CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan -- World War II and Operation Enduring Freedom are very different wars fought by different generations; but today’s aviation Marines in Afghanistan are facing some similar conditions that their predecessors did nearly seven decades ago. The Marine Corps prides itself on being expeditionary, going to every clime and place and dominating its enemies despite adverse conditions Marines may face.
Marines with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) have been adapting to the environment here with minimal resources, working and living out of tents strung along a makeshift flight line.
The situation is reminiscent of the black and white photos found in history books depicting the hasty airfields established by the Marines on various islands throughout the Pacific.
"We took over many of the air fields that the Japanese had already started," said Lt. Col. Scott Madziarczyk, the assistant chief of staff for logistics, 3rd MAW (Fwd), who has an undergraduate degree, and is working on a doctorate in history. "Quite a few times we had to construct our own airfields. Most of the time, that’s why we picked the islands we picked – it was because of that strategic importance."
The improvements were minimal, but effective. The Marines were pitching square eight-man tents that they used for nearly everything: billeting, maintenance hubs, operations shacks, officers’ clubs or whatever the Marines could make out of them.
"We used to have fly tents — just pieces of canvas put in an upside down "V" over a couple of poles. That became your mess tent," said Madziarczyk. "That also became your maintenance facility – your rework facility – you could pull your engine off and take it in there and out of the elements."
In some cases, like Guadalcanal, the Marines worked with Navy Construction Battalions to build entire flight lines. They would lay down metal grating and cover it with crushed coral. Sometimes, Marines would use Japanese equipment to make flight lines longer and wider.
The Marines dug their aviation claws into other places like Guam, Wake Island and Iwo Jima throughout the war. The conditions and climates on those tropical islands can be extreme, much like the hot, arid weather the Marines are dealing in Afghanistan.
"You go down to the flight line now and it’s nothing but tents," explained Madziarczyk. "We managed to put up a couple of large shelters for hangar bays, but it’s still living out of a tent, working out of a tent. The dining facility is pretty much a big tent. Maybe we’re living a lot better than the 1940's, but it’s pretty much the same for us."
The airfield looks much different than it did a couple of years ago.
"I flew over this place two years ago," Madziarczyk said. "There was nothing."
The flat piece of ground on the east side of the Camp Bastion airfield is now ‘home sweet home’ for four Marine Corps aviation squadrons in what is essentially a bustling tent city. Each squadron customizes its area with unique adaptations all the way down to the door handles they use: wood carved into handles, rope run through drilled holes, the top of a two-hole paper puncher, an ammunition box lid and other items that Marines have obviously dug up around their hangars.
Walk through Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369’s work space and you’ll find hand-built and painted signs such as the squadron sign out front and various section signs on their respective tents. At the end of the tent row is a hand-built board adorned with photos of the squadron’s fallen; a make-shift memorial meant as a place of honor for those who made the ultimate sacrifice here.
"Our advanced party got here and started building floors for the tents, building walls and using spare wood to build desks," said Capt. James Carlson, the tactics officer for HMLA-369. "This place is a lot less established than Al-Taqaddum and Al Asad, but our Marines put a lot of work into making this place functional and it really isn’t that bad."
Another common feature in the squadron areas are custom-built pull up bars. Marines are tested in pull ups every year, and they are a source of pride as various sections and units host pull up challenges throughout the deployment.
After work, the Marines sometimes have to wait hours for busses that sometimes run late due to changing routes or road construction. Instead of standing in the blazing sun, the Marines used wire and padding to build make-shift couches and assembled a small fleet of cots under a tent for instances when the buses are late. "Improve your situation," is an age-old adage that Marines have become familiar with, often scraping comfort out of the most Spartan circumstances.
"We can be expeditionary and operate out of anywhere," exclaimed Madziarczyk. "We have proven that we just need a flat piece of decent ground that we can work with."
Today’s Marines can do more than construct expedient living and work spaces. Marine wing support squadrons can level ground and build expeditionary flight lines using AM2 matting. This matting, linked together in sections, is easily transportable and can form a runway capable of handling the Marine Corps’ heaviest cargo aircraft. Simple dirt work and hard labor can transform a rolling field into a fully capable flight line in only a fraction of the time it would take to construct a traditional flight line.
"The [AM2 matting] allows us to remain expeditionary," said 1st Lt. Andrew Lowry, the officer in charge of Marine Wing Support Squadron 274’s detachment at Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan. "I can take matting, minimal heavy equipment and build a flight line anywhere. It requires less time and less organic materials than building a concrete flight line."
Lowry explained the padding is also more logistically suited to an expeditionary environment. It stacks and stores easily, and is easy to remove when the Marine Corps completes its missions and leaves an area.
Sometimes Marines push far forward of support units or operate in areas where using equipment to construct expeditionary flight lines is not possible. Although this restricts cargo aircraft from accessing an area, the Corps’ elite fleet of rotary wing aircraft can still provide support to these Marines. To keep helos operating in these forward areas, the Marine Corps uses forward arming and refueling points, or FARPS. These points, sometimes little more than fuel bags, pumps and hoses, allow helicopters to refuel and rearm in the forward most points of the Marine Corps’ battle space.
"The biggest thing is that [FARPS] extend our time on station," said Carlson, referring to being able to provide longer periods of overwatch for ground units. "Three weeks ago we were supporting Marines with 1st Marine Division, 2nd Marines and were able to stay on station longer, get positive identification and engage insurgents because we had fuel close by"
Once those forward areas become more permanent, the wing can install assault strips, which are rock pads that provide an area for helicopters to land without stirring up too much dust.
"The reason we build assault strips is to counteract how dusty it is here," said Staff Sgt. Christopher Talbot, a heavy equipment operator with Marine Wing Support Squadron 274. "We can come out here, drop some gravel and compact it to give pilots a place to land without browning out."
Despite the various ways the Marines have adapted their expeditionary areas to fit their needs, they all share one distinct piece of décor – the United States flag. Perpetually waving in the constant Afghanistan winds, Old Glory proudly flies high above each of the squadron areas. The banner was a little different for the World War II Marines who were fighting under it, bearing only 48 stars. However, the fight for an idea that people could live free and independent of tyranny and government oppression was the same – and Marines continue to fight for that right on many foreign soils in every clime and place – no matter the conditions.