is one of the finest machines flying today, even if three out of eight did fail to function properly. “And this thing about lack of preparedness,” Hendricks says, as he turns to me. “We’re prepared. We’re ready. Remember: ‘A strong military will prevail where diplomacy fails. The opposite is not true.’ I read that in a magazine.” He likes the quotation and repeats it to me several times, enunciating it slowly. His eyes lock onto mine like a pair of azure leeches.

A starlight night-viewing scope runs around $75,000.

“I’m crazy, you know. I want a war,” he continues. “You know why? Because I’m tired of training. We’re ready for it. We’re the best. I can walk down the street in Watts and I can say, ‘C’mon motherfucker, I’m ready,’ and no one will touch me because I know I’m the best and so do they.” I steal a glance over his shoulder and notice there are no black faces in the officers club, though about half the troops in the field are black. He takes another slug from his Mason jar.

“It’s going to happen, you know. There’s no question in my mind. I have a wife and kids, but when the balloon goes up, I’m going to be a part of it. I’m ready to sacrifice. I’m ready to die. I’m very insignificant. I’m nothing. I’ll die so that my kids can live, free of fear.

“I remember the bomb shelters in the Fifties. I was in Vietnam. I’m going through this bullshit now. 1 tell you. I’m ready to die. My kids, they can die, too. I’d see them dead so that their kids might be able to live in a world without fear.”

“He just likes to preach,” Frazier explains later as we’re walking across the parking lot. “Don’t mind what he says. You’ll find a thousand guys like him around here.”

The Mission

The U.S. Marine Corp Air-Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, about 120 miles northeast of San Diego, occupies 932 square miles, or 596,000 acres, of the southern Mojave Desert. The base has an arid upland desert environment similar to that found in the Persian Gulf, Iran, Pakistan, and much of the Middle East. The Marines describe the area as “miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles.” It is a good place to practice war.

For the last five years Twentynine Palms has been the only desert warfare base in the country that holds combined-arms exercises in a “live-fire environment,” where planes, troops, and armor use real ordnance, including shells, rockets, and heavy machine guns. As one of the regular staff officers at the base put it, “This is as close to a real war situation as you can get. These people are getting bombs and artillery dropped over their heads; they’re advancing through areas that have just been blasted and strafed. The only difference between these exercises and real war is that they’re not bleeding, because of the safety precautions we’re taking.” Among those safety precautions are the denial of ammunition to the infantry for their small arms — .45s and M-16s. Since the inception of the games in 1975, no one has been killed as a result of live fire. There have been several fatalities, however, from Marines falling off trucks or getting crushed under the treads of M-60 tanks.

The base itself is home to a number of support battalions, including infantry, tank, artillery, and communications, as well as a permanent expeditionary airfield (set up in 1976), a top-secret nuclear ordnance platoon, and the Marine Corps’ communications-electronics school. Eight times a year combined arms exercises — air and ground —.take place on the base. Two of these exercises involve full brigades, about 4000 men; the other six are battalion-size operations, about 1500 men. This weekend. May 2 through 4, the Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment from Camp Pendleton is to participate in the games. They will be provided with air support by the Third Marine air wing out of El Toro.

The Field

We departed for Twentynine Palms Friday afternoon, traveling northeast from San Diego along highways 15, 10, and 62, past Miramar Naval Air Station, the east side of Camp Pendleton, and March Air Force Base. After passing through a thunderstorm outside Yucca Valley, we finally arrived in the small desert town (which is correctly spelled without a hyphen, for some reason) and pulled up at the base’s main gate just before sunset. Although the MPs at the security hut did not have our names on their list, they passed us through anyway, giving us directions to the public information office. “Down to Sixth Street, turn right past the miniature golf course, fourth building at the top of the hill, you can’t miss it.” There we met Ron Frazier, who directed us to our billet, a charming, six-dollar-a-night facility with adjoining bathrooms, ice machines, color TV, and just a touch of Old World hotel gentility (the desk clerks wore uniforms and called everyone “sir”). Our VIP quarters were conveniently located halfway between the officers club bar and the motor pool.

