HMM-264 builds from the ground up

25 Nov 2000 | Cpl. Derek A. Shoemake 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit

With cow manure in some places stacked as high as his knee, GySgt. John Idland knew turning the old hangar into a place to eat in would take a lot of work.
As he looked at other sections of the run-down airstrip, he knew turning the entire area into an expeditionary airfield for Exercise Slunj 2000 would be no easier.

Idland would have just under two days, staffed with only 30 Marines, to turn the runway, badly damaged by a war in the country just six years ago, into a functional operating base for Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 264, part of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable).

The work began with three hangars, two would become sleeping quarters and one would serve as a mess hall.

"They were destroyed," said Idland, Rockway, N.J. native who served as the Assistant Camp Commandant for the squadron during the MEU training evolution. "Sections of the roof were missing and they were filled with debris."

Cleaning the hangars took more than a day, a process that Idland and two other Marines began with their shovel-like entrenching tools before other Marines or tools arrived.

After they cleaned the hangars they began to repair the roof, and patch up the fronts of the buildings. Though civilian contractors were there, they only performed minor maintenance on one of the hangars and heated the living areas.

While Marines worked on the living spaces, Idland said another group was building the "tent city" that would serve as the command area for the airfield.

"That was tough," said Idland. "The biggest thing about that was the wind and the cold. We would be trying to set these tents up and you were literally fighting against the weather."

On the day Idland's Marines set up the tents, it was below freezing with wind gust of almost 25 knots.

"We really had to use our imagination for some of the things out here," said LCpl. Brian Bonkowski, CH-46E Sea Knight Mechanic, building a door made from cardboard boxes. "You do not have instant access to anything, so you have to make due with what you have."

As an example, Bonkowski constructed more than a dozen benches for the squadron's ready room and other areas using left over wood.  The Ringle, Wis. native had manufactured and sold benches as a business project in high school.

Idland said initially one of the main concerns during the camp's construction were the area mine threat. Croatia's recent war left unexploded ordnance and mines outside the compound.

"Our [Explosives Ordnance Disposal] guys did a sweep before the main body got here," said Idland. "But we were still very careful. My guys all knew what to look for and what to do if they came across what they thought was a mine."

According to Idland, one of the most challenging things about setting up the camp was the size of the operating area.

"The tent city was a few hundred yards from the living areas," he said. "And I only had 30 Marines setting everything up. There was a lot of going back and forth to get things done."

The hard work paid off. Major Bud Sichler, HMM0264 Operations Officer and Farmingdale, N.Y. native, said the airfield was more than ready when the bulk of the Marines and aircraft arrived.

"This is exactly what the real thing would be like," he said. "We would come in to nothing and build an area to operate out of. That's what these Marines did. And it only took them two days to do it."

Sichler said the Marines made it possible for the squadron to operate a total expeditionary airfield, to include their own air traffic control. Until Slunj 2000, this is something HMM-264 had not a chance to do.

"The Marines I had out there did a great job," agreed Idland. "I think what made it all work so well is that the junior [noncommissioned officers] really took charge and got things rolling. When you have good junior leadership like that anything can happen."

26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable)