Marines dodged fog, ash and typhoons in volcano response mission

The 31st MEU was tasked with delivering 118 pallets of disaster relief supplies by air across the island's jungle landscape.
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An MV-22 Osprey from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 265 flies in 2015. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cameron McCulloch

After a volcano erupted at the center of the remote Pacific island of Bougainville last summer, Marines had to fly through skies filled with ash, navigate mountain peaks, and avoid typhoons to deliver humanitarian relief to thousands, the commander of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit told reporters Thursday.

“The weather patterns of Bougainville were really pretty exceptionally challenging,” said Commander Col. Matthew Danner. “It’s a very densely covered jungle island with some high peaks in the middle which leads to low ceilings for clouds and stuff.”

Much of that flying, Danner said, was done by a unit of Marine MV-22 Ospreys, all of which have been subsequently grounded over mechanical issues, a loss that Danner said might affect future similar missions.

“I do a heavy lift of a reinforced company, on one day, I can still do that,” he said. “If I had to do that over the course of five days in a row, I would struggle to do that in ways that I wouldn’t if I had these 11 Ospreys available to me as well.”

Danner leads the 31st MEU, one of only two forward-deployed naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region. Danner held a roundtable with reporters Thursday to review the 31st MEU’s recently completed patrols, which included the Bougainville response. A MEU is made up of roughly 2,200 Marines and Sailors on three or four amphibious ships and consists of four elements: command, ground combat, aviation combat, and logistics combat.

In August, Marines in the 31st MEU were sent to Bougainville Island, the easternmost island of Papua New Guinea, after the eruption of Mount Bagana in July. The active volcano sits in the center of Bougainville, which is home to 300,000 residents and mostly covered in rugged tropical jungles.

The volcano eruption sent billowing clouds of smoke and ash into the skies and affected more than 23,000 in the surrounding areas. Ongoing volcanic activity restricted residents’ access to food and water and prevented families from returning home.

Relief efforts for the eruption were led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which arranged for emergency shelter kits, other relief commodities, protection assistance for women and children, and logistical support to deliver essential relief items and critical relief services.

But delivering 118 pallets of disaster relief supplies totaling nearly 70,000 pounds fell to 31st MEU.

The unit was sent to take supplies from an airfield at Buka Island, on the northern tip of Bougainville, and to distribute the supplies to various landing fields impacted by the eruption. The lack of proper infrastructure like roads, didn’t allow for timely distribution of aid so the agency turned to the Marine Corps for helicopter air support.

“A chief advantage of a MEU for crisis response is that it’s self-sustaining and it’s sea-based, so in other words, we don’t show up with things and then also need to go find and draw on local resources for water, for power, for places to set down our equipment. We can do it all from our ships and day trips, so to speak, from the ships,” Danner said.

Danner described the mission as “tactically simple” but with “elements of complexity at the operational strategic levels.” 

The 10-day humanitarian mission involved long days due to the amount of planning and endurance the mission required, Danner said. Adding to the complexity of the mission, he said, was the fact that there were typhoons in the Ryukyu Islands and Japan that were happening simultaneously. The mission also involved on-the-ground liaising with the U.S. embassy at Port Moresby and the charge d’affaires.

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Most of that flying, said Danner, was done by Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, or VMM-265, whose 11 Ospreys are attached to the MEU. The service used MV-22 Ospreys, CH-53E Super Stallions, and SH-60 Seahawks for humanitarian operations, according to USAID.

“The MVPs of the whole act, of course, was VMM-265,” Danner said. “It was a very challenging bit of flying and they did a superb job.”

The Bougainville mission came in late summer, before an Air Force Osprey crashed in December during a training exercise off the coast of Japan, killing eight crew members. The crash was the third fatal mishap in just over a year for the twin-rotor, vertical takeoff aircraft, and prompted both the Marines and Air Force to ground their fleets.

The Marines fly close to 300 Ospreys.

Without the Ospreys, Danner said he can still haul the same capacities using assault support aircraft and surface connectors but the difference is the level of endurance when restricted to older CH-53s or other heavy-lift aircraft in Okinawa.

“We’re not gonna fall off a cliff, so to speak in terms of aircrew readiness,” Danner said. 

If the service reinstated Ospreys tomorrow, “we would be back at 100%,” Danner said after a few days of refresher training. “But it would be a pretty rapid process to get back to normal.”

Bougainville has been part of U.S. naval history going back to World War II when Marines fought to capture the island as part of the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. The Navy recently christened an amphibious assault ship as the USS Bougainville in December, the second ship named after the island. 

Along with the Bougainville mission in August, the 31st MEU’s tour included a number of training exercises. Over the last year, the unit completed its first Iron Fist exercise in Japan after being moved from California, supported the Army for Talisman Sabre 23, and ran the first iteration of an interagency exercise on foreign humanitarian and State Department support.

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