Beach Storming

MANA — It starts as a low rumble, slowing overtaking the sound of the rolling

surf nearby. It’s early morning and a handful of Navy personnel and an even

smaller handful of journalists are gathered at Major’s Beach at the Pacific

Missile Range Facility holding Styrofoam cups of coffee and waiting.

The

rumble continues to grow louder. Out in the Kaulakahi Channel is the faint

outline of a ship, the USS Harper’s Ferry, out of San Diego. Beyond it, against

a perfectly conceived rosy-fingered dawn sky, is the larger shadow of Ni’ihau,

the Forbidden Island.

This is the backdrop for an amphibious landing

rehearsal held at the base last Friday as part of RimPac 2000, the Navy’s

month-long training exercise.

Besides the fact that the beach is already

friendly soil, the rehearsal is very lifelike, says program manager Eric

Dunn.

He points to a helicopter flying overhead. “Well, that wouldn’t

normally happen. That’s our photographer.”

It is actually a rehearsal of a

rehearsal. The real rehearsal, an assault at Pohakuloa on the Big Island, took

place this week.

All along the horizon, dark figures emerge in the ocean.

Some, like angry sea serpents, blow out clouds of steam, “to provide cover for

the second wave.”

In all, there are 12 of these figures. As the rumbling

continues to get louder, Dunn explains that these are AAVs, or Amphibious

Assault Vehicles. They are the first wave of the assault, the first thing—and

perhaps last thing— an enemy would see, providing heavy armor for the

transport vehicles to come.

One Navy personnel says that similar launches

took place in Somalia, which was embroiled in a bitter civil war in 1993. Only

then an army of paparazzi were there on the beach to greet the landing Marines,

much to the disgust of the top brass.

The AAVs roll onto the beach and turn

right, heading for the rallying point further on down at Kokole

Point.

“They would normally go inland,” says Dunn, “But at PMRF, a base

that’s 300 yards wide, they don’t really have anywhere to go.”

Finally, it

is still. But then again on the horizon, two huge, wide houselike objects rolls

towards the beach. These are the LCACs, or Air Cushioned Landing Craft, the

military’s version of hovercraft. As they near,a Navy observer jokes that

everyone should roll up their windows. “They kick up quite a lot of sand,” he

says. With turbines whirling at 200 MPH, the two LCACs make their presence

known.

Once landed, the LCACs reveal their payload, 200 marines and 15 or

so humvees, some of which promptly get stuck in the sand. “It’s crazy because

you see civilians in their 4x4s and they don’t get stuck,” says Beachmaster

Hillary Albert.

The landing has been deemed a success, and, once given a

helping push, the Marines in their humvees make their way to their objective,

apparently to a nearby radio tower. Albert says that this all the easy part,

really. “The hard part, and the thing we don’t usually get to practice is the

backloading,” she says.

Sometimes, she adds, there are some extra people

left over after the last personnel vehicle has left the beach. “I just hope

they saved a seat for us,” she says.

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