Monday, February 6, 2023

Fuji

fujiI think we all have had times when we did something, or thought about doing something, that didn’t seem like much of a big deal at the time, but then later its importance grew over time, and the decision you made to either do that thing or not turned out to be more meaningful than we had imagined at the time we made the choice.

One such time for me was the time some friends and I climbed Mount Fuji in Japan. We were deployed to a camp at the base of the mountain from Okinawa. It was July 4, 1976 and we had a military parade in honor of the 200th birthday of our Nation and about a dozen of us thought it would be cool to climb it to celebrate the day after the parade.

Mount Fuji isn’t a difficult mountain to climb, there’s just a lot of it: a little more than 12,000 feet of it. A lot of Japanese successfully make a pilgrimage of the climb every year. You can climb it in about eight hours if you follow a trail. It’s certainly no Denali.

Climbing Mt Fuji July 4 1976 2We wanted the climb to be special though, so we didn’t want to follow a trail. Instead, we just started from our camp and walked straight up. We started right after the parade was finished—about mid-morning—and trudged up the cinders all day long. As the end of the day approached, we ran into some weather; it was mostly hail, rain, and wind and it pounded down into our faces as we looked up to climb.

We didn’t quite have a plan for that. About half of our group decided to head back down the mountain, but the rest of us continued on. Not long after we split up, we came across an abandoned building that appeared to be intended as a shelter. It had three walls and, of course, the one that was missing was the one the weather was coming through.

Climbing Mt Fuji July 4 1976 4There was an elevated platform inside that seemed to have been designed for sleeping on so we huddled up on that.. We didn’t have blankets so we slept in the cold and wind. It was just cold and windy enough to make sleeping difficult, but it was better than being outside.

We woke up early the next morning and continued the climb as the cinders turned to a little bit of snow resting on top of the cinders. We reached the summit – the crater – at about mid-morning. Looking back down on Japan on that clear day was quite a sight. We walked around and took some photos before heading back down. The trip down was much faster.

Climbing Mt Fuji July 4 1976 3Like I said, the climb wasn’t a major feat, but it was one of those things you don’t get many chances to do. I’m glad we did it. More importantly, I’m glad we didn’t turn around and head back down the mountain when we ran into the bad weather. If we had, that might have been the last time I ever talked about Mount Fuji. It doesn’t seem likely I would have been fond of remembering the time I climbed half a mountain and gave up on the other half.

I suppose avoiding regrets like that has been a big motivator for me in negotiating the challenges and obstacles I’ve encountered over the years.  I think I’ve recognized for a long time that failure sometimes comes with taking risks, so I’ve not spent as much time worrying about or fearing failure as I’ve thought of ways to overcome those challenges and obstacles. I think I’ve been more afraid of quitting or giving up, and what it might turn me into if I headed down that road (or mountain).

There’s a lot to be said for climbing the other half of the mountain. We do it—or face the decision to do it—all the time. Oftentimes, the consequences that lay beyond the decision not to press on are more lasting than the effects of having tried and failed.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Silent Legacy of James Henry Harris

James Henry Harris was born near Creedmoor in Granville County, North Carolina in 1832. He apprenticed as a carpenter as a young man before starting his own business in Raleigh. When laws in North Carolina regarding free people of color became more aggressive in the 1840s, he moved to Ohio[1] where he attended school for two years. Within a decade, he traveled to and taught in Liberia and Sierra Leone where over the previous twenty years, thousands of freed slaves from the United States had resettled.

Harris then moved to Terre Haute, Indiana where, in 1863, he was asked by Indiana Governor Levi Morton to help raise a regiment of U. S. Colored Troops for service in the Civil War.  After the war, he returned to North Carolina where he became a teacher for the New England Freedmen's Aid Society.[2]

Harris soon saw a need to ensure that freedom for blacks included legal and political equality, so he entered politics. In 1865, he was elected to the North Carolina Freedmen's Convention where he advocated moderation and reconciliation with whites and education for blacks. That same year, he became vice president of the National Equal Rights Convention. By the time he became president of the Freedman's Convention the following year, he had become increasingly more forceful in his insistence on equal rights for blacks.[3]

