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November 2006

In the wake of Ioki
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San Jose aids typhoon-ravaged Wake Island

By Chris Johnson

Wake of Typhoon Ioke
A Defense Department employee surveys damage left on Wake Island by Super Typhoon Ioke Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shane Cuomo, photo

On Aug. 31, 188 airmen and Department of Defense civilians boarded two C-17 Globemaster cargo planes on the tiny Pacific atoll known as Wake Island. Taking only what they could carry, they fled their homes just hours before the island was hit by the strongest typhoon ever recorded in the central Pacific.

Super Typhoon Ioke would have been devastating had it formed anywhere else. Achieving category 5 status twice before finally subsiding, the storm luckily passed far clear of most populated areas. The U.S. Air Force base on Wake Island however, was not so fortunate.

Within hours of the evacuation, the island was raked by 190 mph winds. The island's own weather equipment was overwhelmed and collapsed long before the storm reached its peak. An 18-foot storm surge and 40-foot waves pummeled the low-lying atoll, the highest point of which is only 14 feet above sea level.

The only thing the Air Force could do was hope the base wouldn't be lost completely.

"Prior to the storm, the experts were all saying there would be no runway left to assess," said Maj. Pat Poon, an Air Force disaster response team commander. "The thought was the waves and storm surge were going to erode the runway or at least cause some major damage."

USNS San Jose
USNS San Jose leaves port in Guam

Because it was likely the runway had been completely washed away, the Air Force had no way of flying recovery teams to the island. The only way in was by sea.

Sixteen members of the 36th Contingency Response Group boarded Military Sealift Command ship USNS San Jose Sept. 4 to begin the four-day journey to whatever might be left of Wake Island. The team's mission was to determine what damage had been done to the island and, hopefully, begin clearing the airfield to allow landings.

When the typhoon hit, San Jose, a combat stores ship in MSC's Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force, was pierside in Guam. Needing an available ship that could accommodate helicopter operations, Commander, Logistics Forces, Western Pacific tasked San Jose with the vital mission.

Prior to arriving on the island, San Jose's crew and the Air Force recovery team reviewed Coast Guard overflight photos and satellite imagery. Although the damage looked moderate from the pictures, the scene on the ground told a different story when they arrived Sept. 8.

"The photos indicated there would be a lot of work," Air Force Senior Master Sgt. John Wilde said. "But when we arrived and I actually saw firsthand the stripped vegetation, the parts of roofs strewn all over the island ... I honestly think, structural-wise, the photos didn't do justice to what [I found]."

Flyover of Wake Island
A Sept. 2 U.S. Coast Guard flyover of Wake Island shows two damaged airfield buildings left in the wake of Typhoon Ioke on Aug. 31. Winds were up to 150 mph, with gusts up to 190 mph. U.S. Coast Guard photo

As the atoll surrounds a very shallow lagoon, there was no way for San Jose to pull pierside. Instead, the ship anchored three miles away, ferrying supplies and personnel by helicopter and small boat. A Deck Department team, led by San Jose Chief Mate Jim Moree assisted the helicopter operations ashore by working as cargo handlers, a task they were well trained to do.

On the island, San Jose crewmembers and the Air Force recovery team began a thorough damage assessment. They discovered that about 70 percent of the buildings had been moderately to severely damaged during the storm.

"This building split in half," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Song Lee."Half of it collapsed, and the rest of it doesn't look like it's in too good of shape. When we run into something as bad as this, all we can do is chalk it up as lost. There's just no way to fix something like this. You'd have to bulldoze it and start from scratch."

The team ran into similar scenes all over the island. Twelve of 31 transportation and refueling vehicles wouldn't operate. The islands power grid was destroyed and most power lines and back-up generators were damaged. But luckily, the airfield had received only minor casualties.

It was San Jose's crew that determined the airfield was still structurally capable of handling the massive cargo planes the Air Force would need to bring people and supplies back to the island. A team of civil service mariners and members of San Jose's military detachment drilled core samples to ensure the airstrip was stable.

Winds littered Wake Islands
Winds littered Wake Islands airfield with debris, including this sign, welcoming visitors to the base.

After the samples were taken, the Air Force team cleared the debris littering the field. The crew of San Jose assisted with that as well.

"They came over three days. They helped clean up a lot of the runway and surrounding area," Poon said.

After five days of work, the airfield was reopened. A Globemaster from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, was the first to land, bringing supplies and a fresh team of contractors and Defense Department civilians to replace the initial responders.

In addition to the team from Hickam, the Globemaster brought several of the island's residents home. As little information had filtered off the atoll, many didn't know what to expect.

A tumultuous history

This was not the first time Wake Island has been so close to destruction. In 1967 the island was evacuated before being hit head on by Typhoon Sarah. But Typhoons are only part of Wake Island's tumultous history.

Wake Island is actually part of an atoll - three small islands surrounding a lagoon. Lacking indigenous inhabitants, The United States annexed the island in 1889, and it sat unused until Pan American Airways built a small village to service China-bound flights in 1935. The village remained in use until late 1941, when 16 Japanese bombers raided the island's military garrison.

Despite heavy resistance from the Americans, a full-scale Japanese assault eventually overwhelmed the island. After the battle, captured America laborers were forced to work for their Japanese captors. All 98 prisoners were executed following a successful air raid by U.S. forces. The Japanese held the island until 1945, following several air raids, one of which was the first mission for Navy pilot and future U.S. President George H.W. Bush.

USNS San Jose
Military Sealift Command ship USNS San Jose got underway to transport an Air Force recovery team to Wake Island after the typhoon covered the landing strip in debris. U.S. Navy photo

In 1975, the island was used as a refugee camp for more than 8,000 Vietnamese who fled their homes following the fall of Saigon. Since then, the island has been used as a scientific outpost and refueling base for Pacific aircraft.

Assessments continue

As structural damage was widespread, it will take some time before the island returns to normal operations, if it returns at all. Civil engineers are hard at work putting together cost estimates so Air Force leaders can determine the way ahead. Currently, there are three options. The first is to bring Wake Island back to pre-Ioke conditions, which would require a massive rebuilding effort. The second option is to repair only facilities that weren't completely destroyed. The third is to scale the islands operations down significantly, using it only as a Pacific refueling stop.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, it was the crew of San Jose who made the work possible.

"I was very proud to be a part of a joint civil service mariner, Navy and Air Force team during the Wake Island assessment effort," said San Jose civilian master Capt. Jim O'Brien. "Everyone came together to mobilize quickly and once underway, assessment support plans were developed and were executed like clockwork. A mighty fine crew, these shipmates always get the job done with style."