The USS Shiloh was in Hong Kong for a port visit the day after Christmas 2004 when word reached the crew that a devastating tsunami had struck a huge portion of the South Pacific. Two days later, the Shiloh headed south with helicopter pilots Ryan Macpherson (WCAS01) and Matthias Pope (C01) and the ship's executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Brian Quin (WCAS91), on a relief mission to Banda Aceh, Indonesia.
For the next month, Macpherson and Pope delivered water, rice, biscuits, milk and medical supplies; evacuated severely injured people; and ferried in doctors, government officials and members of the media.
“The sights were horrifying,” Macpherson says. “Devastation and destruction as far as you could see. The smell of infection and death was almost unbearable. But the looks of joy on the faces of villagers made us quickly forget it.”
Conditions were primitive — and dangerous. There were no prepared areas to land in, so pilots often put down on soccer fields or dirt roads, wherever they could fit the helicopters. Villagers marked out H's on the ground when they wanted the pilots to land.
“At times we were swarmed,” Macpherson says. “Sometimes the villagers were so desperate they would try and climb onto the helo or hold onto the wheels as we took off.”
Long days and frequent, intense rains added to the difficulties. Often there were as many as 20 helicopters flying in the same area at once. Coordinating operations with foreign armies and navies was a necessity. “We worked with them to establish a set of course rules to govern flying and radio frequencies we communicated on, which reduced the chance of midair collisions,” says Macpherson.
For Pope, “it was an extraordinarily demanding, exciting and emotional experience.” Macpherson, too, takes pride in the mission. “Only when I think back on our month in Indonesia do I realize just how much the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps accomplished, with the invaluable help of foreign militaries and civilian aid organizations. The teamwork and camaraderie among all of us was incredible, and I feel humbled and honored to have had the opportunity to work with such fine people and to have played a small role in the relief efforts.” — T.S.