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15th MEU (SOC) Recovers Downed U.S. Army Helicopter In Pakistan

Submitted by: 15th MEU
Story Identification Number: 200111985330
Story by Sergeant Joseph R. Chenelly

ABOARD USS PELELIU (November 9, 2001) -- Marines of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and soldiers successfully fended off a small arms attack and recovered a disabled U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter during Operation Enduring Freedom October 20, 2001.

The mission, which became a two-part operation after the members of the MEU and soldiers came under fire at a refueling base, required the downed helicopter to be airlifted from the crash site to an undisclosed location.

The Blackhawk had been involved in a fatal mishap near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Two Army Rangers died in the accident.

Hours before the sun rose from the North Arabian Sea, commanders, pilots, crewmembers and support specialists were roused from their racks here with news of the mishap and orders to go in and retrieve the wreckage.

As a quick-response force, the 15th MEU (SOC) already had contingency plans prepared. Refueling procedures, communication networks and security strategies were in place.

"We were awaken around 3:20, and we immediately hashed out a plan in 15 to 20 minutes," said Capt. Jay M. Holtermann, the mission commander for the first phase of the operation and a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter pilot. "An hour later pilots were on the flight deck getting the helicopters fired up while we had our confirmation brief. We were off the deck in less than two hours after waking up. If we had a week to plan the mission, we'd probably have spent 14 hours a day on it."

The Marine helicopters launched into the new dawn sky for the crash site picking up Army aircraft mechanics on the way.

"I was pretty nervous as we flew toward the border," said Sgt. Anthony D. Ritacco, a CH-53E crew chief. "Everything was going so fast, and I had a million things running through my mind. I went over everything a thousand times to make sure we were ready. We were of course."

The helicopters put the MEU's KC-130 Hercules airplanes to use for in-flight fueling enabling them to make the lengthy journey north without the inherent dangers of landing.

When helicopters arrived on scene the crew sprung into action.

"The Army mechanics quickly stripped the Blackhawk almost all the way down to the frame," Cpl. Jose M. Pazos, a landing support specialist, said. "The Blackhawk is a very heavy bird, and we needed to get it as light as possible for the long haul back. We gathered up all the debris from the accident and packed it into one of the other birds with the panels and things being pulled off. Everyone was moving fast. There wasn't any sense of fear, just a strong sense of purpose."

Pazos, other Marines and the mechanics rigged slings onto the now bare Blackhawk. The U.S. military's most powerful helicopter, the Marine Corps' CH-53E, hovered a few feet above the landing support Marines and Blackhawk creating a fierce 220-mile per hour downwash, according to Pazos. Withstanding the vicious thrashing, they fastened slings to a hook lowered through a hole in the Super Stallion's underbelly. The soldiers, who had been guarding the Blackhawk, loaded into the Super Stallion as well.

The uniqueness of the mission was not lost on the Marines involved.

"I never thought we'd be lifting another helicopter, especially in a combat environment," Pazos said. "I've always assumed we'd be limited to resupply type operations. Our staff sergeant always made us prepare for the worst though, and it really paid off here."

"If we don't train for anything and everything, we'll start getting lackadaisical," said Staff Sgt. Jason L. Bush, the landing support chief. "It is easy to get used to being on a pier or an airstrip loading boxes with no worry about an enemy. We, as every element of the MEU does, train hard for anything that may get thrown at us."

The service members lifted off for the long journey back with the Blackhawk suspended underneath the helicopter. The heavy weight, more than 10 tons, required the lifting aircraft to dump some of its fuel. A refueling stop was going to be necessary before returning to sea.

The convoy made their way to a previously designated Pakistani air base not far from the coast. They didn't know it yet, but more than just allies were waiting.

The Blackhawk was set down next to the runway, and the crew readied to take on fuel. While waiting for more Marine helicopters incoming with fuel, the unexpected happened.

"We were sitting in the back of the helicopter eating and waiting when we a heard whistling and crackling sound. " Ritacco said. "We just stopped and listened. I think we all figured it out at the same time. We looked at each other in amazement and then we all hit the deck.

"We were scrounging for our weapons when I saw the Robertson tank in the helo with us," he continued referring to a fuel tank removed from the Blackhawk. "I immediately thought about its Kevlar armor lining. With the help of one of the soldiers I removed the chains holding it down and pushed it into position to protect us from the incoming fire."

The Marines and soldiers began pulling out the CH-53's windows and returning fire with their M-16A2 service rifles and GySgt Brian A. Bonney, an aircraft technician, manned the powerful .50-caliber machine gun mounted in the door.

"All the training the Marine Corps has provided us paid off at that moment," Ritacco recalled. "There was no time to get scared. Things just kicked in automatically. We did what we've been taught."

The landing support Marines were across the airfield inspecting the riggings on the Blackhawk when the firefight began.

