Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 9): "Muscat"

Each of our aircraft passenger manifests told a story. One listed the names of Kuwaiti and Soviet diplomats.  Another roster contained the name of a woman who had been shot, another named a man who had suffered knife wounds, and another named the Sudanese ambassador’s wife who was about to give birth. The manifest of LtCol Wallace’s aircraft included the name of a woman who boarded a helicopter with a parachute draped around her, the only personal belonging she had salvaged.
[1] She reassured crew chief Corporal Tommy Sheffield that she wouldn’t jump out of the aircraft during the flight to the Guam.[2]

The evacuation in Mogadishu ultimately extracted 281 people from 30 nations, including sixty-one Americans, thirty-nine Soviet citizens, seventeen British citizens, twenty-six Germans, and various numbers from twenty-six other nations. That included twelve heads of diplomatic missions: eight ambassadors and four chargés d’affaires.[3]

U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Officer Karen Aguilar later observed, “We couldn’t save ourselves. Either we were going to get blown away or somebody was going to have to save us.”[4]

Before leaving the ships in Muscat, Oman, Ambassador Bishop addressed the sailors and Marines aboard the Guam via the ship’s television system:

“Subsequent events made it clear that the Marines and SEALs came just in time, as looters came over the wall as the helicopters left. We were very impressed by the professionalism of EASTERN EXIT. The Marines and SEALs appeared at all times the master of the situation. The best indicator of their competence is the mission’s success: the evacuation of 281 people from an embattled city without injury to either evacuees or military personnel. The actions of those protecting the Embassy and evacuating evacuees was indeed heroic. And the actions aboard Guam were indeed compassionate. Few of us would have been alive today if we had been outside your reach. It was only due to your extraordinary efforts that we made it. We will take a part of each of you with us the rest of our lives.”[5]

With the evacuees ashore in Muscat, the Guam and Trenton headed to the Persian Gulf, back to another “clime and place” where, six days later, another mission began: Operation DESERT STORM.

<< Part 8 - "An Eastern Exit"


[1] James K. Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” Foreign Service Journal (March 1991), p. 31.
[2] Interview with Tommy Sheffield, December 6, 2020.
[3] Adam B. Siegel, “Eastern Exit: The Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia in January 1991,” (1992), Center for Naval Analyses, p. 38; Gary J. Ohls, “Eastern Exit–Rescue ‘…From the Sea’,” Naval War College Review, vol 61, no. 4, article 11 (2008), p. 141.
[4] Barton Gellman, “Amid Winds of War, Daring U.S. Rescue Got Little Notice,” The Washington Post, (January 5, 1992).
[5] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 39; Adam B. Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” Naval Institute Proceedings: Naval Review (1992), pp. 99-100.

© Robert A. Doss

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 8): "An Eastern Exit"

At just before 11:00 PM on January 5th, ten CH-46E helicopter crews, five from HMM-263 and five from HMM-365, began bubbling up to the Guam’s flight deck to man their aircraft.

The plan called for the mission to be completed in four waves of five aircraft. Five of our HMM-263 aircraft—callsign “Thunder”—would go in for a load of evacuees first. As we departed the Embassy grounds and headed back to the Guam, mission commander LtCol Wallace would radio a code word that would signal the five HMM-365 aircraft—callsign “Rugby”—under flight leader LtCol Bob Saikowski to launch toward Mogadishu. That would happen twice.

As we walked across the dimly lit flight deck toward our aircraft, the Guam’s flight deck speaker system, which was normally active with calls and instructions dedicated to controlling the movement of aircraft, instead grabbed the attention of the Marines and sailors on the flight deck with the familiar strains of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA. We stopped and took in the moment. As aware as we already were of the mission’s importance, the song brought to mind what the more than 200 hopeful evacuees from 30 nations standing by at the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu already knew: there was something special about the USA that made even our adversaries look to us for help in times of distress.

The five Thunder aircraft from HMM-263 were lined up front-to-back on the flight deck spots along the port side of the ship when we boarded them. Pilots climbed into their cockpits, connected their helmets to the radio and intercom systems, fastened their harnesses, and began working through their checklists. I flew from the right seat of the fifth Thunder aircraft.

While we worked through our checklists, our crew chiefs connected their helmets to their radio and intercom long cords, confidently whipping the cords away from their feet as they walked to their positions for the aircraft start sequence. Meanwhile, our gunners double-checked the .50 caliber machineguns mounted on each side of the aircraft and the ammunition.

All of us were armed with 9 mm Beretta pistols and some of us had M-16 rifles stashed within reach.

Over the next 15 minutes, the Thunder CH-46Es roared to life on the flight deck. As the crews waited for the signal to take off, pilots adjusted their heavy Vietnam-era ceramic armored chest plates—so-called “chicken plates”—that rested in their laps. Crew chiefs and gunners had them strapped to their torsos to cover their chest and back.

Once our five Thunder aircraft were all running and ready for takeoff, a member of the Navy flight deck crew, in a manner reminiscent of World War II flight deck operations, went from aircraft to aircraft with a white board. The board advised pilots of the ship’s course, the wind direction and speed, the barometric altimeter setting, and “pigeons” to the beach. (“Pigeons” are a reference to homing pigeons. That night, they were the compass heading from the ship to our initial point (IP) on the Somali coast.)

Radio transmissions would be kept to a minimum throughout the mission. Most radio calls would occur using pre-planned brevity codes between the two flight leaders and between LtCol Wallace, the Embassy, and the Guam. The absence of radio transmissions would mask our intentions and limit the ability of adversaries to use direction-finding equipment to locate our aircraft. Everyone in the flight knew what to do anyway, so discussing it further on the radio was unnecessary.