We started the following day, slightly hung over, with a 6:45 a.m. briefing from the base commander. Brigadier General Harold G. Glasgow. Actually, what we got was a textbook lecture from a pair of majors and a slide show/movieola summary of what we were about to see.

During the course of this exercise, the U.S. Marines would face a Soviet-type threat consisting of a motorized rifle battalion. The enemy would be simulated by means of input from an “evaluation and control group’’ of monitors, who will feed information to the battalion commander, as well as by targets on the ground.

The control group of twenty to thirty monitors is to accompany the training battalion as it pushes through the desert. They will also maintain lookout posts on nearby hilltops. The battalion commander will direct his men through a series of advances against elements of the Soviet rifle battalion (smaller in size than its U.S. equivalent). Concentrations of enemy infantry will be identified as grid coordinates on a map. Tanks, missiles, gun emplacements, and bunkers are to be simulated by piles of tires, pop-up wooden targets, and steel-bonded railroad lies. Monitors will indicate which standing targets are “live” as the U.S. forces advance, thus adding an element of surprise.

The plan calls for the battalion commander to lead his forces some fifteen miles through a series of open-desert attacks. He will manage defenses against a tank attack at night, and will (it is hoped) finally advance into a hilly area where infantry will lead his armor against a series of fortified positions. At the end of the maneuvers, the battalion commander and his aides will meet with Twentynine Palms evaluators for several days of criticism and feedback on the effectiveness of the exercise.

In a brief question-and-answer period after the show. General Glasgow claimed that the desert battle would cost $120,000 or $500,000, depending on how you figured it. Additional costs will tend to sneak up on you, however. A midair collision during an exercise last year turned a pair of A-6 jets into $40 million worth of desert scrap.

My photographer and I luck out; we get to ride in the back of a jeep with Major Michael G. Hire and his driver, Lance Corporal Ray Govan, while the rest of the press (a three-man French television crew and a couple of local reporters) have to climb into the back of an M-880 (known to civilians as a Dodge flatbed truck) for the ride out to the line of departure.

We head out into the high chaparral, bouncing across rough desert tracks, past rock-studded red clay and sandstone hill formations covered with yellow flowers, shrubs, and yucca. After passing through several checkpoints, we arrive at the base of a large rock outcropping, where we spiral around to the top and get out. On the desert floor 200 feet below, a dozen M-60 tanks are lined up facing north. Off to their left, a number of mortar positions have been dug in. Heavy trucks, jeeps, and tracked assault vehicles are moving about the base of the hill. Steep-sloped mountains to the east and the west create a valley and focus our attention to the Marines’ first objective, a series of low hills off to the north.

Hidden among the rocks we find the battalion commander’s communications center, an armored, tracked amphibious assault vehicle bristling with antennas and camouflaged in mottled desert browns and yellows. In the paint on the side of the vehicle, someone has scratched out “Fuck Russia and Iran” along with a picture of a swastika and a hand giving the finger. Inside. some twenty young Marines talk on telephone headsets.

We move off to the side of the hill. In the distance, white puffs of smoke begin to appear as eight-inch and 175mm naval gunfire. (In theory, this battle began with an amphibious landing; the line of departure is supposed to be an imaginary beachhead.) A few seconds later the sound of the explosions reaches us. Off to our flanks, thin-bodied Cobra helicopter gunships begin searching the nearby foothills for enemy infantry. The mortars open fire, joining in with the artillery. It’s 8:05 a m.

