Monday, September 20, 2010

Rebel of Arabia

At the Ole Miss -- Vanderbilt game in Oxford on Saturday the pre-game activities included a flyover by a B-52. For the increasingly disenchanted members of Rebel Nation, that thrill turned out to be the highlight of the afternoon. It is shaping up to be a typical Ole Miss football season, replete with missed opportunities, broken plays and broken hearts. The Colonel actually appreciates the poor play of our football team--it stirs slumbering synapses of nostalgia that remind him of those halcyon days spent on campus, where the fun of college was interrupted many a fall weekend with a trek across the Grove to witness gridiron debacles.

Another memory was stirred from deep in the Colonel's fogbound faculties on Saturday. As the B-52 grew from a dot on the northern horizon and lumbered in full-throated roar overhead, the Colonel was reminded of another B-52 flyover nearly three decades ago.

In 1982, the Colonel, then a First Lieutenant, was assigned to the headquarters staff of the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU), embarked on amphibious shipping in the Western Pacific. The Colonel's job title was Training Officer, but owing to the fact that he was the most junior officer on the staff, the position's duties really should have been described by the job title: SLJO (Stinky Little Jobs Officer). Whenever somebody was needed to run some demeaning errand, deliver some unwelcome message, or represent the command at some uncomfortable event, the Colonel's boss would call him aside and begin his orders with the imperious intonation, "Rebel, this is more important than whatever you are doing at the moment..."

Being both not-so-bright and eager to please, the Colonel would accept his boss' assessment of the relative importance of the mission now assigned, salute smartly, and step off in the enthusiastic attack. Even when it began to slowly dawn in the dimly lit interior of the Colonel's brain-housing group that most of the missions to which he was so assigned were not-so-important, he still endeavored to attack each one as if the outcome of some great campaign weighed in the balance and depended solely on his diligence.

In the fall of 1982, the 31st MAU was scheduled to make an amphibious landing on the southern coast of the Sultanate of Oman and then conduct training exercises with the Sultan of Oman's Army. Ordinarily, the Colonel's job during exercises of this sort was to act as a watch officer in the Landing Force Operations Center, maintaining situational awareness of the course of the landing and the subsequent exercise, and regularly briefing the boss on highlights and decision points. It was a job the Colonel actually looked forward to.

But, three or four days prior to the exercise, the Colonel's boss called him aside and imperiously intoned, "Rebel, this is more important than whatever you are doing at the moment. The Omanis have requested that we exchange liaison officers. There's a helicopter leaving in an hour for the Omani HQ. Be on it."

The Colonel responded with his customary, "Aye, aye, Sir!," and headed to his stateroom to grab his gear and a change of socks. An hour and fifteen minutes later, the Colonel stepped off the helicopter at the edge of an encampment that looked like something straight out of the movie "Lawrence of Arabia." A bewildered-looking Omani officer climbed aboard and took the Colonel's seat; the look on his face turning to near abject horror as the chopper lifted off--evidently it was his first helicopter ride. The Colonel completely understood how that young Omani felt--this was about to be the Colonel's first camel ride.

To the Colonel's surprise, he was greeted by a red-headed officer wearing the uniform and insignia of a major in the Sultan of Oman's Land Forces. "Hello, Leftenant," he said with a toothy grin and a clipped British accent, "Major Tony Martel, aide de camp to General Hamadi."

The Colonel snapped to the rigid position of attention, saluted and introduced himself, "Sir!, Lieutenant Ed Gregory." Major Martel extended his hand and grinned, "That shall be the last 'sir' and salute for me, Ed. Call me Tony."

The Colonel doesn't know if it's still in practice, but in those days, and owing to a long and close relationship with Great Britain, the Omanis had an agreement with the British by which experienced Commonwealth officers could take leaves of absence for several years and serve with the Omani military as "contract officers." As inducement, the Sultan of Oman offered considerably more in compensation than did the Queen. These "contract officers" filled many positions in the middle grades (captain to lieutenant colonel), and also acted as mentors and trainers to the junior Omani officers.

Tony Martel escorted the Colonel into the camp and our first stop was the officers' mess tent where "tea" was being served. There, the Colonel (then just a lowly lieutenant, remember) was presented and introduced to the General and his officers, and, much to his embarrassment, received a standing cheer. This was not going to be the usual "stinky little job!"

Over the next several days, the Colonel was treated to tours of the training grounds that included visits with local inhabitants. One afternoon we visited a Bedouin encampment and received an invitation to stay for the evening meal. The images from that evening were straight out of the pages of National Geographic. We sat in a billowing tent around a large brass tray heaped with rice and goat. Across from the Colonel sat the smiling Bedouin chief, resplendent in white robes with a large traditional rhino horn-handled dagger belted at his waist. Next to the chief sat his frowning body guard, his robes criss-crossed with bandoleers of cartridges for the ancient Enfield rifle on which he leaned. This man's frown never left his face and his eyes never left the Colonel for a moment during the entire evening--he clearly wanted this infidel to make a wrong move!

On the day of the start of the exercise, the Colonel sat next to the Omani General in a makeshift reviewing stand on a promontory overlooking the beaches across which the battalion landing team from the 31st MAU would conduct an amphibious landing. The coastline ran roughly north and south. The landing beach was to our north and the sprawling Omani army encampment was to our south. As the hour for the landing approached, the Colonel explained to the General the phases of an amphibious operation. The Colonel had been told that there would be a low flyover of some sort just as the landing craft were approaching the beach to demonstrate the aviation delivered ordinance that would be employed to support the landing. As there was an aircraft carrier operating in our area, the Colonel expected that we would see a couple of fighter bombers high overhead and was scanning the horizon out to sea to see them first and be able to show them to the General.

The landing craft were drawing ever closer to the beach, and the Colonel was beginning to grumble to himself about the unreliability of Navy Air, as no carrier aircraft were anywhere to be seen. In frustration, the Colonel widened his scan and turned to look behind us to the south. No more than a half mile in the distance, and at an altitude that could not have exceeded 500 feet, the unmistakable head-on profile of a United States Air Force B-52G Stratofortress filled a significant portion of the view. As the bomber bore in, filling an exponentially increasing portion of the view south, the Colonel had just enough time to touch the General on his elbow, catch his eye, and jerk a thumb over my shoulder, before the huge plane was upon us.

As our perch was several hundred feet above sea level, and the bomber's crew were obviously attempting to bring their beast over the beach as low as possible, the B-52 thundered so low over our position that it seemed one needed to duck or get a haircut courtesy of the Strategic Air Command.

The Omani General bellowed something about Admiral Ackbar.

The Omani camp exploded.

No bomb had been dropped. But, no bomb was needed. The sonic blast from eight jet engines sufficed.

Over the years, the Colonel has tried to find words to describe the aftermath of the flyover on that camp. The words have always escaped him, and do to this day. There is a scene from a movie that fits, however. In "Lawrence of Arabia," Lawrence's Arab army catches a Turk army in retreat and falls upon it. As the massacre subsides, Sir Lawrence Olivier's character wanders the battlefield in search of Lawrence. Picture the carnage in the background. That's what the Omani camp looked like after the flyover.

Likely the Colonel will ever see a B-52 in flight without remembering the non-lethal leveling of that Omani camp by the penultimate icon of lethality.
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