On signals from the landing signalmen on the flight deck beginning at 11:43 PM, our five Thunder aircraft lifted off from the deck of the Guam in sequence. As soon as we were in the air, five tow tractors which had already been attached to the Rugby aircraft, pulled them onto the deck spots where they would begin their own start sequences and prepare to launch.

For the next three hours, each of the aircraft in the two flights would operate as one, yet the experiences of the crewmembers in those aircraft would be quite unique. The positions of their aircraft in the flight, their roles as members of the crew, and even their interactions with the passengers they transported would yield dozens of experiences and stories.

Once the Thunder flight was joined in the air, we proceeded toward Mogadishu. We were still 30 miles at sea, so we were able to arm our missile decoy systems and test-fire our machineguns without our tracers being seen from the distant shore.

We would be in Somalia in less than 20 minutes.

As we approached the coastline, Mogadishu was easy to see through the NVGs. While the sky at sea was clear, the city itself was blanketed by a layer of smoke and haze which held what light there was in the city near the ground. The city still had some electrical power, and we could see flashes of a gun battle and occasional tracer ricochets as we got closer.

The IP where we wanted to cross the coastline wouldn’t be easy to find, but the importance of flying over it on the first crossing wasn’t lost on anyone.  A thousand meters to the right would take the flight directly over known surface-to-air missile (SAM) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) sites (and presumably troop concentrations).  A thousand meters to the left would take the flight off the edge of the map.[1]

The terrain in coastal Somalia would give few navigational clues so we relied primarily on dead-reckoning to get us where we needed to go. That meant that once we hit the beach, getting to the Embassy would be a matter of flying a heading for an amount of time that we had already computed, and making two turns with more timing to our LZ, assuming we had crossed the coastline at the right location in the first place.

As we crossed the beach, we descended to 100 feet above the ground, slowed to 80 knots (92 mph), and made our first turn.[2] Cockpit stopwatches were started for the timing to the next checkpoint. Gunners were at their weapons while eyes were peeled for trouble all around. The next and final turn was rapidly approaching, and it would determine if our navigation to that point was on track. If it was, we would immediately begin our landing transition and be on the ground within seconds. If it wasn’t, we would be in the situation we didn’t want to be in, meandering around the city making for easy targets for gunmen below.

In our planning, we asked the forward air controller (FAC), Captain Spasojevich, now on the ground at the Embassy, to assign a Marine to climb the Embassy water tower that we spotted on the satellite image and place an infrared (IR) strobe light on it. The light would be visible to pilots wearing NVGs but not to the naked eye. With the light on the water tower, we would be able to verify that we were in the right place while we were beginning our landing transition.

As we made our way inland, we weren’t sure that the strobe light had been installed or that it was working. Nonetheless, as we made the last turn to what we hoped was our final landing course, more than a dozen pairs of eyes strained to see if a water tower came into view and that an IR strobe light was flashing on it. Halfway through the turn, we saw the tower and the light and continued our turn until they were on our left. Fortunately, the heading to the IP that the Guam gave us was right on the mark.

It was time to land.

Pilots reduced power and pulled back easily on the noses of their aircraft. As expected, the LZ was barely discernible, even with the help of the NVGs. Initially, we could make out the outline of the LZ, but it quickly became lost in the blowing sand as LtCol Wallace descended into the zone. The decision to put a little bit of separation between aircraft during the landing phase proved to be a good idea as each aircraft was swallowed up and disappeared in the swirling sand, what we called “brown-out.” As the four aircraft followed LtCol Wallace into the zone, all we could see of the aircraft in front of us were the lights on the rotor blade tips and the static electricity-charged sand particles swirling through their rotor systems. Pilots stayed on their approach paths into the zone and quickly found landing spots. Once crew chiefs and gunners cleared the rear of the aircraft of obstacles, we all landed. I was at the flight controls of the fifth aircraft so it was a relief to confirm that our interpretation of the satellite photos was correct and we could actually fit five aircraft in the LZ.[3]

Thunder was on the ground at the Embassy one minute ahead of schedule.[4]

After we landed, we flattened the pitch of our rotor blades to settle the dust and once we did, we were rewarded with a view of what we were there for. Through our NVGs, we could see groups of civilians huddled near an Embassy building. They had already been organized in “sticks” of 15.

The evacuees moved quickly in their designated groups to board the helicopters.  It took 20 minutes for them to board and get seated, but once they did, we took off and turned right out of the LZ toward the sea. As soon as we were airborne, LtCol Wallace made the radio call for the second wave to begin its ingress. At 21 minutes after midnight, the second wave of five helicopters from HMM-365 lifted off from the Guam.[5]

As we headed out to sea, we passed the Rugby flight headed towards Mogadishu, five “Thunder” aircraft from HMM-263 returning to the ship and five “Rugby” aircraft from HMM-365 inbound to Mogadishu.

Fifteen minutes after leaving Mogadishu, our five Thunder aircraft entered the Guam’s landing pattern, took our separation from each other, and watched for a green light and a landing signalman for clearance to land. Once we were on the deck, the ramps at the rear of the aircraft came down and the evacuees were escorted off the aircraft and led down to the hangar deck where they could be watched and processed. Protocol called for evacuees to be eyed with some caution and suspicion at first, even as they were treated to a warm welcome. To that end, they were searched while armed Marines and sailors were perched in the catwalks to guard against any unexpected trouble as scores of sailors assisted them.

