YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan - More than a month after powerful Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar, the 374th Airlift Wing is still flying up to two C-130 Hercules relief missions a day into Yangon as part of Joint Task Force Caring Response.
Operating out of Utapao Air Base in Thailand, the military cargo planes had flown 62 missions and delivered 593.6 tons of humanitarian supplies heading into this week, according to Maj. Kelly Holbert, the 374th Operations Support Squadron’s director of operations. They carried mostly food, water, blankets, water purification trailers and other USAID-provided kits.
But the wing’s biggest disaster-relief effort since the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami was almost doomed before it even got off the ground.
After the Category 4 storm hit May 2, the reclusive Myanmar junta was reluctant to allow aid in from the United States or anyone else. It left international aid agencies and the U.S. military in a tangled diplomatic web with no place to go for about 10 days.
"It was frustrating because we had a lot more capabilities to be utilized than they were allowing us to," said Holbert, who flew five missions into Myanmar and served as 374th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron commander for about a month. "But taskings were slow to come due to the reality of the situation and trying to get access.
"It took a while to get those diplomatic clearances, where they became routine and you’re not waiting on them. It can be frustrating for a (tactical) airlifter who’s down there on the ground, ready to do his or her mission."
At its peak, Yokota had three C-130s and 55 airmen taking part in Caring Response at Utapao. With two aircraft there today, less than 40 personnel remain.
Starting around May 15, Holbert said, the routine became five C-130 relief flights a day into Myanmar, including at least one by the Air Force. The cyclone ravaged the Irrawaddy Delta, affecting an estimated 2.4 million people, according to The Associated Press. It killed more than 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing.
"We were all anxious to go and looking forward to the opportunity to go help out," says Capt. Buck Kozlowski, a co-pilot with Yokota’s 36th Airlift Squadron who also wound up on five missions. "We spent a good amount of time preparing for multiple scenarios because we didn’t know exactly what to expect from the personnel on the ground in Myanmar.
"We could see a lot of the damage from the air. The most noticeable thing was the flooding. Most of the fields around Yangon were flooded and a few of the villages were still flooded out. We weren’t on the ground long, but the people there seemed genuinely happy to have us there."
Holbert said the Yokota crews were greeted by young men working for the Myanmar government. In general, the Burmese were "very friendly [and] helpful" but didn’t allow the Americans to leave the airfield, he added.
"They wouldn’t let us go down south of Yangon where the worst of the damage was," he said. Another pilot, Capt. Kristofer Duckett, wing airlift director for the 374th Operations Support Squadron, went into Myanmar twice and said more than 50 people were waiting each time to pick up the cargo.
"All were pretty wide-eyed to see us and everything was offloaded by hand," he said. "The embassy officials received us immediately, and other than some direction from our loadmasters, we did not converse with the Myanmar military officials."
Despite the early diplomatic obstacles, the Yokota airmen appreciated the opportunity to assist the cyclone’s victims, Duckett said.
"Many people think the U.S. military is only designed for combat operations," he said, "but the majority of what we do centers on people in need."
Holbert praised the nearly two dozen maintainers who worked seven days a week in Thailand. "They are some of the real heroes," he said. "The airplanes are old, and they worked hard to keep them flying."
Yokota’s expeditionary squadron expects to wrap up its mission and return to Japan by the end of June, he added.