Friday, June 09, 2006

When The Marines Landed in Monrovia

Barely out of my teens and a two-year veteran of the marines, I guarded the American Embassy at Monrovia, Liberia. This Sub-Saharan Third World nation is located on the western coast of equatorial Africa. The embassy is situated high on an escarpment with an absolutely stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean. Scattered in every direction there were always at least a dozen ships of various types at anchor. What I really loved was to sit at day’s end near the cliff’s edge as the sun began to slip out of sight; the sky, no, the very air would turn a tropical pink.

It was THE best duty I ever had, bar none. When we weren’t protecting the grounds and people of the embassy, my fellow marine guards and I spent most of our time socializing and going to dinner parties. I’ve got lots of good memories from those days working for the State Department, including…

… when the U.S.S. Iwo Jima made a port call. (I only just now learned that this impressive combat ship is now long gone, reduced to scrap about ten years ago – what a pity). Whenever a large navy ship comes to any town, things can get interesting, and it was no different when the Iwo Jima showed up. The streets filled with young American marines and sailors, paying too much for taxis and driving up the cost of everything else as well, especially for booze in the drinking establishments and tourist-goods of all types, such as wooden carvings and gold jewelry.

For a week, we half-dozen “local” marines found ourselves overwhelmed and outnumbered. It was strange to find myself amongst hundreds of similar looking fellow American citizens, where as before their arrival I had felt isolated and deliciously “singular.” I had already learned that being white in an African country can make one feel quite self-conscious and exposed, but once I got used to being in a fishbowl, I felt pleasantly distinctive, and yes, even special. Truthfully, I came to enjoy it. It’s not like I was treated poorly for being American; actually, I sort of got deferential treatment.

Aside from temporarily losing my uniqueness as a young American serviceman in a town usually bereft of them, there were a couple of interesting happenings stemming from the presence of all those honest-to-goodness teenage “war gods.” One of these extraordinary events was a parade; the other was the awesome spectacle of a “vertical envelopment” performed by the experts of such warlike proceedings, the U.S. Marine Corps.

Before talking of those things however, I will tell you how my Liberian friends conducted their many parades, really more procession than parade. These West African folk love pageantry, and so of course they love parades. For the most part though, they sucked at it, although they didn’t realize it. I observed several of these home-grown street spectacles and they were… well, . . . interestingly pathetic, and actually quite absurd to watch; but fascinating just the same, like watching a slow motion train wreck filled with Keystone Cops.

One of the absurd parts of the parades was the “get up” of some of the marchers – the “Americos,” as they call themselves, who wore Lincolnesque toweringly tall black top hats and 1800s-style black suits. Here’s a little history on these particular parade marchers: The founding “fathers” of Liberia were freed slaves from America. They were brought over from The States over several decades starting in the 1820s, continuing their “reverse migration” through the mid 1800s. In fact, the capital city is named after the American president, James Monroe, thus the name Monrovia. The country’s title, Liberia, was derived supposedly in honor of the immigrant ex-slaves’ newfound liberty.

A final bit of Liberian history: The Americos were very proud of their American descendency. In effect and ironically, they defeated and enslaved the indigenous tribes of the region, and while I was there in 1977 – 1978, the powerful Americos dominated the country. These folks had all the money and pulled all the strings. During the parades that I saw, they marched proudly through the streets in their traditional 19th Century black costumes, evidently to demonstrate their importance. To me, it all just looked ridiculous, especially when the army troops marched by in their unkempt and undignified formations.

As a marine, schooled in marching and on the importance of looking good while doing so, I was amazed that these people would do what they did, which to me seemed to be nothing more than public self-humiliation. Their uniforms were mis-matched and sloppy; they didn’t try to maintain order, much less straight lines and even ranks. They looked around, talked in formation, scratched, and waved to friends. I shook my head in amused amazement. What exactly did they think they were doing?

They usually had a sort of a military band that attempted to play their ancient and ill-working instruments, always strolling along as a rabble and utterly out of step. It seems that marching for these pitiful performers was out of the question, and it was virtually impossible to pick out what song titles they were playing. As for melody, at rare moments I could pick out something that sounded vaguely familiar, but not for long. What added to my amusement was the fact that these folk, both paraders and parade watchers, were quite pleased with themselves. Looking back at it now, I guess watching them made me feel superior, but that seems to be typical of youth, and especially true of arrogant young marines.

Then, as I said earlier, the U.S. Marine Corps came to town on a huge floating warship called The Iwo Jima. Upon their arrival, the marines were invited to take part in a local parade. No way was I going to miss that! But, before the parade, a heliborne assault demonstration was scheduled to take place on the outskirts of town at an army-training base. Of the seven marine embassy guards stationed there with me, five of us went out to the demo site in a large van we checked out of the consulate motor pool. We took two full trashcans loaded to the rims with iced beer meant for our brother ship-borne marines; so we could all slake ourselves after the conclusion of their little combat show.

