By R.R. Keene - Originally Published March 1991
While most of America watched the events of the Persian Gulf unfold, a daring group of Marines executed a flawless rescue of Americans and foreign dignitaries from embassies in Somalia.
While the eyes of the world focused, seemingly mesmerized, on Operation Desert Shield and the Persian Gulf, a handful of Marines staged a daring and flawless night rescue of 250 American citizens and foreign nationals January 4 and 5 on the horn of Africa in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Things went awry over the new year when fighting between Somali rebels and troops of President Mohamed Siad Barre left more than 1,500 dead. The clash spilled from the streets of Mogadishu to the American Embassy compound, the largest U.S. diplomatic facility in the world (80 acres), located in the northeast section of the Somali capital with its 0.5 million population.
Citing armed looters as having entered the embassy compound and being unable to contact the Somali government, American Ambassador James K, Bishop urgently cabled the State Department requesting evacuation of Americans. (This was nothing new to Bishop who had been ambassador to Liberia in June when a similar situation in that west African nation forced him to request a similar evacuation.)
The response both times was to send in the Marines.
It is called noncombatant evacuation operations or NEO, and no force in the world is capable of doing it as well as the U.S. Marine Corps/Navy team. Only it has the ships, aircraft and equipment vital to the success of such a mission. And, its troops have been perfecting NEO capabilities for more than a decade.
However, even by its standards, the mission to Mogadishu contained "real risks," according to Lieutenant General Joseph P. Hoar,-Marine Corps Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans, Policies and Operations and his counterpart with the office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Vice Admiral Robert J. Kelly.
Both flag officers explained that the authority to evacuate the embassy in Somalia came via the Joint Chiefs of Staff on January 2. The closest ships, USS Guam, an amphibious assault ship, and USS Trenton, an amphibious transport dock, were in the Arabian Sea, 460 nautical miles away, in support of Operation Desert Shield. Berthed on the decks of both vessels were elements of the Fourth Marine Expeditionary Brigade, special operations capable (SOC), with CH-53E "Super Stallion" helicopters which can be refueled in mid-air. Both ships started steaming "on a high-speed course" in the direction of Somalia.
"Because of the deteriorating situation, it was important to get Marines on the ground (into the compound) as soon as possible," said VAdm Kelly, who explained that an evacuation from the Mogadishu International Airport was impossible.
"The distance between the embassy compound and airport (about three miles) was really contested and reports indicated that there were dead bodies up and down that road," said LtGen Hoar.
The Navy amphibious squadron commander, with the Marine landing force commander embarked, opted to load two Super Stallions from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 461 with a reinforced rifle platoon from 1st Battalion, Second Marine Regiment and several of the Navy's highly trained SEALs (similar to commandos) for the operation named "Eastern Exit."
Both helicopters lifted off on January 4 at 2:45 a.m. (Somali time). They would have to fly the 460 miles and top-off their fuel cells twice in mid-air at night. This would require the pilots to use night vision goggles for most of the distance. Two Marine KC-130 turbo-prop tankers out of Bahrain were sent on station over the Indian Ocean to provide fuel for the thirsty, troop-laden Super Stallions.
The ships would continue to close on the coast and, once in range, launch CH-46 "Sea Knight" helicopters from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadrons 263 and 365 which have no air-to-air refueling capabilities.
It was approximately 6 a.m. when rotor wash from the CH-53s' enormous blades swept through the compound near the gate and the mammoth "birds" sat down in the middle of the Somali civil war. Early that morning, State Department officials were reporting that the street outside was ". . .littered with corpses, looters had been repulsed with small-arms fire by hired security guards," and "an embassy building had sustained a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade."
LtGen Hoar explained that the Marine security guards in the embassy, playing their traditional role, were responsible for the destruction of sensitive and classified material, cryptographic and communications equipment and protection of the embassy building itself. They also assisted in providing radio communications and helping with evacuation preparations.
VAdm Kelly reported that it was the contracted Somali guards who manned posts at the perimeter of the compound and who, according to the State Department, repulsed looters (some with scaling ladders for the 10-foot-high walls) by small-arms fire.
State Department officials also confirmed that U.S. officials in Mogadishu arranged, at the request of officials at the Soviet Embassy in Washington and the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, to evacuate all Soviets from their embassy in the Somali capital. The Soviet ambassador, his staff and their dependents were escorted more than a mile to the American Embassy by troops loyal to President Barre. Indeed, 141 men, 72 women and 47 children (including the newborn daughter of the Sudanese ambassador) from 30 nationalities and various legations within the city had fled to sanctuary offered by the 80-acre compound.
Inside, Marines poured from the Super Stallions to reinforce and take up defensive positions beside the Somali guards. Other Marines were dispatched and made a dash of two blocks to the U.S. Office of Military Cooperation to escort several Americans and the Kenyan ambassador, who had been cut off by cross fire between warring factions, to the embassy.
In the compound, as the Marines fanned out, the first 60 evacuees piled into the CH-53s and lifted out just prior to first light.
Meanwhile, a planned Italian-led evacuation had to be cancelled because, according to Italian officials in neighboring Nairobi, Kenya, it was considered "too risky." A flight of Italian C-130s marked with red crosses did manage to land later at the airport. A French frigate, also redirected from Desert Shield, managed to get close enough to the Somali coast to pick up 47 people, near Merca, 40 miles south of Mogadishu.
However, it was the Navy/Marine team that evacuated the bulk of civilians. On the night of January 5, the two-ship flotilla had steamed close enough for a wave of five CH-46 helicopters to lift off the deck of USS Guam, under cover of darkness and with the pilots using night vision goggles, and ferry the remaining civilians onto the ships. It took less than two hours for the final wave to return with the Marine security force that had been inserted.
Reports from Mogadishu stated that the American Embassy was sacked and looted by retreating members of Somalia's armed forces who used rocket-propelled grenades to blast down the gate to the compound and doors to the embassy once the final helicopters lifted off.
On board Trenton and Guam, evacuees were cared for until they arrived in Muscat, Oman several days later, where arrangements for return to their home countries were made.
"We (the Navy and Marine Corps), had in the Indian Ocean one of the MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) SOCs embarked in amphibious shipping, but they were not in the immediate area. The interesting thing (about Operation Eastern Exit) is that the Navy/Marine Corps work on having a special operations capability, and that fact played into this situation very well," said LtGen Hoar, who explained that every element in this operation had special operations training.
The general stressed that one of the most important aspects of this mission was the SOC training which includes a rapid-planning sequence where Marines and Navy work together routinely. He then explained that Navy and Marine commanders on the scene had only a few hours to come up with a viable plan to evacuate the embassy. "Everyone knew what had to be done. From the time the first group of helicopters (CH-53s) lifted off the Trenton until Ambassador Bishop declared the NEO complete was 24 hours (total)." Not a shot was fired at or by Marines. Not a person in the evacuation was injured.
"It was a wonderful operation and conducted very quickly," said VAdm Kelly. "In and out. . .over. Bang. Done.
"At the same time, of course, the situation in Liberia, which has been with us since May, just today (January 9) saw the final amphibious ship, USS Nashville (and the Marines sent there to evacuate civilians and protect the embassy compound), leave the coast of Liberia. What they did (after waiting off the coast for two months and going ashore on August 5) was to evacuate over 2,690 people. Nobody else can do that."