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Marines boost disaster-relief mission in Philippines

Nov. 13, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  

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Aid workers disembark a V-22 Osprey as they arrive to assist survivors in an area devastated by Typhoon Haiyan on Tuesday in Leyte, Philippines. (Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images)

The Marine Corps’ presence in the Philippines is poised to surge as more aircraft and personnel — including members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit — are rushed from Japan to assist in the recovery effort following last week’s devastating typhoon.

Four more MV-22B Ospreys departed Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Wednesday, officials there said in a news release, raising to 12 the number of Marine aircraft assigned to what’s been branded Operation Damayan, Tagalog for “help in time of need.” There are eight Ospreys and four KC-130J Hercules, both capable of hauling people, equipment and supplies.

Additionally, two dock landing ships, the Germantown and Ashland, have departed mainland Japan for Okinawa, where elements of the MEU will embark, said Sgt. Ben Eberle, a spokesman with Marine Corps Forces Pacific. It’s not immediately clear how many Marines will get on those ships or which of the MEU’s units will be represented.

The 31st MEU, which includes about 2,200 personnel, has a host of capabilities and routinely trains for humanitarian-assistance missions, said Capt. Garron Garn, a spokesman for the unit. As an air-ground task force, the MEU’s inventory includes a variety of helicopters, smaller seagoing vessels and nearly 200 ground vehicles — among them 30 7-ton all-terrain trucks, which would be able to drive through flooded roads and transport supplies to areas that remain cutoff or difficult to access.

Beyond aviation and logistics assets, all MEUs have a 1,000-man infantry battalion. It remains to be seen whether the top Marine commander in the Philippines, Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, thinks infantry personnel will be needed.

There have been reports of looting and gunfire in some of the areas hit hardest by the storm, and on Wednesday, Philippine security forces exchanged gunfire with an armed gang after a mob overran a rice warehouse in Tacloban, which experienced some of the storm’s worst devastation. The crowd triggered a wall collapse that killed eight people while others left with thousands of sacks of grain.

Marines deployed into similar conditions after a powerful earthquake struck Haiti in 2010. There, U.S. troops carried unloaded weapons, with their ammunition easily accessible but kept out of sight.

The Germantown and Ashland are part of the Navy’s Ampbious Squadron 11. Speaking in Washington, Gen. John Paxton, the Marine Corps’ assistant commandant, said operational and maintenance issues would keep a large-deck amphibious assault ship — the landing helicopter dock Bonhomme Richard is part of the squadron — from joining the relief effort.

“We had a challenge just to get the two [dock landing ships] out of Okinawa, to get them down to the Philippines,” he said. “We can’t get the big deck down there.”

The work continues

On Wednesday, the 270 Marines and sailors already in the Philippines are expected to move military assessment teams into the hard-hit city of Tacloban, officials said. They also will continue evacuating Filipinos displaced by the storm and ferrying workers and supplies.

So far, more than 129,000 pounds of food, water and other supplies have been delivered to those in need, and hundreds of people who lost their homes were relocated to Manila, the capital.

U.S. military officials are sending personnel to Manila to check on “pre-positioned” equipment the Marine Corps keeps there, such as water purification units. Chuck Little, a spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Pacific, said they don’t believe anything was damaged in the storm, and such gear may prove helpful as relief efforts continue.

In addition to the Marines and sailors already on the ground, eight MC-130s assigned to Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines are being used for airlift, according to a news release. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has authorized $10 million to support Operation Damayan.

Kennedy, who commands the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, promised a response effort akin to the widely praised U.S. relief mission after the 2004 Asian tsunami, when fleets of helicopters dropped water and food to hundreds of isolated communities.

“You are not just going to see Marines and a few planes and some helicopters,” Kennedy said. “You will see the entire Pacific Command respond to this crisis.”

Staff writers Mark D. Faram, Hope Hodge Seck and Andrew deGrandpre contributed to this report along with The Associated Press.

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