As post-war Reconstruction progressed, Harris developed as one of the most influential black politicians in North Carolina. He was a charter member of the North Carolina Republican Party, was a delegate at the 1868 North Carolina Constitutional Convention, and was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly three times and to the North Carolina Senate once. He also used his influence and oratorical skills to urge President Ulysses S. Grant to press Congress to pass legislation that would ensure equal rights for blacks. He attended the 1868, 1872, and 1876 Republican National Conventions and was a presidential elector in 1872.[4]

In 1870, while he was a member of the North Carolina legislature, Harris joined with 11 other legislators led by Senator John Pool and met with Governor William W. Holden to devise a plan to suppress the Ku Klux Klan which had been on a terror campaign to keep recently freed slaves from exercising their right to vote by intimidating them and white Republican officials. They decided to form a militia to stop the Klan; that move resulted in the Holden-Kirk War. After several bloody clashes with the Klan, Governor Holden disbanded the militia. Later that year, however, the Democrats gained the majority in the North Carolina legislature and impeached Governor Holden on a straight party-line vote. (140 years later, in 2011, the North Carolina Senate voted unanimously to pardon Governor Holden.)[5]

In the 1880s Harris edited and published the North Carolina Republican, whose slogan was “Firm in the Right,”[6] and whose work was focused "in behalf of the Republican party and the advancement of the negro.”[7]

During his career, Harris was an advocate for education for blacks, prison reform, aid to laborers, protection for women and debtors, and care for orphans. He also helped create and became one of the first trustees of the Colored Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind in Raleigh. Since even before he began his political career, Harris believed that white and black interests were interwoven, but along the way he maintained his insistence that blacks fight to keep their political rights and to gain equality before the law.”[8]

The end of Reconstruction brought about a persistent erosion of the progress that had been made toward equality among the races after the Civil War. Within two decades, political control had shifted and Jim Crow laws gave legal sanction to segregation and discrimination in the South. Finally, 1901 saw the return of Democratic control in the North Carolina legislature and an end to representation by black North Carolinians in the United States Congress, which had seen 22 black men among its membership over the previous 30 years. It would be another 28 years before another African-American was elected to the U. S. Congress from the state of North Carolina.[9]

James H. Harris' work is largely unknown today and his legacy is elusive, but the contributions that he and many others made to the advancement of African-American interests before the Civil War and during Reconstruction were noteworthy and courageous. Although, many of their initiatives could not withstand the Jim Crow era, their legacy is that although it is easier to throw up one’s hands on racial tension, bias, and bigotry today as if it has never been worse and there is no hope of improvement, the fact is that energetic and courageous Americans can make a real difference with real action, if they're willing. "Real action" includes not turning a deaf and indifferent ear to discrimination in our communities and ensuring that our elected officials back up their campaign rhetoric with tangible action. In order to do that, we have to pay attention and rely on facts and substance rather than fall for the partisanship that favors politicians, not the people and principles they're supposed to represent.


1 Ijames, Earl “Constitutional Convention, 1868: ‘Black Caucus’.” NCPedia. Reprinted from the Tar Heel Junior Historian Fall 2008. https://www.ncpedia.org/history/cw-1900/black-caucus
2 Alexander, Roberta Sue “Harris, James Henry.” NCPedia. 1988. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/harris-james-henry
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Barnett, Ned “N.C. state senate pardons governor who stood up to Klan.” Reuters. April 12, 2011. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northcarolina-pardon/n-c-state-senate-pardons-governor-who-stood-up-to-klan-idUSTRE73B80V20110412?feedType=RSS&feedName=domesticNews
6 Ijames, “Constitutional Convention, 1868: ‘Black Caucus’.”
7 Alexander, Roberta Sue “Harris, James Henry.”
8 Ibid.
9 “Representative George White of North Carolina.” History, Art, and Archives, United States House of Representatives.
http://history.house.gov/HistoricalHighlight/Detail/35244?ret=True

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Sometimes Better To Ask Forgiveness...

In early 1996, I was a member of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 162 (HMM-162), the aviation element of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) on board the USS Guam (LPH-9). We were operating in the Adriatic Sea and ashore in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Albania as part of the peace enforcement force, the "implementation force" (IFOR), during Operation Decisive Endeavor.