Several hundred Liberian Army troopers already waited in two large sets of bleachers on the edge of a large open grassy field. These guys looked to be of a higher caliber of soldier than the ones I had seen around their national training center not far from the Presidential Palace just down the road from the embassy. I’m sure these fellows had been selected to watch because they were of better quality, or perhaps they were part of a “crack” Liberian combat unit. Whatever the reason, they wore U.S. Army style olive drab uniforms, probably American surplus, and all had on soft baseball-type green uniform caps.

My marine guard comrades and I wore our everyday civilian “uniforms,” as we called them. As embassy guards we were not supposed to wear shorts, jeans, t-shirts or any casual wear in public, unless we were doing physical training of course. Slacks, short-sleeve button-down shirts and leather shoes were our required dress. All of us waited expectantly for the Iwo Jima marines to “attack.” We knew it was going to be a great performance.

“Here they come!” One of my fellow sergeants pointed directly at the jungle line directly to our front. Approximately 2000 meters away, a single narrow-bodied Cobra attack helicopter hovered slightly above the trees. Suddenly, a whole line of six other helos seemed to pop directly up from behind the same tree line and bore down on us. At this point another Cobra appeared, and the pair of Cobras zoomed directly in our direction. In no time they flashed passed, one on each side of the bleachers at extremely low level.

I found it tremendously exhilarating, but the Liberians were visibly shaken and green around the gills. Many jabbered excitedly, some standing up, while others broke from their seated ranks and jumped to the ground cowering low. I don’t think they’d ever seen military helicopters before, especially none like these angry-looking aggressive flying war machines. As soon as the Cobras flashed around our flanks, the wasp-like birds broke in opposite directions, swooping back out over the field toward the rest of the attack force to continue their simulated fire support.

They had done their job, because as our attention returned to our front, the six CH-46 Sea Knight troop transports had already approached within a few hundred meters. The pilots placed their choppers at slightly skewed angles to allow the door gunners the use of their 50 cals. We had been briefed that the attack sim would feature the use of blank cartridges and so they did. These alarmingly loud “blanks” made for some terrifically realistic battle effects, much too realistic for the local soldier spectators, because at this point about a dozen of the Liberian soldiers bolted and sprinted away. We yelled at them not to worry that they were just firing harmless blanks, but they were too frightened to listen.

In unison, the half-dozen CH-46s flared and landed on staggered line about 150 meters to our front. Each helo disgorged a dozen combat marines, all sporting fierce-looking black and green face paint. They followed procedure – sprinting out the lowered back ramps, six on each side one behind the other. The dual lines of troops split around opposite sides of their respective copters to form a protective perimeter around the entire attack force. As each marine reached his designated position, he threw himself to the ground facing outward.

While all this action was going on, the door gunners continued to fire. Once all attackers were set, the pilots took their “birds” vertical, allowing the door gunners to fire with even greater effect. This was the signal for all the marines to rise up and charge directly at us, some firing from one knee or prone, while others sprinted forward. Back and forth they stormed our position in this leapfrogging manner, all in perfectly choreographed, super fast motion.

It was all too much for the woefully unprepared Liberians. As a mob they panicked and ran for the hills. We held our arms up to show them it was okay, but to no avail. The wide-eyed looks of terror on these African faces caused us to bend over in gut busting laughter. It sounds cruel, but their fear-charged faces were hilarious to see. Some of them even had telltale damp places on their trousers where their bladders had betrayed them. Over the deafening fire of hundreds of blank rounds going off, I began to hear a command roaring from the mouths of sergeants and officers as they realized the unintended result of their all-too-real exhibition of American littoral might. “Cease Fire! Cease Fire!” They yelled repeatedly.

It took more than a few seconds before the firing stopped completely. Believe me, firing blanks just a few inches from one’s ears induces temporary hearing loss, so not all the marines could immediately make out the order to cease and desist. Eventually we were able to convince the stampeded Africans that their lives weren’t in danger, and they drifted back like a flock of uncertain sheep; and indeed, the look on their faces was VERY sheepish. A tall lean black marine, a captain, was in charge of the attack force. He became ambassador and statesman as he greeted the ranking Liberian officer, who although hadn’t run completely away like most of his subordinates, he HAD taken a position of cover behind the stands.

On command, the ferocious marines reversed gears and became amiable in an effort to encourage the skittish Liberians to come out on the field and mingle with their American allies. All the helos had finally shut down, and with the return of relative silence, the gun-shy Africans began to laugh at themselves, realizing how foolish they had acted. Truthfully, I can’t really blame them. Marines on the attack are something dreadful to behold. If I had thought they might be for real, I would have made a run for it too; but dang, it sure was hilarious! We drank our iced beers in the hot African sun and continued to chuckle and shake our heads over the memory of it. We always used to claim that a company of Marines could take over most any African country – after that exhibition; I think there might be a grain of truth in that bit of blustering hyperbole.

