Fiery Vigil

by Daniel L. Haulman

Operation Name: Fiery Vigil
Location: Republic of the Philippines
Date: June 8–July 2, 1991
Emergency: The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines forced the evacuation of more than 18,000 people from U.S. military bases on Luzon.
Organizations: Twenty-first Air Force; Twenty-second Air Force; 834th Airlift Division; 60th, 62d, 63d, 437th, 438th, 445th, and 446th Military Airlift Wings; 374th Tac Airlift Wing; 624th Military Airlift Support Group; and 729th and 730th Military Airlift Squadrons
Airlifted: More than 15,000 passengers and over 2,000 tons of cargo.
Aircraft Used: C–5 (12 missions), C–141 (195 missions), C–130 (38 missions), and C–9 (1 mission)

In June, Mount Pinatubo erupted on Luzon in the northern Philippines with a magnitude over seven times that of Mount Saint Helens in 1980. An estimated seven billion tons of ash spewed out of the volcano and a series of earthquakes shook the area. On June 15, the day of the worst eruption, Typhoon Yunya passed near Mount Pinatubo, dumping torrential rain that mixed with huge clouds of ash and descended like wet concrete on three U.S. military bases in the area: Clark AB, Subic Bay Naval Base, and Cubi Point NAS. The weight of the ash accumulating on roofs collapsed many structures. To evacuate U.S. military personnel and their families from the Luzon bases, the Navy and Air Force executed an operation called Fiery Vigil.

Earth tremors around the volcano a few days before the eruption had warned personnel at Clark AB, about 10 miles west of Mount Pinatubo. The Pacific Air Forces began evacuating aircraft from Clark AB on June 8. That same day, a 374th Tactical Airlift Wing C–9A evacuated premature babies, their mothers, and medical attendants from the base hospital to Kadena AB in Japan. Most Clark AB personnel evacuated by land to Subic Bay, about 30 miles to the southwest, before the first violent eruption on June 12. Remaining personnel left for the naval base on June 15.

The continuing eruption rained ash on Subic Bay and Cubi Point NAS as well as Clark AB. Clouds of abrasive ash in the atmosphere forced cancellation of aircraft flights at the military installations and at Manila’s international airport. As living conditions worsened at Subic Bay, the Navy began on June 16 to evacuate thousands of U.S. military personnel and their dependents by ship to Mactan International Airport on Cebu Island, 350 miles away from the volcano in the southern Philippines. From there, Air Force and commercial aircraft flew evacuees to Andersen AFB in Guam as the first stage in their return to the United States.

Lt. Col. David L. Spracher, director of operations for the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing, directed the airlift from Mactan. For a time, the Navy ships, including two aircraft carriers, delivered evacuees to Mactan faster than aircraft could take them away but an increase in air missions eventually shortened waiting times on Cebu. More than 100 C–141 flights and six C–5 flights airlifted more than 14,000 passengers from Mactan to Andersen AFB in June. A pair of C–141s transported hospital patients from Mactan to Kadena AB for later flights to Hickam AFB in Hawaii. Commercial airliners transported additional thousands of evacuees from the Philippines to Guam.

After the ash rain decreased at Cubi Point NAS on Luzon at the end of June, engineers cleared a runway, and the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing began transporting U.S. citizens from there to Mactan and Andersen AFB. The wing’s C–130s evacuated more than 1,400 passengers from Cubi Point to Guam.

Fifty-nine flights—57 by C–141s and two by C–5s—airlifted more than 7,900 passengers from Andersen AFB to the United States in the next stage of Fiery Vigil. The evacuees traveled by way of Hickam AFB, or Yokota AB in Japan and Elmendorf AFB in Alaska. The Military Airlift Command’s 834th Airlift Div coordinated the trans-Pacific flights. Commercial aircraft transported about 11,000 additional passengers from Guam to the United States. The evacuees landed at one of three Air Force bases in the United States designated as repatriation centers: McChord in Washington and Travis and Norton in California. Over half of the evacuees went to McChord.

Fiery Vigil was the largest evacuation operation to the United States since the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. It transported more than 18,000 U.S. citizens, including 14,646 civilian dependents of military personnel, almost halfway around the world. Fiery Vigil demonstrated the ability of different branches of the armed forces and commercial airline companies to work together and reduced the suffering of thousands of people.

Americans were not the only beneficiaries of Air Force airlift missions responding to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. When conditions in Luzon improved enough for them to land, two MAC C–5 Galaxies also transported 34 pallets of excess Desert Storm rations from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to the Philippines to help feed the thousands of local people who were forced from their homes by the eruption.

Mount Pinatubo closed the oldest and largest U.S. overseas air base. On July 17, 1991, the United States announced that Clark AB would not reopen. The cost of rehabilitating the field exceeded the anticipated benefits as the Cold War drew to a close. But U.S. naval facilities on Luzon, however, were expected to remain in operation a little longer.

5 Comments

  • Was the marines envolved? Just asking

    • Yes, I was part of the MEU-15, my unit was C btry 1/11 (11th Marines) on a WESTPAC deployment aboard the USS Comstock LSD 45. We worked extremely hard to clear the wet ash; the weight of this ash was collapsing buildings through out Subic Bay SRF.

  • The 475th Civil Engineering Prime Beef Unit A was on Mac Tan in support of Fiery Vigil. I am very proud of the professionalism of all units involved with the mission. I am extremely grateful to the Clark evacuees for their patience and professionalism as they processed through.
    SSgt Bruce Brown USAF
    1985-1992

  • It’s very sad to know that the first Air Force unit to respond and to set up airlift operations at Mactan Airport, Cebu, Philippines in support of Operation Fiery Vigil, in June 1991, was the 603d MAC ALCE, commanded by Major Oscar Towne. The 603d Airlift Control Element is a historic unit and should never be forgotten. I served as a member of the 603d MAC ALCE in the position of ALCE operations, as a SSgt, and my name is John Ham.

    • Happy Veterans Day SSgt. Ham. I remember a unit on the ground when we, 475th CES, arrived. They had set up a water purification unit and tents near the flight line. Was this your unit? Fiery Vigil was a successful mission due to the hard work of all units. Not sure why some were forgotten.
      I met the General on the flight line by chance one day while he was making his rounds. He shook our hands and personally thanked us. Not sure why the 475th was forgotten too, but, I’m still full of pride for the work we all did there. We helped a lot of folks and that’s priceless.
      Thank you for your service.
      Look me up on facebook and we can compare notes if you like.

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