Friday, March 3, 2023

Serving with Uncle Mel

One of the rewards of a career in the military is the opportunity to serve with truly great people up and down the chain of command. That was certainly the case for me. This is a story—part of the story—of one of those genuinely great people, Melvin W. DeMars, Jr. 

On October 18, 1983, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (HMM-261) and the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) was underway on the helicopter carrier USS Guam (LPH-9) for a deployment to Lebanon as part of its Mediterranean deployment with the U.S. 6th Fleet. The squadron had already been to Lebanon after the Israelis invaded in June of 1982, so they had every expectation that the plans to return there were pretty firm.

They were at sea for about a day, headed east toward the Mediterranean when, at around midnight on October 20, 1982, the Guam turned south. There wasn’t a lot of information circulating around the ship that indicated that anything had changed, but the Marines in the squadron knew that when you’re headed for the Mediterranean from the United States, you have to head east and that when you're steaming east, the sun should be coming up over the bow of the ship. However, when they woke up on the 20th, they saw the sun rise over the left side of the ship. The sun was on the left side because the ship was headed south toward the Caribbean, not east toward Lebanon.

By the end of the day, Marines on the ship were talking about going to “Granada,” which is a city in Spain. But if they were headed to Granada, why were they cruising south? They soon learned that they weren’t going to Granada, Spain; they were headed to Grenada, an island nation in the Caribbean.

The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States had formally requested United States assistance amid “the current anarchic conditions, the serious violations of human rights and bloodshed, and the consequent unprecedented threat to the peace and security of the region by the vacuum of authority in Grenada.” The United States had already been concerned for the safety of approximately 1,000 American citizens on the island, some of whom were medical students who were being prevented from being evacuated from the island. Grenada’s prime minister Maurice Bishop had been assassinated by hard-liners who had ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, and Cuba had already placed forces on the island.

As the ships steamed south, the United States decided to commit forces to Grenada to protect Americans, restore a democratic government, and rid the country of Cuban influence. The operation to conduct an assault on Grenada was briefed to commanders on the Guam at around midnight on October 23, barely 30 hours before the operation—Operation URGENT FURY—was to begin.

With planning hurriedly completed, the first helicopters took off from the Guam in the early morning darkness of October 25, in the face of intermittent rain squalls. To help preserve the element of surprise, the twenty-one helicopters that took to the air from the Guam that morning did so without using radio communications.

The helicopter waves made their way inland and disembarked their Marines. While the Marines were consolidating their positions and beginning to move out into the countryside in the east, U.S. Army Rangers were facing heavy resistance at the southern end of the island. The aircraft that had transported them into Grenada encountered heavy anti-aircraft artillery fire and once the Rangers landed, things didn’t improve as they came under attack from pockets of Cubans in the area.

Some of the Rangers were detached from the main force to rescue the Governor-General at the Governor’s mansion, but the compound was surrounded by hostile forces, so four Marine Cobra helicopter gunships from HMM-261 were ordered to fly south to provide close air support for the Rangers. The Cobras conducted attack runs on a masonry fort to keep the enemy at bay, but on their fifth run on the target, one of the Cobras, flying at an altitude of about 1,200 feet, was hit by anti-aircraft fire. One round traveled through both engines and several others entered the cockpit and wounded the pilots. One of the pilots, Captain Jeb Seagle, was knocked unconscious and the other pilot, Captain Tim Howard’s right arm was incapacitated, and his right leg was broken.

Nonetheless, Howard managed to prop his left foot around the cyclic stick and pulled the stick toward himself to keep the aircraft under control as it hit the ground hard. Despite his injuries, he somehow kept the aircraft upright. The impact with the ground caused Seagle to regain consciousness so he was able to drag the severely injured Howard away from the burning aircraft.

As the two pilots got clear of the helicopter, they came under intense fire from troops near the fort they had been attacking. Then, Howard convinced Seagle to go for help shortly before the burning Cobra exploded. Meanwhile, Howard used his survival radio to call for help as enemy soldiers moved down the hill from the fort toward the crash site. Just as the enemy soldiers reached the edge of the field where Howard and the wreckage of the helicopter were, another Cobra flown by Captain Pat Giguere appeared and scattered the enemy troops with 2.75mm rocket fire.

As Giguere provided cover for the downed crew, he called for a medevac for them.

Major Mel DeMars answered the emergency medevac call. He had been part of the assault force that inserted Marines in another part of the island. He approached the crash site, but landing in the field where Captain Howard was would require him to fly right past the anti-aircraft artillery site that had shot the Cobra down, while enemy troops continued to advance on the crash site from the fort.

DeMars later recalled, “I just figured we were all dead men because we were going in there … heavily resisted by Cubans or whoever was there.  …we were going to have to fly in right past this AAA site, right down the throat of who knows what, in the middle of the capital city of this island to land in this LZ and pick up the downed Cobra crew…it was just something we had to do.“

Giguere was still on station to cover Major DeMars’ landing, but with only one Cobra, there was no one to cover either Giguere or DeMars' aircraft when Giguere completed a run and extended his track off-target.

DeMars described his approach and landing into the LZ, “We started our run-in and Captain Giguere [with co-pilot 1st Lieutenant Jeffrey R. Scharver] in their Cobra rolled in on the target and provided suppressive fire … [I flew my CH-46] in at a high rate of speed …and landed in the landing zone right next to the remains of our Cobra that was in the [soccer] field.  Soon as we hit the ground Gunnery Sergeant Kelly M. Neidigh, a Vietnam vet, one of our door gunners…grabbed an M-16 and ran out into the middle of the landing zone about 40 feet away from where we landed, where Captain Howard was.”

While still under fire, DeMars, unaware that Captain Seagle had already been killed by hostile fire, endured the ongoing fire as he waited in the landing zone in the hopes of returning Seagle to safety.

Finally, with no sign of Seagle, with Giguere’s Cobra running low on ordnance, and with Howard’s condition worsening, DeMars lifted off from the landing zone and headed for the Guam with Giguere covering his departure. However, as they headed out to sea, Giguere’s Cobra was struck by anti-aircraft fire and crashed into the harbor, killing Giguere and his co-pilot First Lieutenant Jeffrey Sharver. DeMars was able to get Howard to the Guam in time to save his life, but Howard’s right arm could not be saved.

Finally, with the Grenada operation complete, HMM-264 continued with its original mission in Lebanon.

Captain Seagle who went for help after his Cobra was shot down was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor, and the Purple Heart.

Captain Howard, who was wounded in the Cobra with Captain Seagle was awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for valor, and the Purple Heart.

Captain Giguere and First Lieutenant Sharver, who covered Major DeMars’ evacuation of Captain Howard were awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, posthumously.

Major DeMars who rescued Captain Howard under fire was awarded the Silver Star as was Gunnery Sergeant Neidigh who carried Captain Howard to the rescue helicopter.

Of his Silver Star, Mel DeMars often said, "I'd much rather have those three guys."

Five years later, in 1988, I was a CH-46E Sea Knight assault helicopter pilot in Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (HMM-365) when Lieutenant Colonel Mel "Uncle Mel" DeMars assumed command of the squadron.

Although it had been five years, DeMars never forgot “those three guys” or the lessons he gleaned from Grenada or from his experiences from two deployments in support of U.S. operations in Lebanon and as a Presidential helicopter pilot with HMX-1.

Former Marine Commandant General John A. Lejeune said that the relationship between commanding officers and those under their command “should in no sense be that of superior and inferior nor that of master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar.”

