ABOARD THE USS PELELIU It began with a prayer, last-minute firing practice and a reminder of why they were preparing to fight U.S. Marines about to land in Afghanistan stenciled their vehicles and weapons systems with black silhouettes of the now-demolished World Trade Center and the numbers "9/11."
Marines hauled their heavy packs, weapons and supplies up from the bowels of the USS Peleliu and onto helicopters whose rotors were already beating the air. Lt. Col. Christopher Bourne, the 41-year-old commander of the initial U.S. raid, stood before the young soldiers on a steel ladder. He reminded them that their battalion had fought for the United States after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor more than 60 years ago.
"Eleven weeks ago, our country was attacked again. They started this fight and you are going to finish it," he said before boarding a helicopter.
The Marines seized a secret desert airfield in a raid under cover of darkness Sunday, putting the American military in striking distance of Kandahar, the last stronghold of the Taliban militia that has lost control of most of Afghanistan since a U.S. bombing campaign began Oct. 7. It also put them near hide-outs of Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the Trade Center and Pentagon.
"The Marines have landed and we now own a piece of Afghanistan," Gen. James Mattis, commander of the attack task force, said Monday. "Everything went without a hitch."
Once the desert airfield built by a wealthy Arab to reach his hunting lodge was seized, the raid force had landing lights set up in less than 90 minutes so fixed wing transport aircraft, the KC130s, could begin to land in southern Afghanistan with even larger numbers of troops and supplies.
The American landing in Afghanistan, designated Operation Swift Freedom, was launched from the USS Peleliu in the northern Arabian Sea and from land bases on the coast whose location the military kept secret. The Peleliu is the lead ship of the attack force, known as Task Force 58, with six ships and more than 9,000 Marines and Navy sailors.
"In short order, you'll have a thousand-plus Marines in the backyard of the Taliban within two days. And on top of that, we're going to start bringing in equipment," Col. Peter Miller, task force chief of staff, said ahead of the action.
There were more than 4,000 Marines in the expeditionary units taking part in the landing, which began with the helicopter flights. Two Marine Expeditionary Units, the Camp Pendleton, California-based 15th and the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina-based 26th were combined into Task Force 58 based on ships within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of the Arabian Sea coast. Such Marine Corps units are trained for combat, evacuations, humanitarian aid and other missions.
The first troops to land _ from the 15th in helicopters were supported by AH-1W Cobra and UN-1N Huey helicopter gunships, Harrier jet fighters and other aircraft had to fly as far as 400 miles (640 kilometers) from their mother ships in what was described as the longest distance amphibious and air deployment in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps.
"We are going to operate at the very extremes of the ability of our machinery," Miller said.
"We would much prefer to be closer in, because it just makes it logistically that much easier for us. But the way this operation is designed, with the intermediate staging bases, we'll be able to pull this off," said the British-born U.S. Marine.
The Associated Press was allowed to follow planning and preparations for the mission and was to deploy with the troops on security conditions that included not identifying the exact locations of the base or numbers of troops and future mission plans.
Shortly before the raid began, the steel hull of the Peleliu echoed with the sound of gunfire as the troops tested their weapons by firing them into the sea from a wide doorway. Then they hauled their packs, weapons and protective gear often pushing 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of equipment to transport helicopters waiting on deck.
These first troops, aboard CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters, landed at the desolate airstrip, at exactly 9 p.m. local time Sunday and met no resistance, according to their reports.
The operation meant flying often close to the ground and refueling in flight over miles (kilometers) of hostile Afghani territory. The U.S.-led bombing campaign that preceded the landing ensured the Taliban could put up little resistance.
The raid was delayed twice, from Friday to Saturday and then to Sunday, to allow preparations.
As some of the troops boarded helicopters, beads of sweat on their faces from the heat and the strain of carrying their heavy gear, Marine Chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Donald Troast, 48, of Boston, watched, touching some of them on the shoulder.
When they were aboard, he stood with his head bowed. He said later: "I asked God to bless every one of them, I don't care what their religion is."