To help the Indian Ocean nations hit by the December 26 tsunami, the Pentagon has mobilized its largest military operation in Asia since the Vietnam War. Much of the military relief effort is headquartered at a Thai air base the U.S. Air Force used during that war.
About 30 years ago, U.S. airplanes flew aerial surveillance and bombing missions over Vietnam from the Thai air base known as Utapao. Since then, U.S. forces have used the base south of Bangkok to launch flights into Afghanistan and, later, Iraq.
Now, it is a major hub for U.S. military relief operations to the 12 Indian Ocean countries hit hard by the December 26 tsunamis that killed nearly 160,000 people and left at least two million homeless. The troops are providing food, water and medical supplies to the people left homeless, injured or starving in areas inaccessible to aid workers.
So far, about 3.4 million tons of relief supplies have passed through Utapao.
U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Robert Krieg is in charge of planning for the combined support force handling the humanitarian operation. He says the U.S. military's familiarity with the Thai air base is one of the reasons it is being used as a staging area.
"It's where we have our headquarters set up and it's certainly our base of operations for an entire region,” said Mr. Kreig. “A lot of flights will first arrive here in Utapao and then be sent on down to the disaster sites. We've operated out of here before and we continue to have exercises here with our Thai partners. It's a scenario we are familiar with."
In the region, the U.S. military has deployed more than 13,000 troops, 21 ships, 41 airplanes and 50 helicopters. The relief effort is costing the Pentagon about $4 million a day. Several U.S. military officials have said the troops are likely to remain in some tsunami-devastated areas for months.
Many thousands of people were left stranded as the tsunamis washed out roads and bridges, and Lieutenant Colonel Krieg says U.S. troops and helicopters are their only lifeline, a lifeline that stretches all the way back to Utapao.
"I think one of the most important things we are doing is relieving the victims that are on the west coast of Sumatra,” he added. “They are really isolated and really the only means of getting in their supplies is from helicopter. We have over 20 naval ships at sea with over 40 helicopters on board. In the last 24 hours we've delivered 165,000 pounds of supplies."
The U.S. forces are part of a United Nations coordinated effort that also includes 16,000 Indian troops and 350 Australian military personnel. At least 16 countries have sent troops or equipment to the tsunami disaster zone.