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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.

April 01, 2001|TONY PERRY | Tony Perry is The Times' San Diego bureau chief

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.

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