Operation Sea Angel
Between 10 May and 13 June 1991 Joint Task Force Sea Angel, one of the largest military disaster relief forces ever assembled, was sent to the aid of the people of Bangladesh in the wake of the destruction of the tropical cyclone Marian. Cyclone Marian (29-30 April 1991) was one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in recent times. Marian's 140 mile-per-hour winds and an eight-meter tidal wave devastated Bangladesh, killing nearly 140,000 people and leaving over 5 million people homeless. Within 24 hours of a request for support from the government
of Bangladesh, Operation Sea Angel was launched, and advance teams from the III Marine Expeditionary Force arrive in country for initial liaison. Operation Sea Angel began on 10 May and involved over 7,000 US soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. A fifteen-ship amphibious task force composed of Amphibious Group 3 and the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, homeward bound from five months of operations in the Persian Gulf, was diverted to the Bay of Bengal to assist. Over the next month, 6,700 Navy and Marine Corps personnel working with U.S. Army, Air Force, and multinational forces, provide food, water, and medical care to nearly two million people. The relief efforts of U.S. troops are credited with having saved as many as 200,000 lives.
Bangladesh has traditionally been one of nature’s favorite targets. Tornadoes, cyclones, and monsoons occur with alarming regularity in this country, which contains the world’s second largest delta region at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Magma rivers. While this tremendously fertile region supports over 120 million people, damage from natural disasters is often severe, mainly due to the low terrain, the high density of the population, and a poorly developed infrastructure
Cyclone Marian struck this delta on the southeast coast during the evening of 29 April 1991 with winds in excess of 235 km/hr and tidal surges between 15 and 20 feet. Well over 100,000 people died and millions were left homeless. Over 1 million cattle (essential for pulling plows and providing transportation) died. Crops on 74,000 acres of land were destroyed; another 300,000 acres of cropland were damaged, and fields were covered with salt water, contaminating the soil and corrupting the drinking water.
Infrastructure destruction was widespread. Bangladesh’s major port, Chittagong, was severely damaged and was nonoperational for several days. Damaged/sunken ships, many of them belonging to the Bangladeshi Navy, blocked the port. Several key bridges, including the main bridge to Chittagong, were washed out or otherwise damaged. Throughout the storm-affected area, sea walls collapsed, jetties disappeared, dirt roads were flooded, buildings were ravaged, and transportation was virtually destroyed.
For the government of Bangladesh (GOB), the cyclone could not have come at a worse time. After years of military rule, Bangladesh had installed its first civilian government, under Prime Minister Zia, less than two months earlier. Therefore, the young, inexperienced government, sensitive to appearing weak or incompetent and struggling domestically to develop bureaucratic cohesion, faced serious problems in reacting to the cyclone.
Strangely, one of the problems was not one of relief supplies availability. Adequate emergency supplies existed either in government storage
houses, called “Go Downs,” or stored and owned by nongovernmental organizations (NGO) such as Cooperative American Relief Everywhere (CARE) and the Red Crescent. The GOB, however, was hindered by the lack of cooperation from the NGO, which remembered martial law and were wary of the new regime. Further, the bureaucrats that controlled the grain in the “Go Downs” were similarly reluctant to hand over control to other agencies.
Notwithstanding these political hurdles, the most serious problem was one of distribution. The combination of a poorly developed infrastructure and the havoc wreaked by the cyclone effectively cut off Chittagong for several days. Further, once relief supplies were brought to Chittagong, the GOB Operation SEA ANGEL virtually had no means to distribute them to isolated islands off the coast where needs were most acute.
On 10 May 1991, the President directed the US military to provide humanitarian assistance. A Contingency Joint Task Force (CJTF) was immediately formed under the command of Lieutenant General Henry C. Stackpole, commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) based in Okinawa. A US Navy Amphibious Task Force (ATF) returning from the Persian Gulf war was redirected to Bangladesh. A Bangladesh citizen, spotting the ATF approaching from the water, allegedly called them “Angels from the Sea.” Regardless of whether this incident ever occurred, news of it spread and Operation SEA ANGEL had begun.
The relief effort truly was an international operation. Besides the indigenous GOB forces and the international and local NGO, several countries joined the United States in participating. The United Kingdom sent a supply ship with four helicopters. The Japanese government sent two helicopters. India, Pakistan, and China also provided assistance.
Two days after the President’s order, LtGen. Stackpole arrived with a small CJTF element. A Special Operations Forces (SOF) Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) arrived later that day. The next day five UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters arrived from Hawaii, along with a Navy Environmental and Preventive Medicine Unit. Other joint assets continued to flow into the area, as required. Fifteen soldiers of B Company, 84th Engineer Battalion, already deployed to Bangladesh to construct schools, were diverted to Chittagong. The bulk of US forces were from the ATF consisting of the 4,600 Marines of the 5th MEB, 3,000 sailors of Amphibious Group 3, and 28 helicopters. The MEB also brought four Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC) vehicles
, which proved invaluable in delivering aid to isolated islands. Immediately upon his arrival in the capitol city of Dhaka, LtGen. Stackpole began an assessment of the situation, and identified three critical concerns: First, the intelligence needed to adequately assess the situation was unavailable; Second, the problem of distribution quickly became apparent, and was considered the most pressing by the Joint Task Force (JTF) staff; Finally, the issue of Bangladeshi sovereignty required that the GOB be clearly viewed by the populace as being “in charge”.
LtGen. Stackpole proceeded to develop a Campaign Plan consisting of three phases. After initial survey, liaison, and reconnaissance, Phase I (one week) entailed initial stabilization of the situation (delivery of food, water, and medicine to reduce loss of life). Phase II (two weeks) entailed restoring the situation to the point where the Bangladesh government could take control of relief efforts. Phase III (two weeks) was the consolidation
phase in which the Task Force would depart and the Bangladesh government would take complete control of all relief efforts.
The distribution problem clearly was the most demanding task and it’s accomplishment was most critical to the success of the operation. There were two aspects: first, supplies had to be moved from Dhaka to Chittagong; second, these supplies then had to be moved to the devastated islands. The decision was made to fly supplies by fixed-wing to Chittagong, then via helicopter to the islands. The MC-130 aircraft that brought the special operations forces provided the fixed-wing capability until Air Force C-130s arrived. A JTF augmentation cell (including the five Blackhawk helicopters) was dispatched from Hawaii. The 5th MEB and its helicopters and LCACs arrived three days later.
In the final analysis, Operation SEA ANGEL proved to be unique in several respects. It was almost entirely sea-based, with no more than 500 service members on shore at night. It was conducted in a benign environment; no weapons were carried by US forces, except for some sidearms carried by guards of cryptographic
materials. It was also the first time that a Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) was used as a joint task force nucleus. Finally, a unique effective command and control structure was used to synchronize the efforts of US, British, Bangladeshi, and Japanese nongovernmental organizations, and other organizations such as the US Agency for International Development (AID) and a Chinese assistance element.
Dristipath has an excellent thread on this, where US marines who participated in the 1991 operation made some comments. If you know very little about this, then this is a must read...