On Dec. 6, pro-Libyan government militia fighters raised their flag over Sirte, a former bastion of Islamic State terrorists, whom they had crushed with the help of Marine air power.
Between Aug. 1 and Dec. 6, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit launched more than 370 fixed-wing sorties and more than 280 rotary-wing sorties in support of the militia fighters from the Libyan city of Misrata, officials said. The AV-8B Harriers and AH-1W Super Cobras came first from the amphibious assault ship Wasp and later the amphibious transport dock San Antonio.
Through the entire campaign, Marines and sailors had a "gritty determination" to work all day and night to make sure that Marine aircraft were armed and ready to fly missions, said Col. Todd Simmons, 22nd MEU commander.
"The people were magnificent," Simmons told reporters on Thursday. "One o'clock in the morning, people loading bombs on airplanes using night vision goggles. As soon as that was done, the mechanics come out with wrenches and work all night. It's a lot of work and those young Marines and sailors that worked on the flight deck and in that hangar bay every day — they're my heroes. They were fantastic."
One challenging aspect of the mission is that the Marines had no direct contact with the militia fighters on the ground, so both sides had to learn how to "talk without talking," he said.
"We'd do something once and we'd see how the friendly forces on the ground reacted," Simmons said. "We'd do it again and they'd react the same way again. That sort of established a pattern: We knew this is a tactic we can use going forward."
The MEU meticulously studied Sirte to determine where ISIS and militia fighters were, Simmons said. At first, ISIS fought in the open, but after their fighters started getting killed by Marine aircraft, the battle for Sirte was waged building by building, Simmons said.
That's when Marine air power would obliterate ISIS positions, preventing Misrata militia fighters from advancing, he said. Without contact with the ground forces, the Marines would watch a building for days to see if any civilians were inside.
"If we couldn't tell, then there are civilians in the building," Simmons said. "If we could tell for sure it's empty or it's only got ISIL [Islamic State] fighters in it … then we would feel confident that it could be struck."
Even though the Marines could not talk to the Libyan government forces the ground, they could hear when Marine aircraft were flying overhead, Simmons said.
"They absolutely knew just where we were headed," Simmons said. "This is the non-verbal communication we established. When we flew jets, I could see movement on the ground. They knew they had cover. We knew we had maneuver forces. We could now do business together. Over months of doing that, we evolved almost an intuitive— here's how we're going to meet each other in the middle even though we're not talking directly."
Air power alone did not win the battle, he said. It was the combination of the forces and the ground backed up by Marine aircraft that defeated ISIS said Simmons, who watched as ISIS forces in Sirte finally crack in early December.
ISIS fighters had illegally flown white flags as they moved from one fighting position to the next, but on Dec. 5, Simmons could see that ISIS had started to actually surrender, he said.
"I said, 'This is starting to come apart,'" Simmons said. "Then on Dec. 6 it was clearly over with. We could certainly see that it was a stiff fight and those over there got destroyed."