On the flight deck, the Thunder aircraft were refueled while crews discussed the first trip into Mogadishu. I had about decided that I didn’t need the bulky armor plate that was in my lap and turned around partially in my seat to hand the plate to one of our crewmen. However, as soon as I did, the silence on the radios was broken by a call from the Embassy advising us that we’d been ordered to cease the evacuation and leave Somalia or be shot down. Since we had begun the evacuation with the understanding that the environment would be hostile, this new threat didn’t change our mission or our determination to accomplish it. Still, I did turn back around and ask to have that armored plate again. With it in place, we reviewed procedures for the transfer of flight controls between pilots in the event of a casualty and the rules of engagement for our gunners.

As it turned out, the threat to “leave Somalia or be shot down” came from a Somali major who arrived at the Embassy gate, grenade in hand, with two truckloads of troops and said he would order the helicopters to be shot down if the “illegal operation” didn’t end immediately. Ambassador Bishop met with the major and stalled him while the evacuation continued.[6]

When Rugby passed the signal to us at 12:51 AM that they were coming out of the LZ,[7] the chocks and chains were removed from our Thunder aircraft and we lifted off again from the Guam.

Then, moments after our departure from the ship, the overhead Air Force AC-l30 reported that his radar warning receiver detected an active surface-to-air missile (SAM) system to the west. We continued to the Embassy; the situation would only worsen if we delayed.  Near the LZ, the helicopters received SAM radar search indications from the northeast, but our flying at such low altitudes and airspeeds made it difficult for the radars to acquire our helicopters.[8]

While our helicopters could fly beneath the SA-2 and SA-3 SAM threat, the AC-130 orbiting overhead could not. After some anxious moments, the AC-130 was repositioned over the ocean where it was less vulnerable[9] yet still capable of covering the evacuation ashore.

The new missile radar activity indicated an increased awareness of our presence, but we believed that flying darkened without exterior lights would reduce our exposure to small arms, shoulder-fired SAMs, and rocket propelled grenades. According to evacuees, the helicopters were almost invisible until they were on the ground.[10]

The third wave, now inbound to the Embassy, included the helicopter that the Ambassador and his immediate staff were supposed to leave on. However, Ambassador Bishop was still negotiating with the Somali major while the third wave landed at the Embassy and passengers boarded their assigned helicopters. As a result, only four of the five aircraft in that wave had full loads when it was time for them to leave.[11]

Our aircraft was that fifth aircraft, so LtCol Wallace directed us to remain behind until the LZ was cleaned out and everyone was accounted for. He led the other four aircraft back to the Guam and signaled the Rugby flight to return to the Embassy for the fourth and final wave.

Once the other four Thunder aircraft left the Embassy, we moved as far forward in the zone as possible to allow the five Rugby aircraft to fit into the LZ behind us. That put us in front of the soldiers who had massed at the Embassy gate, which drew the full attention of our gunners who were ready to repel an attack if one materialized. We watched the gate and the area around our aircraft closely while we waited for the radio call to leave.

About 15 minutes later, blowing sand from behind us announced the arrival of the five Rugby aircraft. They landed behind us and took on passengers, but the confusion caused by the Ambassador’s decision not to leave on the third wave created an accountability problem. In the disarray, two members of a communications team failed to board their aircraft to return to the Guam so as we waited for a final accounting of personnel, the two communicators waited nearby for a signal to board an aircraft. Finally, a crewman spotted them and ran out to help them get on the aircraft.[12]

It turned out that LtCol Wallace’s sense that there might be a problem accounting for the entire security force and his decision to have someone remain in the LZ until everyone was accounted for was a lifesaver.

Once the Rugby aircraft were loaded, they left the LZ. We stayed and waited for the radio call that confirmed that everyone was accounted for. We expected that with the two radio operators accounted for, it wouldn’t be long.

Finally after several minutes, we received the code word to “return to Mother”—“Mother” was the Guam—as LtCol Wallace flew toward Mogadishu to escort us to the ship. We were the last Americans in Somalia.

In our aircraft, we had already discussed the fact that we didn’t want to give the soldiers at the gate much of a chance to send an RPG round our way as we left, so we agreed that I would lift off abruptly without pausing for a hover check, give a little feint to the left toward where the soldiers were gathered, then bank hard right and descend below their line of sight toward the sea. I don’t know if it made a difference, but it didn’t hurt either. Within just a few minutes, we were at the coastline where we met LtCol Wallace and joined on his wing.

We later learned that as we lifted off, a large mob of armed looters scaled the walls of the Embassy compound, looting and destroying everything in sight.[13] The State Department reported that the Embassy was sacked, its doors blasted down with grenades soon after the evacuation was completed.[14]

We landed on the Guam at 3:00 AM and Operation EASTERN EXIT was finished. The Guam and Trenton turned north and headed out of Somali waters, back toward Oman where the evacuees were put ashore on January 11th.

<< Part 7 - "Situation Well In Hand"
>> Part 9 - "Muscat"


[1] Ronald J. Brown, “U.S. Marines in the Persian Gulf, 1990-1991, With Marine Forces Afloat in Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), p. 92.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Adam B. Siegel, “Eastern Exit: The Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia in January 1991,” (1992), Center for Naval Analyses, p. 33.
[5] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 34.
[6] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 33.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Siegel, “Eastern Exit”.
[9] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 33.
[10] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 4; Adam B. Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” Naval Institute Proceedings: Naval Review (1992), p. 98.
[11] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” pp. 33-34; Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” p. 98.
[12] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 34.
[13] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 34; James K. Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” Foreign Service Journal (March 1991), p. 31;, “Operation Eastern Exit,”
[14] Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” p. 31. 