We were wrapping up our work in the Adriatic in early April, preparing to head to Israel for some exercises, when we received an order to prepare to redeploy to the west coast of Africa for potential operations in embattled Liberia. As we steamed toward the southern end of the Adriatic, we were either going to turn left toward Israel or right toward Liberia. By the time we reached the Mediterranean, it was a right turn. We arrived at "Mamba Station" off the coast of Liberia early in the morning of April 20th.

When we arrived, fighting around the U. S. Embassy was pretty intense as warring factions fought in the street in front of the Embassy and along several blocks nearby, so our first priority was to reinforce the Embassy with Marines. Our next priority was to fly non-combatants out of Liberia. In some cases, we flew them to the Guam; in other cases, we flew them to neighboring Freetown, Sierra Leone where they would catch an international flight out of the area.

As we continued operations in and out of Liberia over the next few months, we took time to train at the airport in Sierra Leone, away from the mayhem in Monrovia, although Sierra Leone had plenty of problems of its own. Armed soldiers were all throughout the airport keeping a menacing eye on the people there.

I remember the first time we landed in Sierra Leone, I had trouble reaching the control tower for permission to land. I had been calling them beginning at 25 miles out, but got no answer on the radio. I flew closer and closer and kept calling until finally on short final to the runway I simply said, "Lungi (the airport's name), this is Wombat 05, flight of two U. S. Marine helicopters. We're on short final and we'll be landing on runway 12. We have passengers and we'll need fuel." Normally, that would have been phrased as a request, but not in that case. Finally, the control tower answered and cleared us to land.

We hoped that the airport would have telephones so we could call home, so we left one Marine in the aircraft so no one would run off with the aircraft or more likely, the 50 caliber machineguns and ammo as we walked into the airport to see if there were phones. It was probably a curious sight for those in the airport because we were still wearing our flight gear and were carrying 9mm Barettas into the airport. There were enough American flags on flight suits that everyone probably figured out who we were pretty quickly. There wasn't going to be any trouble for us there.

What was interesting was that as the soldiers stood over the people in the airport, we walked past them and gave candy and cookies to the kids. I doubt they had seen friendly military people before, but it was good for them and the soldiers to see a little friendliness coming from the Americans.

We dropped off our passengers, made our phone calls, got our fuel, and headed back to the Guam sitting off the coast of Liberia.

On another occasion, I led a flight to the same airport to do some night vision goggle training. As we landed, we saw a Soviet-made Mi-8 "Hip" helicopter sitting there on the flight line. To that point, I had seen photographs and studied aircraft recognition silhouettes, but I hadn't seen one in person before.

Once we shut the aircraft down, we walked over to the Mi-8 to look it over. I tapped on the aircraft skin and it was as solid as an old Buick. Our aircraft had aluminum skin to cut down on weight, so the Hip was quite a bit heavier and likely less maneuverable than our aircraft. A few minutes later, the pilot came out of the airport and walked over to us. He was a South African mercenary hired by the Sierra Leone government.

He asked if we wanted to go up in the aircraft. I was the senior Marine there and this was a situation that we had never discussed before: Would it be okay for us to go up in a Soviet-made helicopter flown by a South African mercenary? There was no one to ask for permission other than me, so I said, "sure." The answer, if I had asked, might have been "no," but if I didn't accept the offer everyone would have said I should have. That's the way that sort of thing works. It was such an opportunity, I couldn't pass it up.

So, we boarded the helicopter and as I prepared to take a seat in the back, the pilot directed me to the cockpit. He was actually going to let me fly that thing!

I climbed into the cockpit and strapped in and put the helmet on that was sitting in my seat. As I did, I looked overhead at the circuit breaker panel and saw that the circuit breaker labels were all written in Cyrillic from when it was Soviet-owned. Some of the labels were replaced by bits of paper with words in English taped to the panel identifying what the circuit breakers and switches were for. I asked the mercenary pilot what they did about the ones still written in the Russian language and he said, "We don't know what those are for so we don't touch them." Good idea.

The pilot started the helicopter and asked me if I wanted to fly it. I was a little surprised that he was going to let me take off since takeoffs and landings are not always sure things, but I took the controls and got ready to lift off.

