2nd Assault Amphibian Bn. Marines conduct ship-to-shore operations

18 Nov 2003 | Cpl. Ryan S. Scranton

"Hatches closed, hatches closed," echoed over the radio as Pfc. Adam R. Tate, crew chief, Company A, 3rd Platoon, 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, pulled the door closed that separated him from the rest of the world.

"Are you nervous, Tate?" said his section leader, Staff Sgt. Henry M. Salgado, through the intercom of Tate's communications helmet.

"No, staff sergeant, just anxious," answered Tate as he waited for the signal to punch the gas and plunge his 26-ton Amphibious Assault Vehicle into the ocean.

The Marines of Company A conducted ship-to-shore amphibious landing operations with the USS Trenton (LPD-14) along the coast here Nov. 3-6.

"Our intent is to re-familiarize and increase our proficiency in Marine amphibious operations," said 1st Lt. Keith C. Bernize, 3rd platoon commander, Company A. "We have a lot of new Marines in the platoon that have never done this type of operation before."

The platoon has a fair share of new Marines. Nearly half of the Marines are new to the platoon, and a quarter of them having never splashed their vehicles into the ocean.

Tate is one of those Marines "fresh out of the wrapper" as they say, but he was quickly thrust into a leadership position. Being a crew chief and a driver, his plate is full with responsibility.

As a crew chief, Tate is responsible for the lives and safety of the crew and passengers and the operation of his vehicle capable of amphibious transport of Marines and their equipment.

Growing up in the Bluegrass state, Tate said he has always had a fascination with heavy equipment.

"My dad has a construction company, and I was always around bulldozers and heavy equipment. I really like driving this stuff," said Tate.

Tate raised pigs and sheep in high school.  He was a member of the 4-H Club while attending Central Homes Academy in Lexington, Ky.

"My uncle George and my cousins would help me out, and I was able to stay in a fancy hotel when we showed (the animals at fairs)," said Tate, "It was a lot of fun."

Tate has gone from raising pigs to driving them. Pig, a nickname given to the AAVs, aptly describes the love-hate relationship that seemingly all AAV drivers and mechanics have with the giant, steel beasts that grunt and wail as they cut through the ocean waves.

"I like working with these vehicles," said Tate as he picked the sand and debris out of the tracks of his vehicle in between runs to the ship and back. "Even though they take a lot of maintenance."

Keeping the vehicles afloat require an average of eight hours of maintenance for every hour of operation. A task demanding detailed record keeping from the vehicles crew chief.

"Did you check the fluids?" asks Salgado. "How about the log book?  How many hours have you driven this vehicle today?"

Every aspect of the vehicles operation is checked and double-checked ensuring it will run smoothly when it's plunged into the ocean.

The small details can mean life or death for the crew and passengers of the vehicle, a missing plug or bolt can flood the vehicle quickly sending it to the ocean floor.

"These vehicles are complex machines," said Salgado. "The vehicle functions off of an intricate hydraulic system, and you have to know how the fluids move through the vehicle to get it to do what you want it to do."

It's a skill that Salgado says takes time and practice to perfect.

The tense moments before launching the vehicle out of the well deck of the ship requires complete concentration by the driver. The diesel fumes, heat and drone of the engine are added distractions to the driver, who keeps his eyes on the green flag as the USS Trenton's stern sways back and forth.

"Okay Tate, we're next," Salgado says over the intercom.

"Remember, when you get the go ahead floor it, but don't bury the front under water or we're going to the bottom."

As the green flag was waved, the vehicle's engine whined, and the AAV hit the open waters.  A temporary moment of blindness occurred as the water splashed over the top of the vehicle, covering the small four-inch by six-inch window serving as a porthole to the outside.

As the vehicle cleared the wake of the ship and the driver adjusted the throttle to accommodate the movement of the waves, the vehicle and its driver settled into the ocean moving in concert with one another.

During the final run, the hatches were opened once underway and the sea breeze dissipated the smell of diesel as the vehicle and its crew headed to the shore.

"The Marines did exceptionally well, especially considering how much experience they have," said Bernize, "We were able to stay on schedule and everyone stayed in formation and hit the beach on time."