DeMars fit that mold. He heeded Lejeune’s admonition to take responsibility “for the physical, mental, and moral welfare, as well as the discipline and military training” of those under his command. He effectively related his experiences in combat to contemporary problems and the growth of his squadron while he led from the front and by his example.

His leadership style was more modest than flashy, but he had a confident bearing, a sense of humor, an intellect, and a quick wit that made him worth listening to and following. He was purposeful, focused, and principled, and he was intent on keeping commitments and doing things right.

Less than a year after he took command of the squadron, we began work-ups to deploy to the Mediterranean for six months as a special operations capable (SOC) squadron. After six months of training, we were ready, but after six months of operating in and around the Mediterranean, we were a very capable unit.

During the deployment, we flew and flew and when the aircraft needed work, the aircraft maintenance department got them back in the air so we could fly and fly some more. We flew more than a quarter of our flight hours at night and flew four of our six exercises during the deployment under zero ambient illumination. The intense night vision goggle (NVG) training was made possible when DeMars boldly asserted in a hazard report that was broadcast throughout the Marine Corps that the Marine Corps’ NVG training policy was hazardous and inhibited effective combat readiness training. In a subsequent message, he requested relief from the policy for the duration of the deployment so his squadron could more adequately prepare for combat. His request was approved.

As the end of our six-month deployment approached, when others would have been thinking about packing their things and going home, we launched sixteen aircraft under zero illumination at 3:00 in the morning from the USS Iwo Jima and seized the airport at Gibraltar, a target we had never seen before, and conducted a simulated hostage rescue there without making a single radio transmission until we landed at the foot of "the Rock."

The Marines of HMM-365 under LtCol DeMars were warriors who confidently went about their duty, satisfied in the end that they had done an important thing well. I think it's safe to say that, to the man, they appreciated having served under Mel DeMars' command, and I know the feeling was mutual.

But the rest of the story resides in the fact that once we returned from the deployment, as usual, many of the squadron members received orders to report to other units. Most of the CH-46 crews remained with HMM-365 while others reported to sister squadron HMM-263, which was preparing for a brief deployment to the North Atlantic.

As it turned out, with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the plans for HMM-365 and HMM-263 rapidly changed when they were ordered to report to the Middle East for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. A few months later, they flew a nighttime raid on NVGs under low light-level conditions into Mogadishu, Somalia to rescue U.S. and foreign diplomats from the fighting there. Both squadrons distinguished themselves and a good part of that success was due to the professionalism of the flight crews and aircraft maintenance Marines whose skills and readiness had been developed under LtCol DeMars.

In a tribute to his Marines during his change of command ceremony at the end of his tour with HMM-365, LtCol DeMars' stood before his squadron and described the spirit of the squadron he led by paraphrasing the narrator at the end of John Ford’s movie “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” Addressing the attending audience, DeMars said, "There they are, the 50 cents a day regulars, the men in dirty shirt green, from the oil fields of the Louisiana coast to the waters of the Caribbean, from the deserts of Israel to the coast of North Africa they did their job, with scarcely a cold page in the history books to mark their passage. The pay is poor, the hours long, the separations many. The names and faces change but the spirit lives on because they are a squadron, and wherever they sailed and whatever they fought for, they preserved the precious gift of freedom for you, me and for all Americans."


Photo Credits

(1) Lieutenant Colonel Melvin W. DeMars, USMC, at Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella, Italy (Sicily, Italy). Photography by Captain Rick Mullen, USMC.

(2) Captain Jeb Seagle drags Captain Timothy D. Howard away from their burning AH-1T Cobra, shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire near Fort Frederick on Grenada. Captain Seagle was killed while looking for help for the badly wounded Howard, who was subsequently rescued by a CH-46 of HMM-261 flown by Major Melvin DeMars. Reconstructive art by LtCol A. M. "Mike" Leahy, USMCR, provided to the Marine Corps History and Museums Division by the Navy Chief of Information.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Yellow Footprints: An Anniversary Reflection

Hurry Up and Wait...

mcrdI grew up in a small community in southern Illinois–Newton, Illinois–where people generally knew each other or at least knew of each other. It was–and still is–a nice town. It’s the kind of town that still holds a fall parade where tractors and marching bands own the streets. People sit along the curb in their chairs while the kids play along the street. The people there cherish the tempo and lifestyle, quietly aware that if everyone lived that way, it would be a much better world.

I wasn’t exactly setting any academic records in high school, so I needed a change of pace and some way to transition to a successful track somewhere, somehow. I had thought about the military, but I hesitated to follow through. I wasn’t sure I would be cut out for the military life, and I didn’t know which branch of the service to enter. I was very certain that if I did join the military service, it wouldn’t be the Marines because I was pretty sure I couldn’t make it there.

However, when the Marine recruiter called and asked if he could come over for a visit, I said yes. Almost as soon as he stepped through the door, I was in awe. I was still pretty sure I couldn’t get there from where I was in my life, but I was willing to listen. After some kind of black magic and other maneuvers, he had me thinking I could make it and I decided right then that I wanted to become a Marine. I was caught up in all of it and had apparently separated myself from my sense that there was no way I could make it through Marine Corps boot camp. I wasn’t a very big or fit guy at the time. I didn’t run, I wasn’t strong, and I wasn’t very focused. All of that was going to change soon enough though.

I signed the papers in September of 1974, just after my seventeenth birthday and finished my high school work in January. The following month, on Monday, February 24, 1975, my family took me to the Greyhound bus station in the nearby town of Effingham where I boarded a bus headed for the recruiting center in St. Louis.

I boarded that bus 48 years ago on February 24, 1975, with the love, support, and confidence of my loved ones and friends; it turned out that not wanting to disappoint any of them was a powerful motivator.

I spent the night in a so-so hotel in a not-so-good part of town. I didn’t get a lot of sleep because I was afraid of missing my wake-up time. It turns out I couldn’t have missed it because the hotel invested in a wake-up ringer that could have awakened the dead. They obviously housed a lot of recruits because it wasn’t quite a gentle wake-up call. That was okay. I didn’t have another gentle wake-up for three months.

My instructions were to get up early at a time they gave me and report to the recruiting center for processing. I had the sense that it would be a pretty quick evolution since I already had a physical and had signed a bunch of papers. After all, this was the military, known for its rapid efficiency. But I was wrong. I got there early and waited and waited. Then, we did a little something and waited and waited some more. That happened all day long until suddenly near the end of the day everyone flew into action to process us out of there and get us to the airport for a flight to San Diego. What appeared to be wasteful inefficiency turned out to be a well-conceived plan. Very clever.

The staff at the recruiting center in St. Louis gave me all of the paperwork for the group in a large yellow envelope because my last name came first in the alphabet among those headed from St. Louis to San Diego. There was probably a dozen of us. It turns out where my last name fell in the alphabet dictated a good bit of my vantage point over the next three months since we did almost everything in alphabetical order. We lined up for shots in alphabetical order and we even slept in alphabetical order. I got a good look at the back of Private Dibble’s head over that period.

We took off out of the airport in St. Louis en route to San Diego. I wasn’t nervous, mostly because I was too clueless to be nervous. However, as we made our approach into the airport in San Diego, the flight attendant got on the intercom and pointed out the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and the Naval Training Center which bordered the airport. As I looked down on the base which looked eerily serene and darkened except for the street lights, I suddenly felt a little bit of anxiety. As we filed off the airplane, the flight attendant told us recruits, “good luck,” and she seemed to mean it, almost as if she was in on some secret that we were about to learn for ourselves. Those were the last kind, warm words I heard for three months, except for the letters I received from friends and loved ones at home.

To the Wolves...

