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Operation Fiery Vigil brought 21,000 refugees to Andersen

  • Published
  • By Dr. John Treiber
  • 36th Wing Historian
Seventeen years ago in June, the entire base was engaged in one of the most significant episodes in Andersen's history: Operation Fiery Vigil, an event that ensured the safety and well-being of more than 21,600 people. 

This operation was different from Andersen's other refugee operations - 1975's New Life (Vietnamese) and 1996's Pacific Haven (Iraqi Kurds) - since the "refugees" were American Airmen and their families fleeing Clark Air Base, Philippines in the wake of the exploding Mt. Pinatubo volcano. 

The June 10 evacuation of 15,000 non-essential personnel from Clark AB occurred quickly, leaving just enough time for those people to fill their suitcases. 

Houses were shuttered and all non-essential personnel moved south to the Subic Bay Navy base. The situation there was so bad the refugees were sailed to Cebu island, where there was a commercial airport, and in mid-June the refugees were airlifted directly to Guam. 

The Military Airlift Command (MAC, predecessor of AMC) alone airlifted 15,000 passengers on 246 missions, 191 of which were C-141 flights, while the others came in on chartered aircraft. About 21,635 people would arrive at Andersen in the space of less than one week. 

Planeload after planeload landed at Andersen loaded with bedraggled refugees. Andersen's Airmen and civilians alike handled the crisis with vigor, whether by working long hours on duty (14-hour days) as volunteers or by opening their homes to the refugees. One family is said to have hosted 17 Clark families. 

Others instrumental in making the operation succeed were Guam Air National Guard's 254th Air Base Group and sailors from NAS Agana and Big Navy. 

Meanwhile, the old barracks at Andy South became a massive refugee center, one of Andersen's hangars was turned into a customs and welcome center, and tent facilities of all kinds popped up where needed. 

While Andersenites had naturally been glad to help the Vietnamese and Kurdish refugees, it must have been especially poignant to assist fellow Americans in need.
At the most basic level, Air Force members were simply doing their job, which in this instance, meant accomplishing the extraordinary. 

By early July, Fiery Vigil had come to a quiet close, after which time, Andersen returned to its "sleepy hollow" mode. Yet the people at this base could be content with the knowledge that they had made a difference in the lives of more than 20,000 people. 

A complete account of Fiery Vigil and the story of Clark's final days is found in Dick Anderegg's (Historian of the Air Force) superb book Ash Warriors.

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