After several minutes, the “naval” artillery fire lifts. We can see a pair of A-6 jets banking to the east, the early morning sun reflecting off their wings. They come in low and fast across the valley floor. First one then the other drops its load of 500-pound bombs. We can see the cannisters tumble. There is a flash of bright orange flame and then a cloud of brown dust rises hundreds of feet into the air as the guppy-shaped jets bank and roar off over the mountains. The Marines on the hill break into a cheer at the sight. Again the sound reaches us, a string of firecrackers going off. A smaller A-4 jet moves across the valley dropping a line of smoke behind it. Wispy tentacles spread out from the main line like split ends of hair, and then slowly drop through the air as a curtain of white descends across the valley. Behind this wall of smoke, the Marines can maneuver without being seen by the enemy. The Cobras hammer the nearby hills with 20mm cannon fire as the tanks begin moving out north across the desert floor, leaving plumes of sand and dust rising up behind them. Every so often one of the tanks fires its cannon at a large pile of tires that an evaluator has just designated a live target. A: 8:45 a.m. the command vehicle moves out, the first objective of the day having been secured.

Breakdown

We follow the action down onto the desert floor, heading toward the next range of hills, keeping an eye out for dud shells and fast-moving vehicles. Suddenly we come upon the command vehicle, broken down in a clearing among the boulders and yucca trees. The big metal-snouted amphibious assault vehicle sits dead on the ground, the victim of a mechanical failure, one hundred miles from the nearest ocean. Support vehicles begin circling around like worker ants climbing over the body of a dead queen. A five-ton truck moves up and Lieutenant Colonel Wydo, the battalion commander in charge of the operation, begins transferring his communications gear into it.

A couple of infantry wiremen are lounging nearby. One of them, Frank, a tall, skinny trooper with a ragged mustache, is hobbling around on a crutch. “They told me I wouldn’t have to do any field duty after I turned my motorcycle over on my leg,” he complains. “I don’t know what you call this.”

"Recreational therapy?” suggests his friend Robert, a three-year volunteer from Missoula, Montana. "I’ve only got a year left before I get out,” says Robert. "I sure hope there’s no war. Of course, I can see how the officers would feel differently. They ’re much more highly motivated toward that kind of thing.”

The colonel moves to the big truck and roars off to the next line of departure. By the time we get there, the artillery has already started blasting into the neighboring valley. Hueys, Cobras, and RH-53 supply ships are buzzing around our perimeters. There are dozens of trucks, jeeps, and other vehicles laagered around the command vehicle. The only thing that might prevent an enemy spotter from targeting this concentration would be if he mistook it for a large, dusty town.

A pair of A-6s come screaming over our heads. The first one drops napalm about a mile ahead of us and the sticky orange flame splashes across a small hillock. The second plane banks away without dropping its load. An OV-IO Bronco prop plane flys by and drops a smoke flare to mark the target. The smoke dissipates. The second A-6 makes several more passes without loosing its napalm. Apparently the plane’s communications system has failed, and the ground spotter cannot instruct it when to "pickle” its bombs. Sporadic artillery fire begins to blow around the valley.

Colonel Turley, director of operations and training, shouts up to Colonel Wydo on the back of his truck. “Work to put it back together. Go back there and bang some heads together if you have to. Don’t let this thing fall apart on you.” Wydo calls a cease-fire to reassess his situation.

We talk to a couple of troopers operating the jeep-mounted, TOW wire-guided missiles. Vince Krizan is the gunner on one of the TOWs. He lets us look through the viewfinder. The crosshairs are electronically adjusted for range and trajectory. Pull the trigger and two needle-thin wires attached to the rear of the small antitank missile will keep it on course. “You can’t miss with this, as long as you keep your eye on the target,” Vince explains. “Of course, at $4000 apiece, we don’t get to fire a whole lot of ’em. ” The jeep with the launcher mounted on it, a couple of missiles. and a starlight night-viewing scope runs around $75,000.

Soon the operation’s moving forward again and we get in close behind some M-60 tanks. Five of them pull to a stop after locating a shallow, earthen revetment out on the desert floor. They fire their fifty-caliber machine guns and a few rounds from their 105s. The concussion from the cannons hits us like a gust of wind.

