FEELING LIKE AN ACTOR on a movie set, I stood at the ship’s rail in my khaki uniform. On the pier far below, throngs of people cheered and waved American flags as two tugboats pushed us away. A breeze rippled the water of San Diego Bay. At precisely ten A.M. on August 13, 2001, the USS Dubuque slid beneath the graceful span of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, turning west past Point Loma for the open Pacific. On the flight deck, Marines and sailors lined the rails, hands clasped behind their backs and eyes straight ahead. The only sound was the wind as each man soaked up his last view of the city skyline, the beaches, California.
The Dubuque and two other ships, the USS Peleliu and the USS Comstock, made up an Amphibious Ready Group. The ARG’s three ships carried the Fifteenth MEU (SOC). Two thousand Marines were in the MEU, including our infantry battalion, a helicopter squadron reinforced with four Harrier jets, and attachments such as a recon platoon, four tanks, and logistical support units. For the next six months, we would be America’s “force in readiness” for half the globe.
Staff Sergeant Marine joined me at the rail as I watched the coast turn misty and gray in the distance.
“Congratulations, sir. This is your first step toward becoming an old campaigner like Lieutenant Hadsall.”
“I’ll have to land on a few foreign shores before I feel like much of a campaigner,” I replied, but I smiled at the thought that I might be catching up with the ideal in his head. “What’re your predictions for this float?”
Marine leaned on the rail with his hands out over the water, and the mischievous gleam faded for a moment. “Well, I heard a gunner in Fifth Marines say something real smart once. We had just come home from months of sitting in the desert after Saddam kicked out the U.N. inspectors back in ’98. Lots of missed birthdays, anniversaries, births, and all that crap. Marines were a little discontent about not doing anything. This gunner said to us, ‘Never regret not doing a real mission. Now you can have all golden memories and no ghosts.’ I try to remember that when the war fever takes over.”
The Dubuque had been commissioned in 1967 and served off the coast of Vietnam. Five hundred sixty-nine feet long and displacing sixteen thousand tons, the ship carried its four hundred crew members and five hundred Marines at about fifteen knots. A five-story superstructure covered the forward third of the ship, and a flight deck stretched across the rear two thirds to the stern. Below it, the Dubuque’s dominating feature was a well deck, a sort of garage for boats that could be flooded and then pumped dry again. At the stern, a huge clamshell door provided entrance to the well deck. In accordance with the Navy’s hierarchy, enlisted Marines and sailors lived beneath the deck of the ship in catacombs of narrow passageways lined with steam pipes and electrical wiring. Officers, both Navy and Marine, lived in staterooms in the superstructure.
Life aboard a warship at sea, especially one nearly forty years old, is like moving between a small closet, an apartment building boiler room, and a machine shop. The dominant features are movement and noise. The ship pitches and rolls constantly, throwing food from tables and men from bunks. As it moves, the steel creaks and groans. Engines throb, boilers hiss, and the ocean gurgles beneath the hull. Metal hatches must remain closed in case of flooding, so traffic, day and night, is marked by the rasps and clangs of closing and locking doors. Whistles, buzzers, and bells announce the events of the day — reveille, meals, drills, and taps. The ship’s intercom and constantly buzzing telephones round out the cacophony. Newcomers quickly learn to carry earplugs.
The Dubuque was configured to serve as a fleet flagship, which meant there was a second bridge for the admiral and extra officer berthing. Since the Peleliu was, in fact, the flagship of our small flotilla, the Dubuque carried far fewer officers than it was equipped to handle. So I had a four-man stateroom to myself. The price I paid for this luxury was that my living space doubled as a storage room for everyone else’s things. A glance into my stateroom revealed the intentions of the Dubuque’s Marines: three surfboards, four bags of golf clubs, four guitars, and a pile of Hawaiian shirts for liberty ports. Absent were maps of central Asia, down parkas, and Pashto and Dari translation guides. We still lived in a peaceful world.