We got out into the airport and went looking for the Marine Corps liaison. It was after 10 PM and there weren’t very many people in the airport, so the Marine wasn't hard to find. We found him standing behind a podium near some exit doors. I took my large envelope of documents to the podium to let the liaison know we had arrived.

As I walked up, the Marine was looking down at some papers he was working on. I rested my elbow on the podium and told him the group from St. Louis was there. The Marine barely lifted his head as he looked at my elbow. Then, without raising his voice he told me to get my @#$% elbow off of his @#$% podium. As quietly and calmly as he said that, he nonetheless left no doubt in my mind about my need to get my @#$% elbow off of his @#$% podium. I got my elbow off of his podium. I suddenly wished I had heeded my dad’s words to stand up straight and “don’t lean on that.”

He told us to wait outside, and the bus would be along shortly. Groups of recruits from other parts of the country arrived and waited with us. Almost on cue once we had a busload, a white school bus with, “U. S. Marine Corps” stenciled in small letters on the side pulled up. 

When a sergeant came flying out of the bus yelling and screaming at us, I thought, “What am I doing here?!” Years later when I watched the movie Shawshank Redemption and saw the guy who, on arriving at prison, cries out, “I don’t belong here…”, I understood his anguish. I didn’t cry like he did, though. In fact, I didn’t say a word. I was all ears, and my eyes were wide open.

The sergeant yelled at us to fill the bus from back to front, from left to right. He said it so fast, you really had to be listening to get it all.

One of the guys from St. Louis was a red-headed kid who must have been somebody important in his high school JROTC unit because he couldn’t stop talking at St. Louis, on the plane, and at curbside while we were waiting for the bus about how he was going to breeze through boot camp. Well, his fantasy quickly eroded when he jumped on that bus and promptly sat in a seat in the middle of the bus. That’s not what the sergeant told us to do, so the sergeant went tearing through the cluster of recruits, boarded the bus and lit into the red-headed kid. All you could hear was the sound of that sergeant barking in this guy’s ear, then the red-head quickly shuffling to the back of the bus. Welcome to boot camp.

The rest of us got on the bus. If there were any doubts about how we were supposed to do that, the red-headed guy’s experience clarified it for us nicely. The bus started rolling and we made our way over to MCRD on what was probably the loneliest bus ride of my short life. I had never felt more like I was being led to the wolves. "Wolves" was an understatement. 

yellowfootprintsWe arrived at MCRD, and just as there were instructions about how to get on the bus, there were instructions about how to get off the bus. This time, we were to stand on a column of yellow footprints. These yellow footprints were painted with feet at the position of attention–heels on line and touching, toes pointed at a 45-degree anglebecause although we didn’t know what the position of attention was, we needed to be at it.

We got on the yellow footprints and the place was swarming with DIs, or at least it seemed to be. The time was around midnight, and they told us to drop everything we had in our hands. I had that envelope with those papers, but I dropped it and never saw it again. One poor soul brought a beach ball. He must have had a recruiter with a sense of humor who gave him the idea that since he was coming to San Diego, he was going to get some beach time. That got him some unwanted attention right away.

The yellow footprints were located in the heart of the recruit reception activity. Just to our right was the barbershop and it was open for business. The very first thing we did after getting on the yellow footprints was file into the barbershop for a haircut that couldn’t have lasted longer than 15 seconds. There were half a dozen barbers, and they took no time at all to cut all of those heads of hair. Everyone in that column had their own look, their own appearance, but that was about to change. I was standing behind a guy who had long hair and a beard. While I was pretty fixated on not being the next red-headed guy, I couldn’t help thinking that his haircut was going to leave him with an interesting look.

Just before the guy in front of me was supposed to head to the barber, he suddenly fainted right there on his yellow footprints. As the DIs and a medical corpsman attended to him, I moved quickly around him and went in for my haircut. When I came back, he was gone, and an empty set of yellow footprints remained.

A short while later, though, he returned with his hair cut off. He still had his beard. He received the same express haircut I got, but as he stood in front of me, I could see he had these remnants of his long hair here and there that the barber missed. He looked like one of those old dolls that most of the hair had fallen out of (with a beard). He was very pale and not looking good at all. I remember thinking this guy’s not going to make it. It turns out he graduated from boot camp in my platoon as a squad leader with a meritorious promotion. Shows you what I knew.

So, whatever you looked like on the bus was not what you looked like back on those yellow footprints after that haircut. The red-headed guy from St. Louis was an exception.

The red-headed guy was still the red-headed guy and he was proving to be quite a DI magnet. He wasn’t doing anything right and they absolutely were on him the entire evening. Our next stop was an issue line where we were given our toiletries. Somehow, he messed that up too and the DIs hauled him outside where we could hear them giving him the business. I couldn’t understand what they were yelling, but I thought they were going to send that guy out of there that night the way things were going. I, on the other hand, suddenly found the focus that had eluded me all of my seventeen years.

My Marine Corps Everything...


We finally made it to bed. I have no idea what time it was, but I was ready for a good night of sleep. I didn’t sleep much the night before and a long day capped off with the hyper-adrenalin always-on environment where DIs who apparently had no idea of what an “indoor voice” was, made me ready for a good night of sleep. We were bunked in an open squad bay, which means it was a very large room with rows of double bunks with aisles between the rows.

I got to sleep immediately, but it seemed that almost as soon as my eyelids hit my cheekbones, the lights came back on, and someone was throwing a 20-gallon galvanized steel trash can down the aisle. There’s nothing quite like that sound, and it sure gave the impression they really wanted us out of bed and standing at attention at the foot of our bunks right away. They counted us to make sure we were all still there then they gave some instructions for us to go to the head (restroom) to shave. We did it in shifts. Half went to the head while the other half stripped bunks of the sheets and blankets. As soon as the beds were stripped, it was time to rotate: the guys in the head came shuffling out (but not fast enough) and the other half went shuffling in (also not fast enough).

marchWe ran back out to our bunks and put our civilian clothes back on and ran outside. We assembled in sort of a military formation and walked–because we didn’t know how to march–in that formation. It was still dark outside, but as we made our way over to the mess hall–now called a dining facility in the military, unfortunately–we could see other recruit platoons who had obviously been there a while. When they marched, it sounded like one heel: thump, thump, thump, thump. That was something. That might have been the only time the DIs let us gawk. Everything they did was as though they were one, in perfect unison. Everything we did was evidence that we had a long way to go. The DIs had a colorful way of telling us how far we had to go yet and whether they thought we had any chance of getting there.

We filed into the mess hall, and it was all business in there too. Once we got to the serving line and grabbed a tray, the mess men behind the serving line kept saying, “keep the chow line moving, privates, keep the chow line moving.” If the chow line stopped moving, there was trouble because the DIs saw that too. Of course, the yelling of “not fast enough,” “what are you looking at,” and “no talking” were echoing throughout the mess hall. I was near the end of the chow line, so I was one of the last to get my breakfast. That didn’t work out so well.

Thinking I should get a decent meal that morning so I would have enough battery juice to make it through the day, I grabbed some scrambled eggs, some hash browns, and a pastry. I should have stopped at the scrambled eggs and hash browns. I shoved that stuff in my mouth as fast as I could because almost as soon as I sat down, we were getting a countdown for when we needed to be finished. By the time we were told to get out of the mess hall, I still had that pastry sitting there. I started to get up, but one of those all-seeing DIs spotted that pastry on my tray.

He told me I wasn’t going to waste his Marine Corps chow. Everything seemed to belong to these DIs, and they seemingly took everything personally–my Marine Corps chow, my Marine Corps barracks, my Marine Corps dirt, my Marine Corps formation–and we seemed to always be messing up their Marine Corps things. In fact, they seemed to be convinced that we were there to destroy their Marine Corps and it was their mission to keep that from happening.