© Robert A. Doss

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 7): "Situation Well In Hand"

As soon as the helicopters landed, the 60-man security force quickly took up positions around the Embassy compound. The SEALS ran in a vee formation toward the Chancery while the Marines forced the aggressors with the ladders away from the Embassy wall.
[1] The SEAL team was primarily responsible for working with the Embassy’s five-member Marine Security Guard (MSG) force to protect the Ambassador. Meanwhile, the 46 Marines who comprised the balance of the security force established a perimeter to secure the Embassy compound.[2]

Karen Aguilar, the Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu, later said that the arrival of the Marines was both startling and fearsome, “They must have been carrying 200 pounds of equipment, they looked about seven feet tall, and on every inch of their bodies they had this terrible paint. They looked ugly. They looked like swamp creatures.”[3]

The description was a compliment.

As desperate as Ambassador Bishop had been to get Marines in the Embassy compound for fear of being overrun at any moment, once the Marines were there, he was hesitant to authorize the use of deadly force. Instead, he chose to reserve it in the event that attackers actually came over the walls. In fact, he preferred that there be a withdrawal to safe havens within the compound before deadly force was used. He clearly wanted to avoid giving the appearance that the security force was there to choose sides, a perception that might encourage an escalation of violence against the Embassy.[4]

LtCol Robert McAleer, commander of the security force, later said, “The need for security forces was evident upon our arrival. Sporadic gunfire was all around us throughout our time ashore. We had some situations that could have gotten out of control, but we remained calm and kept our composure, thus avoiding any confrontations.”[5] In one of those situations, a pair of Marine snipers who had taken up positions on the Embassy water tower were shot at by a Somali who was 400-500 yards away. The Marines put the Somali in their sights, but they were ordered not to fire and to come down from the water tower.[6]

Soon after the helicopters arrived at the Embassy, a U.S. Air Force AC-130 Spectre gunship, with its three side-firing weapons—a 105 mm howitzer, a 25 mm Gatling gun, and a 40 mm Bofors cannon—orbited overhead to provide air support. The gunship remained for three hours providing intelligence and fire support capability for the security force on the ground.[7]

While the security force was getting into place, 61 evacuees were processed and loaded onto the two CH-53Es, including the Turkish, UAE, and Nigerian ambassadors, the Omani Chargé D’affaires, and all non-official Americans. Just one hour after the helicopters had landed, they took off again at 7:20 AM and headed straight out to sea for their third refueling from a Marine Corps KC-130. Their destination, the USS Guam, was 350 miles away.[8]

It was daylight when the helicopters joined up with the refueling tanker so it was much easier to see this time. However, when the CH-53Es attempted to refuel, they discovered that the tanker’s refueling drogue didn’t open fully and was difficult to plug into. The lead Super Stallion had to fly at an angle to reduce the amount of fuel spraying on the helicopter due to the problematic drogue. The difficulty led them to take on only half of the fuel that they originally planned to take. The second helicopter made six or seven unsuccessful passes at the drogue which caused the flight leader, Major Dan Shultz, to consider diverting one or both aircraft to the Somali desert if they couldn’t make the connection. Finally, though, the second aircraft was able to successfully plug and take on fuel. Once the two helicopters were refueled, they accepted a navigational steer from the KC-130 and proceeded to the Guam. The tanker returned to Oman, more than 1,100 miles away.[9]

At 9:40 AM, almost 8 hours after they left the Guam in the early morning hours of January 5th, the CH-53Es landed on the Guam where they discharged their passengers to waiting teams who processed and welcomed them aboard ship. Forty minutes later, with their part of the mission complete, the two CH-53Es landed on the Trenton.[10]

After the helicopters left the Embassy compound in Mogadishu, three Marines and six SEALS traveled with Embassy security in three hardened vehicles to a U.S. Embassy building a few blocks from the main compound. Because there was a possibility that the convoy would encounter armed roadblocks, they were ordered not to stop and to shoot their way through them, if necessary. They left the Embassy compound at 8:47 AM and returned within 10 minutes with 22 people: 4 Americans, 1 Filipino, and 17 Kenyans.[11]

As the day wore on, Embassy staff assisted the foreign diplomats who managed to flee to the U.S. Embassy to be evacuated by American forces.[12]

The Soviets had contacted the U.S. Embassy by radio the previous day to report that looters had attacked and stolen their vehicles. The Soviet ambassador didn’t want to attempt the trip to the U.S. Embassy without an escort, so the American diplomatic staff bribed a local police official to arrange for one. An hour later, there were 39 Soviet diplomats in the American compound waiting for U.S. Marines to transport them to safety. A similar scenario brought the British and South Koreans to the U.S. Embassy after they’d encountered intense fire at their compounds.[13]

As the sun settled into the horizon that day, the security force’s forward air controller (FAC) Captain David Spasojevich, himself a helicopter pilot, prepared the landing zone for the helicopters that would be there later in the evening. Since the final evacuation by CH-46s would be conducted solely on NVGs, the Embassy compound was totally darkened to prevent distracting pilots and to provide better concealment for the helicopters and the evacuation effort. All the Embassy’s lights were extinguished while chemical lights were planted to mark the LZ and to identify the light poles that surrounded the LZ.[14]

The stranded souls who had gathered at the Embassy to be rescued from the turmoil outside of the Embassy walls waited anxiously for the arrival of the U.S. Marine CH-46s. The time was drawing near.

