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HAT YAO, Thailand — More than 500 U.S. Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Royal Thai Marine Amphibious Assault Vehicle Battalion stormed the beach here Friday in a combined exercise that kicked off the final weekend of Cobra Gold 2009.

With military officers of several nations observing from a distant seaside bluff along Thailand’s Rayong coast, helicopters and amphibious vehicles circled offshore before beginning the assault. In the distant mist were the USS Harpers Ferry — an amphibious assault ship of the Essex Expeditionary Strike Force out of Sasebo, Japan — and two Royal Thai ships.

Shortly after 10 a.m., as a sweltering heat index neared 102 degrees without a puff of wind in the air, the exercise began with the quick roar of a pair of AV-8B Harrier attack jets streaking over the beach. The Harriers made repeat passes, followed by waves of helicopters — CH-53 Sea Stallions, CH-46 Sea Knights, AH-1W Super Cobras and two Black Hawks — skimming above coconut palms.

On the water, more than a dozen U.S. and Thai amphibious assault vehicles, or amtracs, and two air-cushion hovercrafts cut through the thick haze shrouding the Gulf of Thailand.

Helicopters providing cover flew to the shoreline, dramatically pulled back into steep climbs and then turned away and back out to sea, repeating the maneuver over and over. White smoke poured from each amtrac to help conceal their outlines and the assault.

Amtracs have low profiles in the water. "Like an iceberg," said Lt. Denver Applehans, a U.S. Navy spokesman. But when the amtracs reached Hat Yao — or "Long Beach" — their hulking underbellies filled with Marines easily climbed ashore, over beach roads and dunes.

Three Royal Thai Navy helicopters — two SH-60B Seahawks and a Super Lynx 300 — inserted Thai Marines, who ran for cover and pressed inland in the mock attack. U.S. Marines followed, charging out the rear ramps of Sea Knights flown by Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262, known as the Flying Tigers. Thai and U.S. Marines advanced through thickets of thorny vines and saw grass.

"I thought it went great. Amphib landing is one of the toughest things there is, and I’ve seen a number of them," said Lt. Gen. Keith J. Stalder, commander of Marine Forces Pacific, who congratulated the troops on the beach. "The one this morning couldn’t have gone better from everything I saw,"

Staff Sgt. Glen Ford, 34, from San Clemente, Calif., said it was a smooth ride inside the amtracs.

"Some of us got sick yesterday" during a practice run in choppy seas, Ford said. "It was real rough."

While conditions inside amphibious assault vehicles are not as cramped as people think, he said, it was about 90 degrees inside by his guess, even with the cooling fans going.

With Cobra Gold 2009 wrapping up in a few days, Ford said his unit — 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines — is ready for elephant rides and seeing the monkeys that famously inhabit Thailand’s cities.

"This is why a lot of us joined the military," Ford said, "to get out and see the world."

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