That afternoon, I went out to catch the parade. First, the Liberians made their usual meandering and leisurely unprofessional appearance. Once again, I covered my mouth to hide my mirth. They really did not realize what a ridiculous spectacle they made. Perhaps they began to get it though, when the first of three large formations of U.S. Marines came into view. They wore soft caps starched into circular submission topping homogeneously close-cut “whitewall” haircuts. Their creased camouflage utility uniforms were pressed perfection above gleaming black combat boots. Sleeves were neatly rolled high to expose bulging biceps, especially those arms cradling M-16 rifles at the right shoulder. Every head was aimed flawlessly frontward, eyes staring unblinkingly straight. A gunnery sergeant in charge of the formation called cadence unnecessarily; the sound of the marine band in its own perfectly marching formation at the rear provided a perfect bass drum beat with which to keep step. I was so proud of them I nearly wept, especially when the band stirringly began playing The Marine Corps Hymn. Rank after rank of these strapping teenage warriors strutted by, their heels striking the pavement resoundingly as one. I would have killed to have been out there with them.

The Monrovians around me watching this sublime display of martial perfection were obviously astounded and fascinated by what they saw. None of them had ever dreamed that human beings could look and act so impeccably precise. I heard one old African woman remark breathlessly, “My God, look at them; they are perfect!” And so they were.


Amadeo said...


Nostalgic about those old de-commissioned warships? Click on the link below:

And view several pictures of where they are now. Might even recognize the USS Iwo Jima among them.

On every trip we take from SF to Sacramento, we pass through this area, Suisun Bay, where all these "mothballed" ships are kept tied together. Very nostalgic and sad, too. But at times, they are taken out and given new commissions.

Several of my co-workers in the last hotel I worked for were Liberian émigrés, so I had to brush up a bit on my history, over and above the basic info I knew of the country, that it was established to relocate the freed slaves in the US who wanted to go back to Africa.

It was good experience interacting with them, without needing to travel out and visit their country in faraway Africa. They of course speak with accented English but basically humble and soft-spoken, and quite glad to be in the US. The San Francisco area has such a cosmopolitan feel in its population. Asians, Africans, Hispanics, etc. Even when one speaks only about Africans or African-Americans, one has to be cautious not to offend since one could be talking to a Nigerian, an Ethiopian, a Liberian, a Somali, or even one coming from the very deep south with the very difficult to understand heavy accent.

But you did one step better because you had the opportunity to actually visit and stay with them for a while.

What was the old cliché? Join the navy, and see the world.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hey Amadeo, a marine would say, "join the marines and conquer the world!" Do they really feel that way? Absolutely! and without apology.

The Iwo Jima commissioned in 1960 was not mothballed, it was scrapped. It was an East Coast ship and did not end up at Vallejo. The bridge was removed and is on display in Houston.

I loved most of the Liberians I met. I was not so impressed with the arrogant well-to-do ones; just like the rich folk here, the rich Liberians looked down their noses at everyone. I suppose its the curse of money and power. Many of them got "theirs" in '79 when an indiginous Liberian Army Sgt led a coup and murdered the Americo President Tolbert.

Liberians definitely have their own inflection and even a sort of light brogue. I ran into many during my last tour on the East Coast. I'd hear them speak and recognized them immediately. I would love to pack up the entire nation of the "average" Liberian and bring them to the US. They make wonderful Americans and they work their butts off to make it. They don't whine and moan, they WORK!

Jonathan said...

reading your work (especially bits like this) is always a joy.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Thanks Jonathan, glad you enjoyed it. AND there's MORE where that came from! (chuckle)

Anonymous said...

The USS Iwo Jima LPH-2 was my boat! I was on her from 1987 to 1991. I was a machinist mate down the engineroom. There is new one, the LHD-7. The same name

Amadeo said...

Just a little additional trivia on old warships, since we Filipinos are quite familiar with some of them.

They were the liberty ships that were used during WWII that became the workhorses of the nascent shipping industry in the Philippines. Many of us who did any traveling inter-island rode in one of them since they were scattered throughout the islands, hopping from one island to another. We used to call them the FS boats. There may still be some of them still plying those short routes.

Thus, a visit to San Francisco will bring old childhood memories, because there is one still seaworthy Liberty Ship, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, maintained by old veterans and permanently docked in SF. Certain times during the year, one can sail on it for a small fee, for a cruise around the bay.

Kevin said...

Yet another fantastic piece of writing. This post has no pictures attached, but I could "see" everything you were writing about. Very entertaining and informative. There is a best-selling novel in you somewhere, it just hasn't come out yet.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hey anonymous...I took the nickel tour of your ship in Monrovia. I was very impressed. The Liberians were "incrediblefied" by it. Those folk are crazy in love with the USA by the way, or they were when I lived there.

Amadeo, interesting about the Liberty ships in the Phils. I'd never heard that. Too bad they didn't keep one around for display purposes...too expensive I guess.

Kev, hey there brother. Thanks for the kind words. I don't know about a novel, but I'll think about that. Hmmmm.