So, I was not going to waste his Marine Corps chow because doing so would lead to the demise of his Marine Corps. I dropped back down in my seat and my new shadow, the DI, was right on me yelling at me to get this thing eaten. I stuffed as much of that pastry in my mouth that I could–the proverbial ten pounds in the five-pound bag–and tried to chew, but it wasn’t going anywhere. It just seemed to get larger and mushier and more impossible to do anything with. I finally got the whole thing in my mouth and was still trying to chew it when he yelled at me (with his outside voice) to get out of there. I must have chewed that ball of grease and dough for an hour, but I finally got it down. That was the last pastry I ate in boot camp.

We got back to the barracks and cleaned the place up then went to get our uniforms. Once again, we became someone different (except for that red-headed guy). We looked nothing like Marines in those green uniforms though. It was pretty clear that we were just civilians dressed up–poorly, I should say–in Marine Corps uniforms. The uniforms smelled like mothballs and were dark green because they’d not yet been laundered. We looked terrible, but at least, in our eyes, we were starting to look like we belonged there.

phoneA little while later, we went to a place where we boxed up all of our personal belongings and shipped them home. The Marine Corps would issue to us anything we would need from that time on. 

Then, we went over to the phone center where we were allowed to make a quick phone call home. There was a script taped next to the telephone that went something like this: “This is Recruit Doss. I have arrived safely at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Please do not send me any food or bulky items in the mail. I will contact you in 3 to 5 days by postcard with my new address. Thank you for your support. Goodbye for now.”

That’s when it really settled on me that I now belonged to the United States Marine Corps. What happened from that time forward was entirely in the hands of a few drill instructors and what I was able to make of it. Every day presented a new challenge and produced more growth. It's interesting that as uncertain as I was about whether I could make it through boot camp before I arrived, once I got there, it never occurred to me again that I couldn't handle it. As much as I missed all that I left behind when I went to boot camp, it turned out that boot camp was what I needed to get on track.

Somehow, in three short months, they took us from raw recruits who needed yellow footprints painted on the ground to show us where to stand and turned us into Marines.

Monday, February 6, 2023


fujiI think we all have had times when we did something, or thought about doing something, that didn’t seem like much of a big deal at the time, but then later its importance grew over time, and the decision you made to either do that thing or not turned out to be more meaningful than we had imagined at the time we made the choice.

One such time for me was the time some friends and I climbed Mount Fuji in Japan. We were deployed to a camp at the base of the mountain from Okinawa. It was July 4, 1976 and we had a military parade in honor of the 200th birthday of our Nation and about a dozen of us thought it would be cool to climb it to celebrate the day after the parade.

Mount Fuji isn’t a difficult mountain to climb, there’s just a lot of it: a little more than 12,000 feet of it. A lot of Japanese successfully make a pilgrimage of the climb every year. You can climb it in about eight hours if you follow a trail. It’s certainly no Denali.

Climbing Mt Fuji July 4 1976 2We wanted the climb to be special though, so we didn’t want to follow a trail. Instead, we just started from our camp and walked straight up. We started right after the parade was finished—about mid-morning—and trudged up the cinders all day long. As the end of the day approached, we ran into some weather; it was mostly hail, rain, and wind and it pounded down into our faces as we looked up to climb.

We didn’t quite have a plan for that. About half of our group decided to head back down the mountain, but the rest of us continued on. Not long after we split up, we came across an abandoned building that appeared to be intended as a shelter. It had three walls and, of course, the one that was missing was the one the weather was coming through.

Climbing Mt Fuji July 4 1976 4There was an elevated platform inside that seemed to have been designed for sleeping on so we huddled up on that.. We didn’t have blankets so we slept in the cold and wind. It was just cold and windy enough to make sleeping difficult, but it was better than being outside.

We woke up early the next morning and continued the climb as the cinders turned to a little bit of snow resting on top of the cinders. We reached the summit – the crater – at about mid-morning. Looking back down on Japan on that clear day was quite a sight. We walked around and took some photos before heading back down. The trip down was much faster.

Climbing Mt Fuji July 4 1976 3Like I said, the climb wasn’t a major feat, but it was one of those things you don’t get many chances to do. I’m glad we did it. More importantly, I’m glad we didn’t turn around and head back down the mountain when we ran into the bad weather. If we had, that might have been the last time I ever talked about Mount Fuji. It doesn’t seem likely I would have been fond of remembering the time I climbed half a mountain and gave up on the other half.

I suppose avoiding regrets like that has been a big motivator for me in negotiating the challenges and obstacles I’ve encountered over the years.  I think I’ve recognized for a long time that failure sometimes comes with taking risks, so I’ve not spent as much time worrying about or fearing failure as I’ve thought of ways to overcome those challenges and obstacles. I think I’ve been more afraid of quitting or giving up, and what it might turn me into if I headed down that road (or mountain).

There’s a lot to be said for climbing the other half of the mountain. We do it—or face the decision to do it—all the time. Oftentimes, the consequences that lay beyond the decision not to press on are more lasting than the effects of having tried and failed.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Silent Legacy of James Henry Harris

James Henry Harris was born near Creedmoor in Granville County, North Carolina in 1832. He apprenticed as a carpenter as a young man before starting his own business in Raleigh. When laws in North Carolina regarding free people of color became more aggressive in the 1840s, he moved to Ohio[1] where he attended school for two years. Within a decade, he traveled to and taught in Liberia and Sierra Leone where over the previous twenty years, thousands of freed slaves from the United States had resettled.

Harris then moved to Terre Haute, Indiana where, in 1863, he was asked by Indiana Governor Levi Morton to help raise a regiment of U. S. Colored Troops for service in the Civil War.  After the war, he returned to North Carolina where he became a teacher for the New England Freedmen's Aid Society.[2]

Harris soon saw a need to ensure that freedom for blacks included legal and political equality, so he entered politics. In 1865, he was elected to the North Carolina Freedmen's Convention where he advocated moderation and reconciliation with whites and education for blacks. That same year, he became vice president of the National Equal Rights Convention. By the time he became president of the Freedman's Convention the following year, he had become increasingly more forceful in his insistence on equal rights for blacks.[3]

As post-war Reconstruction progressed, Harris developed as one of the most influential black politicians in North Carolina. He was a charter member of the North Carolina Republican Party, was a delegate at the 1868 North Carolina Constitutional Convention, and was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly three times and to the North Carolina Senate once. He also used his influence and oratorical skills to urge President Ulysses S. Grant to press Congress to pass legislation that would ensure equal rights for blacks. He attended the 1868, 1872, and 1876 Republican National Conventions and was a presidential elector in 1872.[4]

In 1870, while he was a member of the North Carolina legislature, Harris joined with 11 other legislators led by Senator John Pool and met with Governor William W. Holden to devise a plan to suppress the Ku Klux Klan which had been on a terror campaign to keep recently freed slaves from exercising their right to vote by intimidating them and white Republican officials. They decided to form a militia to stop the Klan; that move resulted in the Holden-Kirk War. After several bloody clashes with the Klan, Governor Holden disbanded the militia. Later that year, however, the Democrats gained the majority in the North Carolina legislature and impeached Governor Holden on a straight party-line vote. (140 years later, in 2011, the North Carolina Senate voted unanimously to pardon Governor Holden.)[5]

In the 1880s Harris edited and published the North Carolina Republican, whose slogan was “Firm in the Right,”[6] and whose work was focused "in behalf of the Republican party and the advancement of the negro.”[7]

