As many as 5,000 Orange County-based Marines will be joining the stream of U.S troops converging on the Persian Gulf by midweek, a military source in Washington said Sunday.
Large numbers of fighter jets, bombers and transport planes from the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station will fly directly to join Operation Desert Shield in the Middle East, with stops for refueling.
But most of the cargo and troop-carrying helicopters from the Tustin Marine Corps Helicopter Station will be sent by ship because of the limited number of U.S. Air Force transport aircraft available to shuttle the equipment to the Persian Gulf, said the high-ranking military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A small contingent of officers and enlisted men from El Toro, Tustin and other West Coast Marine bases have already left for the Persian Gulf to prepare for the arriving forces, which are expected to number between 3,000 and 5,000 from the Orange County bases alone. Together, the El Toro and Tustin bases are home to about 12,000 soldiers and large support staffs.
"I would say they would be leaving within the next 72 hours, but it could be a little longer," the official said Sunday afternoon. "Their departure is imminent."
The 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, a rapid-deployment force headquartered at the Twentynine Palms Marine Air-Ground Combat Center in San Bernardino County, has been on alert since President Bush on Tuesday ordered troops to the Middle East to defend Saudi Arabia against possible attack from Iraq.
The brigade, whose motto is "One call gets it all," includes combat ground units from Camp Pendleton and air combat forces from El Toro, Tustin, Pendleton, Yuma, Ariz., and a base in Hawaii. It can grow as large as 17,105 troops.
Officials at the several bases declined Sunday to confirm the imminent movement of troops and equipment, saying they were forbidden to discuss such details.
Soldiers and their families said they, too, were instructed not to talk about their orders, but some said Sunday that they had been placed on standby alert as early as Tuesday and have been expecting to depart for the Middle East any day.
A 26-year-old El Toro Marine sergeant said he has kissed his wife and 16-month-old daughter goodby each morning since last week, not knowing when he would see them again.
A 26-year-old woman flew from Yuma to join her husband, who had left the Arizona base suddenly Tuesday. She said it was the first time her husband had to leave without telling her where he was going.
And until he telephoned her to say that he was at El Toro and that she could visit him there, she had assumed he was already in the Middle East.
One Tustin Marine helicopter mechanic said he is on standby and has been told that he could be shipped out any time in the next week.
"I just wish they'd ship us out already if they're going to do it," he said. "It's the waiting that drives you crazy."
At Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino County, activity was brisk Sunday. Troops could be seen loading military equipment into massive cargo aircraft.
Officials there would neither confirm nor deny reports that the base is the key Southern California "embarkation" point for transporting men and material to the Persian Gulf. But gigantic cargo carriers such as Lockheed's C-141 Starlifters could be seen lumbering in and out of the base.
Larry Schroeder, a 35-year-old Redlands man who lives near the base, said large caravans of military equipment have streamed into Norton over the weekend and that the number of departing and arriving airplanes has increased.
"Just this morning, I saw about a half-mile-long row of jeeps going in," he said.
Norton, which is home to the 63rd Military Air Wing Command and one of only two military airlift command bases in California, plays an integral part in the U.S. "capability to deliver and sustain air and ground forces anywhere in the world," Staff Sgt. Robert Pfenning, a base spokesman, said.
At the El Toro base and throughout the rows of plain cement-block military housing to the north, the imminent troop deployment is evident.
"Every time you see somebody pulling up with their cammys (camouflage outfits) on, and with a great big bag, you know where they're going," said Rachel Sweitz, 29, whose husband, Tim, is a sergeant at the base police office and not among those on standby for the gulf crisis. "I feel kind of depressed . . . just a feeling of sadness, I guess."
Military families reported more trucks rumbling through the base gates carrying equipment, and three huge passenger jets landing at the airfield in the last few days.
One reservist said he has seen several guards stationed at the El Toro base entrance carrying M-16s. Usually, a single guard is there with a handgun, he said.
The Persian Gulf crisis will be the first combat situation many of the Orange County-based Marines have ever experienced.
The younger Marines in particular "are scared--everybody's scared," said a sergeant bound for the Middle East who asked not to be identified.
"We've never been in a war. Most of the people (have) never shot at a live individual," he said.
Most said they felt prepared, however inexperienced in actual combat they may be.
"We've trained in all kinds of conditions," said the Tustin helicopter mechanic. "We've trained for chemical warfare, but if people are afraid of anything, that's what it would be."
At the Twentynine Palms base exchange, a duty officer who declined to give her name told the Associated Press there was a run on desert survival knives, religious tokens like St. Christopher medals and Jewish stars, and on razors, T-shirts and underwear among soldiers on standby for the Persian Gulf crisis.
"Our problem is that we've run out of all the health and comfort items. We've been bombarded," she said. "We've begged, borrowed or stolen from other bases."
Not all the aircraft stationed at El Toro, Tustin, Camp Pendleton and Yuma will be sent to the Middle East because of standing commitments in the Pacific.
Some F/A-18 Hornets, A-6E Intruders and C-130 transport aircraft from El Toro will fly to the Persian Gulf area along with highly maneuverable Harrier jets from Yuma and fixed-wing observation planes from Camp Pendleton.
Most helicopters from Tustin will be flown to platform ships anchored off the Orange County coast for transport to the Middle East. The largest platform ships are capable of carrying 24 helicopters on their decks.
"It may not be that fast by sea but it will take less time than if all the helicopters had to be flown there. There are just so many capable transport planes available," the military official said.
Personnel from El Toro and Tustin could leave from Norton or from El Toro, or a combination. And some "could be flown by commercial charters if the command feels they are needed right away," the source said.
The chief task of helicopters in the Persian Gulf conflict will be to move cargo--beans and bullets--as well as troops.
Smaller, well-armed Cobra helicopters could be used to hunt down and destroy tanks.
The F/A-18 fighter jet is used in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, while the Harriers, which are capable of near vertical takeoffs, are used for close-in support of ground troops. The A-6E, meanwhile, is a longer range bomber that is capable of carrying 26 500-pound bombs.
Times staff writers Marla Cone, George Frank, Kristina Lindgren and Rose Ellen O'Connor reported from Orange County. Staff writer Matt Lait reported from San Bernardino.
TROOPS AT SOUTHLAND BASES MOBILIZE
Five Southern California bases are mobilizing troops and equipment for a coordinated deployment to the Persian Gulf. The forces are part of the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, a 17,000-soldier rapid deployment force that combines air, land, naval and amphibious units. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Marines from El Toro and Tustin are reportedly committed to the Middle East deployment, known as Operation Desert Shield.
TUSTIN MARINE CORPS HELICOPTER STATION * 4,300 military personnel * About 100 CH-53D Sea Stallions and CH-53E Super Stallions * About 100 CH-46 Sea Knights
NORTON AIR FORCE BASE * One of two military airlift command bases in California * 5,000 military personnel, 3,000 civilians * 48 C-141 Lockheed Starlifter transport aircraft * Slated for closure by 1994
TWENTYNINE PALMS MARINE AIR-GROUND COMBAT CENTER * Headquarters for the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade * 2,750 military personnel * Tanks, amphibious vehicles and light armored vehicles are stationed there
EL TORO MARINE CORPS AIR STATION * 7,700 military personnel * About 50 F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets * About 12 A-6E Intruder fighter-bombers * About 12 KC-130 tankers, the corps' largest transport airplane, capable of carrying 120 to 150 troops and used for aerial refueling
CAMP PENDLETON MARINE CORPS BASE * 36,000 personnel * UH-1 Huey helicopters AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships * OV-10 Broncos armed reconnaissance aircraft
Source: the military bases