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Kicking Ash: The Seabees of Operation Fiery Vigil

By Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr., Naval History and Heritage Command

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Naval Station Subic Bay, July 8, 1991, covered in ash. (Photo from U.S. Navy)

 

Throughout the proud history of the Naval Construction Force (NCF), the Seabees have overcome a variety of obstacles – enemy forces, geography and climate. In June 1991, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Republic of the Philippines found the Seabees adding “volcano cleanup” to their repertoire of skills. In the ensuing months as part of Operation Fiery Vigil, members of Naval Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCBs) 3, 4 and 5 and Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU) 302 “kicked ash” and cleared hundreds of thousands of tons of material from Naval Station Subic Bay and Naval Air Station Cubi Point.

 

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With a force of 62.7 pounds per square foot, the wet volcanic ash collapsed the roofs of countless buildings at Cubi Point and Subic Bay, including this one at the naval station, July 8, 1991. With torches, hand tools and front-end loaders, Seabees dismantled and demolished some structures and repaired the roofs of others. (Photo from U.S. Navy)

 

Nestled in the Zambales Mountains on the island of Luzon, the 4,800-foot-tall Mount Pinatubo had remained dormant for more than 600 years before experiencing renewed volcanic activity in April 1991. A period of local earthquakes followed by steam explosions commenced a rapid 10-week period of increasing signs of an impending explosion. Only nine miles east of the volcano stood Clark Air Base, home to 15,000-plus U.S. Air Force personnel and dependents, all directly in the path of possible pyroclastic flows and intense ash fall. Approximately 25 miles to the southwest stood Subic Bay and Cubi Point, both locations that volcanologists and emergency planners considered safe, and outside the range of serious damage. On June 9, Pinatubo experienced a minor eruption, prompting the evacuation of 14,500 people from Clark to the naval installations the following day. A 50-mile-long convoy of vehicles snaked its way to the coast, and the evacuees soon overwhelmed every base facility. Two days later, Pinatubo erupted again, throwing ash and smoke 10 miles high over an area of 15 miles in width, blanketing Clark with fine ash.

 

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The cataclysmic lateral eruption of Mount Pinatubo, June 15, 1991. Photo taken moments after the eruption commenced. (Photo from U.S. Coast Gaurd)

 

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Typhoon Yunya beginning to collide with Mount Pinatubo’s ash cloud as seen from space, June 15, 1991, hours before the volcano’s climactic eruption. (Image created by National Air and Space Administration (NASA) using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA)

 

These minor eruptions were precursors to the main event on June 15. At 5:55 a.m., local time, the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century began as Pinatubo erupted in a climactic fury. A lateral blast of searing hot gas, rock and ash immediately enveloped an area six miles wide to the cloud base. Clark, and most of Luzon, fell into almost total darkness as the ash cloud grew to cover an area of 48,000 square miles. Further compounding the hellish situation, Typhoon Yunya made landfall on the island around noon on the fifteenth, passing approximately 50 miles northeast of Pinatubo as it degraded into a tropical storm. Yunya’s winds and rain mixed with Pinatubo’s ash, creating a gray, slurry-like mud which began to rain down on Clark, Subic Bay and Cubi Point.

 

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Volcanic ash covered Clark Air Base, including these abandoned automobiles, June 16, 1991. (Photo from U.S. Coast Guard)

 

Crammed into every available space at Subic Bay and Cubi Point, the ordeal was just beginning for more than 28,000 American service members, civilian employees and dependents. Without power and the skies black from the ash, everybody huddled with flashlights or candles throughout the nine-hour eruption, listening or praying. Outside, a chorus of slashing winds and torrents of muddy rain serenaded the Americans, amidst earthquakes of varying intensity. Worse sounds were heard, from lightning strikes to falling trees, to the jarring crashes of roofs collapsing under the weight of wet ash. At Clark, over 100 buildings collapsed and another 500 suffered damage. Lahars (mudflows of pyroclastic material), debris and water with the thickness of concrete, roared into Clark and irreparably damaged the base resulting in its closure in November 1991. At Subic Bay, more than 150 buildings collapsed or experienced significant structural damage from the one-two of Pinatubo and Yunya. Anywhere from six to 14 inches of wet ash covered literally everything at Subic Bay and Cubi Point. Cleanup seemed difficult to impossible, but no volcano ever before had to contend with the Seabees.