<< Part 6 - "Super Stallions to the Front"
>> Part 8 - "An Eastern Exit"


[1] Barton Gellman, “Amid Winds of War, Daring U.S. Rescue Got Little Notice,” The Washington Post, (January 5, 1992).
[2] Adam B. Siegel, “Eastern Exit: The Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia in January 1991,” (1992), Center for Naval Analyses, p. 3; Adam B. Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” Naval Institute Proceedings: Naval Review (1992), p. 97.
[3] Gellman, “Amid Winds of War.”
[4] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 28.
[5] Adam S. Bashaw, “Operation Eastern Exit,” All Hands – Magazine of the U.S. Navy (June 1991).[6] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 29-31; Ronald J. Brown, “U.S. Marines in the Persian Gulf, 1990-1991, With Marine Forces Afloat in Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), p. 91.
[7] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 3; Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” p. 98.
[8] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” pp. 3, 24.
[9] Ibid., p. 25.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 29; Brown, “U.S. Marines in the Persian Gulf,” p. 92.
[12] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 29; Brown, “U.S. Marines in the Persian Gulf,” p. 92;, “Operation Eastern Exit,”
[13] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 29.
[14] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” pp. 4, 31; Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” p. 98.

© Robert A. Doss

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 6): "Super Stallions to the Front"

At 5:15 PM (Mogadishu time) on the 4th, the two Super Stallions took off from the Trenton and landed on the Guam where the crews turned in for a little sleep before launch time. The crews were awakened at 12:45 AM (Mogadishu time) on the 5th so they could conduct final mission briefings, review intelligence and weather reports, and receive updated maps and satellite images of the Embassy compound. Threats included small arms fire, SA-2 and SA-3 high-altitude surface-to-air missiles, and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) scattered throughout the Mogadishu area.

By 2:30 AM (Mogadishu time), the 60-man security force consisting of Marines from the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment and a 9-man SEAL team, boarded the two aircraft. Seventeen minutes later, the two giant helicopters, armed with .50 caliber machineguns on each side of the aircraft and an M-60 machinegun mounted on the ramp, lifted off from the deck of the Guam to begin their 466-mile overwater flight to Mogadishu.[1]

Operation EASTERN EXIT had begun.

Once the aircraft were in the air, the crews attempted to use their long-range OMEGA navigation systems, but they had stopped working. The system needed connections to three land-based signals, but neither aircraft was able to get them. As it turned out, the area of the Indian Ocean in which the aircraft were operating was one of the places in the world that wasn’t fully covered by OMEGA stations. Instead, the aircraft had to rely on initial directional guidance from the Guam and dead-reckoning: punching the stopwatch, flying a heading while accounting for the wind, and hoping that you see what you want at the end of your timing.

The two helicopters would need to conduct three mid-air refueling evolutions with U.S. Marine Corps KC-130 tankers from VMGR-252 and 352, two inbound to Mogadishu and one on the return trip to the Guam.

As they approached their rendezvous for the first refueling evolution 185 miles from the Guam, the helicopters, flying on NVGs, climbed to 6,000 feet. They were able to see the two tankers from some distance; however, since the KC-130 crews weren’t wearing NVGs, they couldn’t see the helicopters until they flashed their searchlights.

In spite of not having practiced aerial refueling in the previous six months, the crews executed this particularly challenging and crucial refueling on NVGs without a hitch, aside from one of the aircraft developing a fuel leak inside the cabin which doused some of the troops inside with jet fuel. The crew chief was able to stop the leak quickly and the mission was not jeopardized.

As the first refueling evolution was completed, the OMEGA navigation systems on the Super Stallions came back on line, but since the systems had not been reliable up to that point, the crews used them as back-up only and relied instead on the tankers to provide directional guidance.

The crews met the tankers again for the second refueling about 225 miles from the first refueling location and 53 miles from Mogadishu. Each refueling was essential and carried with it implications for the remainder of the mission. If the second refueling evolution failed, the helicopters would fly to the Embassy compound, insert the security force, then fly into the Somali desert to wait for the Guam and Trenton to come within range.

The second refueling was a success, and the helicopters continued to the Embassy as dawn arrived. Approaching from the sea with the sun rising at their backs, the CH-53Es dropped down below 50 feet above the ground and sped ashore in Mogadishu at 150 knots (175 mph). As the two aircraft approached the LZ, they flew over a column of trucks, including some with mounted 12.7 mm anti-aircraft guns, but the Somalis scrambled from the trucks and ran for cover when the helicopters flew over them.

The crews spotted the Embassy at 6:10 AM (Mogadishu time), but as they began their landing transition, they saw 100-150 Somalis with ladders at an Embassy compound wall while a stream of gunfire was hitting the compound. As the aircraft flew low over the wall, the Somalis scattered.[2] The Super Stallions landed within minutes of their planned arrival time.

The relief among those in the Embassy compound when the CH-53Es arrived was unmistakable. The Deputy Chief of Mission reportedly said, “When I saw the words Marines on the sides of those large helicopters, I knew we were safe.”[3]

<< Part 5 - "Not Another Night Like That"
>> Part 7 - "Situation Well In Hand"


[1] Adam B. Siegel, “Eastern Exit: The Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia in January 1991,” (1992), Center for Naval Analyses, p. 3; Adam B. Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” Naval Institute Proceedings: Naval Review (1992), p. 97;, “Operation Eastern Exit,”
[2] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 24; Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” p. 98;, “Operation Eastern Exit”.
[3] This section of the essay (“Super Stallions to the Front”) draws heavily on the work of Adam B. Siegel, “Eastern Exit: The Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia in January 1991,” (1992), Center for Naval Analyses, pp. 3, 19-26, 45.

