CAMP PENDLETON— In the gray, predawn light the USS Rushmore idles a few miles offshore of Gold Beach in Southern California. A thin fog veils the rising sun, the 610-foot Rushmore looking ghostlike on the dark sea. Small vessels slowly debark from the well deck Rushmore and string out to the south. The dark, low-riding ships disappear behind swells as they form into a line nearly a mile long. They cough black exhaust and spray water from their impellers as they motor toward the beach in the first wave of a beach landing.
The ships are amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs) and are manned today by a skeleton crew of three to four marines. In linear formation, ten of the 26-ton vehicles splash through the surf and track up the beach with locks of kelp draping from their sides and seawater coursing over their tracks. They pause on the sand and top hatches flip open. After all ten are reformed in a line, their Cummins diesel engines roar to life and they track over the dunes down the beach. On the horizon, another ten AAVs have formed up and approach as a second wave.
This is Dawn Blitz 2011, a joint amphibious-landing exercise of the I Marine Expeditionary Brigade and the Navy’s Expeditionary Strike Group 3. The six-day exercise will be the largest of its kind this year with thousands of people involved in coordinating beach landings, personnel transport, aircraft support and live-fire shoots. Last year was the first year since 2001 that the Marine Corps and Navy partnered up for an amphibious landing, and pulling off the exercise is as much a part of the training as landing the crafts in formation.
“We’ve been preparing for this for three months,” said Lt. Col. Howard Hall, commander of the exercise’s Ground Combat Element. “In 18 years in the Marines, I’ve never had this many ships in the water.”
Hall, who was unable to sleep the night before, commands just one piece of the highly complex operational puzzle. In total, three waves of 10 AAVs will land on the beach. Hall’s element serves an independent combat unit capable of operating with little or no immediate support in a variety of adverse environments.
“We’re totally self-sustainable,” Hall says. “I’ve got my communications guys with their ruggedized laptops. I’ve got my chaplain, my surgeon, my team of mechanics that can work magic with these 40-year-old vehicles. And I’d say, so far, everybody’s doing an exceptional job.”
While the combat implications of the exercise are obvious, the last time such an operation occurred in wartime was during the Korean War. Although the Marine Corps has a history of amphibious landings—from the shores of Tripoli to Iwo Jima and Inchon—fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has drawn the Corps far from saltwater. Dawn Blitz is an attempt to reacquaint the service with beach landing. And while missile and defense capabilities make anchoring ships near shore dangerous, amphibious landings also have humanitarian roles.
“After the Haiti earthquake [in January 2010] none of the runways there was usable,” says 1st Lt. Rebecca Burgess. “How do you think we landed there? This is how.”
Amphibious landings can be used to rescue, resupply, aid, and evacuate personnel. In the event of a catastrophic earthquake in, say, California, major transportation thoroughfares would likely be damaged. Such a landing could be used to deploy first aid, firefighting and law enforcement personnel. But without practice, the maneuver would likely be unorganized and costly.
Perhaps the biggest logistical lesson the modern military has learned came during the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. During and after the beach landing, logistics were often as foggy as the weather. Soldiers that were supposed to be on the beach were shipped back to England; soldiers that were supposed to remain on ships were stranded on the beach. And as for the resupply chain, it suffered horribly.
Lt. Col. Frederick Godfrey, historian and brigade support battalion trainer at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center of Hohenfels, Germany, crunches the numbers: “At Omaha and Utah, the American beaches, only 6,614 of the planned 24,850 tons of cargo were discharged in the first three days, which is indicative of the difficulties the Americans experienced in beach resupply operations.”
That means that only about a quarter of the planned supplies successfully reached their destinations. And that’s bad news for warfighters. As the front moved inland and officers tried to rein in the chaos, soldiers tied red scarves around their legs to designate themselves as logistical officers. Dawn Blitz is designed, in part, to prevent such confusion.
The Marine Logistics Group, a detachment of about 50 men, landed the day before the AAVs and is here to secure the beach, set up communications, and clear the landing zone. They also confirm the successful arrival of each AAV by writing down the vehicle’s serial number and listing the men aboard it.
“We’re here to make sure the landing goes according to plan,” says Cpl. Kyle Schultz. “We maintain accountability for everything—every soldier, every piece of equipment, everything. Without us, it would be a circus out here.”
Today on the beach, the red demarcation has remained, though swatches sewn on hats and pant legs of the MLG have replaced the scarves. (The red means Military Occupational Specialty and is not exclusively used for logistical detachments.) As the second and third waves of AAVs splash down on the beach, Shultz and the rest of the MLG closely monitor the ship-to-shore movements. A hovercraft, known as a LCAC (landing craft air cushion) beaches in a cloud of blowing sand, and leaves in a spray of saltwater. Helicopters relay back and forth from the Rushmore. The men in the AAVs communicate in chat-type interface. And all seems to go according to plan.
“There are so many moving parts,” says 1st Lt. Jeremy McLean, “so many aspects to this kind of exercise. It’s really good training for everybody and really hard to make all it happen smoothly. A lot of working together, that’s for sure.”
– Will Grant
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