USS CARTER HALL, At sea -- The morning of an amphibious launch aboard the USS Carter Hall feels slightly unreal; there’s an odd and slightly dreamlike quality to it.
Wake up is at 4 a.m. – the 1MC, a ship-wide public announcement system, which usually lies dormant from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., goes off early, announcements ringing through halls still red lit and empty. Early risers swing through the chow hall to scarf down breakfast, muffins and bagels, easily prepared and rapidly eaten. They eat quickly and head to grab their stuff. It’s game time.
The ship goes to launch condition – flooding the ballast tanks and the well deck. Marines trooping down to the vehicle bay, laden with the accoutrements of our trade: flak vests and Kevlar helmets, carrying packs half their size, sweating and swearing under the weight of their gear. Throwing everything they need in the amphibious assault vehicles that’ll carry them to shore. The flight-suited crews of the AAVs ready their machines to splash as the 1MC reports readiness conditions that echo through the bay.
AAVs, and their role in amphibious assault doctrine, date back to World War II, where the Marine Corps used their predecessors, landing vehicle, tracked, to great effect in landing Marines on hard-fought islands across the Pacific, fighting the Japanese for every inch of dirt. Their nickname, tracks, comes from the term amphibious tractor, used to describe those early vehicles.
Marines clamber up and down the tracks, hulking green armored vehicles the size of tanks, corrugated armor bolted to the sides, antennae and turrets protruding at seemingly odd intervals. The AAV bay is brightly lit, in contrast to the darkness of the early morning outside. The lights of the cities along the coast and the faint outlines of the mountains are barely visible in the predawn gloom.
The smell of fuel and oil and grease and the sea get everywhere as the crewmen call out to each other, opening and closing hatches and engine ports, making their tracks ready for sea. Dogging down all the hatches and preparing to drop into the waiting arms of the ocean. Radios come online as the engines roar to life, Marines slotting into their hatches, their turrets, taking position at the starting line and waiting for the gun.
The sky outside gradually brightens as the tracks roll down the ramp to the final drop-off, to the false beach that marks the end of the ship and the beginning of the sea. They stand by as the ship maneuvers into position, heading downwind, aiming the stern towards the beach landing zone. Radios crackle, Marines talking to each other in what sounds like perfect nonsense to the uninitiated.
The ship gives the go-ahead, tracks start roaring, speeding toward the end and dropping off the false beach into the water, submerging for an instant before resurfacing and accelerating into the choppy waves of the bay, water spraying from the jets pushing the track along. They file off, one by one, lines moving forward, waiting their turn to splash.