One of the biggest US military disaster relief missions in history kicked into high gear today as an aircraft carrier battle group arrived off the shores of tsunami-battered Sumatra and began launching helicopters heavy with supplies.
A flotilla carrying Marines and water-purifying equipment was heading for Sri Lanka, and a former staging base for B-52 bombers in Thailand roared with the takeoffs and landings of giant cargo planes.
Two Seahawk helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln landed in Banda Aceh early today to begin getting badly needed relief supplies, including material for temporary shelters, into villages along Sumatra’s northwest coast.
As many as 100,000 people are feared dead on Sumatra, which was closest to the epicentre of last Sunday’s catastrophic quake and tsunami. Although aid has been piling up in regional airports, officials have had trouble getting it out to the areas in need and the US military was expected to ease the bottleneck.
“The issue really is how do we get help most effectively to those who need,” said US Ambassador B. Lynn Pascoe.
Pascoe said although relations between Washington and Jakarta have been strained in the past over human rights concerns, the two governments were working closely on the relief mission.
“We are working for the same goal – trying to decide how we can help those people in their time of need,” he said.
The mission is one of the largest the United States has launched in Asia since the Vietnam War.
More than 20 vessels with thousands of sailors and Marines are being dispatched, along with some 1,000 land-based troops.
The USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault vessel carrying Marines, and the Lincoln battle group were to lead the operations from the seas.
Thailand’s Vietnam War-era air base of Utapao has become the airlift hub for the region.
C-130 transport planes are already conducting sorties to Jakarta and the Sumatran cities of Medan and Banda Aceh, according to a statement today by the US Embassy in Jakarta.
US Navy medical staff are also on the ground in Meulaboh, a decimated fishing village where several thousand bodies have been recovered. The Navy is considering a request from Jakarta to establish a field hospital there.
Elsewhere, nine C-130 transport craft took off yesterday from Utapao, a former staging area for B-52 bombers, to rush medical and other supplies to the stricken resorts of southern Thailand and the more distant airfields in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
A small team of Thai-speaking US Navy SEALs, US Army Special Forces personnel and military doctors have been at the battered resort of Phuket for several days.
Along with the US military assets, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Japan are among the core of nations contributing ships or planes and helping plan relief operations.
The US contribution is by far the biggest, however.
The Lincoln group alone has about 6,500 sailors and Marines. The Bonhomme Richard has a crew of 1,000 and can carry an additional 2,000 Marines, and is capable of putting them ashore quickly on huge landing vessels launched from its hull.
Since the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, the largest humanitarian mission by the military in the region was Operation Angel, when 15 ships and more than 7,000 personnel went to the aid of tropical cyclone victims in Bangladesh. Nearly 140,000 people died in that 1991 calamity.
The biggest regional US troop deployments are the annual Cobra Gold military exercises, staged for the past 23 years with Thai forces. In 2004, about 13,500 American troops took part.