Marines and sailors aided refugees for 38 days


This jam-packed skiff capsized in September, leaving at least 13 of its passengers dead in the Gulf of Aden. (Associated Press photo)

Sometimes, the tail end of a story gets forgotten. Such is the case with sailors and Marines who recently returned from a deployment with the Peleliu Amphibious Ready Group and 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, out of San Diego, Calif.

You may remember the sad story of a skiff with about 85 Somalian and Ethiopian passengers capsizing in the Gulf of Aden in September, drowing at least 13 men and women. It’s a sad, but common theme: poor refugees running from economic hardship in African countries are known to brave the pirate-infested gulf to get to Yemen, risking their lives in the process.

About 62 survivors were rescued by sailors with the destroyer Winston Churchill and eventually transferred to the dock landing ship Pearl Harbor, officials said. The move gave the U.S. military time to sort out where they refugees could go — a concern in a hostile part of the world.

It is there that the story ended publicly — until now.

In an interview at the Pentagon, two of the top military officers involved told me Friday that the Marines and sailors on Pearl Harbor cared for the refugees for 38 days — far longer than anticipated when the U.S. came to their aid. It took more than a month to identify a country that would take them in, said Navy Capt. Dale Fuller, commanding officer of the Navy’s Amphibious Squadron 3, which oversaw the Peleliu, Pearl Harbor and other ships carrying the 15th MEU.

“We had full expectation that we would be sending the Pearl Harbor to the nearest port any day,” Fuller said. “But then it was a week later, and then two weeks later and then three weeks later. It was like, ‘OK guys, they’ve been on board for quite some time. Can we get a country designated so we can transfer these folks to shore? Thirty-eight days later, we eventually transferred these folks, these rescued persons, to Kenya in Mombasa.”

That left sailors and Marines caring for scared refugees for more than a month. They didn’t just feed them and cloth them, though. Shower facilities were set up on the flight deck. A clothing drive was conducted to give them something fresh to wear. Soccer balls were broken out, and laundry was done. Two female refugees were pregnant when rescued, and one lost her baby, Fuller said.

The mission is well within the ARG/MEU’s capability, but the duration of it was challenging, said Col. Roy Osborn, the 15th MEU commander.

“This is what you had to do for these people,” he said. “There really was no mission creep to it, it was just the duration. It was not a planned-to duration.”

The refugees were taken to a refugee camp in Kenya after they arrived in Mombasa, the commanders said. They were glad to be on land.


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I'm a senior writer with Marine Corps Times, covering ground warfare, manpower, weapons acquisition and other beats. I embedded in Afghanistan in spring 2010, and plan to return at least once in 2011.

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