by Joseph Bonfiglio
Last fall, the eyes of the world were focused on the humanitarian crisis in East Timor. The situation there was desperate. According to fleeing refugees, anti-independence militias had forced people from their homes and killed thousands more after East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia in early September.
|An Australian logistics support vessel (foreground) and a humanitarian relief vessel (background) are anchored in Dili Harbor, the largest port in East Timor.|
The Indonesian archipelago is a strategic, oil-rich location that flanks the Strait of Malacca, a crucial international shipping lane. The world community could not allow the chaos occurring in Indonesia's backyard to go unchecked.
In late September, an international peacekeep-ing force, led by the Royal Australian Armed Forces, began deploying to the disputed territory. This force, called International Forces East Timor (INTERFET), eventually expanded to include troops from 18 other countries and was accepted reluctantly by Indonesia.
The United States promised to provide communications, intelligence, and logistics support to INTERFET. To support the international peacekeeping force, the U.S. Pacific Command and the U.S. Transportation Command needed reliable intelligence information concerning East Timor, including seaport surveys. Unfortunately, there were no reports available on the ports in East Timor.
At the same time, the Military Traffic Management Command's (MTMC's) 599th Transportation Group had a deployment support team (DST) in Australia, where it had just finished offloading ships for Exercise Crocodile '99. To solve the seaport survey dilemma, the commander of the 599th Transportation Group tasked the DST commander to deploy a team to East Timor to survey Dili Harbor, the main harbor in East Timor, and other ports nearby.
On 19 September, Sergeant First Class Mark Giampietro, first sergeant of the 599th, and Captain Todd Browning, operations officer of the 836th Transportation Battalion, were selected as members of a team that would go to East Timor to gather the needed information. They first went to the North Australian port town of Darwin to prepare for the mission.
After arriving in Darwin, the MTMC survey team received full battle gear from the 836th Transportation Battalion. This gear included Kevlar helmets, body armor, 9-millimeter pistols, and other essential items. They received inoculations and malaria pills in preparation for deployment to East Timor, where, they had heard, the threats of Japanese encephalitis and dengue fever (an acute infectious disease caused by a virus and transmitted by mosquitoes) were as real as the bullets and machetes of the roving militias. To prepare for their mission, the team obtained maps and other information about the East Timorese ports from the Australian Defense Force Ground Imagery Center.
On 24 September, the Military Sealift Command (MSC) sent a Navy commander and a chief petty officer to join the MTMC team in Darwin. Following the DST's standing operating procedure, the team rehearsed conducting a port survey so they could reduce the length of time they would have to be on the ground in hostile East Timor.
New Zealand Special Forces escort the MTMC-MSC port survey team at Karabela.
On 25 September, the team briefed the U.S. Forces INTERFET commander, Marine Corps Brigadier General John Castellaw, on their survey plan. Although the original plan called for them to survey Dili first, General Castellaw instead directed the team to survey the port at Karabela, which is east of Dili, since Dili was not yet secure.
At 0545 on 26 September, the team boarded a Royal Australian Air Force C-130 Hercules transport bound for East Timor. After a brief stop in Dili to discharge some U.S. Air Force cargo, the aircraft continued to the deserted Baucau Airfield in East Timor. After an Air Force security detachment secured the area, the team members disembarked the plane. "There was a terrible smell in the air, and we could hear gunshots in the distance," said Giampietro. "There were mutilated animals nailed to the wall and anti-INTERFET slogans painted on the wall with animal blood."
Soon, members of the New Zealand "Kiwi" Special Forces arrived at the airport on three Royal Australian UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to take the survey team to Karabela. The first two helicopters landed at Karabela, and the Kiwi Special Forces got off and quickly spread out to secure the port facilities while the team's "bird" hovered in the air.
With assurance from the Kiwis that the area was secure, the helicopter carrying the MTMC-MSC survey team landed, and the team quickly began measuring the port facilities and hangers. About 15 local nationals showed up with clubs, machetes, and uncertain intentions. Three Kiwis escorted them out of the port area at gunpoint, and the team resumed its survey.
"I have the utmost respect for the Kiwi Special Forces," said Giampietro. "It's unusual for U.S. forces to depend on other nations for force protection, but without a doubt, those guys were great."
With its survey completed, the team flew back to Baucau Airfield to await the C-130 that would carry them back to Darwin. The next day, the team briefed General Castellaw on the results of their survey. He commended the team's work, which had produced the only hands-on intelligence information available to INTERFET on Karabela. He told the team members that their survey report would benefit not only U.S. forces but all of the countries in INTERFET. Then General Castellaw advised the team of its next missiona port survey of Dili, which, by this time, had been secured.
On 1 October, the team drew its weapons, ammunition, and gear and reassembled on the Darwin flight line at 0500 to board another Australian C-130 bound for Dili. When they arrived in Dili, the team members linked up with Aussie soldiers for force protection and were convoyed by high-mobility, multipurpose, wheeled vehicles to Dili Harbor.
"On the way down, we passed smoldering buildings and saw desperate people running around," said Giampietro. "What I saw reminded me of the U2 song, `Where the Streets Have No Name,' about a country in turmoil, because the streets literally had no name."
As in Karabela, the team measured all of the port facilities and hangers. Overall, they found the port to be in good shape, except that the port authority's administrative building had been completely trashed, presumably by the militias. When the survey was finished, the team convoyed back to the Dili airport and flew back to Darwin the same night.
|Left, the survey team measures fenders on a pier in Karabela. Below, an American and an Australian soldier guard the port perimeter at Dili.|
"When we got back to the lobby of the hotel where we were staying, it was strange to see people engaged in normal, everyday activities after seeing a country torn apart. It made me realize how valuable life is and how lucky we are to be Americans," said Giampietro. "It was a hell of an honor to do something to help those poor people and serve with great folks like the Kiwis and the Aussies. And we couldn't have done our job without the outstanding support of the Marines, who made up the bulk of the U.S. Forces INTERFET Headquarters. They went above and beyond the call of duty to help us."
Joseph Bonfiglio is the Public Affairs Officer of the 599th Transportation Group at Wheeler Army Air Field, Hawaii. He previously was assigned to Headquarters, V Corps, as a television producer and public affairs specialist. He has a bachelor's degree in history from Georgetown University.
The author wishes to thank Sergeant First Class Mark Giampietro and Captain Todd Browning for the photos accompanying this article.