After they’re done firing, we go over to talk with one of the crews — a gunner, a loader, a driver, and the t.c., the tank commander. The tank commander is Sergeant Ronald Wilkins, a tall, young black man with a mustache and a woolen helmet lining pulled over his head. He is standing in the cupola atop the turret, behind his machine gun. "I signed up for four years back in Richmond, Virginia,” he says. "By signing up for that extra year I was able to pick my specialty, so I picked tanks. I guess I'll re-up if I get a staff sergeant rating. It all depends on like what the job situation is when I’m ready to get out or if there’s going to be a war. I’ll stay in if something happens. You gotta figure that like eighty percent of the guys want some kind of conflict. I mean, people are looking for that kind of intense situation. People say we’re not ready, but we feel like we’re ready. You think a war’s likely ?” he asks the rest of the crew. They all nod their heads in agreement. Wilkins shows me the inside of the tank, the computer-guided cannon. Sable armor-piercing shells, and coaxial gun. Then the driver calls down through the hatch. "We’re moving out. We’re alive.”

Anytime Anyplace

As the tanks are about to move forward, one of the nearby evaluators, who wears a white cloth band tied around his helmet, announces an unexpected live target. I turn in time to see a jeep-fired TOW flash like a small silver dagger across the desert. A thousand meters away a large pile of tires explodes into a shower of black rubber, a direct hit. The gunner and his crew dance around their jeep; it’s the first time they’ve ever fired one of their missiles.

We decide to eat lunch while the command convoy moves on to its night position. Boxes of C-rations, or "C-rats,” are distributed. The fruit cocktail is good. The canned foods are opened with small folding keys known as “John Waynes.”

“The Marines are unique. We’re the smallest of the services. There’s only 190,000 of us, but when we make an amphibious assault, when we go onto a beachhead, we go with everything we need. We’re a complete air-ground team, ” explains Major Michael Hire as he squats down on the ground and chews gum from his C-rats. A twelve-year veteran of the Corps who served in Vietnam and now works as the executive officer for an infantry battalion. Hire looks the part of the professional soldier. He’s of medium height, with a solid, stocky build, short, sandy hair below a billed fatigue cap. a smooth, slightly rounded face, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, neck reddened by the sun above the collar of his camouflage shirt. Hire not only looks the part, he deeply believes in it. “Like a lot of younger marines, I wasn’t sure whether I’d stay with the service. There was a lot of bitterness after Vietnam. But I decided to stay because the Marines are the most professional outfit I’ve ever been associated with. The camaraderie, the Marine family is what made me stay.

"You have to understand these young Marines today who tell you they want to go to war. It’s like a high school football team. You train them week after week after week and then after six or seven weeks, the coach calls them together and says, ’All right, we’re going to play a game tomorrow, are you ready?’ Of course they ’re going to be up for it. But those of us who’ve been to war, I think we know it’s not all that romantic. I hope we don’t have to go to war but if we do, it’s good to feel like we’re ready. We’ve had the Israelis come in here to observe our exercises and they’re impressed with the realism. They say the terrain and the situations are just like back where they come from.”

We move forward to where the battalion is setting up its night position in a gully at the base of a hill several hundred feet high. Beyond the hill lies another wide desert valley sprinkled with small boulders, chaparral, and sagebrush. Haifa mile off to either side the sun-bleached, orange-red stone of the Bullion Mountains rises several thousand feet above us. A Huey helicopter passes just overhead. Its twin blades raise up a dust storm as it settles noisily on a flat piece of ground fifty yards to our right.

The pilot, copilot, and regimental commander get off and walk away toward the newly established communications center. "Our mission right now is to act as a command and control observation deck,” explains the chopper’s crew chief, Lance Corporal Eric Huffman, as he shows us around his pride and joy. “This here’s a survival vest.” He pulls a gray lifesaver vest from under one of the seats. "It costs over $1000 dollars. It’s got a knife, flotation gear, a first-aid kit, pin flares that you can also aim at someone if you don’t have a gun; it even has a rubber, in case you find some jungle pussy.” He pulls a helmet off the deck. “See, I can tune into a rock station and listen to music while we’re up there. The pilot doesn’t mind; he can just lower the mix on his headset so that it doesn’t bother him. It’s only background music anyway; it doesn't interfere with regular communications. Of course, overseas we’d have to rig it to use tape cassettes. We couldn’t pick up any L.A. stations or nothing.”

