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By Lew Avera
Last month I wrote of an overnight assembly of a special Marine company in 1956, its journey to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, and its staging to board eight USMC C-119 Flying Boxcar aircraft for a journey to an unknown location for an unknown period of time.
Twenty-five Marines were loaded aboard each of the aircraft along with the weapons, live ammunition and hand grenades. The aircraft were configured as re-fuelers with large fuel tanks taking up most of the room, but with tight web seats along both sides of the main body, there was just enough room on each plane for the 25 Marines. We departed in serial order, about 15 minutes between planes. The pilots knew where we were headed; however, the Marines, including the company commander, did not.
Our first stop turned out to be the Naval Air Station in Gander, Newfoundland for refueling. We then proceeded across the Atlantic, still not knowing where we were going, with the next stop at Lajes in the Azores Islands. It was only here that we learned our final destination, Port Lyautey, Morocco, also known as Kenitra. With all of the weapons and live ammo aboard, we expected to jump off of the planes into battle, but, this was not quite the case.
Lyautey/Kenitra was a group of joint Naval bases occupied and shared with the French military about 80 miles north of Casablanca. It included a large U.S. Naval Air Station, U.S. Seaport, a forward U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot that stored all the nuclear weapons for the U.S. Sixth Fleet, a Hospital and one of eight communications stations/links in the U.S. Navy worldwide communications system. Nearby was a U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command bomber base with nuclear capability. Morocco had been occupied by the French after liberation from Germany in World War II, but it had recently given Morocco its’ independence.
The key variable in all of this is while France had given Morocco its independence, France would not leave Morocco and continued to occupy the country militarily, and of course, residing on bases with the United States. The Moroccans had enough of it and were threatening to drive France out of the country with military force.
One story was the Moroccans had driven a tank column up to the gate of the ammunition depot where our U.S. nuclear weapons were stored, guarded by U.S. and French Marines. The Moroccans allegedly lowered the guns on the tanks and threatened to “blow” the French out of country if they did not leave. Another story was on several occasions local Moroccans had been apprehended in the large antenna fields of the communications sites, destroying the antennae necessary for the sites to function.
There was a permanent detachment of 400 U.S. Marines stationed at Lyautey/Kenitra, with families for three years in a peaceful setting. However, the situation had obviously escalated beyond their capabilities, thus the reason for our deployment. While we did not depart the aircraft “firing our weapons” we did deploy for the next four months until early March 1957, securing these bases. I, along with 50 Marines, was assigned to the two communications sites and we were able to protect them from further damage. In doing so we apprehended a number of Moroccans attacking and attempting to destroy the sites.
Our return trip home, in 1957, with these same C-119 Flying Boxcars, in need of refueling along the way, was via an Air Force base near London, England for 24 hours. We did some quick site seeing into London on the train and Keflavik, Iceland where it was 15 degrees below zero, and then back to Cherry Point. While we did not engage in an actual shooting war, it was a wonderful experience to assemble and work together with these Marines in protecting our country from the possible violence and havoc, which at that time in history were just around the corner. There is a plethora of info on this location and these facilities on the Internet.
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.