U.S. Forces Evacuate 2,500 from Sierra Leone
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 12, 1997 As the USS Kearsarge steamed away from the coast of West Africa and headed for the Mediterranean, the sailors and Marines aboard could readily say: "Mission accomplished."
When the final tally was in, these U.S. troops had evacuated about 2,500 people in three waves from Sierra Leone.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen speaking at a Pentagon news briefing June 3 commended the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Kearsarge crew for conducting three "safe, fast and efficient" evacuations. About 450 Americans, 250 Britons and 1,800 nationals of about 40 other countries left the troubled West African nation aboard U.S. military helicopters. About 900 left May 30, followed by 350 on June 1, and 1,250 on June 3, DoD officials said.
During the operation, CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters carried civilians from the capital city, Freetown, to the Kearsarge, 20 miles offshore. Rebel forces made no attempt to disrupt the evacuation, officials said. U.S. officials later moved evacuees from the Kearsarge to Conakry, Guinea, about 100 miles northwest of Freetown, for transportation to final destinations.
Marine Col. Sam Helland, commander of the joint task force and 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, said the mission was an example of America's ability to project power from the sea. "Our noncombatant operation today demonstrated the flexibility and the tremendous capability of the Marine expeditionary unit/amphibious readiness group team," Helland said after more than 85 sorties the first day.
The operation, dubbed Noble Obelisk, began when State Department officials requested an evacuation after rebellious military forces moved into Freetown May 25. The coup toppled Sierra Leone's first democratically elected government in three decades, the officials said.
While the rebels did not target Americans, U.S. officials were concerned about risks from sporadic gunfire, a DoD spokesman said. Two apparently stray rocket-propelled grenades damaged the American Embassy, which was closed May 30. Marine embassy guards moved aboard the Kearsarge, officials said.
U.S. European Command deployed the Kearsarge with its crew of 1,305 and the 1,200-member 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. About 200 Marines went ashore to secure an evacuation zone, officials said. An 11-man team from the 3rd Special Forces Group of Fort Bragg, N.C., coincidentally in Freetown to conduct leadership training, also helped people to safety.
After the operation, the Kearsarge headed for the Mediterranean for a six-month deployment with the 6th Fleet's USS John F. Kennedy Carrier Battle Group/Amphibious Readiness Group.
The Kearsarge is based in Norfolk, Va.; the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit is based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.