Monday, November 02, 2015

Finesse of the MACO

A C-141 takes off from Point Salines on October 25, 1983. 
DOD Photo.

In the early hours of the battle for Point Salines, a lone US Air Force MACO (Marshaling Air Control Officer) stood alone on the tarmac with a set of headphones on his head. 

He had the longest hair that I had ever seen on a serviceman in the armed forces, and he carried an absurdly small HK MPK submachine gun under his armpit. His real weapon was the radio on his back. 

This lone Airman had a pair of orange batons in his hands, and where he stood was the control tower. He was a one-man control tower, and he pulled off the most amazing feat of coordination under fire that I ever saw. 

The control tower overlooking Point Salines was shot to hell, and it was still contested terrain at that time. There was no way that I wanted to go up there. None of us did. Besides, this Airman had no ground crew. He was it. 

Task Force 160 Little Birds at Point Salines, later in the morning of 25 October, 1983. DOD photo. 

This particular MACO jumped in with the Rangers, with one of the early sticks. He had C-130's and C-141's stacked up over Point Salines, orbiting at different altitudes, and he brought them in, one by one, landing them and directing them to aprons where they unloaded. 

I remember watching him, he would talk to a pilot through his head set, directing him to an open space on the tarmac with his orange batons, then he would talk to another pilot, this one still orbiting his bird out to sea in the pattern, and then he would bring them in, one by one. 

He had planes coming in every ten minutes. 

USAF MACOS attached to 1st and 2nd Ranger Battalions during Operation Urgent Fury. 

Those MACOs that jumped with the Rangers have their aircraft numbers noted. 

Back row, left to right: Greg Capps (2d Battalion, Aircraft #2). Rick Caffee (2d Battalion, airlanded). Ray Heath (2d Battalion, Aircraft #4). John Scanlon (2d Battalion, airlanded). Tony Snodgrass (2d Battalion, Aircraft #4). Mike Lampe (2d Battalion, airlanded). Jerry Jones and Bob Kelly (1st Battalion, Aircraft #3). Johnny Pantages and Bob Reyes (2d Battalion, Aircraft #1).

Front row: Dick West, Jack McMullen, Doug Phillips (all 1st Battalion, Aircraft #1), and Mike McReynolds (2d Battalion, Aircraft #1).

Missing: Evitts (1st Battalion, Aircraft #1), Buckmelter (1st Battalion, Aircraft #1), Brown (1st Battalion, Aircraft #1), Palmer (2d Battalion, Aircraft #1), Griffin (2d Battalion, airlanded).

As soon as planes unloaded and turned themselves around, engines roaring, the MACO cleared the decks and they flew out of Point Salines, back to Barbados, or back to the states, to pick up the 82d Airborne, or more equipment. 

The MACO did all this while the 1st Ranger Battalion battled Cubans at Little Havana a couple thousand meters away, and two SeaCobras supporting SEALs besieged at Government House were shot down while two others flew gun runs over his head. 

Nightstalkers flew Blackhawks and MH-6 Little Birds through the air space, Spectre gunships orbited overhead, pounding targets "danger close," and A-7 fast movers swooped through, dropping CBU bomblets in close support of 1st Ranger Battalion fighting on nearby Goat Hill. The MACO was impervious. 

Rangers of Company C, 1st Ranger Battalion advance North towards the True Blue Campus of the St. George’s School of Medicine, adjacent to the runway at Point Salines, liberated Grenada, 25 October, 1983. 
DOD photo courtesy of Gunny Joe Muccia.

Ranger snipers traded volleys with Cuban “construction workers,” Ranger mortar teams dropped rounds along the ridge lines, and bullets whipped past the MACO. He was heedless to it all, focused on the remote voices in his headset, talking to pilots, being the control tower. He was the MACO.

It was a smooth, orchestrated performance, and I was in awe. All that I could think at the time, as I hugged dirt, and bullets cracked, and he stood alone in the open, bringing the birds in, was “finesse, sheer finesse.” 

I never learned his name. I believe that he is depicted among the Air Force personnel in the photo above, but several others who also participated in Urgent Fury are not in the photo. 

The success of the early hours of the invasion rested on his shoulders, and he carried the weight like he personally managed the invasion of small countries all the time. 

Maybe he did. 

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Immortal Rest of Ranger Mark Okamura Yamane

Machine Gunner Mark Okamura Yamane of the 1st Ranger Battalion and Seattle, WA.
Photo courtesy of 1st Battalion Ranger Tony Nunley. Retouching by Ranger Bob Gudbranson. 

Just one C-130 successfully inserted its Rangers before dawn onto Fury DZ, the 10,000 foot long runway at Point Salines, revolutionary Grenada, on 25 October, 1983. 

A mere 13 Rangers from HHC, 1st Ranger Battalion, with 24 Rangers from 1st Platoon, B Co, 1st Ranger Battalion, spearheaded Operation Urgent Fury, along with three Air Force CCTs and MACOs. The official time of their jump was 0531 hours, Grenadian local, and the C-130’s altimeter recorded that they leaped into the early morning gloom from 473 feet AGL. 

