Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sinai

If you set the way back machine to the spring and summer of 1983 you would find me on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula conducting operations as part of the Multi-National Force and Observers (MFO). I was a PFC and the assistant gunner for an 81mm mortar squad. Specifically, 2nd squad (base gun), Weapons Platoon, B Company, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Unlike the other regiments in the 82nd, which are designated as Parachute Infantry Regiments, the 325 is designated as Airborne Infantry since our regiment actually landed in gliders during World War II. After the war, gliders were phased out and the 325th was made regular parachute infantry. The designation stuck however, such are the vagaries of military heraldry.


The MFO consisted of units from many nations as the name suggests and still operates in the peninsula to this day. It was formed as a result of the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty and was tasked with patrolling the no mans land along the borders of Israel and Egypt to make sure both countries were conforming within the stipulations of the treaty. The US Battalion occupies South Camp just north of the city of Sharm El Sheik and fans out small squad size elements to check points and observations posts within its sector. At the time of my deployment we were only the second United States unit to conduct this mission as we were to relieve a battalion from the 101st Airborne Division.

This was my very first overseas deployment and also my first deployment to a “hazardous duty” area. I didn’t know quite what to expect as we boarded the chartered Arrow Airways flight from Fort Bragg, NC straight to Sharm El Sheik, by way of Gander Newfoundland. It was very strange to me as we sat in our seats with our high and tight haircuts, M16 rifles and “chocolate chip” desert uniforms that there were stewardesses’ offering us sodas and peanuts for the flight. As would become my habit during my career I fell asleep as the plane took off only to awaken when we stopped in Gander for refueling. I wandered around the dark and tiny terminal with the other bored and hungry paratroopers gawking at the Canadian souvenirs in the closed gift shops and wondering how much longer we had to fly. Eventually we reboarded the plane where we were served a standard in-flight meal of rubber chicken, mushy green beans, and warm soda. I fell back asleep and was awakened by the whine of the landing gear as it extended itself for landing at the airfield in Sharm El Sheik.

I snapped some pictures out the plane window upon our arrival and what they showed was a rocky, brown landscape dominated by numerous mountains and wadis. When I moved to Arizona some years later the terrain was eerily similar but with the addition of cactus and without the camels. Sharm El Sheik and South Camp sit on the coast of the Sinai and the Red Sea dominated the view to the east as we made our way towards our new home. With all the organized chaos of any military operation we swiftly moved into our living areas which were small trailer like buildings with two man rooms.

For the next week or so we attended orientation briefings and shadowed our 101st counter parts. But soon enough they departed for home and we were left alone facing our 6 month deployment. Each squad was assigned rotating duties where for 3 weeks you would man an observation post or check point and then you would rotate back for a week of training and refit or guard duty at the camp. South Camp itself was pretty comfortable; it had a small post exchange, mess hall, a gym, and an enlisted club. It also had numerous private “hooch” bars run by units from other countries that were tolerated but not sanctioned by the Camp Commander. The mess hall which was open 24/7 and Murphy’s Bar which was run by the Explosive Ordinance Detachment soon became the center of my social scene when we were back in camp. Typically we would mosey on down to Murphy’s about 1800 and drink .50 cent cans of Carling’s Black Label while playing darts or watching movies on the VCR. During the break between scheduled movies we would haul butt across the compound to the closest latrine and run back to be on time for the start of the next movie. Then we would all hit the mess hall for ice cream and sandwiches as we staggered our way back to our rooms about midnight.

This was a different era for the Army; soldiers in hazardous fire areas were still allowed to drink off duty as they had been able to since 1776. Political correctness and General Order #1 which forbids alcohol on deployments had not yet taken over as it would with the start of Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990. Just a heads up for the Muckety Mucks prohibition never works; soldiers still drink on deployment you just force them to become criminals to do it. In Kosovo we had a full bar complete with sound system. You had to enter it by stepping thru a wall locker into a hidden room. No one ever found it, so much for General Order #1.

My squads first off camp mission was to man checkpoint (CP) 3-Alpha which was located on the main supply route (MSR) from Israel to southern Sinai. Our job was to monitor traffic along the MSR, report any large military type convoys or troop movements and send in a situation report of activity three times daily. We arrived at the checkpoint and relieved the squad in place with a quick debrief. They left on the same deuce and a half trucks that had dropped us off. Our CP consisted of two mobile home type trailers about 40 feet long, one was the bunk house with bunk beds and small metal lockers. The other was the kitchen/dining/commo building. The commo room was manned 24/7 as was a small guard shack immediately adjacent to the MSR. Our daily routine consisted of preparing a hot breakfast in the kitchen using local meat and groceries delivered weekly from South Camp, then squad training or physical training in the morning. Lunch was a C-Ration or later in the deployment the new fangled Meals Ready to Eat. Afternoon consisted of more training or area beautification. We were constantly raking the sand around our buildings into a nice concentric pattern of lines. We also had the best rock garden in town with a huge set of Parachutist wings painted white and surrounding the pole upon which flew Old Glory. Another hot meal ended the day.