On June 10, 1991, Adm. Charles Larson, commander in chief, U.S. Pacific Command, activated Joint Task Force – Fiery Vigil to protect American lives and property. A massive evacuation effort by sea and air swiftly commenced to move Clark’s population and some of Subic’s and Cubi’s residents back to the United States. For the Seabees, a detachment of 90 members of NMCB 3 set to work at Subic Bay from June 15-20 clearing 5,000 feet of runway to permit C-130 operations to help evacuate personnel and ferry in relief supplies. To supplement the effort, 100 additional members of NMCB 3 arrived from the main body in Guam to join CBMU 302, stationed at Subic Bay. Furthermore, detachments of NMCB 4 were redirected from a scheduled deployment in Okinawa together with their entire table of allowance from Saudi Arabia and a second directly from Port Hueneme. Collectively, work commenced on clearing roads and unclogging drainage channels, repairing downed electrical lines and restoring power, as well as addressing shortages in food and potable water.

 

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World Airways DC-10, Naval Air Station Cubi Point, on the flight line weighed down by thick, water-soaked ash, June 17, 1991. (Photo from U.S. Navy)

 

Upon arriving in the area of operations, the working conditions made lasting impressions on the Seabees. EOC Jerry H. Luzadder, part of an advanced transportation and water well team from NMCB 4, remembered how “there was still ash in the air with rain and lighting,” adding that “as we flew into Cubi Point it looked from the air as if it had snowed in the Philippines.”

Members of NMCB 4 stayed in George Dewey High School at Subic Bay, “in the classrooms with cots and ash flowing underneath them,” writes CE1 Richard T. Landon, tasked with restoring base power. Over at Cubi Point, UTCS David J. Crowell stayed in the barracks where “everything was grey, dark grey and black with the air full of ash particles. There was grit in everything!”

Collective Seabee experiences, from Alaska to the deserts of Saudi Arabia proved useful in the clean-up effort. The ash, recalls Landon, was granular, white-grey in color and created a powdery dust which proved hazardous to work in. Thanks to almost constant rain, the ash formed a sort of concrete slurry.

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“It was hard to gather up because it would move ahead of our loader buckets like a wave of the ocean,” recalls Luzadder. But he explained that the men used a technique from Adak, Alaska, for snow removal.

By forming a berm of ash to one side of the runway, then picking it up or pushing it to the end, the equipment operators could quickly clear the runways for air traffic. The ash would then be dumped at the end of the runway, at assorted collection sites or in the ocean itself. The fine ash and grit, much like the desert sand NMCB 4 experienced in Operation Desert Shield/Storm, clogged machinery and air filters and air conditioners, forcing anything with a motor to be checked constantly for wear and breakdowns. To restore the base power, Landon and the other construction electricians either climbed poles or used bucket trucks to clean the conductive ash off every single line and insulator before the power grid could be restored.

The Naval Magazines (NAVMAG) at Subic Bay and Cubi Point each suffered extensive damage. With approximately eight inches of wet ash exerting a force of 62.7 pounds per square foot, the volcanic tephra collapsed pre-engineered buildings and damaged the roofs of permanent structures. To remove the munitions, the Seabees literally had to cut corners.

Remembers Crowell: “We were cutting down buildings in the magazine area mostly by hand, using torches and hand tools and a track front end loader with a clam shell bucket to tear off building chunks in the pouring rain. Under our feet were missiles and ammunition of all types and we wondered if we were going to blow ourselves up trying to get to them. Eventually, we just forgot all about what was under us and pulled the magazine area apart so that weapons personnel could move the weapons to new locations.”

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Two Seabees from NMCB 4 ready a K-span machine for use at Subic Bay, August 8, 1991. To assist in the assembly of the K-spans, four members of NMCB 5 flew in from Port Hueneme to instruct NMCB 4 based on recent experiences in Operation Desert Shield/Storm. Note the inverted “V” on the machine, used to mark friendly coalition force vehicles in Operation Desert Storm. NMCB 4 redirected their entire table of allowance from Saudi Arabia straight to the Philippines for Operation Fiery Vigil. (Photo from U.S. Navy)

And, if the risk of accidental detonation was not enough fun, Landon and Luzadder not so fondly remember that the monkeys by the NAVMAGs would attack people for food by the galley. “They would take over your vehicle,” notes Landon. “You had to throw fruit in the opposite direction to get back to your vehicle.”

