Ammunition was loaded, radio frequencies were checked and pilots were in their aircraft for a massive invasion of Haiti that was to begin early Monday under a full moon.
With an agreement announced by President Clinton, thousands of U.S. soldiers returned to barracks or tents to await new orders for a scaled-down invasion that one military office called a "kinder, friendlier way to go in."Soldiers in the assault were both disappointed and relieved. Some officers watched Clinton live on television at the same time others cautioned pilots gathered in an aircraft hangar to remain ready.
Aboard the USS Wasp, part of a flotilla of warships bobbing off the Haitian coast, a Marine, face painted green and brown, was peeved at the long buildup and the sudden let-down.
"I know this is our job," Cpl. Gregg Camp of Atlanta said of the Marines' long vigil in the Caribbean. "But if were going to go, we should go. It will be hard to turn down now."
The Marines were still likely to land, but in the military parlance, it would be an "administrative landing," an operation with all the drama of a cruise ship arrival to the one-time tourist stop.
"It was a natural letdown," Adm. William Wright, the task force commander, said of the news. "These guys had put an awful lot of effort into this. They were ready to go."
On Great Inagua, an atoll at the southern tip of the Bahamas and just north of Haiti, hundreds of soldiers were in the final countdown to H-Hour for Operation Uphold Democracy when mediators led by former President Jimmy Carter signed an agreement with Haitian military leaders to step down.
After a nine-day countdown, they came within three hours and 50 minutes of launching the U.N.-sanctioned invasion with U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine units. Nearly 2,000 paratroopers were already en route and were called back.
Members of the 82nd Army Airborne unit from Ft. Bragg, N.C., had been waiting in hot, mosquito-infested tents to lead the assault into the Haitian capital. They were to pick up the paratroopers from drop sites and take them to the presidential palace, U.S. ambassador's residence, military installations, transmission facilities and other sites throughout the city.
Other assaults were planned in the northern city of Cap Haitien and the western town of Jeremie with plans to send units into the countryside where necessary.
"Do not lose your focus because of the delay," shouted Lt. Col. Chris Sargent to a hangar packed with combat-ready pilots and other soldiers from the 82nd Army Airborne unit from Ft. Bragg, N.C.
Col. Gene Lacoste, brigade commander, said his soldiers still have a lot to do and will likely still be joining forces in Haiti, although they may no longer be in the first assault.
"It's not over with by any means," Lacoste said after watching Clinton's address live on CNN. "We're going to go into the country. We're still going in. Order is not established. We still don't know if they have a strong commitment to this agreement tonight.