Every western Pacific cruise starts with a trial period — the five-day steam to Hawaii. It’s a time to get used to the rhythm of life at sea before pulling into a safe harbor. I settled into a comfortable daily routine, waking up at five-thirty to run on the flight deck before the day grew hot. Then I took a tepid, vaguely salty shower and ate breakfast in the officer’s mess, called the wardroom. I dedicated the morning to work — planning training, cleaning weapons, and slogging through administrative paperwork. My favorite pastime was teaching classes to the Marines. I used my IOC manuals to keep our tactics fresh and reached back to my college courses to teach about famous battles. Patrick did the same, but he had studied economics. The company’s office in the superstructure often overflowed with Marines learning about efficient markets and elasticity.
Training was limited by our tight confines, but we held races to assemble and disassemble machine guns while blindfolded, shot off the ship’s stern at targets on the flight deck, and rappelled down elevator shafts into the well deck. Lunch was the day’s high-water mark, followed by an afternoon slide of naps, reading, and lifting weights in the small triangular gym wedged into the bow. The old shipboard adage was “Sleep till you’re hungry, then eat till you’re tired, and repeat for six months.”
My favorite time of day was the early evening. After leaving the gym, I’d climb to the Dubuque’s highest outside deck, just below the towering mast of radio antennas. There, on a rubber mat, Rudy Reyes led his trademark conditioning workouts — stretching, abs, breathing, and more stretching. Rudy was a sergeant in the MEU’s recon platoon. Recon is the Corps’s special operations force, trained to collect information behind enemy lines. But Rudy’s demeanor in this gung-ho world was so decidedly nonmilitary that his platoon-mates called him “the Associate.” Even the colonel stopped calling him Sergeant Reyes. He was Rudy. Afterward, I would lie on my back and watch the sky turn pink as the rocking ship made the clouds appear to swing overhead.
The morning we pulled into Pearl Harbor, I woke early to watch our approach to Oahu. I wanted to see this fabled port from the deck of a Navy warship. As the sun began to light the sky, we rounded Diamond Head and glided west along Waikiki to the harbor entrance. The narrow channel cuts north past Hickam Air Force Base before turning hard to the right at Ford Island.
A carpet of manicured lawns and stands of swaying palms flanked Hickam’s lush waterfront. The green was startling after five days of empty sea. I stood at the rail, looking down at the ship’s crew at work on the bridge below. It was fully light by the time the Dubuque made the turn at Ford Island. The previous evening, at the ship’s nightly operations /intelligence brief, the navigator had said that this turn would be preceded by one long blast from the ship’s whistle to ensure no traffic came barreling through from the other direction.
“Oh, hell no!” A salty, prior-enlisted officer was quick to disagree. “The admiral and chief of staff live on the point right near that turn. A wise captain” — this punctuated with a glance at the CO — “will make a radio call in advance to be sure the channel’s clear.”
The Dubuque slid silently past the point and the homes of the sleeping admiral and chief of staff. Rounding the turn, we looked directly down the barrels of the USS Missouri’s sixteen-inch guns. Off her bow, gleaming white in the morning sun, floated the delicate span of the USS Arizona Memorial. It sags in the middle to symbolize initial defeat but stands firm at the ends in testament to resolve and ultimate victory. Above it, an American flag snapped in the breeze against a smudged backdrop of mountains, with piles of clouds threatening to pour across and drench us.
When the gangplank dropped, Patrick and I escaped to catch a launch out to the Arizona. We spent our allotted fifteen minutes on the memorial watching oil still bubbling from the wreck after sixty years. Among the names on a bronze tablet listing the ship’s casualties, we noted a lone Marine lieutenant. After leaving the memorial, the launch passed the Dubuque at its pier. Patrick and I watched the other tourists snapping pictures of the ship.
“What would they think if we went to the parking lot and took pictures of their cars?” Patrick mused.
Although we blended into the crowd in T-shirts and sandals, I didn’t really feel part of it. “Do you feel different?” I asked him.
“We are different. They’re going back to hotels on Waikiki, and we’re staring at six months in that big gray box.” Patrick paused and looked around Pearl Harbor. “But different in a good way, too. Especially here.”
We sailed the next afternoon for the two-week steam to Darwin, on Australia’s north coast. Life fell once again into the easy shipboard routine of training, working out, and reading. I spent the evenings after Rudy’s workouts in a chair at the ship’s rail, watching our bow wave push toward the setting sun and reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places,” Hemingway wrote. “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
Steaming southwest at fifteen knots, we were in no special hurry either.
