[This briefing occurs via satellite comm link between members of the Pentagon Press Corps and officers aboard the USS Kearsarge, at sea about 20 miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. Joining Captain Ertel in this briefing are Capt. Michael Wittkamp, commanding officer, USS Kearsarge, Col. Sam Helland, USMC, Commander, Joint Task Force and Commander, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Capt. Jason Johnston, JTF spokesman.]
Captain Ertel: I'm Captain Greg Ertel. I'm commander of Amphibious Squadron 4. I live in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The USS Kearsarge is my flagship which we are embarked on, along with the JTF Commander, who is Colonel Sam Helland, from the 22nd MEU. I also have with me the Commanding Officer of the USS Kearsarge, Captain Michael Wittkamp.
Q: Captain, can you just briefly outline for us what the plan for the evacuation tomorrow is?
A: Currently the USS Kearsarge is off the coast of Freetown, Sierra Leon, about 20 nautical miles off the coast. When we get the word from the representative at the State Department, who is the Deputy Chief of Mission in this case, to commence the evacuation, USS Kearsarge will commence launching her helicopters into Freetown with a security force of United States Marines. Once a security force is in there and assures it is a safe situation, we will start processing, and then loading on to helicopters, American citizens, then flying them back here to the ship.
Once they land on the ship, they will be offloaded from the helicopters, and we have basically a reception for them here where we will process them, assign them to billeting, take care of any personal needs they may have. Some people, I anticipate, will have children with them. We have medical facilities here aboard Kearsarge. We probably have some of the best medical facilities afloat other than the Hospital Ship Comfort or Mercy. We will process the people, feed them, take care of any needs, have some refreshments, hopefully some entertainment. They'll be guided around the ship, and we'll try and take care of them.
Q: Captain, how many choppers, what kind, and how many Marines in the security force will you use?
A: Right now we have on board Kearsarge four CH-53 helicopters and eight CH-46 helicopters. We also are equipped with four AH-1 Cobras and six Harrier aircraft. Again, the number that we use will depend on the number of evacuees that they have ready to be picked up ashore. I anticipate initially that will be a small number and then will build in momentum, but we think we have sufficient helicopter assets to bring everybody out.
The number of Marines, from talking with the JTF commander, will be dependent upon the security situation ashore. We have a number of people ashore right now, U.S. Marines, that will advise the JTF commander on just what the situation is in the morning when we come in.
Q: Captain, do you have any practical advice for the Americans who wish to leave? Any guidance or advice for them?
A: They're being advised by the Deputy Chief of Mission who is a representative of the State Department there in Freetown.
Q: Captain, what have the Marines ashore already reported back on the condition and the situation on the ground?
A: Right now it's almost 10 p.m., it's 9:45 here. It's relatively quiet right now as everybody is preparing to go to sleep or are asleep, so right now it's pretty quiet.
Q: What about earlier in the day? Were they reporting gunfire? What's your estimate of what you're going to need to go in with in the daylight hours?
Captain Johnston: This is Captain Johnston, I'm a spokesman for the Joint Task Force.
The intelligence that we've been getting throughout the day is probably the same that you've been getting through your own sources and the news. Tomorrow, however, will be a different situation altogether, and we will get an intelligence update before we go in tomorrow that will be based on what the current situation is. We obviously want to make sure that we have the right force there to handle the situation that's going on at the time.
Q: What time do you expect operations will get going? Are you going to go pre-dawn tomorrow?
A: We don't anticipate being pre-dawn. Again, that will be controlled by the Deputy Chief of Mission ashore. She'll tell us when she's ready for us to come in. A lot of that will depend on when the American citizens arrive.
Q: How long do you think the total operation will take? Do you have any guess at that so far?
A: No, we don't. Because again, it depends on when and how long it takes the American citizens to come to the evacuation site. And again, when we finish is a decision of the Deputy Chief of Mission. She will tell us when she thinks she has everybody out that wants to go.
Q: Where is the evacuation site?
Captain Johnston: That's something, obviously, that we don't want to disclose at this time. Tomorrow, however, once the operation is well under way we'll go ahead and try to release those details. But obviously, for operational security, we don't want to give out those details at this time.
Q: What's the flying time to Freetown?
Captain Ertel: We're 20 nautical miles off the coast right now. Our helicopters cruise at an average of 120 miles an hour, so we're talking about ten minutes.
Q: I'm sorry, Captain, I didn't understand you in the beginning. Which helicopters did you say would actually be used to evacuate the individuals?
Captain Johnston: We have several different types. First we have CH-46 Sea Knights, mostly look like the Army Chinook. Those are our medium transport helicopters. We also have CH-53 Sea Stallions which are our larger, heavy transport helicopters. Those will be the primary methods of evacuation. Of course we also have our AH-1 Super Cobras to provide any support that the Marines might need on the ground.
Q: Do you plan on sending the Super Cobras in as a security measure whether or not they're asked for? Or will that depend on the security situation?
Captain Johnston: The Super Cobras will deploy in the morning with the force. Whether they will be used or not is obviously the call of the on-scene commander.
Q: I wonder if we might request that we talk to you again tomorrow after you get the evacuees on the ship. Maybe we could talk to some of the evacuees. Would that be possible?
Captain Johnston: I will try to facilitate that. Obviously that will be up to the evacuees themselves and the situation dependent on the ship. We'll also try to get you an interview with the on-scene commander who is there during the day to give you a situational report of how the operation went. Again, depending on what the events here on the ship are at the time.
Q: Who is that commander going to be that's going to be in charge of the operation on the ground?
Captain Ertel: The overall commander is the Joint Task Force Commander, Colonel Sam Helland. He will probably be here on the ship. His subordinate ground commander is Lieutenant Colonel Tom Breenwood.
Q: These are Marines, right?
Captain Ertel: These are Marines, that's correct.
Captain Johnston: Lieutenant Colonel Breenwood is the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Commander.
Press: Thank you.