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U.S. Navy Forces Sail Close to the Brink of Combat

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post

ABOARD USS IWO JIMA

Lance Cpl. Anthony Galuscza dangled limply from overhead in a cavernous hangar bay, apparently unconscious and suspended by a wire. Sgt. Ronald Peters, a combat mountaineer, scaled a bulkhead with hooks and cables to lower his motionless comrade to safety.

Here, below deck, it was only a drill.

Galuscza simulated an injured pilot hanging by parachute shrouds while Peters led the search and rescue. But on the flight deck one level higher, armed helicopters and landing teams were standing on 30-minute alert to perform the mission for real.

Not far off the coast of the Balkans, this amphibious assault ship is closer to the brink of combat operations than has generally been acknowledged in Washington. One of several reasons is its official task of "plane guard" for an average of 20 United Nations relief flights a day from Zagreb to the besieged city of Sarajevo.

When the soon-to-retire Iwo Jima pulled out of Morehead City, N.C., in May, Chief Petty Officer Ed Francis said, everyone thought its final deployment would be a "love-boat cruise" -- full of port calls in Mediterranean resorts. Instead, since July 10, the Iwo Jima has steamed in "gator squares," the unaffectionate term for the holding pattern of a gator, or amphibious ship.

If someone shoots down a U.N. relief flight, the Iwo Jima and the guided-missile cruiser USS Biddle would try to rescue any survivors. The Marine Corps calls that TRAP, for "tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel." TRAP is a combat mission, and Marine planners must prepare for possible enemy fire in executing a rescue.

"Our mission is day, night, over water, over land, permissive or non-permissive, however it comes down," said Navy Capt. Mack Thomas, commodore of Iwo Jima's five-ship amphibious group. "We play `what if' a lot. Serious `what if.' "

Variations on search and rescue -- in mountains or woods or city streets, near unfriendly troops or air defenses or high-tension wires -- do not begin to exhaust the what-if scenarios.

U.N. Undersecretary Marrack Goulding spoke in London Thursday of "beefing up" security for land convoys of relief supplies through Bosnia-Herzegovina's many combat zones. The Marines here expect to provide some of that beef.

Col. George M. Karamarkovich, commander of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit afloat in this five-ship task force, said he has done detailed contingency planning on how his 2,200 Marines and 23 attack and transport helicopters could protect U.N. ground transports.

"We've walked the dog on that -- how we would protect a convoy, how we would secure tunnels -- and the route they have chosen here is the road we thought was best," Karamarkovich said, tracing a jagged line on a tactical map.

Sources said Karamarkovich's executive officer, who spent two weeks this month at a Joint Task Force planning cell at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, had to argue strenuously against a proposed convoy route northward along the Neretva River from Ploce through Mostar to Sarajevo. There are six blown or damaged bridges along the route, as well as 35 high-tension power-line towers that would be hazardous to helicopter gunships.

Instead, the task force chose a longer but less-obstructed route by way of Brnaze, Livno and Bugojno.

Early this month, when a battalion of departing Canadian peacekeeping troops was pinned down briefly on a road north of Sarajevo, Iwo Jima's Marine operations center -- dubbed the "Wolf Pack," after operations officer Lt. Col. Robert Wolf -- scrambled to write contingency plans to come to their aid.

"Canada borders on the United States," Karamarkovich said. "I have to assume we have the same good relations with Canada we did when I left. What would happen if they were getting their ass ripped off? Is it possible I could be called upon to help that? If so, I look at terrain, approach, all the things a military guy needs to look at."