View Full Version : There Are Still Heroes

09-08-02, 10:55 AM
Los Angeles Times

April 1, 2001

In The Line Of Duty

It took only 40 seconds for the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter to roll and sink

to the bottom of the ocean. That's all the time it took for one gunnery

sergeant to prove that heroism is not dead.

By Tony Perry

When the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, number 154790, lifted slowly off the deck of the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard on a sunny winter afternoon, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. James P. Paige Jr. was right where he wanted to be. Paige had not been scheduled to take part in that training flight in which
the helicopter would ferry 12 Marines and one Navy corpsman to the oiler Pecos for a risky, exacting exercise in "fast roping" down to a "hostile" ship and taking control at gunpoint. He'd been on limited duty since breaking a bone in his foot two months earlier and could have stayed aboard the Bonhomme Richard, part of a pre-deployment exercise 14 miles off San Diego.

Truth be told, Paige could have been back in his native New Jersey, drawing a pension and starting a second career in law enforcement; at 37, he had been a Marine since he was 16. He'd made tentative plans for the second half of his life but instead had signed up for one final, yearlong tour of duty. The lure of an assignment in sunny San Diego and the opportunity for overseas deployment proved irresistible.
There were friends who could not understand the appeal of another year of bone-rattling rides aboard the aging Sea Knights, another year of trying to match the strength and endurance of young men half his age, another possible deployment at sea away from his wife and their young daughter. But his family understood.
Paige had never wanted to be anything but a Marine. As a kid he fashioned his own Marine Corps dress uniform, complete with a red strip down the seam of his jeans, and marched in Memorial Day parades. He left high school and enlisted.

He was in the Military Police for a time before finding his true love:
helicopters. He trained as a helicopter crew member, a job that involves the loading and unloading of men, equipment and weaponry with equal emphasis on speed and safety. In the air, enlisted crewmen are required to assist the pilots by looking outside the aircraft for obstacles and advising them about speed and altitude.
As a fighting force that arrives from the sea and strikes quickly, the Marine Corps is dependent on its helicopters and its men, particularly in the senior enlisted ranks, who fly them. Being one of those men was the joy of James Paige's life.

With a brief tour as a recruiter, Paige's career had comprised a series of duty stations with helicopter squadrons, including the elite unit assigned to Marine One, the helicopter reserved for the president of the United States, his family and their guests. Paige served on Marine One during the latter months of George Bush's presidency and the first months of the Clinton administration.

A decade earlier, Paige had received a far different set of orders, also at the behest of a president. His squadron was among those Marine units sent by President Ronald Reagan on an ill-defined mission to serve as a stabilizing force in war-torn Beirut.

Humberto Morin, who served on a helicopter crew with Paige in Beirut, said Paige was the kind of Marine who was not afraid of dying, "only afraid of not getting the job done right the first time."

On Oct. 23, 1983, Paige left the Marine barracks adjacent to the Beirut International Airport shortly after 6 a.m., eager to get to work early.

A few minutes later, a yellow Mercedes-Benz five-ton open-bed truck packed with explosives roared past sentries and over concertina wire and crashed into the four-story barracks. The building was reduced to rubble in an instant; 220 Marines were killed, more than any single day since the landing on Iwo Jima. Eighteen Navy corpsmen and three Army soldiers were also killed
by the suicide-terrorist.

For 72 hours Paige frantically dug through the rubble, sometimes with shovels and picks, sometimes with bare and bloody hands, hoping desperately to find Marines who were still alive. At home, his family did not know whether he was among the dead or the living.

He was not a man normally given to introspection, but after he returned from Beirut, he told a hometown newspaper that he was forever changed by the horror he had seen and that he felt "older inside." He was 21.

"He was a man when he came home--he had lost his innocence," says Paige's sister, Ellen Prusecki. "The smell of death and the image of being unable to rescue his fellow Marines never left him."
Like a number of Beirut survivors, Paige got a special tattoo on his arm,
"Oct. 23, 1983. Beirut, Lebanon. 241." And each year on the anniversary of the terrorist attack, he would phone other survivors for conversations only they understood.