Huffman is a young, somewhat chubby recruit with blond hair and just the beginnings of a mustache. Like many of the recruits here, he’s from a small town; his is just outside Houston, Texas. He wears a one-piece green flight suit and a black trucker’s cap with his squadron’s emblem, an ace of spades with the words “Anytime-Anyplace” stenciled around it. “You know how in Apocalypse Now they go around putting aces of spades on the dead V.C.,” Huffman says. “Well, that’s where our squadron emblem comes from, from killing all those Viet Cong. See, I double as door gunner when we rig for combat. I fire this sixty-caliber Gatling gun with six rotating barrels that can shoot off 4000 rounds per minute. It’s just like in the movie. I didn’t like the last part of that film too much, but when they were flying into that village, blowing all that shit away. I thought that was fantastic. I must have seen that movie about five times now.”

What does he think of the possibility of war? “Everyone’s looking forward to it. I’d like to kick ass in Iran. ” What if we end up fighting in Pakistan or Guatemala?

“Anyplace is fine. I just want some action.” He smiles with adolescent enthusiasm. “You see, they try and keep us motivated that way. It’s all part of the plan.”

The Expeditionary Airfield

By late afternoon the air’s temperature has climbed to the high eighties, still well short of the 120-135-degree temperatures reached in midsummer. Lance Corporal Govan catches a lizard and lets it go. Ron Frazier, the public information officer, talks about the richness of desert history. Fluffy white cumulus clouds drift through the bright blue sky. An occasional artillery round can be heard going off in the distance. I finally feel as if I'm back in a real war zone — it’s boring as hell with nothing to do.

We decide to visit the expeditionary airfield, and take a bouncing ride back across the desert, turning northwest as we approach the main base. Some ten kilometers down a side road, past the rifle range, we come to the twin 8000-foot aluminum runways. A pair of Cobras hover above the field.then fly away. An RH-53 taxis rather than hops across the field before it, too, takes to the air. (I get the distinct feeling the 53s are being kept at a distance from reporters.)

There are eight Cobras on the strip, along with eight Huey and grasshoppershaped CH-46 copters, a couple of OV-10 twin-prop, fixed-wing aircraft, and a pair of British-made Harrier vertical take-off and landing jet fighters. The Cobra looks like something out of a nightmare, an evil, serpentine death machine less than four feet wide (the pilot sits behind and above the gunner), with a wraparound canopy, talonlike weapon racks that carry eight TOW missiles and fourteen rockets, and a belly-mounted 20mm cannon that can fire 750 rounds in less than a minute. A helmet screw-on sight allows the gunner to fire the TOWs simply by looking at his target and pressing a button. “We haven’t seen any additional build-up in our training schedule that would signal a war mobilization, but we hope to,” says a gunner as he and his pilot climb into their ship. A man on the ground waves them forward. The gunship lifts five feet off the aluminum surface, hovers for a moment, slides out between two other copters, then rises straight up and banks steeply around to its right.

At the same time a Harrier comes screaming in for a landing, slowing down on its descent till it just touches the runway. The massive turbine engines on this jet allow it to maneuver with many of the properties of a helicopter. The plane pulls off onto the taxi strip and moves down the line to where the other two Harriers are parked. Major Kolb, the pilot, climbs down from the cockpit. A local photographer asks him to pose and Kolb assumes a stance next to his plane. He stands about six-foot-two, with a full, dark mustache. In his flight suit, holding his helmet in the crook of his elbow, he looks like a model from a Marine recruitment poster. “A good day,” he says, turning to his mechanic. “Blew the shit out of everything. Those five-inch rockets came out of there like a freight train.”

