EDITOR'S NOTE - The writer was on the beach in Mogadishu, Somalia, when the first American troops came ashore on Dec. 9, 1992.

Undated (AP) _ By TINA SUSMAN Associated Press Writer

It was 18 minutes past midnight. A full moon shimmered across the calm sea. A warm breeze wafted over the dunes, rustling the beach grass. Suddenly a movement at water's edge - friendly frogman or Somali gunman?

In the darkness there was only one way to find out: chase him. The prey quickly revealed himself by warning off the media horde in an unmistakable American accent: ''Put your hands up and get back 3/8''

He confirmed what everyone was waiting to hear: The Americans had landed. Operation Restore Hope had begun, under the glaring lights and bobbing microphones of the world's news media.

The mercy mission has changed hands, changed names and changed direction in the past year, but the scene most closely associated with it remains the one that unfolded along the beach that night.

Marine and Navy commandos, many still in their teens, came ready for war, clad in camouflage with their faces painted black and green to be invisible in the night. Even without the full moon, they didn't stand a chance.

A flash went off as the first frogman staggered out of the waves. By the time the rubber dinghies showed up a few minutes later, the cove resembled a Hollywood set.

Most of the young fighting men seemed stunned as they came ashore, shading their eyes from the lights while trying to maintain a fearsome appearance. They had been warned to expect resistance from Somalia's heavily armed clansmen. Their biggest battle was getting past the journalists.

Packs of Somalis were milling at the nearby airstrip, not to shoot the invaders but to welcome them as saviors of their famine-stricken country.

''I just want to show my respect for the Americans,'' said Abdul Mohamed Arale, who spent three nights waiting at the wrecked terminal building.

Dressed in a striped suit and dotted tie, he believed the Americans would end Somalia's strife and allow him to go back to work as a ground crew manager for the long-defunct national airline.

Once an anonymous crescent on the Indian Ocean, the beach a year later is called Arroyo Beach, after the first U.S. Marine killed in Somalia.

Pfc. Domingo Arroyo, 21, of Elizabeth, N.J., died Jan. 12 in a gunfight with Somali clansmen. Thirty-one American servicemen have died since, along with dozens of soldiers from other nations.

Since clashes in June prompted a U.S.-led bombardment of clan leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid, few Somalis have come forward to shake an American soldier's hand. Many Somalis are angry and have come to identify U.S. troops with destruction rather than salvation.

With the Americans planning to leave Somalia in March, Arroyo Beach may soon be forgotten. But the bizarre landing that began on a humorous note and degenerated into tragedy will be remembered.