"We were checking the slings when we heard three pops and then two more," Pazos recalled. "We looked up just in time to see impacts about 20 feet away. It didn't really register for a moment. Once it did we jumped into a nearby ditch. We were in the prone scanning the area when we heard the M-16s and .50-cal open up. A few seconds later the rotors started turning, and a soldier sprinted the 200 meters between us. He covered us as we ran to the helos using smoke as concealment. I had so much adrenaline pumping that my head almost exploded."

The pilots had just returned from a meeting with Pakistanis in the control tower when the rounds started to fly.

"We were sitting outside next to one of the helicopters when the dirt stared jumping up around us," Holtermann said. "One of the soldiers yelled sniper fire and everyone crowded into the helicopter. I wasn't at my bird. We were screaming asking if anyone could see where the shots were coming from when Gunny Bonnie jumped on the .50-cal. I ran across the tarmac to my bird and jumped in."

In less than two minutes both helicopters were ready to liftoff. It takes 10-15 minutes normally, Holtermann said. Getting the Marines who were at the Blackhawk was all that was holding them up.

"God bless the soldier who ran all the way across the field to gather them up and get them back," Holtermann said shaking his head. "We counted heads from there and had accounted for everyone."

The helicopters swiftly rose into the air leaving the Blackhawk behind - temporarily at least.

"It was very frustrating for all of us," Pazos said. "We didn't complete our mission, and that is not our style - not at all. It was very draining and we were tired, but all we could think about was going back to finish the job."

There was more pressing concerns for those involved in the mission though.

"We lifted off with absolute minimum fuel," Holtermann said, "Plus, there were two more of our helicopters enroute to the same airfield we had just been attacked in, and we couldn't get communication with them to warn them not to land there."

"It was a total freak of luck we happened to fly right over the incoming birds," Holtermann continued. "We were able to get direct communication with them. They turned around and joined us. It was a huge relief but we still had the fuel problem."

Another airfield in Pakistan was designated as a forward air refueling position. The Marines who had just joined the mission setup a security force around the landing zone, and the fresh birds transferred fuel to the ones running on fumes.

"We had the refueling done in what must have been world record time," Holtermann said. "It usually takes about 40 minutes to set up something like that up. We had it done in less than 20 minutes."

Each of the helicopters made it back safely to the ship shortly after.

"It was a very powerful moment when shutdown was called on the flightdeck back aboard the ship," Holtermann said. "I started to let it all sink in. The (ACE commanding officer) came up to me as I got out and pulled on my helmet and said, 'Big day, huh?'"

No time was wasted in preparing for a return trip and the completion of the mission. Detailed planning began. A security force was assembled. Attack helicopters readied. The landing specialists studied information on Blackhawks. Navy aircraft monitored the area the Blackhawk rested. Preparations were made on every level.

The operation called on each element of the MEU. The battalion landing team provided ground security. The combat support element sent in landing specialists to rig the Blackhawk for the lift. Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) Marines and Sailors were employed in case bombs or mines had been set on or around the unattended helicopter. The aviation combat element provided the Ch-53Es for transportation of troops and the Blackhawk. They also added AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters for close air support.

"I was a little tense as we left the ship that night for the same airfield we had been shot at just a couple of days earlier," Ritacco admitted. "But it was very reassuring to know we had a lot of fire power in the air and on the ground."

"We could see them with our NVGs (night vision goggles) outside the fence around the base," said Staff Sgt. S.C. Delgado, a platoon sergeant. "I think they were scared off by the size of our force this time. They walked around looking at us but never got within range to be any danger to us. They were as dead as dead can be if they tried anything. I think they realized that."

With security under control, the EOD Marines and landing specialists went to work. A thorough search for explosives found nothing, so the slings were put in place and the helicopter making the lift was called in.

"The loose, dusty ground made for terrible conditions for all of us involved," Bush said. "It created a brownout that nearly blinded us. It pelted us with rocks, stones, dirt and everything else."

"The brownout was terrible," Pazos said. "I don't know how much Pakistani dirt I swallowed. I am extremely proud of how well the team did in such extreme conditions. It was picture perfect."

Although the Marines did not land where the Blackhawk was dropped off, the helicopters transporting the Marines circled overhead giving them a view of it being returned to the Army.

"The mission was a long and tiring one," Ritacco said. "It felt great finishing what we started."

This mission is one of many the MEU is prepared to conduct as a special operations capable force. The unit, which deployed out of Camp Pendleton, Calf., in August, is embarked aboard the USS Peleliu (LHA-5), USS Dubuque (LPD-8) and USS Comstock (LSD-45). They've been in the area supporting the international war on terrorism since the end of September.

"I am proud to have put all the great training the Marine Corps has given me to good use," Ritacco said. "We just want to keep up the tradition."

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