ST. BERNARD PARISH, La. -- On Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina made landfall and left a path of destruction along the Gulf Coast from the panhandle of Florida to the Mississippi Delta.
As the nation realized the scale of the disaster, the Marines of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force St. Bernard, named for the Louisiana parish that would become the focus of efforts, were preparing to respond.
Aircraft and Marines from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 461 deployed to Pensacola, Fla., to begin rescue and evacuation missions.
Reserve Marines from Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas; Jackson and Gulfport, Miss.; Bessemer and Huntsville, Ala.; Chattanooga, Tenn., and Jacksonville Fla., began to converge on the Gulf Coast with helicopters, Assault Amphibian Vehicles, 7-Ton Trucks, Humvees, communications gear and hundreds of helping hands.
As the reserve elements landed in the region, the Marines and Sailors of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit command element, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, and MEU Service Support Group 24, flew from North Carolina to marry up with their equipment to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
"As forces arrived from all directions, they worked across Mississippi to focus on St. Bernard Parish," said Col. John E. Shook, SPMAGTF St. Bernard commanding officer. "We observed the devastation by helicopter from the upper Gulf Coast down to the Shell Beach area of St. Bernard Parish. We knew we had an awesome task before us, and a responsibility to act quickly."
The 2,300 Marines and Sailors who made up SPMAGTF St. Bernard worked tirelessly to aid the people of the devastated region. After three weeks, they had all but completed their Katrina-related work when Hurricane Rita struck. Again the Marines would answer the call.
1/8, 4th Tracks search flooded streets, broken communities
About one hour after Katrina's massive eye had passed Gulfport, Miss., two Assault Amphibian Vehicles based there - part of 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion -- received their first mission.
"The mission required the unit to proceed to a Biloxi police station being utilized as a makeshift command center," said Lt. Col. Kent Ralston, 4th AA Bn. acting commander. "They linked up with their search-and-rescue team and carried them into the Point Cadet area of Biloxi."
The Gulfport AAVs operated for the next six hours, rescuing scores of residents stranded on rooftops. The next day, the AAVs were dispatched to a Navy retirement home to deliver water, set up a retransmission site, and evacuate any wounded retirees. Upon their arrival, the AAVs of 3rd Platoon transported two elderly men to a hospital about 12 miles away after ambulances could not reach the area.
"Both gentlemen were in critical condition because they had fallen down two flights of stairs trying to evacuate," Ralston said. "Once they arrived at the Gulfport Memorial Hospital, they were both stabilized and admitted."
During the first four days in Mississippi, the AAVs of Alpha Co. operated throughout the cities of Biloxi, Gulfport, Diberville, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Henderson Point, Waveland, and Bay St. Louis.
On Sept. 2, Bravo Company, 4th AA Bn. landed at Stennis International Airport in Hancock County, Miss., to conduct search-and-rescue missions.
Due to the high waters and limited access in flooded parts of St. Bernard and Orleans parishes, 4th Tracks moved to the NASA Space Center at Michoud, La., to team up with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, on Sept. 4.
Using their amphibious tractors, the Marines of Bravo 1/8 and 4th Tracks began search-and-rescue efforts in areas of the city where the floodwaters reached up to 15 feet.
While 1/8's Bravo Co. was floating down the streets of Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, Alpha and Charlie Company were conducting similar missions in the cities of Picayune, Miss., and Slidell, La.
"We worked for and with the mayor, city officials and emergency responders," said Lt. Col. J. Scott Alley, commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. "We manned relief sites, passed out food and water, cleared municipal buildings, fire departments and police departments, and helped residents clear their yards of debris and fallen trees."
Each day, in addition to their help with clean-up, all the companies of 1/8 were involved in the vital task of finding and rescuing those left in Katrina's wake.
"In the first four days of search-and-rescue operations, we rescued more than 78 people," said Maj. Henry June Jr., inspector instructor for Bravo Co., 4th AA Bn. "It was very difficult for any other wheeled vehicle to get through these communities. We are the only tracked vehicles that can float, so we could maneuver through the water to conduct our searches."
Departing from their base camps in the morning and working all day in the hot, humid temperatures of the Gulf region, the Marines patrolled relentlessly along miles of debris-strewn roads on 7-ton trucks, AAVs and on foot. [e1]
"I kept getting calls over the radio, 'Can we stay longer, can we stay out here,'" Alley said. "They did not want to leave until the job was done. Their enthusiasm and work ethic were very impressive."
'Super G' lends a heavy helping hand
Providing support to both the Marines of SPMAGTF St. Bernard and the residents of New Orleans, the Marines of MEU Service Support Group 24 made two weeks of non-stop aid-and-relief operations possible.
Within two days of receiving the call to support the relief effort, the Marines and heavy equipment of MSSG-24 had embarked on the USS Shreveport and USS Whidbey Island and steamed for the Gulf Coast.
After conducting an amphibious landing in Biloxi, Miss., on Sept. 5, MSSG-24 pushed out to Slidell to support the emergency operations center there.
"(Some) of the Marines and Sailors worked internal logistics, providing support for other Marines operating in that area," said Lt. Col. Joel H. Berry, commanding officer of MSSG-24. "We also task-organized capability sets to go out and address missions within the community."
