Blue Chromite exercise brings Marine Corps back to its Pacific roots after years in the desert
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 14, 2016
IE ISLAND, Okinawa — Something roused the U.S. Marines “sleeping” on the ground around the Ie Island airstrip off the coast of Okinawa. The night watchman rushed into the tall grass, peering through his rifle scope. Another Marine popped up, then another, silhouettes in pitch-blackness. Night vision cast its all-seeing gaze, and soon, there were rifles pointed toward the windswept grasslands and jungle.
The Marines from India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, forward-deployed to Okinawa’s 3rd Marine Division from Kaneohe Bay, had just seized the airfield in a surprise raid as part of Exercise Blue Chromite 2017, which ran from Oct. 29-Nov. 4. About 2,000 Marines and sailors from Okinawa and Sasebo took part in the fourth annual Navy-Marine Corps interoperability exercise, in the central, northern and Ie Shima training areas of Okinawa.
This year, the exercise was designed to bring the Corps back to its Pacific roots after over a decade in the desert, focusing on lightning-quick expeditionary operations where stealth and camouflage are the keys to success.
“Potential adversaries in this region have the capability of challenging us in many domains,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Simcock II, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division.
“In the air, sea, land, also in the electromagnetic spectrum. We have to be able to fight and win in that environment. It’s going to require us to do things a little bit different. Blue Chromite gets us the opportunity to take advantage of the equipment and capabilities that we have, that we believe will be very successful in this region and have been in the past.”
Every time Marine planners build an exercise, they work to incorporate new elements, said Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, commander of the Navy’s Pacific-based, forward-deployed amphibious force. “Blue Chromite is no different.”
This year’s exercise featured short- and long-range raids, command and control operations in a jungle setting, bridge building and movement of Marines by air and by sea with the additions of the amphibious transport dock USS Green Bay and fast transport USNS Fall River. It also incorporated Air Force C-130 aircraft and Army landing craft.
Seizing an airfield
The day of the raid started early, with the India Marines being airlifted by MV-22 Osprey and CH-53E Super Stallion to Ie Island, the scene of heavy fighting in World War II. The Marines were dropped on the far edge of the island. It would take the morning and a good portion of the afternoon to reach the airfield, which was held by a sizable enemy force. Movements were slow and methodical.
The enemy in this scenario was made up of fellow Marines, and they knew India was coming.
Instead of taking the roads that crisscrossed the island, the India Marines opted for the jungle, a virtually impenetrable spider web of tropical plants and grasses. The intense heat and the Marines’ heavy combat load began to take its toll. There were several heat casualties along the way.
“It had its own challenges” compared to other places, said Sgt. Ricky Dryer, an assault man from India’s weapons platoon. “A lot of times, you see more of a mountainous terrain. But here, you’ve got a lot of micro-terrain that can be quite challenging, especially like the thickness [of the brush]. But then you’ve got to also take into reality that you have to make sure you aren’t being seen by the enemy so you’ve got to kind of use the terrain as you can, which with a lot of open fields, it makes it kind of difficult,” he said.
As the India Marines patrolled through the tall grass, they took fire from in front.
“Contact front,” Sgt. Cody Kelley yelled.
Kelley positioned his men, bringing up the right side of their line. The Marines crouched low while he requested orders. Once they got the OK over the radio, they assaulted through their targets, eliminating the enemy.
The Marines hit their opponents from the side and took the airfield.
They began to guzzle water after getting resupplied, their uniforms soaked through, but it wasn’t time TO sit idle. The enemy counterattacked and Marines again rushed into the fight, firing until they were out of ammunition. The enemy was repelled.
Several Marines showed off the paint markings where they had been struck in the legs or arms with the simulation rounds.
The Marines bedded down for the night, keeping a constant watch all around them. They had to hold out. Just a little bit longer. The big guns wouldn’t roll in until morning.
The unsung heroes
In the days that followed, the India Marines were airlifted into the Central Training Area to join others for more jungle warfare operations. A team of Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 and Marines from 9th Engineer Support Battalion put together a bridge in less than 40 minutes -- less than the hour allotted. It was then airlifted to span a 10-meter gap in the jungle.
Navy bridge master Petty Officer 1st Class Jaime Calle said that their bridge teams are set up so if a man or woman from either service were to go down, someone else could step in and accomplish the mission.
“We came here to support the Marines,” Calle said. “We train during our 12-month home port [in Port Hueneme, Calif.], so we train in different environments. We can support the Marines, Army, Air Force and any kind of activity that they do, so we’re ready to support.”
Members of both services said that they enjoyed the chance for joint operations.
“I think it’s a great experience,” said Marine Cpl. Derek Brisendine, a bridge master with 9th ESB. “It helps with cooperation between us all and it just helps get the mission done and completed faster and successfully.”
Brisendine looked up to see Super Stallions circling. During the weeklong exercise, anytime you looked up, it seemed there was some aircraft watching from above, whether it was an Osprey or UH-1Y Venom or an AH-1W Super Cobra.
Marine aviation maintained a constant presence during Blue Chromite 2017.
This meant their maintenance teams worked virtually around the clock. Aviators ferried Marines from one end of Japan to the other, flying for countless hours; they refueled aircraft and vehicles on the ground, and they moved equipment including vehicles and bridges. They also operated off the USS Green Bay, which planners said was great for readiness.
The pilots slept out in the field in their aircraft with the grunts nearby.
“Blue Chromite is a great exercise for us. We have all of our assets playing in the problem,” said Col. Thomas Euler, commander of Marine Aircraft Group 36. “We’re out there; we’re sleeping overnight in the field; we’re using camouflage; we’re using deception; we’re reducing our signature across all domains. We’re working aviation command and control as hard as we can, and then supporting 3rd Marine Division and everything they’re doing,” he said. “We look forward to this every year.”
Marines from India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment ride in the back of a CH-53E Super Stallion on their way to seize Ie Island's airfield from an enemy force, during a drill on Oct. 31, 2016. The seizure was part of Blue Chromite 2017 on and around Okinawa, Japan.
MATTHEW M. BURKE/STARS AND STRIPES