The Soviet helicopter main rotor systems rotate clockwise whereas American helicopter main rotors spin counter-clockwise. The reason that's important to know is that torque generated by the main rotor makes the fuselage want to spin in the opposite direction, which is part of the reason you have a tail rotor, technically known as a "counter-torque rotor." As you increase power to take off you need to manipulate the pedals which control the tail rotor to keep the helicopter from spinning when you increase or decrease power. After a while, American pilots who fly tail rotor helicopters apply left pedal input when they increase power to take off without even thinking about it. The problem with jumping into a Soviet helicopter is that if you apply left pedal without thinking about it like you would in an American helicopter, you'd make the helicopter spin badly. Fortunately, I didn't fly a tail rotor helicopter, so I didn't have to fight the temptation to put left pedal in. When I added power, I felt the fuselage want to spin left, so I added right pedal to counter it.

The takeoff went fine and I flew around the traffic pattern and set up to land at the helicopter pad on the north side of the runway. As I reduced power and pulled back on the nose to start my decelerating descent, the helicopter barely responded so it mushed right through the normal landing profile. I noticed that the South African sort of leaned forward to get a look at the pad which was getting more difficult to see as we creeped up over it, so I--as cooly as I could--said "I'm going to make a steep approach," as if that was my plan all along, which it wasn't. Doing a steep approach in an unfamiliar aircraft would have been kind of a bold thing to do, so he must have thought I was pretty confident in my ability. Fortunately, that pig slowed down enough that I was able to stay on a steep profile and put it on the pad with no problem. I climbed out of the cockpit to give another pilot a go at it, but I did warn the next guy on my way out that it was pretty mushy.

Still not sure that news that we had flown the Soviet aircraft was going to be well-received when we returned to the squadron, I told my CO about the great opportunity that we couldn't pass up, and he thought it was great and was glad we did it.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Birds of Paradise

I was relatively new to offshore flying when I picked up an assignment to spend the day supporting an oil company in a field of oil platforms more than 100 miles off of the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

As I landed on my first platform after that long overwater flight, my passenger said that he would be only a few minutes so I decided to delay a needed refueling until I could take him to his next stop. If I took off to get fuel on another platform right then, I'd need to shut the helicopter down to refuel and wouldn't be able to return for a half hour or more. I didn't want to keep him waiting if it wasn't necessary.

It turned out that I waited on the deck at idle for about half an hour for him to return to the aircraft, so I was really needing fuel by the time he was back on board.

He boarded the aircraft and I dropped him off at the next stop, and then went looking for a refueling platform. With all of those gas and oil resources out there, you would think there'd be a lot of places to get fuel, but there weren't. Anyway, I found a fuel platform on my map and noted its number from the map as I looked for a platform with that number painted on it. The platform number was normally painted on the deck of the platform, but most of the time, the number was also painted on a sign attached to the platform at sea level.

I found what I thought was the platform that I was looking for, but I couldn't see the number because the platform deck was all white with no number in sight. On closer inspection, mostly because of the number of sea birds that I scared off when I flew over the deck, I figured out that the deck was white because it and the platform number were COVERED like a sheet in bird droppings.


So, since I couldn't see the number on the platform deck I dropped down to the ocean's surface to see if I could see a sign down there. I found the sign and flew back up to the top. It was the platform I was looking for.

Let me pause here to say that I was flying for a well-respected company that had high expectations for its pilots. Once we were hired and trained for work around the oil fields, the company designated us as "captains." We had uniforms. My khaki-colored shirt had embroidered wings with my name "Captain Doss" sewn above the left breast pocket. I had shoulder boards with the four gold stripes of a commercial airline captain. My trousers and shoes were brown. My uniform was clean and my shoes were shined. Of course, I also wore a ball cap and sunglasses. Of course… I say all of that to make the point that this was one of those jobs with an image attached to it where people assumed that you'd start and finish the day in a clean uniform, and that it wasn't really what some would call a "dirty job." And it wasn't a dirty job...most of the time.

Back to the story.