During his career, Harris was an advocate for education for blacks, prison reform, aid to laborers, protection for women and debtors, and care for orphans. He also helped create and became one of the first trustees of the Colored Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind in Raleigh. Since even before he began his political career, Harris believed that white and black interests were interwoven, but along the way he maintained his insistence that blacks fight to keep their political rights and to gain equality before the law.”[8]

The end of Reconstruction brought about a persistent erosion of the progress that had been made toward equality among the races after the Civil War. Within two decades, political control had shifted and Jim Crow laws gave legal sanction to segregation and discrimination in the South. Finally, 1901 saw the return of Democratic control in the North Carolina legislature and an end to representation by black North Carolinians in the United States Congress, which had seen 22 black men among its membership over the previous 30 years. It would be another 28 years before another African-American was elected to the U. S. Congress from the state of North Carolina.[9]

James H. Harris' work is largely unknown today and his legacy is elusive, but the contributions that he and many others made to the advancement of African-American interests before the Civil War and during Reconstruction were noteworthy and courageous. Although, many of their initiatives could not withstand the Jim Crow era, their legacy is that although it is easier to throw up one’s hands on racial tension, bias, and bigotry today as if it has never been worse and there is no hope of improvement, the fact is that energetic and courageous Americans can make a real difference with real action, if they're willing. "Real action" includes not turning a deaf and indifferent ear to discrimination in our communities and ensuring that our elected officials back up their campaign rhetoric with tangible action. In order to do that, we have to pay attention and rely on facts and substance rather than fall for the partisanship that favors politicians, not the people and principles they're supposed to represent.

1 Ijames, Earl “Constitutional Convention, 1868: ‘Black Caucus’.” NCPedia. Reprinted from the Tar Heel Junior Historian Fall 2008.
2 Alexander, Roberta Sue “Harris, James Henry.” NCPedia. 1988.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Barnett, Ned “N.C. state senate pardons governor who stood up to Klan.” Reuters. April 12, 2011.
6 Ijames, “Constitutional Convention, 1868: ‘Black Caucus’.”
7 Alexander, Roberta Sue “Harris, James Henry.”
8 Ibid.
9 “Representative George White of North Carolina.” History, Art, and Archives, United States House of Representatives.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Sometimes Better To Ask Forgiveness...

In early 1996, I was a member of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 162 (HMM-162), the aviation element of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) on board the USS Guam (LPH-9). We were operating in the Adriatic Sea and ashore in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Albania as part of the peace enforcement force, the "implementation force" (IFOR), during Operation Decisive Endeavor.

We were wrapping up our work in the Adriatic in early April, preparing to head to Israel for some exercises, when we received an order to prepare to redeploy to the west coast of Africa for potential operations in embattled Liberia. As we steamed toward the southern end of the Adriatic, we were either going to turn left toward Israel or right toward Liberia. By the time we reached the Mediterranean, it was a right turn. We arrived at "Mamba Station" off the coast of Liberia early in the morning of April 20th.

When we arrived, fighting around the U. S. Embassy was pretty intense as warring factions fought in the street in front of the Embassy and along several blocks nearby, so our first priority was to reinforce the Embassy with Marines. Our next priority was to fly non-combatants out of Liberia. In some cases, we flew them to the Guam; in other cases, we flew them to neighboring Freetown, Sierra Leone where they would catch an international flight out of the area.

As we continued operations in and out of Liberia over the next few months, we took time to train at the airport in Sierra Leone, away from the mayhem in Monrovia, although Sierra Leone had plenty of problems of its own. Armed soldiers were all throughout the airport keeping a menacing eye on the people there.

I remember the first time we landed in Sierra Leone, I had trouble reaching the control tower for permission to land. I had been calling them beginning at 25 miles out, but got no answer on the radio. I flew closer and closer and kept calling until finally on short final to the runway I simply said, "Lungi (the airport's name), this is Wombat 05, flight of two U. S. Marine helicopters. We're on short final and we'll be landing on runway 12. We have passengers and we'll need fuel." Normally, that would have been phrased as a request, but not in that case. Finally, the control tower answered and cleared us to land.

We hoped that the airport would have telephones so we could call home, so we left one Marine in the aircraft so no one would run off with the aircraft or more likely, the 50 caliber machineguns and ammo as we walked into the airport to see if there were phones. It was probably a curious sight for those in the airport because we were still wearing our flight gear and were carrying 9mm Barettas into the airport. There were enough American flags on flight suits that everyone probably figured out who we were pretty quickly. There wasn't going to be any trouble for us there.

What was interesting was that as the soldiers stood over the people in the airport, we walked past them and gave candy and cookies to the kids. I doubt they had seen friendly military people before, but it was good for them and the soldiers to see a little friendliness coming from the Americans.

We dropped off our passengers, made our phone calls, got our fuel, and headed back to the Guam sitting off the coast of Liberia.

On another occasion, I led a flight to the same airport to do some night vision goggle training. As we landed, we saw a Soviet-made Mi-8 "Hip" helicopter sitting there on the flight line. To that point, I had seen photographs and studied aircraft recognition silhouettes, but I hadn't seen one in person before.

Once we shut the aircraft down, we walked over to the Mi-8 to look it over. I tapped on the aircraft skin and it was as solid as an old Buick. Our aircraft had aluminum skin to cut down on weight, so the Hip was quite a bit heavier and likely less maneuverable than our aircraft. A few minutes later, the pilot came out of the airport and walked over to us. He was a South African mercenary hired by the Sierra Leone government.

He asked if we wanted to go up in the aircraft. I was the senior Marine there and this was a situation that we had never discussed before: Would it be okay for us to go up in a Soviet-made helicopter flown by a South African mercenary? There was no one to ask for permission other than me, so I said, "sure." The answer, if I had asked, might have been "no," but if I didn't accept the offer everyone would have said I should have. That's the way that sort of thing works. It was such an opportunity, I couldn't pass it up.

So, we boarded the helicopter and as I prepared to take a seat in the back, the pilot directed me to the cockpit. He was actually going to let me fly that thing!

I climbed into the cockpit and strapped in and put the helmet on that was sitting in my seat. As I did, I looked overhead at the circuit breaker panel and saw that the circuit breaker labels were all written in Cyrillic from when it was Soviet-owned. Some of the labels were replaced by bits of paper with words in English taped to the panel identifying what the circuit breakers and switches were for. I asked the mercenary pilot what they did about the ones still written in the Russian language and he said, "We don't know what those are for so we don't touch them." Good idea.

The pilot started the helicopter and asked me if I wanted to fly it. I was a little surprised that he was going to let me take off since takeoffs and landings are not always sure things, but I took the controls and got ready to lift off.

The Soviet helicopter main rotor systems rotate clockwise whereas American helicopter main rotors spin counter-clockwise. The reason that's important to know is that torque generated by the main rotor makes the fuselage want to spin in the opposite direction, which is part of the reason you have a tail rotor, technically known as a "counter-torque rotor." As you increase power to take off you need to manipulate the pedals which control the tail rotor to keep the helicopter from spinning when you increase or decrease power. After a while, American pilots who fly tail rotor helicopters apply left pedal input when they increase power to take off without even thinking about it. The problem with jumping into a Soviet helicopter is that if you apply left pedal without thinking about it like you would in an American helicopter, you'd make the helicopter spin badly. Fortunately, I didn't fly a tail rotor helicopter, so I didn't have to fight the temptation to put left pedal in. When I added power, I felt the fuselage want to spin left, so I added right pedal to counter it.