© Robert A. Doss

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 5): "Not Another Night Like That"

As aggressively as we planned on the Guam, we couldn’t do anything about what was happening at the Embassy, at least not yet. Late in the evening on January 3rd, Embassy buildings were hit by machinegun fire. Then the next morning on the 4th, an Embassy warehouse was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and armed looters fired through gaps in the Embassy fencing until the guards and security staff returned fire and forced them to retreat.[1]

By around midday on January 4th, Ambassador Bishop believed the Embassy couldn’t hold out much longer as he reported that the Embassy was “falling behind the curve in our ability to protect ourselves from the lawlessness which now prevails in Mogadishu.” He was certain that they couldn’t hold out until January 7th when the Marine helicopters were originally estimated to arrive, so he requested an “immediate airlift from Saudi Arabia of a parachute force sufficient to provide augmented security to the Chancery and JAO (Joint Administrative Office) building where everyone…currently is safe-havened” until the Marines could arrive.[2]

Back on the Guam, it was clear that the Ambassador believed the Embassy was about to fall. That called for some bold action, so the decision was made to send the two CH-53Es on a long overwater flight to the Embassy with a heavily armed and equipped security force on board. They would fly from the Trenton to the Guam that afternoon for some rest and to receive briefings, updated maps, and photographs. Then, they’d take off very early the next morning on the 5th to deliver the security force to the Embassy and return to the Guam with 60 evacuees.

Meanwhile, the Guam and the Trenton would continue to steam toward Mogadishu at top speed to be in position to launch CH-46E helicopters for the main evacuation that night.

The plan meant that the paratroopers Ambassador Bishop requested, even if they would have been available (which they weren’t), would not be necessary. Washington advised Ambassador Bishop that Marines would begin arriving at the compound at dawn the following morning on the 5th and that the main element would follow later that evening.[3]

The Embassy was eager to have the assistance. Ambassador Bishop said that January 4th was their worst day and remarked, “We can’t have another night like that.”[4]


[1] James K. Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” Foreign Service Journal (March 1991), p. 29.
[2] Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” p. 29; Gary J. Ohls, “Eastern Exit–Rescue ‘…From the Sea’,” Naval War College Review, vol 61, no. 4, article 11 (2008), p. 133; Adam B. Siegel, “Eastern Exit: The Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia in January 1991,” (1992), Center for Naval Analyses, p. 18.
[3] Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” pp. 29-30.
[4] Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” p. 29; Elise J. Van Pool, “Operation Eastern Exit veterans speak at EWS,” MCINCR – Marine Corps Base Quantico (2015)

© Robert A. Doss

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 4): "By Day or By Night"

With the situation at the Embassy falling apart rapidly, we needed to consider options for putting troops in the Embassy compound earlier than the projected January 7th evacuation date. 

The Trenton, which had been traveling with us, had two giant U.S. Marine CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 461 (HMH-461) that were able to refuel in flight. This refueling capability meant that theoretically, we were never too far from the Embassy to help. However, the first look at that option wasn’t very promising. None of the pilots had practiced aerial refueling in six months and the refueling probes had been removed from the helicopters to make room for the aircraft on the Trenton.[1] That option had other practical limits too, including crew rest requirements and the risks associated with conducting inherently dangerous aerial refueling evolutions on long overwater legs in the dark.

Still, something had to be done. If the CH-53Es had their refueling probes reinstalled, they could fly to Mogadishu with a security force to reinforce the Embassy. This advanced security force might just keep the Embassy from being overrun and it could help prepare the LZ and evacuees for the main evacuation.

The main evacuation would happen later and involve more aircraft. With the number of people who were gathering at the Embassy, it looked like we’d need 4 waves of 5 CH-46E helicopters to do the job.

The big question, however, was whether to conduct the main evacuation in the daytime or at night.

A daylight operation might enable us to be recognized as a neutral third party attempting an overt evacuation of innocents, and we might be able to proceed unmolested. However, we couldn’t ignore the reports and incidents at the Embassy which made it likely that we’d be targeted if we were seen, regardless of our intentions.[2]

On the other hand, if we flew into Mogadishu at night we could do so under the cover of darkness. NVGs would permit us to see in the dark, and we could turn off our aircraft lights and become practically invisible to those on the ground. Nevertheless, any advantage gained by flying on NVGs would be lost by meandering flights using unreliable maps hunting for a darkened LZ over hostile positions.[3]

At the time, NVG use by helicopter pilots in raids like this was a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, there wasn’t much of a record of success of it outside of training and exercises. The Iran hostage rescue a decade earlier failed when a CH-53 with a crew using NVGs collided with a C-130 refueling tanker in the blowing sand of a desert landing zone. It was a persistent reminder that conditions could get out of control very quickly and produce tragic consequences.[4]

But the military is resilient, and it learns its lessons quickly so it can return to action. In the decade between the Iran hostage rescue mission and the crisis in Somalia, training for a broad range of special operations missions under NVGs had been aggressive and effective. While neither HMM-263 nor HMM-365 was a designated special operations capable unit, both squadrons had been SOC squadrons and both had crews with extensive and recent special operations experience.

Ultimately, the randomness of the violence and further mayhem around the Embassy grounds convinced us that our helicopters likely would be targeted if seen, and, with the report that the fighting decreased at night, the night option simply made better tactical sense. The decision was made: We would go in at night.[5]

<< Part 3 - "A Change of Plan"
>> Part 5 - "Not Another Night Like That"


[1] Gary J. Ohls, “Eastern Exit–Rescue ‘…From the Sea’,” Naval War College Review, vol 61, no. 4, article 11 (2008), p. 137, Adam B. Siegel, “Eastern Exit: The Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia in January 1991,” (1992), Center for Naval Analyses, p. 22.
[2] Ronald J. Brown, “U.S. Marines in the Persian Gulf, 1990-1991, With Marine Forces Afloat in Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), pp. 85-86.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ohls, “Eastern Exit–Rescue,” p. 135.
[5] Brown, “U.S. Marines in the Persian Gulf,” pp. 85-86.

