First responders from Kadena's 353rd SOG wrap up relief mission
January 23, 2005
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — After spearheading U.S. military relief efforts in South Asia, airmen with the 353rd Special Operations Group have returned home to Okinawa.
More than 150 airmen took part in the group’s quick reaction to the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunamis that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other South Asia countries, said 353rd SOG spokesman Master Sgt. Mike Ferris.
The group’s commander, Col. Norman Brozenick, applauded their accomplishments.
“The group’s airmen have accomplished their first-responder mission and must now give way to the Air Force’s workhorse airlifters,” Brozenick said.
Members of the 353rd were among the first U.S. military personnel to rush to the scene of the disaster.
“We had three -130s working out of Bangkok for three days while we were looking for a more permanent base of operations,” Ferris said. “Our first plane landed on the 28th.”
As military planners studied the situation and made plans for the massive relief effort to follow, the group’s airmen flew emergency relief supplies to Phuket and other cities on Thailand’s ravaged west coast.
“In those critical initial days, more than 117 tons of vital supplies were flown south along with 155 aid workers,” Ferris said Thursday. The planes also transported 32 critically injured patients to hospitals in Bangkok.
“Then, by Jan. 1 the decision was made to go down to Indonesia,” Ferris said.
The Indonesian island of Sumatra was closest to the epicenter of the 9.0-magnitude quake and bore the brunt of the killer tsunamis that followed. The regional capital of Banda Aceh was virtually leveled.
“So we had to find a place nearby to operate out of,” Ferris said. “That turned out to be the island of Langkawi in Malaysia, just north of the tip of Sumatra. The flying time to Banda Aceh was only an hour, and it had the good fortune of surviving the wrath of the tsunamis.”
The 353rd SOG’s six planes used Langkawi as a base of operations while the group’s combat controllers made surveys of airfields in northern Sumatra, giving the “thumbs up” for a smaller airfield at Banda Aceh that became a hub for the Indonesia relief efforts.
“A limiting factor at Banda Aceh was the size of the airfield,” Ferris said, “Much like the Berlin Airlift half a century ago, aircraft there were held to tightly regimented schedules. The airfield is very small and only a few cargo planes could maneuver on the ramp at a time.”
Air Force combat controllers with the 353rd SOG were tasked to find a secondary airfield to relieve the congestion, Ferris said.
“Within days, they determined that Maimun Saleh, an airfield on Sabang Island, north of the Sumatran mainland, was ready to receive flights,” he said.
“The primary concern of U.S. forces in the region continues to be preventing further loss of life and human suffering and to enable regional forces to conduct sustained disaster management efforts,” Ferris said.