The takeoff went fine and I flew around the traffic pattern and set up to land at the helicopter pad on the north side of the runway. As I reduced power and pulled back on the nose to start my decelerating descent, the helicopter barely responded so it mushed right through the normal landing profile. I noticed that the South African sort of leaned forward to get a look at the pad which was getting more difficult to see as we creeped up over it, so I--as cooly as I could--said "I'm going to make a steep approach," as if that was my plan all along, which it wasn't. Doing a steep approach in an unfamiliar aircraft would have been kind of a bold thing to do, so he must have thought I was pretty confident in my ability. Fortunately, that pig slowed down enough that I was able to stay on a steep profile and put it on the pad with no problem. I climbed out of the cockpit to give another pilot a go at it, but I did warn the next guy on my way out that it was pretty mushy.

Still not sure that news that we had flown the Soviet aircraft was going to be well-received when we returned to the squadron, I told my CO about the great opportunity that we couldn't pass up, and he thought it was great and was glad we did it.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Birds of Paradise

I was relatively new to offshore flying when I picked up an assignment to spend the day supporting an oil company in a field of oil platforms more than 100 miles off of the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

As I landed on my first platform after that long overwater flight, my passenger said that he would be only a few minutes so I decided to delay a needed refueling until I could take him to his next stop. If I took off to get fuel on another platform right then, I'd need to shut the helicopter down to refuel and wouldn't be able to return for a half hour or more. I didn't want to keep him waiting if it wasn't necessary.

It turned out that I waited on the deck at idle for about half an hour for him to return to the aircraft, so I was really needing fuel by the time he was back on board.

He boarded the aircraft and I dropped him off at the next stop, and then went looking for a refueling platform. With all of those gas and oil resources out there, you would think there'd be a lot of places to get fuel, but there weren't. Anyway, I found a fuel platform on my map and noted its number from the map as I looked for a platform with that number painted on it. The platform number was normally painted on the deck of the platform, but most of the time, the number was also painted on a sign attached to the platform at sea level.

I found what I thought was the platform that I was looking for, but I couldn't see the number because the platform deck was all white with no number in sight. On closer inspection, mostly because of the number of sea birds that I scared off when I flew over the deck, I figured out that the deck was white because it and the platform number were COVERED like a sheet in bird droppings.

So, since I couldn't see the number on the platform deck I dropped down to the ocean's surface to see if I could see a sign down there. I found the sign and flew back up to the top. It was the platform I was looking for.

Let me pause here to say that I was flying for a well-respected company that had high expectations for its pilots. Once we were hired and trained for work around the oil fields, the company designated us as "captains." We had uniforms. My khaki-colored shirt had embroidered wings with my name "Captain Doss" sewn above the left breast pocket. I had shoulder boards with the four gold stripes of a commercial airline captain. My trousers and shoes were brown. My uniform was clean and my shoes were shined. Of course, I also wore a ball cap and sunglasses. Of course… I say all of that to make the point that this was one of those jobs with an image attached to it where people assumed that you'd start and finish the day in a clean uniform, and that it wasn't really what some would call a "dirty job." And it wasn't a dirty job...most of the time.

Back to the story.

So, I landed my helicopter on this fuel platform and shut it down. Since there was no one on the platform to fuel aircraft, pilots pumped their own fuel. I opened the helicopter door and put one foot on the deck to test the surface. As I suspected, that bird excrement was wet and every bit of an eighth-of-an-inch deep. It oozed up along the edges of my shoe. I knew that this wasn't going to be good. The platform was going to be very very slick to walk on so as I set my other foot on the deck I was very deliberate in doing so. I walked in short patient strides as if I was on a sheet of ice because I didn't need to slip on the surface and end up wearing a coat of bird feces. I still had a long day of work ahead of me.

The fuel nozzle was stowed in a basket at the very edge of the platform and below the deck level so I was going to need to kneel down to get it. First, however, I needed to take a fuel sample to make sure the fuel wasn't contaminated since I was the first pilot on the platform that day. Since the fuel valve was below the deck edge too, taking a fuel sample meant that I needed to kneel on the deck to do it. Fortunately, I had gloves that I wore for refueling so I wouldn't have the smell of jet fuel on my hands while I was transporting customers. But considering my options, I decided to put my gloves down on the deck so I could kneel on them without getting white patches of bird dung on my knees. It was clearly not one of the more glamorous moments on this job.

So, I knelt on my gloves and leaned over the fuel pump basket to get the sample jar. I was careful to hold the jar under the spout so I wouldn't splash fuel on my hands, but it turned out that I was holding the jar under the wrong spout. I discovered that right away when I opened the valve and the fuel came out of another spout, pouring jet fuel all over my hands. After I got my act together, I finally got the fuel sample and checked it. The fuel was good, thankfully.

I took the hose and nozzle from the deck edge basket and dragged them over to my helicopter. Actually, you don't drag those hoses; you pick them up and carry them section by section from one area of the platform to the next because the deck has an abrasive surface that can tear up the hoses when you drag them across it (unless there's bird feculence all over it!).

So, I refueled the helicopter then hauled the hose and nozzle back over to the storage area. I knelt down again to stow everything. As I got back into the helicopter, I found that despite my best efforts to prevent it, I not only had jet fuel all over my hands, I had white birdplop on my knees, hands, and on the toes, sides, and bottoms of my shoes. Again, not an overly glamorous moment.

I started the aircraft back up, picked up my passenger, and finished the day's work out there without saying a word about how I had spent the previous 45 minutes. Living it once was enough for that day, especially since some of my misery was of my own creation.

Being a commercial helicopter pilot working for oil companies sounds like a cool job, and it is. It's dangerous work, but it's good work. My friends always thought it was an exotic job where everything was perfect, and I didn't tell them differently. I have to say though that after my trip to that poop-blanketed platform, I had to smile when they mentioned my cool and exotic job. There was no point in ruining the illusion with the other side of the story. These days, though, I tell people that it was a great job, but I admit that there was this one day...

Some people go to work every day and expect to "step in it" a little bit; sometimes they expect to step in it a lot because there's a lot of it to step in. Some of us don't expect to step in it at all, but find a way to do it anyway.

It's funny how some of the least enjoyable parts of our lives and our work can become fond memories if we let them. If all we do is moan and complain, though, that negativity tends to stick to us (like bird poop) and it's hard to find happiness and satisfaction in them. Sometimes, what can you do but laugh, right?

Friday, January 6, 2023

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 9): "Muscat"

Each of our aircraft passenger manifests told a story. One listed the names of Kuwaiti and Soviet diplomats.  Another roster included the name of a woman who had been shot, another named a man who had suffered knife wounds, and another named the Sudanese ambassador’s wife who was about to give birth. The manifest of LtCol Wallace’s aircraft included the name of a woman who boarded a helicopter with a parachute draped around her, the only personal belonging she had salvaged.
[1] She reassured crew chief Corporal Tommy Sheffield that she wouldn’t jump out of the aircraft during the flight to the Guam.[2]

The evacuation in Mogadishu ultimately extracted 281 people from 30 nations, including sixty-one Americans, thirty-nine Soviet citizens, seventeen British citizens, twenty-six Germans, and various numbers from twenty-six other nations. That included twelve heads of diplomatic missions: eight ambassadors and four charg├ęs d’affaires.[3]

U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Officer Karen Aguilar later observed, “We couldn’t save ourselves. Either we were going to get blown away or somebody was going to have to save us.”[4]

Before leaving the ships in Muscat, Oman, Ambassador Bishop addressed the sailors and Marines aboard the Guam via the ship’s television system:

“Subsequent events made it clear that the Marines and SEALs came just in time, as looters came over the wall as the helicopters left. We were very impressed by the professionalism of EASTERN EXIT. The Marines and SEALs appeared at all times the master of the situation. The best indicator of their competence is the mission’s success: the evacuation of 281 people from an embattled city without injury to either evacuees or military personnel. The actions of those protecting the Embassy and evacuating evacuees was indeed heroic. And the actions aboard Guam were indeed compassionate. Few of us would have been alive today if we had been outside your reach. It was only due to your extraordinary efforts that we made it. We will take a part of each of you with us the rest of our lives.”[5]

With the evacuees ashore in Muscat, the Guam and Trenton headed to the Persian Gulf, back to another “clime and place” where, six days later, another mission began: Operation DESERT STORM.

