Let me tell you a story of a disaster that you have probably never heard of and the overwhelming American response that you should know about.
In late spring of 1991 a US Navy Amphibious Task Force (ATF) returning from the Persian Gulf war was diverted, on order of President George H.W. Bush, to the Bay of Bengal.
A Bangladeshi citizen, rumor has it, on seeing the ATF approach from the sea, called them "Angels from the Sea." Thus began Operation Sea Angel, one of the largest military relief operations ever undertaken.
Less than two weeks ago, on the evening of April 29 1991, Cyclone Marian, a storm with top sustained winds of 160 mph (Category 5), made landfall as a strong Category 4 storm (155 mph) along the coastline of Bangladesh. The resulting 20 foot high tidal wave killed over 138,000 people and left over 5 million people homeless. Marian was one of the deadliest tropical cyclones on record.
The new democratically elected government in Bangladesh, overwhelmed by the massive scale of the devastation, requested urgent assistance from foreign countries. While relief goods had been stockpiled before the cyclone, most of Bangladesh’s lift capability and almost all of the infrastructure had been wiped out by the force of nature’s onslaught.
The United States responded on May 10 1991 by launching Operation Sea Angel, a relief operation that involved over 7000 US soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen. The man leading the effort, Lt. General Henry Stackpole, declared, "We went to Kuwait in the name of liberty, and we’ve come to Bangladesh in the name of humanity."
Operation Sea Angel was massive in scale and massively successful:
The relief efforts of U.S. troops are credited with having saved as many as 200,000 lives.
…The US effort not only saved lives, but it also won hearts and minds. A Bangladeshi human rights blogger, Rumi Ahmed, who lived through the events recollects in a post commemorating the events:
The first American I have ever met was a soldier, probably a member of US marine corps. I saw him in Bangladesh. He was dispatched to Chittagong, Bangladesh after the deadly storm of April 29 1991. I was hustling across [t]he crowded lobby of Chittagong medical college hospital when I spotted an area where the crowd is a little denser than the rest of the lobby. A well built Caucasian man in battle gear, sun burnt skin, walking across carrying a Bangladeshi toddler on his shoulder. The toddler, clearly a victim of the recent cyclone, was vomiting all over the marine’s body.
The soldier was in Chittagong as a part of operation sea angel.
In response to Rumi’s post, it is heartening to see comments from some of the American servicemen and women who took part in Operation Sea Angel. Sixteen years after they first won hearts and minds, they continue to do so.
In just over one month the United States military executed what would become a blueprint for successful relief operations. The success of Operation Sea Angel contributed to the establishment of military doctrine on relief operations and on inter-agency coordination during joint operations, both of which provided ample lessons learned that could have been applied to Katrina and Iraq.
Operation Sea Angel demonstrated the tremendous soft power of the United States. It also demonstrated the lighter side of force projection. It showed the capability of the United States government to respond to natural disasters anywhere in the world when there is will within the executive branch to commit the resources necessary to recover from a humanitarian crisis. The United States military overcame significant barriers of lack of infrastructure, broken communications lines, challenges due to massive flooding and collapse of levees, lack of coordination between local and central governments, and the demands of a large population on the brink of starvation and in need of immediate relief.Two US Navy ships are on the way to Bangladesh to assist in the relief operation of the cyclone Sidr Victims. Will many lives be saved by the angels again?
A member of the Operation Sea Angel blogs.