IN THE LATTER MONTHS OF 1999, TROOPS FROM THE 15TH MARINE Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, along with a helicopter squadron from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, were training for a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf.

For six months, the Marines would be "on station," waiting to mount an amphibious assault should Saddam Hussein threaten his neighbors, or possibly to board an oil tanker on the high seas to enforce U.S. trade sanctions.

As a gunnery sergeant, one of the highest ranks attainable by an enlisted man, Paige would be in the thick of things as a helicopter crew chief.

A gunnery sergeant, or "gunny," is a rank entrusted with a particular responsibility to instruct younger enlisted men on how to get the job done, how to act like Marines and sometimes how to stay alive when staying alive is not easy. A smart junior officer takes his cues from a gunny.

By all accounts, being a gunnery sergeant was a job that Paige took very seriously. John Sieke, Paige's older brother and an Air Force veteran, remembers a conversation just days before the flight of the CH-46 Sea Knight.

A friend, accompanying Paige to the airport where he would catch a plane to California, was puzzled why Paige was staying in the Marine Corps; he could have retired with 20 years and started to live a more normal life.

"My brother said: 'If I can save just one life by teaching these young Marines what to do, then I've done my job,' " Sieke says.

Even in a profession where a "gung-ho" attitude is common, Paige was known as a "lead-from-the-front" type.

Lt. Col. Matthew Redfern, commanding officer of helicopter squadron 166, was not surprised when Paige requested permission to be part of the mission that day, Dec. 9, 1999, even though the helicopter already had a full four-man crew.

Paige had joined the squadron that summer and, as a crew chief who had flown missions in Beirut under heavy sniper fire, served as a role model for younger Marines. First to arrive in the morning, last to leave at night, always concerned with maintenance, always eager to fly.

"Gunny was a hard-charger," says Redfern, who gladly granted permission. As the helicopter lifted off, Paige, with more helicopter time than any man aboard--1,849 hours--was manning the right-side gun position just behind the crew door. After a two-month layoff with the busted foot, he was back in the air and happy.

"When and if you fly with someone that senior to you, you learn things from them," says Sgt. Robert Evers, who was seated on the opposite side of the helicopter. "And if you ever turn down an opportunity like that you're a fool."

IN THE MOST ROUTINE OF CIRCUMSTANCES, A FLIGHT IN A CH-46 SEA Knight helicopter is no pleasure cruise. Even the men who love them curse them on occasion.

Big (16 feet, 8 inches tall), bulky, noisy (communication is by headset or hand signals) and given to eye-rattling vibrations, the CH-46 was introduced during the Vietnam War. With careful maintenance and upgrades, it has continued to be the Marine Corps' premier medium-lift, all-weather assault helicopter. And it is not unusual for it to be older than the Marines inside.
Miles of cable and plastic-coated electrical wire line the overhead of the cargo portion. There are two doors in front and four windows that can be used as emergency exits, and a 34-inch square covered opening in the floor called the "hell hole"--for both emergencies and "fast-roping" exercises.

In the air, the CH-46 has a top speed of 166 mph, a range of 150 miles and a maximum takeoff weight of 24,300 pounds. In the water, the dull blue-gray hunk of metal doesn't float worth a damn. The Marine Corps has installed emergency flotation devices to help its helicopters stay afloat long enough for the crew to escape, but those devices presuppose an orderly, horizontal landing.

At 12:47 p.m. the CH-46 lifted off from the Bonhomme Richard as the lead of five helicopters on an exercise to train Marines how to "take down" a hostile ship at sea. While SEALs boarded the ship from rubber boats, the
Marines would lower themselves hand over hand from a rope dangling from the hovering helicopter. As part of the exercise, the Marines lugged assorted weapons and breaching tools, including 16-pound hammers and 30-pound cutting torches.
The crew sat on two benches running the length of the cabin. The CH-46 was so packed that a first lieutenant had to squat on an ammunition can. Paige, although senior to the other two enlisted personnel on the crew, was only meant to be an observer.


