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Sailors attached to USS Bonhomme Richard load supplies during a brief stop at Naval Base Guam on Tuesday. The Bonhomme Richard and its embarked Marines were scheduled to spend the New Year’s holiday in port, but instead on-loaded supplies before deploying to assist the victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami that ravaged nations around the Indian Ocean.
Sailors attached to USS Bonhomme Richard load supplies during a brief stop at Naval Base Guam on Tuesday. The Bonhomme Richard and its embarked Marines were scheduled to spend the New Year’s holiday in port, but instead on-loaded supplies before deploying to assist the victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami that ravaged nations around the Indian Ocean. (Nathanael T. Miller / U.S. Navy)
Sailors attached to USS Bonhomme Richard load supplies during a brief stop at Naval Base Guam on Tuesday. The Bonhomme Richard and its embarked Marines were scheduled to spend the New Year’s holiday in port, but instead on-loaded supplies before deploying to assist the victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami that ravaged nations around the Indian Ocean.
Sailors attached to USS Bonhomme Richard load supplies during a brief stop at Naval Base Guam on Tuesday. The Bonhomme Richard and its embarked Marines were scheduled to spend the New Year’s holiday in port, but instead on-loaded supplies before deploying to assist the victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami that ravaged nations around the Indian Ocean. (Nathanael T. Miller / U.S. Navy)
Airman Autumn McHam, of the 733rd Air Mobility Squadron, helps other airmen at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, cover an aircraft pallet of Meals, Ready to Eat bound for Southeast Asia as part of disaster relief efforts.
Airman Autumn McHam, of the 733rd Air Mobility Squadron, helps other airmen at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, cover an aircraft pallet of Meals, Ready to Eat bound for Southeast Asia as part of disaster relief efforts. (Richard Freeland / U.S. Air Force)

Pacific Command officials in Hawaii have tapped the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force to spearhead humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief efforts in Southeast Asia.

A forward command element along with three assessment teams are on their way to Utapao, Thailand, to establish the command, control and communication structure for Joint Task Force 536, which will be headed by Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman, commander of the Okinawa-based 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force.

The three Humanitarian Assistance Assessment Teams — comprising mostly military experts from fields such as civil affairs, medical treatment, preventive medicine, contracting, civil engineering, logistics and water purification — left Wednesday for Southeast Asia. They’ll determine the resources needed to aid victims in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

PACOM officials plan to use the Thai military facility at Utapao as a regional support center for emergency and medical personnel providing assistance throughout the region. It’ll also serve as a staging area for U.S. military and rescue aircraft, forensic experts and other relief assistance — with supplies being funneled out of Utapao to tsunami-ravaged areas.

The 3rd MEF makes up a significant chunk of the forward command element and joint task force, said Army Lt. Col. Vi Strong, a PACOM spokeswoman, but, she added, PACOM personnel from other locations also will join the campaign.

The command element and task force will engineer the U.S. military effort in the region and work with the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, host nations and humanitarian relief agencies to identify requirements and conduct humanitarian assistance.

“U.S. forces are moving rapidly to provide the needs and services requested by the governments of the region,” Blackman said in a news release issued Wednesday. “Our primary concern is to prevent further loss of life, and to conduct sustained disaster relief operations.”

Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director for operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff, updated the situation Wednesday at a State Department briefing in Washington.

“We have committed nine P-3 aircraft, four of which will operate out of Utapao, the other five will operate out of Diego Garcia,” he said.

C-130 Hercules cargo planes from the 36th Airlift Squadron have embarked from Yokota Air Base, Japan, for Utapao, where they’ll stage mid-range transportation runs throughout the region, said Maj. Bill Summers, the squadron’s operations officer.

The first three of six C-130s left Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the squadron was notified about the mission.

The six C-130s will be operating out of the air base at Utapao, Conway said.

The remaining aircraft left Wednesday and stopped along the way to load humanitarian relief items from Kadena Air Base. More than 3,000 cases of Meals, Ready to Eat and four pallets of fresh water were processed through Kadena’s cargo area Tuesday.

The aircraft will be used for localized airlifts, making short runs around the devastated areas to haul relief aid.

The establishment of the forward-operating base in Utapao is the first step in what likely will be a broad effort.

“We’re setting up the hub right now so we can be part of the spoke later on,” Summers said. “We’re going down there to provide some local airlift. We’re also carrying in humanitarian aid as we go down.”

The mission’s specifics are still being finalized, he added, as assessment teams gain more information.

Eventually, Yokota’s 374th Airlift Wing will have about 100 people working in Thailand as part of the joint task force. Other airmen from Pacific Air Forces and Kadena will tackle separate missions.

Master Sgt. Mike Ferris, a 353rd Special Operations Group spokesman on Kadena, said the unit sent 40 personnel on two -130 planes to Thailand on Wednesday and plans to dispatch at least two more aircraft Thursday. They’ll also become part of Joint Task Force 536.

“They’ll be mostly command and control elements, logistical support personnel and aircrew members,” Ferris said. “There will also be a medic on each plane.”

“We will be part of the advance group, a headquarters element with capabilities to conduct airdrops and provide airfield assessment teams and ground controllers in places where existing airfields have been heavily damaged.”

Meanwhile, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, also sent command and control personnel — along with some equipment — to Thailand. About 50 airmen, part of the 13th Air Force and 613th Contingency Response Group, left Wednesday afternoon on a KC-135, said Tech. Sgt. Bryan Gatewood, an Andersen spokesman.

Col. Rod Gregory of Andersen will command the joint task force’s Air Force element.

“Basically, they’ll be controlling the flow of airlift operations” from Utapao, Gatewood said.

Ships steaming to Southeast Asia that could be committed to humanitarian assistance, if necessary, include the USS Shoup, USS Shiloh, USS Benfold, and USNS Ranier — all assigned to the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group.

Expeditionary Strike Group 5 — with the USS Bonhomme Richard, USS Duluth, USS Milius, USS Rushmore, USS Thach, USS Pasadena and USCG Munro — also is bound for the region.

There are 2,100 Marines and 1,400 sailors embarked aboard the Bonhomme group and with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

PACOM will send five ships with fresh-water producing capability, Conway said.

“Each ship can produce 90,000 gallons of fresh water a day, and of course that’ll be extremely valuable as we have a number of requests already for fresh water supply,” Conway said.

A ship with a field hospital will also be sent, he said.

Two more ships based at Diego Garcia with a 90,000-gallon fresh water capability will be sent as soon as possible.

PACOM recently played an integral role in disaster relief in the Philippines, dispatching about 600 Marines to assist flood victims there.

David Allen, Juliana Gittler and Pat Dickson contributed to this report.

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