At six o’clock on a Friday evening, two weeks and six thousand miles from Camp Pendleton, we sailed south of Guadalcanal. I had learned a few days before that we would be passing by the island and worked to prepare a presentation about the Marines’ first great battle of the Second World War. When I gathered the platoon on the upper deck, a reddening sun cast streaks above our heads. Guadalcanal’s green mountains climbed from the sea and disappeared in a ring of clouds.
In the late summer and fall of 1942, the entire First Marine Division, including 1/1, had battled the Japanese army for control of Guadalcanal. I saw the Marines looking at the island while I spoke, probably imagining, as I was, the lines of landing craft, geysers of water where Japanese shells fell, machine guns raking the beach. Infamously, the Navy had abandoned the Marines ashore after four of its ships were sunk. With limited supplies, the Marines had pried the island from Japanese control at a cost of more than a thousand dead and four times that many wounded. They had killed twenty-five thousand Japanese.
History is the Marine Corps’s religion. I’d seen it throughout my training and felt it at the Marine Corps War Memorial, as I read the list of battles outside 1/1’s headquarters at Camp Pendleton, and even when I saw the name of the lone lieutenant killed aboard the Arizona. Past deeds are a young Marine’s source of pride, inspiration to face danger, and reassurance that death in battle isn’t consignment to oblivion. His buddies and all future Marines will keep the faith. Some people in my life would call that naiveté, but I was coming to know it as esprit de corps. My platoon lingered at the rail that evening, talking softly and watching Guadalcanal fade in the gathering darkness.
A week later, we pulled into Darwin for two days of training in the outback. Half the platoon joined the company for live-firing exercises, while the mortar section and Jim and I rode a bus three hours inland to a desolate training area, where we planned to drop mortars, artillery, and bombs. We arrived after dark and found the battalion combat operations center (COC) fully outfitted with lights, running water, tents, and showers. They were courteous enough to direct us several miles down a dirt road to our bivouac site in a burned-out field full of termite mounds the size of telephone booths.
We settled in uncomfortably, remembering the battalion surgeon’s warning that Australia is home to nine of the world’s ten deadliest snakes, including the death adder and taipan, which can render a man, in his words, “completely fucked.” We were briefed that even the cute mini-kangaroos called wallabies can grab a person with their little hands and try to kick off the person’s head with their powerful hind legs. The Marines around us snored as Jim and I opted to stand by the Humvee and talk rather than take our chances on the ground.
After two days of shooting, we returned to Darwin for a day off before our departure. Jim, Patrick, and I drove to the Adelaide River and spent the afternoon feeding crocodiles from a riverboat and swimming in waterfalls. That evening, we found a bar for dinner and drinks. Our ships were scheduled to leave at nine o’clock the next morning.
I sipped a Victoria Bitter and looked at my watch, trying to calculate the time on the East Coast of the United States. Ten-fifteen P.M. in Darwin made it eight-fifteen A.M. the same day in Maryland. I couldn’t remember the date, but it was Tuesday, so maybe I could catch my dad at his desk.
I walked across the street to the pay phones in a hotel lobby. My dad and I talked for ten minutes, he asking about our trip and I asking about news from home. Neither of us had anything interesting to tell. I said I’d send him an e-mail soon from the ship and hung up. As I walked out, I saw Patrick talking on a phone farther down the wall.
“What’s the word, bro?” Jim pushed a fresh beer my way and asked what was happening in the States.
“Nada. Pretty morning in Baltimore. Nothing to interest you guys.” I had barely settled back onto my stool when Patrick burst through the door.
“Fucking terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”
“Relax, bro. Have a beer.” Jim and I laughed. Then we saw that Patrick was serious. Abandoning our drinks, we filed out the door and across the street to join a growing crowd around the lobby’s big-screen TV.
Slowly, we realized the impact this would have on us. Jim summed it up best: “Fellas, history just bent us over.” We had to get back to the ship.
Marines and sailors mobbed Darwin’s streets, all streaming down the hill to the docks. As we joined the crowd, a car pulled up, and a young Australian couple asked if we needed a lift. We gratefully accepted and piled in the back seat. Minutes later, the car skidded onto the pier, where floodlights lit the three ships and armed sentries already stood along the rails. The driver shook our hands and said, “Guess you blokes are headed for war.”