UTAPAO, Thailand — More than a week after a massive, deadly tsunami pulverized many southern Asia Pacific coasts, U.S. military personnel are flowing steadily into the area along with a seemingly endless stream of aircraft filled with supplies for a massive humanitarian relief mission.

All U.S. military efforts in the region fall under Joint Task Force 536, being commanded by Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman of the Okinawa-based III Marine Expeditionary Force. The task force headquarters, an air base here, also is a major embarkation point for relief supplies.

“We’re gathering relief supplies here and distributing them from here,” said Marine Lt. Col. Robert Krieg, a joint task force operations planning team member. Three disaster relief assessment teams, in Sri Lanka, Phuket, Thailand, and Indonesia, “are determining what the need is.”

Current plans are to use Utapao as the central hub and airlift supplies out to the “spokes,” said Marine Lt. Col. Pat Martin, also on the operations planning team.

“This is going to be the biggest joint task force I’ve ever seen,” Martin said. Teams throughout the region will request supplies needed most in their areas. “They’re going to know better what they need than we will,” he said.

While a recent humanitarian relief mission to the Philippines lasted several weeks, Krieg predicted the tsunami’s damage is so severe, and relief efforts are likely to be so extensive, that this operation will take much longer.

“This isn’t going to be a quick two-week operation for us,” Krieg said. “We’ll probably measure this one in months.”

Units already are beginning to converge on the region in advance of the assessment teams’ final reports, he said. “Things are just going to ramp up from here.”

Ships from Expeditionary Strike Group 5 already are sitting off Sumatra, Krieg said, using 17 helicopters to deliver relief supplies to Indonesia.

The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit now is steaming toward offshore Sri Lanka, another of the nations the tsunami slammed. Krieg said that as the three ships transporting the 15th MEU pass by Indonesia, they also will offer support there. One of the three probably will stay off Sumatra while the remaining two head to Sri Lanka, he said.

Many more troops are yet to arrive in the region, but more than 800 U.S. military personnel already are on the ground with the task force.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now