<< Part 8 - "An Eastern Exit"


[1] James K. Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” Foreign Service Journal (March 1991), p. 31.
[2] Interview with Tommy Sheffield, December 6, 2020.
[3] Adam B. Siegel, “Eastern Exit: The Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia in January 1991,” (1992), Center for Naval Analyses, p. 38; Gary J. Ohls, “Eastern Exit–Rescue ‘…From the Sea’,” Naval War College Review, vol 61, no. 4, article 11 (2008), p. 141.
[4] Barton Gellman, “Amid Winds of War, Daring U.S. Rescue Got Little Notice,” The Washington Post, (January 5, 1992).
[5] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 39; Adam B. Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” Naval Institute Proceedings: Naval Review (1992), pp. 99-100.

© Robert A. Doss

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 8): "An Eastern Exit"

At just before 11:00 PM on January 5th, ten CH-46E helicopter crews, five from HMM-263 and five from HMM-365, began bubbling up to the Guam’s flight deck to man their aircraft.

The plan called for the mission to be completed in four waves of five aircraft. Five of our HMM-263 aircraft—callsign “Thunder”—would go in for a load of evacuees first. As we departed the Embassy grounds and headed back to the Guam, mission commander LtCol Wallace would radio a code word that would signal the five HMM-365 aircraft—callsign “Rugby”—under flight leader LtCol Bob Saikowski to launch toward Mogadishu. That would happen twice.

As we walked across the dimly lit flight deck toward our aircraft, the Guam’s flight deck speaker system, which was normally active with calls and instructions dedicated to controlling the movement of aircraft, instead grabbed the attention of the Marines and sailors on the flight deck with the familiar strains of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA. We stopped and took in the moment. As aware as we already were of the mission’s importance, the song brought to mind what the more than 200 hopeful evacuees from 30 nations standing by at the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu already knew: there was something special about the USA that made even our adversaries look to us for help in times of distress.

The five Thunder aircraft from HMM-263 were lined up front-to-back on the flight deck spots along the port side of the ship when we boarded them. Pilots climbed into their cockpits, connected their helmets to the radio and intercom systems, fastened their harnesses, and began working through their checklists. I flew from the right seat of the fifth Thunder aircraft.

While we worked through our checklists, our crew chiefs connected their helmets to their radio and intercom long cords, confidently whipping the cords away from their feet as they walked to their positions for the aircraft start sequence. Meanwhile, our gunners double-checked the .50 caliber machineguns mounted on each side of the aircraft and the ammunition.

All of us were armed with 9mm Beretta pistols and some of us had M-16 rifles stashed within reach.

Over the next 15 minutes, the Thunder CH-46Es roared to life on the flight deck. As the crews waited for the signal to take off, pilots adjusted their heavy Vietnam-era ceramic armored chest plates—so-called “chicken plates”—that rested in their laps. Crew chiefs and gunners had them strapped to their torsos to cover their chest and back.

Once our five Thunder aircraft were all running and ready for takeoff, a member of the Navy flight deck crew, in a manner reminiscent of World War II flight deck operations, went from aircraft to aircraft with a white board. The board advised pilots of the ship’s course, the wind direction and speed, the barometric altimeter setting, and “pigeons” to the beach. (“Pigeons” are a reference to homing pigeons. That night, they were the compass heading from the ship to our initial point (IP) on the Somali coast.)

Radio transmissions would be kept to a minimum throughout the mission. Most radio calls would occur using pre-planned brevity codes between the two flight leaders and between LtCol Wallace, the Embassy, and the Guam. The absence of radio transmissions would mask our intentions and limit the ability of adversaries to use direction-finding equipment to locate our aircraft. Everyone in the flight knew what to do anyway, so discussing it further on the radio was unnecessary.

On signals from the landing signalmen on the flight deck beginning at 11:43 PM, our five Thunder aircraft lifted off from the deck of the Guam in sequence. As soon as we were in the air, five tow tractors which had already been attached to the Rugby aircraft, pulled them onto the deck spots where they would begin their own start sequences and prepare to launch.

For the next three hours, each of the aircraft in the two flights would operate as one, yet the experiences of the crewmembers in those aircraft would be quite unique. The positions of their aircraft in the flight, their roles as members of the crew, and even their interactions with the passengers they transported would yield dozens of experiences and stories.

Once the Thunder flight was joined in the air, we proceeded toward Mogadishu. We were still 30 miles at sea, so we were able to arm our missile decoy systems and test-fire our machineguns without our tracers being seen from the distant shore.

We would be in Somalia in less than 20 minutes.

As we approached the coastline, Mogadishu was easy to see through the NVGs. While the sky at sea was clear, the city itself was blanketed by a layer of smoke and haze which held what light there was in the city near the ground. The city still had some electrical power, and we could see flashes of a gun battle and occasional tracer ricochets as we got closer.

The IP where we wanted to cross the coastline wouldn’t be easy to find, but the importance of flying over it on the first crossing wasn’t lost on anyone.  A thousand meters to the right would take the flight directly over known surface-to-air missile (SAM) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) sites (and presumably troop concentrations).  A thousand meters to the left would take the flight off the edge of the map.[1]

The terrain in coastal Somalia would give few navigational clues so we relied primarily on dead-reckoning to get us where we needed to go. That meant that once we hit the beach, getting to the Embassy would be a matter of flying a heading for an amount of time that we had already computed, and making two turns with more timing to our LZ, assuming we had crossed the coastline at the right location in the first place.

As we crossed the beach, we descended to 100 feet above the ground, slowed to 80 knots (92 mph), and made our first turn.[2] Cockpit stopwatches were started for the timing to the next checkpoint. Gunners were at their weapons while eyes were peeled for trouble all around. The next and final turn was rapidly approaching, and it would determine if our navigation to that point was on track. If it was, we would immediately begin our landing transition and be on the ground within seconds. If it wasn’t, we would be in the situation we didn’t want to be in, meandering around the city making for easy targets for gunmen below.

In our planning, we asked the forward air controller (FAC), Captain Spasojevich, now on the ground at the Embassy, to assign a Marine to climb the Embassy water tower that we spotted on the satellite image and place an infrared (IR) strobe light on it. The light would be visible to pilots wearing NVGs but not to the naked eye. With the light on the water tower, we would be able to verify that we were in the right place while we were beginning our landing transition.

As we made our way inland, we weren’t sure that the strobe light had been installed or that it was working. Nonetheless, as we made the last turn to what we hoped was our final landing course, more than a dozen pairs of eyes strained to see if a water tower came into view and that an IR strobe light was flashing on it. Halfway through the turn, we saw the tower and the light and continued our turn until they were on our left. Fortunately, the heading to the IP that the Guam gave us was right on the mark.

It was time to land.

