A swarm of massive transport helicopters descended from clear blue skies, disgorging a group of rifle-toting marines, some by fast rope.
From a nearby parking garage, commanders and a few curious spectators watched the exercise unfold on an abandoned prison ground. The 400 marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., are entrenched in this sleepy Southern capital for two weeks - to practice war.
The leathernecks are training for urban warfare, a phrase used by America's military to cover the gamut of potentially nasty operations in cities and countries around the world. For the past 15 years, marines on both coasts have "invaded" cities for a couple weeks to practice the art of urban operations.
On this sunny Friday, helicopter-borne marines were chasing "Balkan" extremists manufacturing a potentially deadly bomb. In less than an hour, the marines had secured an old prison and captured the bad guys for all to see.
To some, the sight of marauding military personnel near banks, schools, and factories is unsettling. To others, especially in the deeply patriotic South, the camouflaged marines are a welcome sight in a world worried about truck bombs and shadowy terrorists who don't care where they create mayhem.
"Terrific," says Meta Rose, perched on the rooftop to watch the raid unfold at Columbia's once-notorious Central Correctional Institution. She and her husband, William, a World War II veteran, drove 30 miles for a glimpse of the marines' only daylight maneuver during their stay. Mrs. Rose was impressed by the marines' precision and wished them well on a coming trip to the Balkans.
Columbia is no stranger to the military, and the Marines surely did demographic reconnaissance before coming here. This Southern capital is home to Fort Jackson, the Army's largest basic-training base, and a mere 30 miles from Shaw Air Force Base, Central Command Air Force headquarters. The city's population is filled with retired generals and former military officers.
Still, in this military bastion a small but hardy group of protesters wanted no part of US troops practicing on civilian turf. Opponents held a candlelight vigil and made their opposition to the urban-warfare training well known. Rebecca Rogers with the Carolina Peace Resource Center says her group favors conflict resolution over militarism and longed "for 1 percent of the Pentagon's peacekeeping budget."
Hysteria over the deployment reigned for a few days this week; e-mail messages circulating on the Internet accused the marines of taking over large portions of Columbia. Under the heading: "S.C. capital attacked by United Nations, Marines," one e-mail went so far as to accuse the marines of collaborating with United Nations troops for an indefinite occupation of a city once torched by Union Civil War Gen. William Sherman.
But most Columbians simply accepted the whoop-whoop of helicopter blades and occasional bang of practice grenades. Exercises were conducted mainly at night and in remote areas of the city. The Marines have done more than 30 such missions in cities from Richmond, Va., to Oakland, Calif., to get ready for overseas deployments.
"We do this to prepare the [24th Marine Expeditionary Unit] for the most likely missions they'll see," says Lt. Col. Ron Watson, operations officer for the Special Operations Training Group.
Colonel Watson and other Marine officers were in charge of creating the fictional scenarios the marines would play out on short notice. They could range from hostage rescue to precision raids, exactly the kind of situation they might encounter overseas.
Required reading for the Marine Expeditionary Unit: "Blackhawk Down," the harrowing story of Army Rangers who engaged Somali street fighters in 1993 in a brand of urban Armageddon. The 24th - the same unit that in 1995 rescued Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady in Bosnia - isn't looking for another Somalia.
But commanders nonetheless hope that training in real cities can come close to the difficulties they might encounter on crowded, unfamiliar landscapes.
"In the future, you've got to be prepared to fight the three-block war," Watson says while watching his marines in the distance. "On one block you could be involved in humanitarian operations, peacekeeping on another, and on a third, combat operations."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society