A Thai navy air base used by American B52 bombers during the Vietnam War is turning into the hub for a U.S. military-led relief effort that is stretching around the devastated shores of the Indian Ocean.
The Americans are part of a giant overseas military force pouring into the region to beef up the relief effort as local authorities struggle to dispose of tens of thousands of bodies and provide relief to more than a million people made homeless by Sunday’s huge earthquake and the tsunami waves it unleashed.
Already this week, American planes have delivered 1,400 body bags to southern Thai islands while Australians and New Zealand military cargo planes have flown supplies and water purification plants into Indonesia.
Pakistani naval sailors diverted their ship to rescue survivors on outlying islands in the Maldives and only poor weather on Wednesday thwarted them from sending a helicopter to hunt for more survivors and deliver aid.
Singapore is sending eight helicopters, a Navy ship and more than 500 military personnel.
“This is a very sad story that will unfold in over the coming days,” said the city state’s Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean. “We will do what we can.”
U.S. forces pour into region
The United States, which has been criticized in recent days for not committing enough aid to the relief operation is pouring forces into the region.
The USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier strike group, which was in Hong Kong, has been diverted to the Gulf of Thailand for the humanitarian relief operations.
Five ships from the group may be deployed off Sumatra, the worst hit area, joint chiefs of staff Lt. Gen. James T. Conway told a news conference in Washington on Wednesday.
Nine P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft, including some based at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan, have also been deployed in support of search and rescue operations in the area, he said.
Six C-130 Cargo planes based out of Japan will also be diverted to Thailand to join in the operation, according to an Air Force statement.
“As soon as we received word that the earthquake victims needed our help, we immediately activated forces to provide assistance,” said Col. Mark Schissler, commander of the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota Air Base, just outside Tokyo.
Lt. Col. Scott Elder in Thailand said there would likely be up to 1,000 U.S. military personnel arriving in the next week.
Australia sends engineers, equipment
Australia, often criticized in Southeast Asia for its close military links with Washington, said Thursday it would send the naval transport ship HMAS Kanimbla and a team of army engineers to Indonesia.
The ship, carrying two powerful Sea King helicopters, was scheduled to leave Sydney on Friday and pick up the 100-strong team of engineers and construction equipment in the northern port of Darwin before steaming on to Sumatra.
“Once on station, Kanimbla is capable of providing a range of support facilities including medical, accommodation and communications,” Defense Minister Robert Hill said in a statement.
Australia already has more than 100 defense force personnel in and around the Aceh region of Sumatra.