09-08-02, 11:11 AM
The Sea Knight proceeded uneventfully to a designated holding pattern 10 to 12 miles behind the rear of the target ship, the oiler Pecos, manned mostly by civilians. At 1:06 p.m., with 10 miles' visibility, a 3-knot breeze and an air temperature of 60 degrees, Paige's helicopter was given approval by the Pecos to begin an approach. At an initial speed of slightly more than 100 mph and an altitude of 100 feet, the helicopter headed toward the ship.

When the helicopter was about a quarter-mile behind the Pecos, Cpl. Adam Johns, a member of the flight crew, told one of the pilots, Capt. James Lukehart Jr., that the helicopter was "coming in fast."
"Yep, I'm going in fast," Lukehart replied as he slowed things down. Lukehart and the other pilot, Capt. Andrew Smith, cut speed to about 60 mph and kept the aircraft at an altitude between 65 and 100 feet.

Smith gave a one-minute warning so the Marines could unbuckle and prepare to stand and lower themselves through the hell hole. Smith then gave a 30-second warning, by which time all the Marines were standing.

SEALs in boats behind the Pecos thought the helicopter was flying low; perhaps the Marines planned to land rather than hover. Marines aboard the
CH-46 observed an inordinate amount of propeller wash in the water.

The chief mate aboard the Pecos, assigned as a landing safety officer, saw the helicopter at 100 yards out and began to provide arm and hand signals for the pilots to increase power and altitude. But he was dressed in white, not the traditional yellow for landing safety officers, and Smith and
Lukehart ignored his instructions. At a routine briefing on the Bonhomme Richard, no one had told them that the landing safety officer would be in white.
Helicopter 154790 continued on its course.

A Navy captain aboard the Pecos screamed "power" into the radio, but the CH-46 did not receive the instructions and neither pilot responded. The white-clad officer began to motion frantically that the helicopter was coming in too low. At the same time, Johns told the pilots, "Looking good and keep driving it in."

As the Sea Knight reached the Pecos, Smith and Lukehart believed it to be 15 to 20 feet above the deck. But as the helicopter crossed the deck, Johns realized that the aircraft was "losing altitude" and made a "power" call, the first such call that Smith remembered hearing. Sgt. Evers heard a thumping noise at the rear and thought it must be the sound of the aircraft
landing on the deck. "What's going on?" he demanded over his headset.

In a deviation from standard policy, Evers did not look outside the
left-side window. If he had, he could have seen that the left rear wheel had hit a "man-overboard" safety netting at the rear of the Pecos.

A second after the thump, Lukehart's radio exploded with calls for "power, power, power," issued by observers on the Pecos who could not see that the wheel was fouled in the safety netting. Lukehart applied more power, and the front portion of the helicopter began to lift. The rear section, in effect, was anchored, and the helicopter lifted slowly, agonizingly, to an
unnatural, almost upright position.

"If you've ever been on a roller coaster, the tick, tick, tick of the big hill before you get the momentum to go down the rest of the roller coaster, that [was what it was like]," says Staff Sgt. Timothy Mueller, an intelligence specialist with the Marines. "It felt like we were ticking back. And then when we heard the engines scream . . . everybody in uniform said, oh, s -- -- --!"

With the nose of the CH-46 straining upward, the helicopter rolled gently to its left and crashed heavily into the ocean. It was so close to the Pecos that spray hit the deck. The propellers exploded into thousands of pieces and the helicopter began filling with water as it continued to roll over.
It had taken six seconds from the moment Evers heard the "thump" to the crash.

The unbuckled Marines were thrown asunder. Heavy, sharp-edged equipment floated everywhere. Safety lights failed. The helicopter's flotation device failed to activate. The pilots' escape doors failed. Staff Sgt. Mark Schmidt said later: "It was so dark that I couldn't see anybody's face."

