MOUNT SURIBACHI, Iwo Jima -- After wiping an early morning's ocean mist off the windshields and warming the engines, Marines launched four CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters from USS Tarawa's flight deck to an island where 70,000 Marines had landed more than five decades ago - and one-third never returned.
Helicopters from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 161 (reinforced) transported Marines and Sailors of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and Tarawa Amphibious Ready Group to Iwo Jima Friday for a memorial and educational visit.
On the final approach to Iwo Jima, an ominous volcano seemed to burst through the clouds - a volcano that hosted some of the bloodiest and most fierce fighting in all of World War II - Mount Suribachi. Helicopters made a pass above the mountain and landed at an airfield at the northern end of the island, three miles from Mount Suribachi. After dropping Marines and Sailors off at the airfield for their hike to the mountain and Green Beach, the helicopters turned around to ships of the ARG to bring in more passengers. The squadron made a total of 22 round trips with seven CH-46s and 3 CH-53s, bringing more than 300 people ashore to the land where "uncommon valor was a common virtue."
"I had been in Iwo Jima back in 1995, so as I passed over Mount Suribachi, I was able to describe what happened in the battle to my crewmembers," said Capt. Van P. Brinson III, CH-46E pilot who flew one of the first missions into Iwo Jima. "You hear about it and talk about it, but when you're actually here, you get the full appreciation for what the Marines went through, and think about the number of people who died."
The reinforced squadron, Aviation Combat Element for the 13th MEU (SOC), sent members of the ordnance section as the rifle detail for the ceremony. Sgt. Enrique Travieso, a 27-year-old AV-8B Harrier ordnanceman with the Marine Attack Squadron-214 detachment, described the visit as "phenomenal."
"As I was hiking to Mount Suribachi, I kept thinking about what the guys back in 1945 went through," said Sgt. Travieso, a native of Havana, Cuba, who took part in the 21-gun salute in the ceremony. "I was only carrying a rifle and no one was shooting at me. I can't even fathom what it would have been like back then. Iwo Jima is like a sacred temple to me, and I can't believe I'm here."
"My grandfather flew P-51s in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and to look around at all the Marines my age and the same age as my grandfather during the war gives me a tingling feeling inside and a sense of honor," said Sgt. Benjamin Greene, a 22-year-old CH-46E ordnanceman from Snyder, Texas, who was also part of the rifle detail. "We've had a pretty interesting WESTPAC to this point, and this visit and memorial ceremony was just the icing on the cake."
Leading the squadron through WESTPAC 00-2, with two real-world operations, two major exercises, sustainment training in three countries and visits to two historic World War II battle sites, fell into the hands of LtCol. J.W. Bullard, who also enjoyed his first visit to Iwo Jima. "My first thought as we made our approach over Mount Suribachi was getting to the airfield and landing at the right spot," said LtCol. Bullard. "Once you got the course rules down, you were able to appreciate the surroundings and what it took for Marines to get up that steep hill to take the gun positions."
Deployments are nothing new to LtCol. Bullard, now at the end of his fifth deployment, but he agreed with Sgt. Greene that visiting Iwo Jima was definitely the "icing on the cake."
"It has been an enjoyable deployment because of the good relationship we have in the MEU/ARG team," said LtCol. Bullard. "The success of this squadron during the deployment boils down to the individual efforts of the Marine NCOs and pulling together to support 13th MEU. Without their energy and esprit de corps, the squadron would be hard pressed to make the deck cycle work according to plan. The Marines have enjoyed themselves along the way, getting to see a lot of different places in this part of the world...while appreciating a bit of Marine Corps' history. However, we can't wait to get back home to San Diego and see our family and friends."