A Soviet Quad-51 Antiaircraft Gun on high ground West of Fury DZ. These guns had no problem firing at aircraft at 500 feet, or at jumpers in the air.  
Photo courtesy of Ranger Marshall Applegate, 1st Ranger Battalion ALO. 

Those Rangers and attachments were alone and surrounded on the tarmac, fighting for an interminable 17 minutes until the next pass came in. 

For the belligerents, a moment of bullet time in a firefight can feel like an eternity. For the dead, it was. 

Air Force C-130's took hits from enemy 23mm cannon during the parachute insert before the dawn, so the pilots aborted the drop and came around for another pass, the second time at 500 feet AGL--or as was the case with Aircraft 3, even lower.

Ranger Bruce McGraw remembered:

"... the second bird in took a lot of fire, but it was the third out of all that took the most, as the gunners using iron sights caught to the tail of that one as guys were coming out.  
The gunner traversed up the line of troopers, but was just slightly off. Had he lowered just a pubic hair he would have killed them all, so we were lucky.  
The fire went over them, but the gunner kept tracking and he tore into the tail, the sound of the metal getting chewed up, the engines roaring from the bird, and the sight of Rangers jumping out I will never forget.
Pieces were flying off the tail of that bird and splashing in the ocean. The pilot turned hard right and dove, for a second it looked like he was going into the drink but he leveled out, and then he fire-walled that bitch at wave-top level. 
Unlike the other birds who would all turn to get back into cycle for the eventual airlanding sorties, he headed to Barbados. 
Good stuff. I was pissed that I did not bring my little Kodak with me. Oh, well. I did not know that I would be watching two Ranger Battalions jump after our little group landed first."
Ranger Bruce McGraw, comments on Facebook, 2 November, 2015.  

It has become canonical in the oral history of the Ranger Regiment that the Cuban guns, many positioned on the ridge lines adjacent to the airfield, could not detent their gun barrels low enough to effectively fire on our transports coming in at 500 feet. 

I have my doubts about this tale, as Nightstalker helicopters took hits as they tried to insert Delta operators onto nearby Ft. Rupert, losing one Blackhawk piloted by CPT Keith Lucas. They were engaged low on the deck, well below 500 feet. Many operators and Nightstalkers were casualties. But I will leave this for others to address. 

The historian Joe Muccia, who wrote the still unpublished definitive work on Operation Urgent Fury, determined that the first two aircraft carrying elements of the 1st Ranger Battalion, Aircraft 1 and 2, suffered navigational computer issues and got shot off the objective shortly before 0530. 

Aircraft 3, with 1st Battalion commander LTC Wes Taylor aboard, stayed on course long enough to insert its 37 Rangers and three Airmen, shuddering as it took hits, before it, too, peeled off due to enemy fire. 

The C-130's were organized into a 12-ship flight, broken down into seven chalks carrying Rangers of the 1st Battalion, and five chalks carrying elements of the 2d Ranger Battalion. Historian Joe Muccia adds, "there was an ABC CC (command and control) C-130, but it was not part of the flight." So, 12 C-130's plus one, for 13 C-130's, altogether. 

Ranger Platoon Sergeant of 1st Platoon, B Co, 1st Ranger Battalion, SFC Bryan Staggs, remembered that "It was a very interesting moment to look up and see the other C-130's veer off without dropping any more Rangers. I can tell you that it seemed a lot longer than seventeen minutes until the next Rangers jumped."

According to Ranger Regimental oral history, Aircraft 3 inserted its 37 Rangers at 0531 hours, nearly halfway into BMNT, or the Beginning of Morning Nautical Twilight. 

In Ranger lore, BMNT is when the French and Indians attack, and no matter where we may find ourselves around the globe, Rangers go to 100% security and we pull stand-to during BMNT and EENT (End of Evening Nautical Twilight) to this very day. Such are our traditions. 

For 17 long minutes those Rangers fought as they shrugged out of their parachute harnesses, surrounded by Cuban "construction workers," Eastern-bloc military advisors, Grenadian soldiers and militia, returning fire at muzzle flashes in the vanishing shadows. Aircraft 4 finally started dropping its Rangers at 0551, with the sunrise dawning at 0610. 

Rangers continued fighting outnumbered and surrounded on the wide open kill zones of Fury DZ, and Aircraft 1 ended up inserting its Rangers nearly a half hour later at 0637. Those Rangers jumped into a maelstrom, and the sun was up. 

Mr. and Mrs. Yamane accept Mark’s black beret, handed to them by a Ranger who was with him in his final moments. 
Photo courtesy of 1st Battalion Ranger Ramon Bual. 

Aircraft 2 followed a minute after, at 0638, followed in turn and in sequence by Aircraft 5, 6 and 7, with all 1st Ranger Battalion jumpers clear by 0705. Then the flight carrying elements of the 2d Ranger Battalion began its run. 

Ranger Jose Gordon remembered:

"We were the JCT (Jump Clearing Team) ... Because of the predicted size of the enemy force and the length of the runway we doubled the JCT ... and instead of tailgating we shotgunned both doors." 
"For me, being the only (Private) E-1 in the platoon to be going, it is amazing to me that we made it to the ground ... who knew that six years later I would be making my second combat jump, again from chalk one." 
"Only this time I would be a SSG E-6 assault leader and would be with C Co, 1st Ranger Battalion, instead of A Co 1st Ranger Battalion."
Ranger Jose Gordon, comments on Facebook, 2 November, 2015.  