Richard Rossi is the chief expeditionary airfield officer. A veteran of seventeen years in the Corps, he is white, short-haired, stocky, wears camouflage utilities and gold-frame dark glasses. “This airfield uses AM-2 interlocking aluminum matting for its surface,” he tells me. “It can and has landed aircraft as large as the C-5A transport. At twelve dollars a square foot, you can figure the price of this airfield at about $40 million. We own the airspace around here for a radius of five miles and upwards to infinity, although we will lend it to LAX for their traffic control when we’re not using it. We have a number of airfields like this one packed up in green boxes ready for deployment anywhere in the world at any time. We could put together a 4000-foot strip like this in seventy-two hours. The Seabees would come in with bulldozers, level out a piece •of ground, and then start laying surface over it. It’s been done once already, a couple of years ago in Rota. Spain, I believe. It’s very effective if you’re looking for a quick build-up of ground-based air support. We’re putting these airfields on the market. We’ve already sold one to Israel.”

Night Moves

At sunset we take the truck back out to Delta Quarter, that portion of the base involved in the battle, to watch the Third Battalion. Seventh Marines repulse a night attack. On the way out, we pass a jogger. Looking over the tailgate, we see him slowly disappear in the thick cloud of dry, brown dust we are throwing up behind us. “Sometimes during these exercises an A-4 will come over and drop CS gas on the troops to see how well they react to a chemical environment,” Ron Frazier explains. “Too bad the press doesn’t have any gas masks.”

We pass a battery of 105mm howitzers covered in camouflage netting. Their desert markings and the lengthening shadows of dusk enhance their near invisibility out here among the sage and the cactus. “It looks like a war movie,” one of the French film crew says as we arrive back at the battalion's night position. Dozens of jeeps, amphibious assault vehicles, bigwheeled Gamma Goats — like mechanical centipedes — and low-slung wire-stringing vehicles (for laying communications links) arc ground around the base of the big hill that protrudes at the foot of the valley like some great oil freighter heading out to sea. We climb a steep path around the side of the hill, following a procession of jeeps carrying observers to the summit, a flat area ideal for viewing. Just as the sun drops behind the mountains off to our left, we can see an RH-53 taking off from a 4500-foot peak in the distance; the copter is leaving observation post Crampton, the spot from which an evaluator known as “Snow White” will direct the exercise’s safety and evaluation functions.

The hilltop is crowded with dozens of high-ranking Marines and other spectators, including a couple of Canadian army officers, a young Ivy League type, a civilian, dressed in a corduroy bush jacket who doesn’t want to talk with the press, and two congressmen, David Evans of Indiana and Charles Daugherty of Pennsylvania. We spot the pit terrier visage of Brigadier General Glasgow as he moves through the crowd, taking one of the congressmen by the shoulder and leading him close to the edge. The panorama is remarkably similar to that from Masada, which overlooks the Dead Sea and which was the last holdout of the Zealots.

In the valley below, off to our sides, we can see lines of tanks stretched out toward the mountains. As the last light fades we begin to hear the drone of planes. Suddenly a yellow flare goes up. A series of parachute illumination flares drops from above. The valley floor in front of us lights up in a ghostly pale white. Beams like motorcycle headlights flash in different parts of the valley, marking the positions of wooden pop-up tank targets. There are more flares and then the orange muzzle flash and hark of a dozen tank cannons as red illumination rounds blast across the valley floor like UFOs, bouncing off the plain and shooting up into the sky before blinking out-of existence. Jeep radios begin chattering their static-laden fire coordinates as a missile misfires off to our left, splashing three times on the deck as it disintegrates in a series of white, sparking explosions. “A TOW's gone ballistic, sir.” one of the majors reports to the general who stands by his side. The pyrotechnics intensify. A second TOW fires off to our left. It looks like something out of Star Wars, a red circle of light whistling across the valley straight into one of the headlight markers. More flares drop from above until the entire valley glows and sparks. The illuminated tank fire gives way to fifty-caliber tracer fire and exploding white phosphorus artillery rounds. After ten minutes of this, three green flares go up and the guns fall silent. The parachute flares die out on the ground and the area is suddenly thrown into a quiet darkness. Smoke settles like smog across the valley floor and a star-bright desert sky appears above us. A satellite tracks its way across the eastern sky.

