USS PELELIU (LHA-5), At sea -- It was the first day of liberty in Darwin, Australia. Staff Sgt. James Roberts was enjoying a cold beverage at a local pub with his buddies. Suddenly, several shore-patrol Marines burst in frantically yelling to the service members inside, “Get out, get out… get back on ship… report to the ship!”
In another part of town, Cpl. Jason M. Whipkey just finished his dinner at the Hog’s Breath Cafe when he overheard rumors about an attack so he headed toward a telephone.
The date: September 11, 2001.
“We did not have the television on so we did not know why they were telling us to go back,” said Roberts. “So we were like ‘yeah right, whatever,’ we are not going back.”
Through the noise and commotion, the pub owners switched on the TVs. This was when they saw a live video feed of an aircraft flying into the second World Trade Center tower.
“I found out (watching) the television just as millions of people back home found out,” said Roberts, a native of Dallas.
Whipkey called his wife back in the states to figure out what was going on. When he finally got through to her, she told him a plane had just struck the Pentagon.
“That was when I heard shore patrol running up and down the streets directing all U.S. personnel back to ship,” said Whipkey, a native of Carneys Point, New Jersey.
Roberts, Whipkey and the others rushed back to their ship, the USS Peleliu (LHA-5). Dubbed the “Iron Nickel”, the Peleliu is a U.S. Navy Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship and was named after the World War II Battle of Peleliu. It was commissioned May 3, 1980.
Once inside the Peleliu’s hanger bay, the Marines and Sailors were told the ship was changing course and heading toward Afghanistan.
They were headed to war.
“My first emotion was anger, then the fear of the unknown,” said Roberts, who was serving as the scout sniper platoon sergeant for Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. “Everybody was pretty pumped because we had done our workups and we were a fully capable MEU (at that time).”
It took several weeks for the MEU to make it to Pakistan following a stop for a humanitarian operation in East Timor. Communication aboard the ship was limited for security reasons, so the Marines were unable to tell family and friends what they were doing and where they were going.
“It wasn’t until we got to Pakistan that we could email or call home to tell them we had a change of plans,” said Roberts. “By the time we had a chance to call a couple of weeks later, they already knew what was going on.”
The Peleliu was the first ship to debark Marines in Afghanistan. The 15th MEU fell under Task Force 58 commanded by then U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. James N. Mattis. As a side note, this was the same task force that captured John Walker Lindh in November 2001. Lindh is an American citizen turned enemy combatant who took part in the Taliban uprising at Qala-i-Jangi fortress, a Taliban prison. He was later captured and transported to the Peleliu where he confessed to being a member of Al-Qaeda.
Roberts and his sniper platoon initially operated out of a Pakistani airfield and then from Forward Operating Base Camp Rhino, which was the first U.S. base located in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Their mission was to set up observation posts and patrol the area.
Whipkey, a squad leader in the Javelin platoon with Weapons Company BLT 1/1, 15th MEU at the time, was one of the first Marines on the ground in Afghanistan. Whipkey recalls using the Interim Fast Attack Vehicle to quickly get around the area. The vehicle is small and light enough to be transported inside a CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter.
“Our mission was to gain the initial foothold in Afghanistan and I was on the first helicopter that landed on November 25, 2001,” said Whipkey.
“We landed, secured the area and set the defense. Once (3rd Battalion, 6th Marines) came through us and pushed to Kandahar, our mission was complete so we went back to the (Peleliu).”
Now fast-forward a couple of years.
Whipkey was on the Peleliu again, but this time with the 13th MEU. The unit had just completed a deployment to Iraq and he recalls a somber port visit back to Darwin.
“Everybody there remembered us, they knew the ship by name,” he said. “It was very emotional; the locals were teary-eyed, saying, ‘those poor American…those poor Yanks.’”
Now, a decade later, Roberts and Whipkey are far removed from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan but are aboard the USS Peleliu for another deployment, but this time with the 31st MEU. The USS Peleliu is scheduled to be decommissioned early 2015, making the 31st MEU the last Marine unit to embark on the ship.
“I have some fond memories of the Peleliu. They (the ship’s crew) have treated me well. It is kind of weird when you leave something like this and think you’re never coming back, (yet) 13 years later you end up back here,” said Roberts.
While the two Marines share a history with the Peleliu, their lives and responsibilities on ship are much different. Roberts is now the Sergeant Major for the 31st MEU and Whipkey is a Gunnery Sergeant and the platoon sergeant for Weapons Co., BLT 3/5, 31st MEU. Combined, they have a total of two and a half years on the Peleliu.
“I think it is appropriate for me to round out my career here on the Peleliu as the MEU sergeant major,” said Roberts, who holds the distinction of having served with all seven MEUs. “We are a unique MEU that brings some unique capabilities to the fight and the Peleliu is a unique ship to operate from.”
From Roberts’ and Whipkey’s perspective, the ship has not changed a lot over the years. Both are happy to be able to take part in the chief’s mess this time and walk about the ship more freely.
Their experience on the “Iron Nickel” and deploying in response to the 9/11 attacks has taught them valuable lessons that they share with their Marines to this day.
“From that day on I’ve always told Marines, ‘hey, you never know’ (what could happen),” said Roberts. “Always be prepared because you never know where you are going to end up. What may look like a normal deployment may turn out to be something else. When we were in Darwin, Australia having a drink at a pub, we never imagined that we would end up in the desert in Afghanistan in combat.”
The 31st MEU/Peleliu Amphibious Ready Group is currently conducting Amphibious Integration Training in preparation for the regularly schedule Fall Patrol ’14. The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and is the force of choice for the Asia-Pacific region.