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By Lew Avera
My views usually involve current happenings. However, I have recently noticed several writers writing about events of many years ago, some when they were in college and in their teens. Accordingly, I thought back to earlier years to see if I could recall an event that might be of interest today. I was able to recall an event almost 60 years ago in which I was personally involved and which sounds like many of the ongoing events with our military. However, it is quite different.
We have been accustomed to large elements of our military regularly deploying into combat in the Middle East since 2003. These are done with substantial planning with respect to specific units, timing and return. My story below involves a Marine unit deployment with less than 12 hours notice, halfway around the world, for an extended period of time.
The year was 1956. I was a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant in an infantry company at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. It was late on a Sunday night and I had just returned by automobile from a weekend several hundred miles away in Virginia, where I was visiting my girlfriend. When I walked into my room at 11:30 p.m., I received a telephone call directing me to report to the battalion headquarters immediately and be prepared to spend the night.
When I arrived at the headquarters, there were Marines all over the place outside of the buildings. In particular, at the armory, there were many 30-caliber machine guns, 3.5-inch rocket launchers (“bazookers” as they were known), many boxes of ammunition for these weapons, and, above all, many boxes of live hand grenades. These are items that are normally kept under tight physical security with only a few designated individuals who have access. Ammunition and grenades were always stored far away in special facilities. But here they were at midnight on Sunday being assembled and staged in the open.
I was informed that special sealed and confidential orders had been received and that I was a part of a special infantry company being assembled for urgent deployment the next morning. I was instructed to return to my room and gather limited personal items and combat clothing for an indefinite period of time and return within two hours—and that there was no idea of when we might return to the United States.
At 10 a.m. that next Monday morning, a company of 200 Marines and six officers was loaded onto a fleet of 2.5-ton military combat trucks and driven some 60 miles to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina. It would have been appropriate to have used buses for this trip to Cherry Point, however, they were not available and the trucks could get us to the aircraft in short order.
The company assembled at Cherry Point, and it was obvious we were departing the United States for some unknown trouble spot, for real, somewhere in the world. What was unique to the Marines then—and is still unique today—is that the Marines have their very own military transport aircraft as opposed to the Army, which has to depend on the Air Force for large-troop transport by air. These transport aircraft are justified and classified as “air re-fuelers” to provide for mid-air refueling of Marine fighter planes, which the Army does not have. However, they are able to serve as troop transports as well. In those days, the aircraft were the old twin-engine, piston-driven engines C-119 “Flying Boxcars,” the same plane the Air Force used for Army airborne/parachute operations. Today this capability in the Marines and Air Force is evident in the more modern four-engine turboprop C-130 Hercules.
At the time of this deployment, the Korean War had ended several years before and the Vietnam War was still eight years in the future. The world was at relative peace, and we just could not imagine where and why we were deploying. However, it had a real place in history. Because space is limited for my Views and there are much more interesting stories to tell, I will describe the full remaining event next month.
Lew Avera is a retired career officer, Lt. Col., U.S. Marine Corps. He has been a director of the Talega HOA since 2003 and served on the San Clemente Planning Commission from 2005 to 2013.