Squad members also where on a rotating duty roster where about every 36 hours you would pull a four hour shift either in the guard shack monitoring the MSR or giving and receiving situation reports in the commo room. We also conducted weekly vehicular patrols in our sector driving up to the edge of our sector along the border and back in our M151 jeeps. On these patrols we would often leave partially opened cans of C-ration fruit along the side of the road with a P38 can opener sticking out. As soon as our vehicle would pass Bedouin children would rush out from the rocks and seize the treat. Sometimes as a joke we would leave lima beans or spaghetti and meat sauce. We would laugh and laugh as we saw them throw the can down in disgust in our rear view mirror.

Quite often we also conducted 2-3 day foot patrols in our sector, patrolling in team size elements in circular search patterns that eventually brought us back to the CP. It was on one of these patrols that we had a close encounter with a mine field. Mines were the biggest hazard in the Sinai as they were left over from many previous conflicts along with burnt out tank hulls and destroyed vehicles. We often passed these relics on patrol, and I would wonder how they were destroyed and who won the battle. Mine fields were generally marked and we were under strict orders to steer clear of them. The local Egyptian police had a unique way of clearing a path through these minefields. They would get a Private with a 20 foot long stick to start probing a path through the field in an effort to clear it. This was not the preferred technique and I witnessed at least one Medevac due to some mine clearing gone wrong.

This particular minefield was not marked. It was notated on our map however and we had plotted a course to skirt the edge of it by about 500 meters. Unfortunately it is the nature of the desert that it shifts and as we were walking our azimuth we started noticing some rather strange looking black sticks poking up from the ground. These sticks looked too regular and angular to be natural. Upon closer inspection we determined that we had managed to walk into the middle of a field of Anti-Tank mines and these sticks were actually the tilt rods that activated the mines. True we weren’t tanks but Anti-Tank minefields are also usually accompanied by Anti-Personnel mines as well. If anyone has seen the movie Kelly’s Heros you know what happened next. The ol’ bayonet came out and we started probing our way to the edge of the minefield. Eventually we all made it out with no injuries besides some scraps and cuts from low crawling across the desert. We also handed out candy to Bedouin kids as we passed through their villages on our patrols and I learned my first two words of Arabic “Mish, Mish” which means food and “Dollah” which is not technically Arabic but they sure said it a lot. The old guys just stared at us as the kids crowded around. I wondered what they were thinking, squatting there holding the halters of their camels as their children begged the Super Power for a handout.

So our deployment followed the 3 week rotational pattern, punctuated by guard duty and hijinks. We had a platoon toga party using bed sheets. This was inspired by the movie Animal House which had been released not to long before. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders showed up one evening on a USO tour accompanied by a One Man Band as an opening act. I liked the One Man Band better. My Platoon conducted our annual ARTEP (Army Training and Evaluation Program) and passed with flying colors. We better have, all we did during our down week was practice crew drill. Sometimes we would hump a rucksack full of beer and ice the 2 miles to Naama Bay, a resort area, and hang out on the beach drinking beer and checking out girls until the sun went down. We could take the occasional weekend trip to Eilat, Israel on our down time. It was a 5 hour deuce and a half ride but it was worth it. It was in Eilat that I acquired my life long love of Mediterranean food. I still eat a good Falafel when I can get it. We did a lot of things to keep occupied and to stave off boredom in those 6 months.

My final posting was on an Observation Post on the top of a mountain 5 miles off the coast. The only way to get to this OP was by UH1H Huey helicopter due to the fact it was on a mountain top. The winds constantly howled so the helicopter would have to call in for windspeed and direction at least 20 minutes prior to landing. Our only job was to observe and report on shipping in the Straits of Tiran, no patrols vehicular or foot required. Due to this and the fact that we always had advanced warning of any visitors the uniform of the day was PT shorts and flip flops. I had the most awesome tan I have had in my entire life after being on that island.

After we returned from this rotation we started processing our replacements from the 101st to take over our duties. After a week or so we got back on the Arrow Airways jet and made our way back home. My plane took a route which required a refuel in Cairo Egypt. Of course we broke down; while we were restricted to the terminal our leadership made us take our fatigue jackets off so as not to offend other patrons of the airport. “Who are those bald guys, with great tans, desert camo pants and brown t-shirts?" “I am not sure but one thing I do know they couldn’t be Americans.” After a two day breakdown and sleeping in the airport we finally got off the ground. We arrived back in Fort Bragg about 2130 and as soon as all gear was accounted for we were released. I made a bee line for the one thing I had been dreaming about for 6 months, a Burrito Supreme from Taco Bell. That and a nice cold Pepsi ended my first foray into hostile territory on a positive note.

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