- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 27, 2001

ABOARD THE USS PELELIU It began with a prayer, last-minute firing practice and a reminder of why they were preparing to fight U.S. Marines about to land in Afghanistan stenciled their vehicles and weapons systems with black silhouettes of the now-demolished World Trade Center and the numbers "9/11."
Marines hauled their heavy packs, weapons and supplies up from the bowels of the USS Peleliu and onto helicopters whose rotors were already beating the air. Lt. Col. Christopher Bourne, the 41-year-old commander of the U.S. raid, stood before the young soldiers on a steel ladder. He reminded them that their battalion had fought for the United States after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor more than 60 years ago.
"Eleven weeks ago, our country was attacked again. They started this fight and you are going to finish it," he said before boarding a helicopter.
The Marines seized a secret desert airfield in a raid under cover of darkness Sunday evening at the start of Operation Swift Freedom, which will soon place more than 1,000 Marines on the ground within striking distance of Kandahar, the last stronghold of the Taliban militia.
The new force conducted its first known combat action late yesterday when Marine helicopter gunships attacked an armored column "in the vicinity of" their new base, a Marine spokesman said.
The Cobra gunships destroyed some of the 15 vehicles in the column after it was spotted by "fast-moving aircraft," Capt. David Romley told reporters. He did not say whether the convoy belonged to the Taliban, nor would he provide details about the location of the column or the direction in which it was moving.
Meanwhile, under a bright moon, Marines worked late into a chilly night as helicopters and transport aircraft brought Marines and equipment from the USS Peleliu in the northern Arabian Sea and from land bases on the coast whose location the military kept secret.
The chosen airstrip was isolated. The only lights for miles around were the runway lights installed by the Marines and lights they were burning in the airstrip's buildings.
The Associated Press was allowed to follow planning and preparations for the mission and was to deploy with the troops on security conditions that included not identifying the exact location of the base or numbers of troops and future mission plans.
Shortly before the raid began, the steel hull of the Peleliu echoed with the sound of gunfire as the troops tested their weapons by firing them into the sea from a wide doorway. Then they hauled their packs, weapons and protective gear often pushing 100 pounds of equipment to transport helicopters waiting on deck.
Aboard CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters, these first troops landed at the desolate airstrip at exactly 9 p.m. local time Sunday and met no resistance, according to their reports.
The operation meant flying often close to the ground and refueling in flight over miles of hostile Afghan territory. The U.S.-led bombing campaign that preceded the landing ensured the Taliban could put up little resistance.
The raid was delayed twice, from Friday to Saturday and then to Sunday, to allow preparations.
As some of the troops boarded helicopters, beads of sweat on their faces from the heat and from the strain of carrying their heavy gear, Marine Chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Donald Troast, 48, of Boston, watched, touching some of them on the shoulder.
When they were aboard, he stood with his head bowed. He said later: "I asked God to bless every one of them. I don't care what their religion is."


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