So, I landed my helicopter on this fuel platform and shut it down. Since there was no one on the platform to fuel aircraft, pilots pumped their own fuel. I opened the helicopter door and put one foot on the deck to test the surface. As I suspected, that bird excrement was wet and every bit of an eighth-of-an-inch deep. It oozed up along the edges of my shoe. I knew that this wasn't going to be good. The platform was going to be very very slick to walk on so as I set my other foot on the deck I was very deliberate in doing so. I walked in short patient strides as if I was on a sheet of ice because I didn't need to slip on the surface and end up wearing a coat of bird feces. I still had a long day of work ahead of me.

The fuel nozzle was stowed in a basket at the very edge of the platform and below the deck level so I was going to need to kneel down to get it. First, however, I needed to take a fuel sample to make sure the fuel wasn't contaminated since I was the first pilot on the platform that day. Since the fuel valve was below the deck edge too, taking a fuel sample meant that I needed to kneel on the deck to do it. Fortunately, I had gloves that I wore for refueling so I wouldn't have the smell of jet fuel on my hands while I was transporting customers. But considering my options, I decided to put my gloves down on the deck so I could kneel on them without getting white patches of bird dung on my knees. It was clearly not one of the more glamorous moments on this job.

So, I knelt on my gloves and leaned over the fuel pump basket to get the sample jar. I was careful to hold the jar under the spout so I wouldn't splash fuel on my hands, but it turned out that I was holding the jar under the wrong spout. I discovered that right away when I opened the valve and the fuel came out of another spout, pouring jet fuel all over my hands. After I got my act together, I finally got the fuel sample and checked it. The fuel was good, thankfully.

I took the hose and nozzle from the deck edge basket and dragged them over to my helicopter. Actually, you don't drag those hoses; you pick them up and carry them section by section from one area of the platform to the next because the deck has an abrasive surface that can tear up the hoses when you drag them across it (unless there's bird feculence all over it!).

So, I refueled the helicopter then hauled the hose and nozzle back over to the storage area. I knelt down again to stow everything. As I got back into the helicopter, I found that despite my best efforts to prevent it, I not only had jet fuel all over my hands, I had white birdplop on my knees, hands, and on the toes, sides, and bottoms of my shoes. Again, not an overly glamorous moment.

I started the aircraft back up, picked up my passenger, and finished the day's work out there without saying a word about how I had spent the previous 45 minutes. Living it once was enough for that day, especially since some of my misery was of my own creation.

Being a commercial helicopter pilot working for oil companies sounds like a cool job, and it is. It's dangerous work, but it's good work. My friends always thought it was an exotic job where everything was perfect, and I didn't tell them differently. I have to say though that after my trip to that poop-blanketed platform, I had to smile when they mentioned my cool and exotic job. There was no point in ruining the illusion with the other side of the story. These days, though, I tell people that it was a great job, but I admit that there was this one day...

Some people go to work every day and expect to "step in it" a little bit; sometimes they expect to step in it a lot because there's a lot of it to step in. Some of us don't expect to step in it at all, but find a way to do it anyway.

It's funny how some of the least enjoyable parts of our lives and our work can become fond memories if we let them. If all we do is moan and complain, though, that negativity tends to stick to us (like bird poop) and it's hard to find happiness and satisfaction in them. Sometimes, what can you do but laugh, right?

Friday, January 6, 2023

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 included 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 chargĂ©s 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

Thursday, January 5, 2023

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 9mm 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-130 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; GlobalSecurity.org, “Operation Eastern Exit,” https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/eastern_exit.htm.
[14] Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” p. 31. 

© Robert A. Doss

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

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 105mm howitzer, a 25mm Gatling gun, and a 40mm 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 ChargĂ© 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; GlobalSecurity.org, “Operation Eastern Exit,” https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/eastern_exit.htm.
[13] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 29.
[14] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” pp. 4, 31; Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” p. 98.

© Robert A. Doss

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

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.

Despite 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 12.7mm 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; GlobalSecurity.org, “Operation Eastern Exit,” https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/eastern_exit.htm.
[2] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 24; Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” p. 98; GlobalSecurity.org, “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

Monday, January 2, 2023

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) https://www.quantico.marines.mil/News/News-Article-Display/Article/628708/operation-eastern-exit-veterans-speak-at-ews/.

© Robert A. Doss

Sunday, January 1, 2023

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