© Robert A. Doss

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 3): "A Change of Plan"

The timing of the threat against the American Embassy in Mogadishu on January 2, 1991 was far from perfect as Washington’s attention was centered on the approaching January 15th deadline for Iraq. It was with that deadline in mind that on the night of Wednesday, January 2nd, we boarded our aircraft for an evening of NVG training in the Omani desert.

However, before we launched, word was circulating around the ship about trouble in Somalia where the civil war was endangering diplomats. President Bush ordered U.S. Air Force C-130s to fly to Mombasa, Kenya with the expectation that they would fly to the Mogadishu International Airport once arrangements could be made for the aircraft to land and for Embassy staff to move to the airport for evacuation.[1] 

Somalia had been a place we had paid absolutely no attention to during our time in the region, and with our night training being so important to the liberation of Kuwait, we didn’t give Somalia another thought that evening. We didn’t give it another thought, that is, until we were recalled to the Guam and learned that the reason the Guam and the Trenton had urgently changed course and steamed south was that we might be called to conduct a noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO) to rescue the 37 American diplomats stranded in Somalia.

We began mission planning right away, but we knew almost nothing about the situation on the ground or even the location of the Embassy. With no information about potential landing zones (LZs), enemy threat intelligence, or maps and photographs of the area, we could do little more than ask questions that night. We sent a list of “elements of essential information” (EEIs) and requests for maps and satellite images, then we caught a few hours of sleep while the information we needed was being assembled. Unfortunately, we had no direct voice communications with the Embassy so getting the answers would take some time.

The following day, on January 3rd, Ambassador Bishop sought but was unable to receive commitments from the Somali government that would permit American C-130s to land at the airport and for American evacuees to safely move to the airport. To make matters worse, Somali army officers were reportedly being shot by their own soldiers who belonged to different tribes. With this news and ample evidence that all sides of the conflict lacked centralized control and were disregarding ceasefire agreements,[2] it became clear that the C-130 operation wouldn’t be viable.[3] The Embassy’s only salvation lay with the two U.S. Navy ships—the Guam and the Trenton and their embarked Marines—steaming south at maximum speed toward Somalia.[4]

Throughout the day on January 3rd, planning continued aboard the Guam as answers began to arrive, and a pair of maps were air dropped to us. The maps weren’t quite what we were accustomed to since they were severely outdated and written in Italian, probably owing to Somalia’s history as a former Italian colony. Although we didn’t realize it yet, the location of the U.S. Embassy as it was marked on one of the maps had changed. Ultimately, we’d need to verify everything on the maps before putting much faith in what was printed on them. Still, they were better than nothing, so we edited, copied, and laminated them for distribution to flight crews.

We also continued to receive messages detailing the situation at the Embassy. While the information provided small pieces of the planning puzzle, it also painted a picture of desperation at the Embassy. The messages from the Embassy gave the unmistakable impression that they were being written from cover beneath a desk as the fight raged nearby.[5] One message reported that a rocket-propelled grenade had slammed into the compound, while others described automatic weapons fire and armed aggressors being repulsed as they scaled the walls of the compound.[6] The State Department reported that the street outside the Embassy compound was “…littered with corpses.”[7]

As we began to wrap our heads around a plan to rescue the 37 U.S. diplomats under siege at the Embassy, we received an update that the mission had changed. Instead of rescuing 37 American diplomats, we were tasked with rescuing nearly 300 people from 30 different nations from the U.S. Embassy compound. Some nations had attempted evacuations and failed, while others lacked the ability to even attempt such a thing. Now, they turned to the United States for help. We adjusted quickly to this change in the mission and got right to work on developing a new plan.

<< Part 2 - "A War of All Against All"
>> Part 4 - "By Day Or By Night"


[1] James K. Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” Foreign Service Journal (March 1991), pp. 27-28.
[2] Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” p. 29.
[3] Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” p. 29;, “Operation Eastern Exit,”; Adam B. Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” Naval Institute Proceedings: Naval Review (1992), p. 97.
[4] Gary J. Ohls, “Eastern Exit–Rescue ‘…From the Sea’,” Naval War College Review, vol 61, no. 4, article 11 (2008), p. 133; Adam B. Siegel, “Eastern Exit: The Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia in January 1991,” (1992), Center for Naval Analyses, pp. 2–3, 11;, “Operation Eastern Exit”.
[5] Ohls, “Eastern Exit–Rescue,” p. 133; Doss, “Out of Africa,” p. 103.
[6] Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” p. 29.
[7] R. Jeffrey Smith and Barton Gellman, “Daring Marine Helicopter Mission Rescued Foreigners from Somalia,” The Washington Post (January 9, 1991).

© Robert A. Doss

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 2): "A War of All Against All"

At about the same time that LtCol Wallace was preparing his squadron for the pre-empted deployment to the North Atlantic in July of 1990, James K. Bishop was being sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to Somalia. But, as Ambassador Bishop assumed his posting in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, the nation was slipping badly into turmoil and ruin. It had become a particularly dangerous place where ethnic groups, street gangs, clans, and others fought and created a breakdown of societal order,[1] a condition accurately characterized in the Marine Corps’ “Operational Maneuver from the Sea” concept paper as a “war of all against all.”[2]