Monkeys, munitions and ash aside, the enormity of the task required a greater force. As the number of Seabees increased in July, so did the need for command and control. An NCF under the leadership of NMCB 4’s Commanding Officer, Cmdr. James Corbett, stood up to oversee the Seabee force of 540 men and women from the battalions, CBMU, Public Works and MUSE. Working six days a week and 11-hour days, the “ash kickers” had moved 125,070 cubic yards of ash from the Cubi Point airfield, hospital and magazine alone, totaling over 110,000 tons of material, by Sept. 1991. By the completion of the ash clearing work at Cubi in early October, this figure stood at more than 251,000 tons of ash removed from over 50 miles of paved surfaces.

Under Corbett, the assembled force also demolished 33 buildings damaged or destroyed by the falling ash, finished construction on a refueler maintenance building and constructed 25 K-span structures to replace some of those lost. Four members of NMCB 5 flew in to Subic from Port Hueneme, Calif., to train a select crew from NMCBs 3 and 4 in construction of the K-spans, sharing a wealth of knowledge accrued over months of work with the structures after a deployment in Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm.

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Seabees at Subic Bay and Cubi Point used a combination of a front loader and bulldozer to create berms of ash slurry before pushing it off to collection points for disposal. Photo taken October 19, 1991, Naval Station Subic Bay. (Photo from U.S. Navy)

 

Even before the one-two devastation wrought by a volcano and a typhoon, the fate of Clark, Subic Bay, and Cubi Point lay in the hands of American and Philippine negotiators. Commencing in fall of 1990 and continuing until Pinatubo’s eruption, both governments met and attempted to negotiate a new 10-year lease for the Air Force and Navy installations to replace an agreement expiring in mid-September 1991. With Clark buried under ash and lahars, and repairs estimated at upwards of $800 million, on July 17 a joint U.S.-Philippine announcement declared plans to close the air base but extend the American lease on Subic Bay and Cubi Point for a decade. In September, however, the Senate in the Philippines voted against the new American lease. In December, the Philippine government ordered the United States to withdraw by the end of 1992.

With the end of America’s military presence in the Philippines all but foretold, the Seabee rebuilding effort at Subic Bay and Cubi Point ended in December 1991. Nevertheless, the Seabees were not quite ready to leave Cubi Point without commemorating another monumental operation to move mountains, albeit of ash. At a park aptly named Seabee Point overlooking the South China Sea, Cmdr. Corbett and other Seabee dignitaries unveiled a monument to the collective clean-up effort. The plaque read: “SEABEE POINT – Dedicated to the ‘Ash kick’n’ Seabees of the Naval Construction Force for their relentless dedication to Mount Pinatubo Disaster Recovery ‘Operation Phoenix’ June – October 1991.”

 

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For the Seabees of Operation Fiery Vigil who “kicked ash” and literally removed a volcanic mountain from Subic Bay and Cubi Point, a monument was erected at Naval Air Station Cubi Point, fall of 1991. After the base closing, the plaque returned to Port Hueneme and resides in the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum. From left to right: Lt. Manny Delgado, officer in charge, NMCB 3; Cmdr. James Corbett, commander, NMCB 4; Lt. Mark Libonate, commander, CBMU 302. (Photo from U.S. Navy)

 

Having moved half a mountain to construct Cubi Point, it was only fitting for the Seabees to erect new structures, literally from the ashes. When the United States formally turned over the naval installations at Subic Bay and Cubi Point to the Philippines on Nov. 24, 1992, the Seabees brought the plaque back to Port Hueneme, a tribute to all those who moved mountains – and pushed aside a volcano.

 

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NMCB 4 Safety Office personnel, Subic Bay, July-August 1991. Top, left to right: BUCS Kevin Eichmann, SWC Steven Watson, CE1 Richard Landon. Bottom, left to right: BU1 George Richardson, SW1 James Henderson, EO1 Stephen McCauley. (Photo from U.S. Navy)

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