While researching AH-1T's from Grenada, Ray Wilhite brought his article to my attention.
Cpl. Noah S. Leffler ,
Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. —
Sweat beaded on the forehead of Staff Sgt. Christopher Payne as the KC-130 loadmaster sat on the edge of the aircraft’s back door.
He was waiting on an important delivery -- a piece of Marine Corps history. After several minutes, a small crate-laden truck appeared through the heat mirages rising from the flight line.
After their two-day flight to Grenada spanning thousands of miles of open ocean, the pickup may have seemed an unceremonious welcome for the six members of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252. But there were no complaints from the crew who, in minutes, had the heavy wooden box loaded and secured.
After about 10 minutes on the ground, Otis was airborne again and the island was little more than a speck in the turquoise Caribbean Sea.
"Business as usual" was a term used frequently by the KC-130 pilots and crew the weekend of April 25 through 27, but their mission, transporting a crate from Grenada to Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., was more than 25 years in the making.
"We fly a variety of missions here being in a sole support platform, and logistics is one of them," said Lt. Col. Robert Cote, VMGR-252’s commanding officer. "As far as logistics goes, it was a fairly standard mission."
Not-so-standard was the cargo, nor the group of men eagerly awaiting its return to Virginia.
Lost in battle
On October 25, 1983, U.S. and allied forces stormed Grenada, one of the smallest independent nations in the Western Hemisphere. Dubbed Operation Urgent Fury, a force of about 5,000 troops deployed on short notice to overthrow the violent communist People’s Revolutionary Government, evacuate American citizens and establish civil order.
It had been nearly eight years since fighting ceased in Vietnam and more than 30 years since the amphibious assaults in Korea, but the Marine Corps once again proved its mettle as an elite force in readiness when the Lebanon-bound 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit was diverted to tackle the contingency. Leathernecks landed on the northern half of the island, quickly eliminating PRA resistance at Pearls Airport and Grenville. They later joined forces with Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division in St. Georges to assist in clearing enemy positions around the capital city and rescuing hostages. All military objectives were secured and peace restored in just seven days.
The fighting was brief but nonetheless intense: 15 Marines were wounded in action during Urgent Fury, and three members of the MCAS New River-based Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 "Raging Bulls" made the ultimate sacrifice.
Capts. Timothy Howard and Jeb Seagle, AH-1T attack helicopter pilots with HMM-261, were supporting a team of SEALs protecting the home of Grenadian Governor General Sir Paul Scoone when their Cobra was struck by anti-aircraft fire. Though missing half his right arm and with a golf-ball size piece of shrapnel in his neck, Howard man- aged to land the bird in a nearby soccer field. Seagle soon regained consciousness, dragged his friend from the burning wreckage, dressed his wounds and left on foot to fi nd help.
Meanwhile, Maj. John Guigerre and 1st Lt. Jeff Sharver’s Cobra provided fire support while awaiting a medevac for their downed squadronmates. After making multiple runs on enemy targets, their aircraft was also felled by anti-aircraft artillery.
The badly-injured Howard was later pulled aboard a CH-46 and rescued, but his fellow pilots would not be so lucky. Seagle’s beaten, lifeless body was found on the beach, and Guigerre and Sharver both died when their Cobra crashed into the bay.
Though the battle and memories of their fallen comrades live on the minds of surviving Raging Bulls, it seemed any physical evidence of the crashes was forever lost - that is, until a discovery was made in the most unlikely of places.
Found in peace
In 2008, a group of HMM-261 veterans returned to the island to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Urgent Fury. It was there Nehru Lalsee, a local friend of former UH-1N Huey pilot the Rev. Robin Sides, made a startling announcement.
"He said, ‘My father-in-law owns a junkyard, and I think we have a piece of a helicopter in there,’" said Doug Doerr, who served as a first lieutenant with the Raging Bulls in Grenada.
After confirming the wreckage’s authenticity as the tail boom from Howard’s Cobra, Doerr told National Museum of the Marine Corps director Lin Ezell about the squadron’s find.
"I thought she was going to snap her neck when she turned and said, ‘We have to get that back,’" Doerr said with a chuckle. "I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m glad to hear you say that. We’d like to bring it home ourselves.’"
It took work on behalf of the veterans, National Museum of the Marine Corps and VMGR-252, but the reunion on the fl ight line in Quantico, Va., April 27, was proof of the tail boom’s sentimental value. Raging Bull veterans were all smiles as they swapped stories and posed for photos around the box containing a bittersweet piece of their history.
"What we did was three days of combat," Doerr said. "Afterwards, we went right to Beirut, and there was really no time for us to come down from the high of combat in Grenada. And we came home and went on with our lives like all Marines do.
According to John Bottone, a former HMM-261 CH-46 machine gunner, the event was a celebration of his squadron’s combat-forged familial ties.
"Twenty five years ago we went to Grenada, and to this day we still get together and have our reunions," Bottone said. "We were a family back then and we’re a family today still."
But for Bottone, being with family wasn’t just figurative; his son, VMGR-252 crew chief Sgt. John Jr., was a member of the group responsible for bringing the tail boom home. As the two shook hands on the flight line and talked about the trip, the elder Bottone’s pride was unmistakable.
"It’s an honor … to see my son follow in my footsteps and carry on a family tradition," Bottone said. "It’s good to see the family continuity."
For John Jr., who is soon approaching his end of active service, the feeling was mutual.
"From the time I was a little kid, I wanted to join the Marine Corps, and he was the one that talked me into being aircrew," he said. "So I think it’s really cool being able to take part in this since my dad was there during the conflict.
"This was a really good way to end my time flying," John Jr. added.
On April 27, some Marines left the flight line in Quantico with a greater appreciation for the sacrifices of those who served before them. Some left satisfied knowing what was once a "hunk of scrap aluminum" in a Grenadian junkyard will now be on display for future generations. But a select few Marines left with a sense of closure, knowing a piece of their proud legacy is home where it belongs.
"When we were down in Grenada, I made a point of walking up to everybody – and it sounds corny, I know – but I told all the Marines I loved them," Doerr said. "I had the privilege and honor to serve among heroes.
"It’s nice to close that chapter in our lives," he added.