NEAR AZ ZUBAYR, Iraq — Just after dawn, an armored assault vehicle with the words "Saddam Vaccine" painted on four sides drew close to an Iraqi naval base. The back ramp dropped and 23 Marines from Echo Company's 1st Platoon poured out, flopping onto their stomachs in defensive positions behind sand dunes.
The Marines used explosives to open a hole in a chain-link fence surrounding the base and stepped through. Before them were four sand-colored, one-story buildings including a headquarters with Arabic writing in front, and a warehouse. To the south stood several more dilapidated military buildings.
The Marines fired rockets into the buildings. Others squeezed off short bursts of machine gun fire. They advanced in teams: two or three moving forward as two others hung back providing covering fire.
Although the noise was deafening, it was over quickly. The Iraqis had abandoned the base, apparently in a hurry.
As the troops scoured the headquarters, now spray-painted in front, "USMC SEMPER FI," they found warm plates of half-eaten rice, chemical suits, uniforms and a Quran. Two Marines promptly pulled down a portrait of Saddam Hussein in a military uniform.
'TIP OF THE SPEAR'
In the beginning, the 300 men that make up the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit's Echo Company expected they would be among the very first U.S. troops to cross the border, "at the tip of the spear."
The first soldiers crossed the border on the first day of the war; Echo Company went in at dawn the next day. The unit was placed under British commanders, who were charged with taking control of the port city of Umm Qasr and the strategically important Al-Faw peninsula on Iraq's southern tip.
As the 1st Platoon's amphibious assault vehicle rolled toward the border, only Lance Cpl. Spencer Hale, 23, who stood in the open hatch, another crew member who manned the 50-caliber machine gun, and the driver could see out. The others, crowded into a passenger compartment thick with diesel fumes and flies, heard the vehicle's track hitting a metal bridge placed by the British Royal Marines over a defensive trench dug along the border. It was their signal they had entered Iraq.
By 7:30 a.m. on March 21, the men of 1st Platoon were handling their first prisoners of war.
They came in rapid succession, first in small groups, then a formation of 40 marching down a two-lane road to surrender, then a band of 200. Marines ordered them to lie face down on the ground to be searched.
FIRST KILL, FIRST CASUALTY
Others in the platoon fanned out in the desert heat to clear bunkers dug into the sand. Sage brush and shabby mud huts dotted the barren landscape.
Lance Cpl. Joseph Willems, 19, crept up to a bunker and spotted the flash of muzzle fire.
"I just went 'ooooh,' and jumped back," Willems, from Kenosha, Wis., said later. "Saw a guy in a blue sweat shirt and took a hip shot with my saw," or machine gun. "I saw his eyes, and my weapon jammed. I kept backing up and it kept jamming."
Finally, the weapon worked and Willems killed the Iraqi soldier, the first kill for his unit.
Later, Lt. William Todd Jacobs, 24, 1st Platoon's leader, saw four Iraqis walking toward him with their hands up. Suddenly, a comrade's warning rang out:
"There's two in the hole!"
Swinging their weapons toward the bunker, Marines killed them both, then tossed in a grenade, sending a plume of sand and smoke skyward.
In the early afternoon, troops spreading out to search for a sniper came upon a dead Marine, one of the war's first casualties. Word spread quickly; he was a member of Echo Company.
"I was OK until I saw one of our own Marines dead," Lance Cpl. Daymond Geer, from Sacramento, Calif., said later. "I thought, 'Oh, we can die too.'"
By the end of the day, Echo Company had killed five Iraqis and taken 400 ragged prisoners, some barefoot and dressed in civilian clothes, others wearing gray uniforms without insignias.
Some looked old for military service; others seemed to be in their early teens.
'WAR HAS NO FACE'
The Marines spread out and hunkered down for the night behind a sand berm, shivering in the wind. This was war for Echo Company: flurried moments of action, followed by long periods of waiting.
Those who tried to sleep did so in their rubber biochem suits. Muted explosions boomed in the distance. By morning, it had started drizzling.
Investigators came to collect the gas mask and personal belongings of the Marine who died. As they carried his gear down the line, the Marines couldn't help but stare.