Embassies and Somali government buildings had been bombed, senior law enforcement officials had been assassinated, Westerners had been attacked and injured, and killings increased by the day. Twice in three weeks, a U.S. Embassy driver was shot and his vehicle was stolen. Ambassador Bishop later reported, “Vehicles were being taken and their drivers killed by soldiers, policemen, rebels, and common criminals throughout the city and at all hours of the day.” Robberies and gunfights outside the U.S. Embassy compound ultimately convinced American diplomats that they no longer had any real protection in the Somali capital. Then, the violence around the Embassy took a turn when a firefight outside of the Embassy gate sent bullets into the U.S. vice consul’s home.[3]

By December 19th, the number of official U.S. diplomatic staff members in Mogadishu had been reduced from 147 to 37 out of concern for their safety, a decision that was validated on December 31st when the U.S. defense attaché’s car was riddled with bullets and another officer’s vehicle was sprayed with gunfire at a roadblock to the extent that he had to limp the vehicle to the U.S. compound on its front rims. Ambassador Bishop later reported that on New Year’s Day 1991, fighting on the road that bordered the U.S. Embassy made the area a shooting gallery. Ambassador Bishop cabled Washington and asked for U.S. military assistance to evacuate the Embassy staff from the city as American lives were in grave danger.[4]

<< Part 1 - "In Every Clime and Place"
>> Part 3 - "A Change of Plan"


[1], “Operation Eastern Exit,”
[2] Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, Operational Maneuver from the Sea (1996), p. 4; Gary J. Ohls, “Eastern Exit–Rescue ‘…From the Sea’,” Naval War College Review, vol 61, no. 4, article 11 (2008), p. 132.
[3] James K. Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” Foreign Service Journal (March 1991), p. 27.
[4] Ibid. pp. 27-28.

© Robert A. Doss

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 1): "In Every Clime and Place"

“(Operation) Eastern Exit received relatively little attention as it was conducted on the eve of the war with Iraq. In other circumstances, the execution of such a short-notice and high-risk operation might have garnered front page headlines around the world...The military operation itself might seem more like a Hollywood script than reality.”

–Adam Siegel
“An American Entebbe”
U. S. Naval Institute

The arrival of 1991 found us wrapping up our fourth month in the Middle East. I had been a member of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263 (HMM-263) since July of 1990 when a few of us joined the squadron from a neighboring squadron, HMM-365, for a two-month deployment to the North Atlantic. As members of HMM-365, we had just completed a lengthy and highly successful deployment to the Mediterranean as part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) (24th MEU (SOC)) when the call went out from HMM-263’s new commander, Lieutenant Colonel R. J. Wallace for volunteers to join the squadron and help bring some fresh shipboard experience to the deployment.

But then when Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, invaded Kuwait a few weeks later on August 2, 1990, HMM-263’s plans for a short deployment to the North Atlantic and HMM-365’s thoughts of a much-deserved break after a demanding deployment were suddenly set aside. For the Marines of HMM-263 and HMM-365, both based at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, responding to these rapidly changing events made the words “in every clime and place” from the Marines’ Hymn ring true.


The USS Guam (LPH-9) was a helicopter carrier and on Sunday, August 19, 1990, two weeks after Saddam invaded Kuwait, it would see twenty-four U.S. Marine Corps CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters land on its deck pierside in Morehead City, North Carolina. At the same time, Marines from HMM-263, HMM-365, and 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune were bussed, trucked, and flown to the ship as it was hurriedly loaded for a destination that no one acknowledged but few doubted. The ship pulled away from the pier that evening.

After crossing the Atlantic Ocean and passing through the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, and the Red Sea, we arrived in the Middle East in early September 1990. Over the next several months, we were in and out of the Persian Gulf several times, jabbing repeatedly at Saddam with a series of bold exercises that were both, in plain view and widely reported. Even the name of the exercises, “SEA SOLDIER,” another name for Marine, sent a message. That message was “The Marines Are Coming.” The exercises were so effective, they tied down five or six Iraqi divisions along the Kuwaiti coast and caused a reaction by Saddam’s forces each of the four times between October and January that the U.S. ran a SEA SOLDIER exercise.[1]

Then, U.S. planners decided to launch an operation that delivered an even stronger message in mid-November 1990. Our assignment was to give the appearance of an assault into Kuwait before making a late turn to the desert just south of the Kuwaiti-Saudi border. That operation was called “IMMINENT THUNDER,” an apparent reference to the name of another operation that none of us yet knew: “Operation DESERT STORM.” Nonetheless, even if the allusion to “storm” in the word “thunder” didn’t yet carry much meaning to Saddam, the word “imminent” should have.

Between exercises, we conducted extensive training in the desert and at sea. We flew with night vision goggles (NVGs), gas masks, rubber chemical-protective hoods, and we flew between ships and in the desert all up, down, and around the Arabian Peninsula.

Then, around Christmas time, three Guam CH-46E helicopters were temporarily reassigned to the amphibious ship USS Trenton (LPD-14) with a raid force consisting of Marines and SEALs to conduct seizures and inspections of defiant Iraqi vessels, most notably the infamous Ibn Khaldoon and the Ain Zallah. When the two ships refused to follow instructions to stop and be boarded, they were quickly taken by force and brought into compliance.[2]

After a short port visit in Muscat, Oman, we went back to work again. President George H. W. Bush’s January 15, 1991 deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait loomed ominously.  Although we remained uncertain that we would be at war in two short weeks, we continued to prepare intensely for it as if it was a sure thing. 

>> Part 2 - "A War of All Against All"


[1] Gary J. Ohls, “Eastern Exit–Rescue ‘…From the Sea’,” Naval War College Review, vol 61, no. 4, article 11 (2008), pp. 128-129.
[2] Ronald J. Brown, “U.S. Marines in the Persian Gulf, 1990-1991, With Marine Forces Afloat in Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), p. 64.

© Robert A. Doss