Marines loaded up on 7-ton trucks and headed out to work with city officials to clear yards and streets. Dump trucks hauled away rubble and fallen trees, bucket trucks helped clear fallen branches from power lines, and wreckers towed away flooded vehicles.
"Most of the work in Slidell was manpower-intensive," Berry said.
On Sept. 10, MSSG-24 moved from their base camp in a furniture warehouse in Slidell to join up with 1/8 at Michoud.
There, the Marines of MSSG-24 provided vital heavy-equipment support to St. Bernard Parish.
"Our Marines and Sailors have provided manual labor to help the residents of these communities," Berry said. "We've helped to clear dozens of square blocks in St. Bernard in order to make access to their homes a bit easier."
They also supplied all the 'life support' and logistics for the camp and operated the landing zone as well.
"We were able to enhance the quality of life at the various camps and locations the Marines have been operating from," Berry said. "We operated a decontamination site for the Marines coming back from missions in town, ran ...water-purification units that provided 25,000 - 30,000 gallons of clean water each day for shower and laundry services, and provided maintenance support for all the vehicles."
Composed of more than 70 different military occupational specialties, Berry said the Marines and Sailors of MSSG-24 came together as a team to support both the Marines and the community.
"Their work ethic and attitude has been awesome since the beginning," Berry said. "I could not be happier with how we came together to accomplish all that we have in the past couple of weeks."
Residents find rescue on the wings of the 'ACE'
On Aug. 30, just hours after broken levees unleashed a torrent of water on the communities of the New Orleans area, Marine helicopters based in the stricken area began pulling survivors to safety.
Coming together as Task Force Aviation, Marine aviation assets from the 4th and 2nd Marine Aircraft wings operated under Marine Aircraft Group 42 to support SPMAGTF St. Bernard.
Logging more than 930 flight hours during 620 sorties, the CH-53E Super Stallion, CH-46E Sea Knight and UH-1N 'Heuy' helicopters of Task Force Aviation played a critical role in not only search-and-rescue efforts but also the logistics of the operation.
"Before we had official orders to come down here, units started flying their helicopters down here to begin search-and-rescue," said Lt. Col. Richard D. Thompson, the task force's acting operations officer. "For the first three to four days, our aircraft would launch up, tell the Coast Guard air command and control their capabilities, (and) the Coast Guard would tell them where they could help."
Task Force Aviation aircraft plucked stranded residents from rooftops, transported patients from New Orleans hospitals to other medical facilities and moved people from collection points and evacuated them from the area.
During those first vital days, the task force rescued more than 440 people and evacuated nearly 1,500 others.
"During the first few days, SAR was the heart of the mission," Thompson said. "As the battalion and other units arrived and the main effort transitioned from SAR to recovery and clean-up, we focused on cargo, equipment and troop movement."
In order to supply and resupply base camps separated by miles of impassable roads, the aircraft of Task Force Aviation moved more than 930,000 pounds of supplies and equipment and more than 4,300 passengers.
The aviation ground support Marines of the task force also played an essential role in the success of the mission.
Marines from Marine Wing Support Group 47 worked from locations at Naval Air Station New Orleans, Michoud, Stennis International Airport and Slidell to refuel aircraft, operate water-purification equipment and showers, and set up and maintain communications.
Although not an organic part of Task Force Aviation, the KC-130 Hercules transport aircraft from Marine Aerial Refuler Transport squadrons 234, 252, 253, and 452 made the entire deployment of forces to the Gulf Coast possible.
"We've had more KC-130 support here than I have ever seen in my Marine Corps career," Thompson said. "They provided all of our mobility to deploy down here, most of our logistical support, and the ability to manage and redeploy our capabilities."
Thompson said the ability to remain flexible and adapt to the fast pace of developing operations is what allowed the task force to accomplish as much as it did.
"That's something Marines have always and will continue to bring to the table," Thompson said. "We are able to work around and through any obstacle to get up and running in order to accomplish any mission."
America's force in readiness
In two weeks, the Marines of SPMAGTF St. Bernard searched more than 5,000 homes, rescued 610 stranded residents, delivered two million pounds of supplies, and cleared debris from more than 1,000 homes, schools and municipal buildings.
"Though we arrived without a formal mission, the intent was pretty clear," Shook said. "Do whatever we could to help save lives and ease the suffering of those who survived. We approached our mission with a profound sense of purpose and accomplished what we set out to do."
As they spent what appeared to be their final few days in Louisiana clearing roads, removing debris from homes, schools and key government facilities, and helping leaders in both St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes prepare for the return of business owners and residents, Hurricane Rita bore down on the Gulf Coast. The Marines repositioned themselves to ensure their own safety and enable a rapid response wherever Rita came ashore.
The morning of Sept. 24 bore witness to the new path of destruction cut by Rita across southwest Louisiana and coastal Texas.
The Marines of 4th Anti-Terrorism Battalion were directed to Lafayette La. Driving through the remnants of Rita's foul weather, they arrived within hours of the storm's impact. They synchronized their efforts with soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, who had come from New Orleans to help.
By Sunday evening, the Marines had rescued 26 people in New Iberia, La.
"We were determined to do as much as we possibly could in the time available to us," Shook said. "We set out to make a difference, to offer a lifeline, to give the local leaders enough time to get their feet under them again."