Snatches of conversation drift through the dark.. . . So the Syrians abandoned this T-62 on the Golan Heights. I climbed in and started it up. The Israelis jerked me right out of there. Boy. were they pissed. ’’ You could aim one of those TOWs at a window in the Pentagon and that's the window it would go through . . . .”We had these Warsaw Pact observers here, a Russian, a Pole, and a Hungarian. Every time the Russian wanted to know something, he’d call the Polish guy over into a huddle . . . .”

“Sure I could kill the dog, but what would I do with my kids?”

After a wait of about five minutes, a couple of jets fly over and begin radar bombing beyond the next set of hills. The light from the bombs brings the low-lying hills into sharp relief. The blast wave and sound from the bombs follows some twenty seconds later.

Congressman Daugherty is a large, balding, overweight cx-Marine. A Republican from Philadelphia’s fourth district, he sits on the House Armed Services Committee along with retiring San Diego representative Bob Wilson. “Obviously, the most critical area in the world today is the Persian Gulf, a desert warfare environment,” he says as the jets continue their distant attacks. “Before committing American troops to desert warfare, you have to find out whether or not they’re ready to handle desert warfare. I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen here, particularly the caliber of the junior officers I’ve talked with. I think this is the best training you can get, short of actual combat.

“You know, we’ve passed through the phase of detente. The Russians have made very clear that they’re going to take what they want. They’ve developed an offensive capability. Up until a few days ago. the Cuban involvement in Africa, in Nicaragua, in Panama, throughout South America . . . The people in this country have to see that our reactions are based on other people’s actions. You reach a point in time where if the other guy’s going to play it tough, you have a basic decision to make — either give it up or respond.

“I consider the 1980s a decade of conflict. By the mid-Eighties the United States is going to be in a very, very, very difficult position because we’re not going to have the resources to respond, and the vital interests of this country may be at stake. The American people have to make a choice in 1980 and 1981. We need to build more amphibious ships. We need an amphibious naval capability. We need five percent real growth in the defense budget. In real terms, we’re spending less on national defense today than we did in 1964, while the social programs in this country have more than quadrupled in the last ten years. We’ve reached the point in time when we can’t have everything and we’re going to have to start listing priorities.” Given the choice of guns or butter, the congressman chooses guns.

End Game

As our open truck heads back to the main camp, through the dark and choking dust-filled night, I lean across the flatbed to put a question to Major Hire. I ask him what he thinks about the congressman’s prediction that the 1980s will be a decade of conflict. “Could be,” he says. “It’s not up to us where we’re going to fight or when: that’s up to the commander-in-chief.” We talk about possible areas of conflict in the world, of how the U.S. and Russia avoid direct conflict by using Third World “surrogates” in places like Vietnam. Angola, and Afghanistan. “What I learned in Vietnam is that you can’t go in and supplant the population.” he says. “If people want to change. it’s going to happen. I hope the United States has learned that lesson and won’t go in to support another bad cause or unpopular government.”

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

How they pry Marines out of downtown Oceanside

Darrius Pope cut hair 10 am to 8 pm in Pendleton barracks
Next Article

Kahlee310’s snitch rapper reactions

“He’d literally do anything for the money or fame”
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Art Reviews — W.S. Di Piero's eye on exhibits Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Best Buys — San Diego shopping Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits City Lights — News and politics Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Famous Former Neighbors — Next-door celebs Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Here's the Deal — Chad Deal's watering holes Just Announced — The scoop on shows Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Of Note — Concert picks Out & About — What's Happening Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Pour Over — Grab a cup Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer News — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Set 'em Up Joe — Bartenders' drink recipes Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Sports — Athletics without gush Street Style — San Diego streets have style Suit Up — Fashion tips for dudes Theater Reviews — Local productions Theater antireviews — Narrow your search Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Waterfront — All things ocean Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close