Sgt. Jeff Seabaugh, a squad leader from Colorado Springs, Colo., ordered his men to load their day packs in their armored vehicle, nicknamed, "the Batmobile," so they could get ready to move quickly.
The attack on the naval base in Az Zubayr was planned for later in the day.
Waiting in his trench, Cpl. Clint Bagley, 21, a gruff Marine from Louisiana with a wife and 15-month-old daughter at home, was philosophical as he chewed his tobacco wad and watched Cobra helicopters pound an Iraqi position to the north.
"War has no name, war has no face," he said. "It's just there."
RAID OF BASE
At mid-afternoon Saturday, the men of 1st Platoon piled into their assault vehicle. They had waited 40 minutes for orders to move out when a gas alert came. They still had their gas masks on as the vehicle started rolling.
Lance Cpl. Brian Wicklife used his pen to decorate his helmet with Christian symbols and a Bible verse — spiritual protection for what was to come.
Instead of the planned attack, however, the troops were diverted to back up tanks engaging Iraqi infantry.
For a third night in a row, the men barely slept. Orders for the raid finally came at 3 a.m. Sunday. Their target was a hovercraft base, 15 miles south of Basra. Tanks and Bradleys had already been pounding its defenses.
The 23 men, clad in flak jackets and straddling their gear, squeezed into an armored assault vehicle the size of a Chevy van and settled in for the ride.
No one talked in the cramped quarters; it was impossible to be heard over the roar of the engine and the clacking of the metal tracks. Some tried to doze; others cleaned their weapons and checked their ammunition.
The raid ended up like a drill, with no one fighting back. The members of 1st Platoon searched the base's main buildings as explosions and machine gun fire boomed and crackled down the road, where more Marines continued to probe. An oil storage tank exploded, darkening the sky with thick smoke.
After a few hours, commanders deemed the area secure enough for the company to move down the road to set up a blocking point — in case Iraqi troops returned.
HOLDING THE LINE
Platoon members covered the Batmobile with camouflage netting. For the first time, the men dug fighting holes, trenches that can fit two or three men, a sign they might be sticking around. Throughout the night, men took turns sleeping and keeping watch.
Inside the armored vehicle, men monitored the night vision screen in the turret while others played cards.
At 4 a.m., the call, "gas, gas, gas," came over the radio and spread down the line. One Marine was so exhausted that a companion had to repeatedly shake him awake to put on his mask.
Monday morning, Marines rechecked the buildings. One patrol drew mortar fire and Marines rushed to their aid with artillery, tanks and armored vehicles. Soon, it was quiet again.
Later in the day, with little to do but hold the line, troops' attention turned to other distractions.
Cpl. Jerod Elder, 21, had devised a concoction he called, "The Magic Mocca Mix," that quickly became a hit among the men. The recipe: four servings of cocoa powder, four instant coffees and four coffee whiteners in a bottle of water.
With the surge in demand for the cocoa, Geer, 20, came to Elder's armored vehicle seeking to trade some for a cigarette. One of Elder's crew agreed. Another crew member called out that he would have traded two cigarettes for that cocoa.
"Please," Geer pleaded with the Marine who'd just "bought" the cocoa. "You've got to give it back. I need cigarettes."
The Marine reluctantly passed it back, and Geer got his double prize.
THE FIGHT GOES NORTH
Tuesday night, the platoon squeezed into their vehicle again. They stopped after an hour and set up camp. Wednesday morning, they set out again, this time for a grueling drive north.
Lance Cpl. Hale still manned the hatch and described the scenes to the men below: blown up Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles; Iraqi children waving; a man giving a thumbs up.
An endless line of American and British military vehicles stretched to the horizon, obscured by the brown mist of a sand storm.
Bagley called for Hale to pass down his Bible. Several Marines hunched around the battered New Testament, hunting for favorite verses.
After 17 hours, the members of 1st Platoon arrived at their next objective, near An-Nasiriyah, at 2:30 a.m. Thursday.
The ramp lowered and the Marines burst out into the open, flopping down in the sand. Wordlessly, they went to sleep.
Doug Mellgren is on assignment with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Michael Luo is a national writer based in New York.
— Arizona Daily Sun