Steel Pike I from a Grunt’s Perspective

                   …or How do you cram an entire battalion into one APA?

In the fall of 1964 the Second Marine Division staged one of the biggest amphibious exercises in Marine Corps history. The entire division, minus a few ash and trash outfits, and elements of the Second Marine Aircraft Wing embarked from Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, and MCAS Beaufort, crossed the Atlantic, and landed in the Andalucia region of Spain in the province of Almeria. This is in the dry southeastern corner of Spain, and is generally a flat region that grows a lot of olives and is covered in sand and scorpions. This was operation Steel Pike I, and nothing like it has happened since. There are two other stories of Steel Pike on this website that show the air wing side of things, so I thought an infantryman’s perspective would be helpful. Check out T.I.N.S. Tales number 16 by MOFAK, and number 60. The latter contains Lou "The Count" Pritchett’s Happy Hour Stories. Go to "Fouled Up Flyover" for his hilarious view of Steel Pike I.

I was a second lieutenant platoon leader in Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines at the time. The battalion was commanded by LtCol. Poul Pederson, who distinguished himself as a platoon leader with the 5th Marines of the 1st Marine Brigade during the fight for the Pusan Perimeter in Korea in August of 1950. Our entire battalion was embarked in USS Sandoval (APA-194), an amphibious transport ship. The normal procedure for Mediterranean deployments at that time was to spread a battalion landing team over 4 to 5 amphibious ships, so you can imagine how crowded it was during this six week deployment.


                                                   USS Sandoval (APA-194)…Haze Gray and Underway

All the lieutenants in the battalion were berthed in the Junior Officer Bunk Room, a compartment not as large as troop berthing on an APA, which had racks 5 to 6 high, but big enough to hold the 30-35 lieutenants of a battalion landing team. As I recall the bunks were only stacked three high. In the mornings we generally didn’t respond to reveille as a group, but phased ourselves out of our racks so as not to crowd the head facilities, or just to sleep in a little. One day the battalion executive officer came in the bunk room around reveille and noted that a number of us were still in the rack. He blew his stack and informed us that henceforth, everyone would have feet on the deck at reveille. The next morning he was there to ensure that his orders were carried out, and when the 1-MC squawked reveille, we all jumped out of our racks. Everyone just stood there because it was too crowded to move…like being in a Tokyo subway. The XO took one look, rescinded his order, and slammed the hatch as he departed.

The ship was so crowded that there wasn’t much the troops could do other than clean weapons and equipment. It seemed like the chow lines were never ending. They started at breakfast and continued all day until after evening meal. The platoon leaders and platoon sergeants did what they could in the way of training, inspections, and so forth, but there was a lot of slack time. One way that I passed this time was to play Gin Rummy in the wardroom. In fact 1st Lt. Harry Shane and I played a running game that started when we left Morehead City and finished when we returned six weeks later. The winner was the first one to reach 10,000 points. I can’t remember who won. On a sad note, I saw where Harry had passed away in the latest Newsletter for Retired Marines. He was a mustang, a good officer and a good Marine.


                                                                                   "Fall in for P.T.!"

As I recall it took the Division ten days to two weeks to traverse the Atlantic, maintaining unit integrity. This in comparison to MOFAK’s and The Count’s four day transatlantic flight.

Another tidbit of information about our Atlantic crossing…we had a "Phantom Shitter" in the battalion. The battalion chaplain published a daily newsletter with the help of the ship’s print shop. The Phantom Shitter would leave his signature on top of a copy of the chaplain’s newsletter. He didn’t strike every day…probably four or five times during the transit, and never on the return trip. Targets included the hood of the battalion commander’s jeep, a passageway in officer’s country, and the mess decks. Although efforts were made to catch him, he eluded capture. We never did find out who it was. Someone who didn’t like the chaplain? Or didn’t like the newsletter? Maybe it was the chaplain…or the battalion commander. Who knows?

Anyway, we finally arrived off the beaches of Almeria and the Second Marine Division stormed ashore. Second Marine Air Wing planes provided air support. Then we proceeded inland and for the next three or four days walked about 40 miles in ankle-deep sand. As I recall there were no agressors, so we just spent the days hiking. Every now and then a Crusader would fly over. It was probably MOFAK laughing at the grunts on the ground below. During evening bivouacs, my Spanish speaking Marines would disappear into the night and return with jugs of domestic wine. See Lou Pritchett’s story about the Fouled Up Flyover for a description of the local wines. It made the next morning’s hikes interesting.


                                                                                     Land the Landing Force!

The Operation "Steel Pike," beach landing on the coast of Spain was the largest landing exercise in the Atlantic since World War II.  After completing our 40 mile circuit of Andalucia, we backloaded and the ships split up and headed for various liberty ports in the Western Mediterranean and Atlantic. The Sandoval and several other ships went to Lisbon, Portugal, and then to La Coruna, Spain, which is on the northwest tip of that country, north of Portugal. The usual wild liberties described in other T.I.N.S. tales on this website didn’t seem to occur on this trip, or if they did, I don’t remember them. We actually took some tours to see the local sights instead of hanging out in waterfront bistros. Maybe it was because this was my first deployment out of Basic School and I hadn’t developed into the seasoned, Olongapo crawling, Naples trolling liberty risk that I later became.

Our transatlantic return trip was uneventful and we returned to Camp Lejeune in November 1964. Four months later a fairly large number of lieutenants from Second Marine Division were transferred to Parris Island as boot camp was gearing up to support the Vietnam war. The 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade landed at DaNang the same month we all headed to PI; March 1965. That is where I met MOFAK, who commanded K Company of the Second Recruit Training Battalion, which was next door to my outfit, I Company. I didn’t know him when he was laughing at me as he flew over in Spain. He has written a number of T.I.N.S. tales on this website about his Parris Island days. They are good reading, and are part of what ties us together to this day.

After a year at Parris Island I disappeared into the maw of Vietnam in April 1966, and popped out of that hell hole’s ass in August of 1968. But in the fall of 1964 we were just a bunch of happy-go-lucky young Marines without a worry in the world. That changed as my unit drifted from Goi Noi Island in the south of I Corps to the DMZ in the north, with many stops in between. Operation Steel Pike had been an initial step in a long and varied career as a Marine. And I would do every bit of it again in a heartbeat.


                                                         Semper Fi,

                                              Dirck Praeger sends