December 26, 2004.
Assigned to Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) Headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base, in Honolulu, Hawaii, I worked as the Director of the 24/7 Operations Support Center. The day after Christmas, I arrived for my swing shift in the early afternoon and noticed a few more vehicles in the parking lot just east of my building—an original, now historic, pre-World War II concrete structure still sporting bullet holes from the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
I swiped my code into the secure door and walked the long and winding hallway towards my work center. Being a Sunday, there’d only be 6 or so people working, instead of the usual two-dozen found on a normal weekday. When I opened the door I was shocked to find the operations floor with between 40-50 personnel, mostly senior enlisted and officers of each staff; logistics to medical, operations to personnel, mobility to plans.
It was already December 27th in Asia and the Far East region of the world, 24 hours after the deadly 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck–it’s epicenter just west of the Indonesian Island of Sumatra. I briefly heard mention of a tsunami hitting the resort country of Thailand during my Christmas Day off, but didn’t realize the extent of the death and destruction.
For the next year, Operation Unified Assistance became our main effort in the PACAF Headquarters and our units spread throughout the Pacific Ocean, the largest area of responsibility in the United States military.
Our mission during my 12-hour shifts would be to save lives in the immediate days and weeks ahead. This meant working with the U.S. Navy and other nations to support the humanitarian relief flights bringing food and water to the region. Naval battle groups—and vessels like the USNS Mercy, a hospital ship–were all headed in the direction of the tsunami destruction.
As Director of the Pacific Operations Support Center, we handled all U.S. Air Force issues in response to real-world and contingency operations in the Pacific theater. Most of our homework assignments, or “taskers” as we call them in the military, came from the overall Pacific Command (PACOM) headquarters–also located on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
Within the first few days after the tsunami had hit, the somber news of how bad the situation was began to hit everyone as reporters got their stories out to the world. Early death tolls speculated the number would reach 20,000 dead. Then that number went to 50,000, followed by 100,000 possible victims.
We were moving every available military resource to the region and getting many requests from the mainland to do more. Taskers were coming in almost as fast as worse news on the death toll arrived.
At 4:10 pm, three days after the tsunami hit, I received a call from my counterpart at higher-headquarters, PACOM. He was a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy and worked the Air Desk for all aviation requests and operations in the Pacific. His Admiral reported directly to Washington DC, and I knew this Lt Commander was even busier than I was.
“You’re a C-130 guy right?” he asked. Yes, I responded.
“OK, thought so. Someone here told me you were. I have a short-notice tasker that I need your help on right now.” He tells me that the nightly Pentagon briefing for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld needed to address C-130 airdrops of humanitarian food and water throughout the devastated tsunami areas. He had one blank slide for that briefing that he was going to email me to fill-out with the Pro’s/Con’s of airdropping relief supplies. Then he gave me the kicker….”I need it back by 5 pm”. Great, I had less than an hour to provide the SECDEF with options on the greatest natural disaster of our lifetime. Perfect.
I hung up the phone and just sat there at my desk, staring at my emails waiting for the Inbox to receive his tasking. After two minutes of waiting I began to start writing down on paper my thoughts of airdropping from C-130s vs. landing and offloading supplies before taking off again (ex. the Berlin Airlift).
Airdrops are good for resupplying troops at austere locations where bad guys and/or no runway exists. Airdrops are great for putting airborne paratroopers into the fight (ex. Normandy). But we’ve done airdrops of relief supplies into northern Iraq (Kurds) and sometimes things go bad—very bad. Airdrop pallets (wood boxes) look friendly coming down in a parachute at high altitude but draw impoverished people into the drop zone and can kill them; not good PR images we needed or wanted to risk. We were there to help them, not put them into more danger.
Just as the tasker email arrived, I came up with the idea to call my friend, Chad, a navigator assigned to C-130s in Alaska. More than likely, Chad was already on the hook with the rest of his squadron to fly these relief missions so there wouldn’t be a better source for me to ask.
I went out to my car and placed a “personal” call to Chad at his home–thus, not breaking any crew rest he might have been on at the time prior to launching. I was correct, he was already packed and ready to head out momentarily down range to support Operation Unified Assistance. We spoke for a few minutes and we listed the good vs. bad on landing at remote fields/runways to provide supplies to the locals or whether airdropping would be a better solution. Chad confirmed my hunch—airdrop created quite a bit of planning and weather (winds) could be a factor. Whereas the risk of landing meant the C-130s could break (flat tire, etc) and shutdown the small runways until repairs could be made, the aircrews would be “in go mode” once they landed—keeping engines running and barely coming to a stop to offload…both procedures speeding up the larger relief train waiting to land.
I submitted my single slide inputs without a formal recommendation…just a listing of airdrop vs. landing options. But it would be clear to anyone that I had steered them (and SECDEF) into the landing option.
No airdrops that I’m aware of took place in Operation Unified Assistance in the early days. Instead, U.S., and other countries taking part, all landed their aircraft and helicopters to offload relief supplies.
In the end, the 2004 Indonesian tsunami took over 200,000 lives in 13 countries. A half-a-million people sustained injuries and 5 million families lost their homes.
© 2014, Patrick. All rights reserved.
"Patrick, you are my go-to guy when it comes to the box office". - Judy O.