Pilots reduced power and pulled back easily on the noses of their aircraft. As expected, the LZ was barely discernible, even with the help of the NVGs. Initially, we could make out the outline of the LZ, but it quickly became lost in the blowing sand as LtCol Wallace descended into the zone. The decision to put a little bit of separation between aircraft during the landing phase proved to be a good idea as each aircraft was swallowed up and disappeared in the swirling sand, what we called “brown-out.” As the four aircraft followed LtCol Wallace into the zone, all we could see of the aircraft in front of us were the lights on the rotor blade tips and the static electricity-charged sand particles swirling through their rotor systems. Pilots stayed on their approach paths into the zone and quickly found landing spots. Once crew chiefs and gunners cleared the rear of the aircraft of obstacles, we all landed. I was at the flight controls of the fifth aircraft so it was a relief to confirm that our interpretation of the satellite photos was correct and we could actually fit five aircraft in the LZ.[3]

Thunder was on the ground at the Embassy one minute ahead of schedule.[4]

After we landed, we flattened the pitch of our rotor blades to settle the dust and once we did, we were rewarded with a view of what we were there for. Through our NVGs, we could see groups of civilians huddled near an Embassy building. They had already been organized in “sticks” of 15.

The evacuees moved quickly in their designated groups to board the helicopters.  It took 20 minutes for them to board and get seated, but once they did, we took off and turned right out of the LZ toward the sea. As soon as we were airborne, LtCol Wallace made the radio call for the second wave to begin its ingress. At 21 minutes after midnight, the second wave of five helicopters from HMM-365 lifted off from the Guam.[5]

As we headed out to sea, we passed the Rugby flight headed towards Mogadishu, five Thunder aircraft from HMM-263 returning to the ship and five Rugby aircraft from HMM-365 inbound to Mogadishu.

Fifteen minutes after leaving Mogadishu, our five Thunder aircraft entered the Guam’s landing pattern, took our separation from each other, and watched for a green light and a landing signalman for clearance to land. Once we were on the deck, the ramps at the rear of the aircraft came down and the evacuees were escorted off the aircraft and led down to the hangar deck where they could be watched and processed. Protocol called for evacuees to be eyed with some caution and suspicion at first, even as they were treated to a warm welcome. To that end, they were searched while armed Marines and sailors were perched in the catwalks to guard against any unexpected trouble as scores of sailors assisted them.

On the flight deck, the Thunder aircraft were refueled while crews discussed the first trip into Mogadishu. I had about decided that I didn’t need the bulky armor plate that was in my lap and turned around partially in my seat to hand the plate to one of our crewmen. However, as soon as I did, the silence on the radios was broken by a call from the Embassy advising us that we’d been ordered to cease the evacuation and leave Somalia or be shot down. Since we had begun the evacuation with the understanding that the environment would be hostile, this new threat didn’t change our mission or our determination to accomplish it. Still, I did turn back around and ask to have that armored plate again. With it in place, we reviewed procedures for the transfer of flight controls between pilots in the event of a casualty and the rules of engagement for our gunners.

As it turned out, the threat to “leave Somalia or be shot down” came from a Somali major who arrived at the Embassy gate, grenade in hand, with two truckloads of troops and said he would order the helicopters to be shot down if the “illegal operation” didn’t end immediately. Ambassador Bishop met with the major and stalled him while the evacuation continued.[6]

When Rugby passed the signal to us at 12:51 AM that they were coming out of the LZ,[7] the chocks and chains were removed from our Thunder aircraft and we lifted off again from the Guam.

Then, moments after our departure from the ship, the overhead Air Force AC-130 reported that his radar warning receiver detected an active surface-to-air missile (SAM) system to the west. We continued to the Embassy; the situation would only worsen if we delayed.  Near the LZ, the helicopters received SAM radar search indications from the northeast, but our flying at such low altitudes and airspeeds made it difficult for the radars to acquire our helicopters.[8]

While our helicopters could fly beneath the SA-2 and SA-3 SAM threat, the AC-130 orbiting overhead could not. After some anxious moments, the AC-130 was repositioned over the ocean where it was less vulnerable[9] yet still capable of covering the evacuation ashore.

The new missile radar activity indicated an increased awareness of our presence, but we believed that flying darkened without exterior lights would reduce our exposure to small arms, shoulder-fired SAMs, and rocket propelled grenades. According to evacuees, the helicopters were almost invisible until they were on the ground.[10]

The third wave, now inbound to the Embassy, included the helicopter that the Ambassador and his immediate staff were supposed to leave on. However, Ambassador Bishop was still negotiating with the Somali major while the third wave landed at the Embassy and passengers boarded their assigned helicopters. As a result, only four of the five aircraft in that wave had full loads when it was time for them to leave.[11]

Our aircraft was that fifth aircraft, so LtCol Wallace directed us to remain behind until the LZ was cleaned out and everyone was accounted for. He led the other four aircraft back to the Guam and signaled the Rugby flight to return to the Embassy for the fourth and final wave.

Once the other four Thunder aircraft left the Embassy, we moved as far forward in the zone as possible to allow the five Rugby aircraft to fit into the LZ behind us. That put us in front of the soldiers who had massed at the Embassy gate, which drew the full attention of our gunners who were ready to repel an attack if one materialized. We watched the gate and the area around our aircraft closely while we waited for the radio call to leave.

About 15 minutes later, blowing sand from behind us announced the arrival of the five Rugby aircraft. They landed behind us and took on passengers, but the confusion caused by the Ambassador’s decision not to leave on the third wave created an accountability problem. In the disarray, two members of a communications team failed to board their aircraft to return to the Guam so as we waited for a final accounting of personnel, the two communicators waited nearby for a signal to board an aircraft. Finally, a crewman spotted them and ran out to help them get on the aircraft.[12]

It turned out that LtCol Wallace’s sense that there might be a problem accounting for the entire security force and his decision to have someone remain in the LZ until everyone was accounted for was a lifesaver.

Once the Rugby aircraft were loaded, they left the LZ. We stayed and waited for the radio call that confirmed that everyone was accounted for. We expected that with the two radio operators accounted for, it wouldn’t be long.

Finally after several minutes, we received the code word to “return to Mother”—“Mother” was the Guam—as LtCol Wallace flew toward Mogadishu to escort us to the ship. We were the last Americans in Somalia.

In our aircraft, we had already discussed the fact that we didn’t want to give the soldiers at the gate much of a chance to send an RPG round our way as we left, so we agreed that I would lift off abruptly without pausing for a hover check, give a little feint to the left toward where the soldiers were gathered, then bank hard right and descend below their line of sight toward the sea. I don’t know if it made a difference, but it didn’t hurt either. Within just a few minutes, we were at the coastline where we met LtCol Wallace and joined on his wing.

We later learned that as we lifted off, a large mob of armed looters scaled the walls of the Embassy compound, looting and destroying everything in sight.[13] The State Department reported that the Embassy was sacked, its doors blasted down with grenades soon after the evacuation was completed.[14]

We landed on the Guam at 3:00 AM and Operation EASTERN EXIT was finished. The Guam and Trenton turned north and headed out of Somali waters, back toward Oman where the evacuees were put ashore on January 11th.

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[1] Ronald J. Brown, “U.S. Marines in the Persian Gulf, 1990-1991, With Marine Forces Afloat in Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), p. 92.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Adam B. Siegel, “Eastern Exit: The Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia in January 1991,” (1992), Center for Naval Analyses, p. 33.
[5] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 34.
[6] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 33.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Siegel, “Eastern Exit”.
[9] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 33.
[10] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 4; Adam B. Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” Naval Institute Proceedings: Naval Review (1992), p. 98.
[11] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” pp. 33-34; Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” p. 98.
[12] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 34.
[13] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 34; James K. Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” Foreign Service Journal (March 1991), p. 31;, “Operation Eastern Exit,”
[14] Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” p. 31. 

© Robert A. Doss