In any case, many C-130's took hits from small arms fire as they flew low, slow and steady down the long axis of the runway, but our second pass came in below the arc of fire of the cannons, it is said, and antiaircraft fire reportedly went high. So no C-130’s were shot down. 

I considered this miraculous in 1983, remembering the volume of fire that greeted us as we descended in our parachutes, and more than thirty years later, I am even more convinced of it. 

I still cannot believe that no C-130's were shot down, or Rangers shot in the harness as we swung helpless beneath our canopies. It was not for lack of trying. 

I can only conclude that the Big Ranger in the Sky was on our side in those desperate hours, and in days to come. 

As Rangers leapt into the Caribbean sky, we saw tracers groping through our risers, leaving burn marks on our canopies. Most 2d Battalion Rangers jumped with no reserves, carrying extra ammunition instead. 

Aircraft carrying elements of the 2d Ranger Battalion began our jump runs right after the birds carrying 1st Battalion Rangers completed their drops at 0705. All jumpers were on the ground when C-130’s began airlanding gun jeeps and bikes at 0736. 

SSG Manous Boles meets Mr. and Mrs. Yamane. Boles carjacked a bulldozer on Point Salines, spearheading the 1st Ranger Battalion assault on Cuban positions on the high ground by the airfield. Valor, that day, was not in short supply.
Photo courtesy of 1st Battalion Ranger Ramon Bual. 

I was the last jumper on the right side of my aircraft, Flight 2, Aircraft 3. I will never forget looking up onto the crew deck as I stood, hooked up and hanging in agony from my static line, seeing green tracers lofting up past the windscreen and the arms of the pilot shaking as he held our bird steady until all his Rangers jumped. 

When the birds took hits they sounded like sledgehammers pounding steel. It was broad daylight when I bounced off the side of Aircraft 3, not the way that Rangers prefer to do our business. 

There are many untold stories of heroism that I witnessed that day. In a forthcoming book about Operation Urgent Fury, Idioms of Dreams: A Tale of the Grenada Raiders, I will tell a few. 

Spectre was not just the equalizer that morning: Spectre, valor and divine providence gave Rangers the victory. Spectre could see who was wearing glint tape and who was not, and the pilots could see who was shooting at whom. 

So Spectre just killed everybody that was not a Ranger in the vicinity, firing danger close, showering Rangers with shrapnel. We did not mind. 

Sometime during the initial 17 minutes, 1st Battalion Ranger Brian Ivers saw machine gunner SP4 Mark Yamane halt a white truck as it barreled down the runway, taking prisoner two Cubans who got out of the cab with AK-47 's.

Ivers later remembered of Yamane: “Very brave dude indeed.”

As Cubans and Grenadians focused their fire on the truck, Rangers stacked up behind it, Yamane used it for cover as he got low and prone beside the front bumper to return fire at Cubans shooting from the high ground, laying down Ranger hate with his M60 machine gun. 

Yamane’s white truck. 
Photo courtesy of DOD.

In an immortal moment, the Big Ranger called him home. A Cuban round ricocheted off the tarmac and Yamane took a bullet to the face. 

The airfield was wide open, a huge killing zone, and there was no cover. Worse, the sun was up, so Rangers lost the force multiplier of darkness, our natural medium. 

1st Battalion Rangers continued battling, as Rangers Blair Donaldson, Harry Hunter, and Doc Donovan tried to resuscitate Yamane, refusing to accept his death. Alas, the Big Ranger had spoken, and Yamane was gone. 

Ranger Ron Tucker got down behind Yamane's machine gun, swapped out the hot barrel, slapped in a fresh belt of ammo, and he got the gun back up, laying down suppressive fires. Yamane's death marked the point in the battle when 1st Battalion Rangers got angry, to the woe of the Cubans. 

Ranger Bruce McGraw remembers two AC-130 Spectre gunships coming on station at this time, chewing up Cuban defenses, suppressing antiaircraft fire. 

When I saw Mark's body in a hangar on the airfield later that morning, he had powder burns on his face, testimony to the point blank range and ferocity of the firefight.

Ranger Mark Yamane went out like a warrior, his gun barrel hot.

He died a good death. 

Rest well, Ranger. 


Mark's platoon mates, Rangers who were with him that fatal morning, take him home to his family for the last time. Mr. and Mrs. Yamane were supremely gracious, courteous, and dignified. The Yamane family laid a weighty sacrifice on the altar of freedom.
Photo courtesy of 1st Battalion Ranger Ramon Bual. 

Updated and corrected 2 November, 2015. Thanks to Rangers Ted Greenly, Harry Hunter, Tom Greer, Bryan Staggs, Bruce McGraw, and Jose Gordon. Again, my special thanks to Gunnery Sergeant Joe Muccia, USMC, historian of Operation Urgent Fury

Additional corrections to jump times were made on 18 March 2017.