Marines struggled to remember their safety training: wait for the helicopter to stop rotating, find a reference point and move quickly to a window or door. Men jumped or were pushed from the hell hole, the side doors and the giant hatch at the rear. They tried desperately to shed the rifles and gear that weighed them down. Some found their escape route blocked by bodies or floating equipment. Others, who lost consciousness upon impact, were groggy.

Capt. Eric Kapitulik, the platoon commander, thought to himself: "I don't want to die this way."
Smith, one of the pilots, clawed his way down the aisle of the cabin, looking for open windows. In the darkness, he missed the open crew door. Only on a second attempt did he find an open window.
Fear of death focuses one's attention rather sharply. Of the 11 survivors, according to a Marine Corps investigation, only two recalled seeing anyone in the moments before or after the crash "due to disorientation, shock, rushing air bubbles, murky water or lack of light."
Those two remembered seeing Paige. While most scrambled for their lives, Paige was pushing, shoving and heaving fellow Marines out the doors. Among all the Marines aboard, Paige, sitting near a door, had one of the easiest escape routes and was not burdened with heavy gear. A few swimming strokes,
and he could have been safe. Instead, he stayed. Evers remembers seeing Paige saving others as the helicopter stopped moving and began sinking rapidly. "As we were sinking, there was some light. It was coming through the gunner's door and the hell hole and the hatch and all the parts of the aircraft . . . I saw Gunny Paige. . . Somehow he got more forward, and he was helping people out of the crew door also. We went down. It got dark. I lost him. I couldn't see him anymore."

No one knows how many Marines were saved by Paige. Some had been knocked unconscious by the crash and only regained consciousness when they bobbed to the surface.
Just 40 seconds after the helicopter's wheel had become ensnared in the ship's safety fence, it was over. The Sea Knight sank in 3,900 feet of water, with six Marines and a Navy corpsman still inside. One of the Marines was James Paige.
The 11 survivors were plucked quickly from the water by crewmen in rubber boats who had just delivered the SEALs. The helicopter sank so quickly that there was no time to mount a diving attempt to look for additional survivors. It took two weeks before the seven bodies were recovered by the Navy's remote-control vehicle Scorpio. Autopsies suggested that several of the dead were already unconscious when the helo filled with water.

At a memorial service a week later at Camp Pendleton, Paige received special praise. With tears in his eyes, Redfern told 1,400 Marines and their families that Paige had died as he had lived, "in the middle of the action."

A MARINE CORPS INVESTIGATION completed six months later faulted Sgt. Robert Evers for not noticing that the left wheel of the Sea Knight was entangled.
It also noted that the preflight briefing was deficient. Evers has since left the Corps; the pilots are back on flight status.
James Paige's ashes have been spread off the coast of Peleliu Island in the South Pacific, scene of a Marine battle in World War II.
Last December, a quiet ceremony to honor Paige was held at Sayreville War Memorial High School in Sayreville, N.J. Paige's widow, Marianne, accepted the Navy and Marine Corps Medal on his behalf. She has moved to Pennsylvania and attends East Stroudsburg University. She plans to "do what's best" for their 3-year-old daughter, Annalee Marine Paige.

Marianne Paige bears no ill will toward the Marine Corps or any individual Marine. She knew the risks of her husband's profession and accepted them.
One of her proudest possessions is a drawing of a CH-46 signed by members of one of the squadrons where he served.

Ellen Prusecki, Paige's sister, is not surprised that her brother thought of others rather than himself. Not after Beirut.

"If he had saved himself and left others behind, he would never have been able to live with himself," Prusecki says. "He'd have just kept thinking: 'I left my men.' "

The citation for Paige's medal, signed by Marine Commandant Gen. James Jones, speaks of heroism and valor and how "in total disregard of his own safety" Paige helped others escape.

Marianne Paige has a simpler explanation for Annalee, who still looks up at passing helicopters and asks when her father is coming home: "Daddy stayed in the water to help people. He stayed too long. That's why he went to heaven. Daddy was a hero. Your daddy was a Marine."

Tony Perry is The Times' San Diego Bureau Chief



Senior Chief Don Harribine, USN(Ret)