Operation Eastern Exit
During 1980s the authoritarian regime of President Mahammad Siad Barre abandoned the previous government’s policy of scientific socialism on Marxist-Leninist lines and implemented market-oriented structural reforms of economy, while consolidating personal political authority. Broad-based national opposition met escalating government repression and provoked armed revolt in 1988. The resulting civil war caused the eventual defeat of government forces and exile of Siad Barre in January 1991. Following the fall of the Siad Barre regime in January 1991, Somalia fell under an interim provisional government established by Executive Committee of United Somali Congress (USC) and headed by provisional president Ali Mahdi Mahammad. As of September 1991, the country was effectively under control of as many as twelve rival clans and subclans. The central government authority at Mogadishu challenged by Somali National Movement (SNM), which in June 1991 declared independent Republic of Somaliland in former territory of British Somaliland.
On 01 January 1991, the US Ambassador to Somalia requested military assistance to evacuate the Embassy. Americans and other foreign nationals had sought shelter in the Embassy compound that day as the reign of Somali dictator Siad Barre disintegrated into a confused battle for control of Mogadishu. The next day, Operation EASTERN EXIT was initiated. Conducted between 2 -11 January 1991, participating units included USS Guam, USS Trenton, 4th Marine Expeditionary Bde, Air Force AC-130 (intelligence gathering and fire support, and 9-man Navy SEAL team), and other elements.
Responding to the deteriorating situation, Operation Eastern Exit involved the evacuation of 281 noncombatants from the US Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia. Despite the priorities of the Gulf War, special operations forces helicopters were put on alert, Air Force C-130 transport aircraft were deployed to Kenya, and two Navy amphibious ships with elements of a Marine expeditionary brigade embarked were sent south from the North Arabian Sea toward Somalia.
Initial plans called for evacuation of the endangered Americans through Mogadishu’s international airport, utilizing Air Force aircraft staged in Kenya. The situation in Mogadishu rapidly worsened and aircraft, even those of the US Air Force, could not land safely at the airport. It seemed unlikely in any case that those sheltered at the Embassy could travel safely through the embattled city to the airport.
A contingency MAGTF was formed from 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade elements aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Guam (LPH 9) and amphibious transport ship USS Trenton (LPD 14). The special purpose MAGTF that conducted Operation Eastern Exit consisted of a reinforced helicopter squadron, a combat service support detachment, and less than one battalion of infantry embarked on two amphibious ships. The MAGTF included two squadrons of CH-46 medium transport helicopters and a detachment of two CH-53E heavy transport helicopters. The ground combat element included the Headquarters and Service Company, one rifle company, and the 81 mm mortar platoon from 1st Battalion, 2d Marines. The combat service support element included a military police platoon, landing support detachment, and medical/dental detachment that would be responsible for manning the evacuation coordination center.
By 04 January, it had become apparent that the Embassy’s only hope lay with the two ships still steaming south at flank speed.
At 0247 on the morning of 5 January, at a distance of 466 nautical miles from Mogadishu, the USS Guam launched the two CH-53Es with a 60-man security force, including a 9-man US Navy sea-air-land (SEAL) team. The flight required two aerial refuelings en route from KC-130 aircraft. The first guaranteed enough fuel to reach the embassy compound; the second provided enough fuel to begin the return flight to the ships.
CH-53Es landed at the Embassy compound at 0710. About 100 armed Somali stood with ladders by one wall. As the CH-53Es flew into the compound, the Somali scattered. Shortly after the helicopters touched down, a special operations AC-130 gunship arrived overhead to provide fire support, if needed. The CH-53Es unloaded the security force, and the SEAL team concentrated on protecting the ambassador at the chancery building while the Marines secured the remainder of the compound. After an hour on the ground, the CH-53Es lifted off with 61 evacuees for the return flight, with one aerial refueling, to the USS Guam, now 350-380 miles away. On the ground, the security force maintained the perimeter throughout the day. A few stray rounds impacted within the compound, but the Marines did not return fire. At one point during the day, a detachment from the security force and the embassy staff formed a convoy of hardened commercial vehicles to escort four American officials and several foreign nationals from the Office of Military Cooperation, which was several blocks away. Throughout the day, foreigners seeking evacuation arrived at the embassy.
Meanwhile, the USS Guam and USS Trenton had continued to steam at full speed toward Mogadishu, and upon arriving near the coast at 0043 on 6 January, they launched the final evacuation at midnight. This consisted of four waves of five CH-46s each. The first three waves were to evacuate civilians; the last wave would withdraw the security force. The entire CH-46 evolution was conducted using night vision goggles during the hours of darkness with the embassy compound darkened. As the last wave of CH-46s lifted off with the security force, armed looters could be seen scaling the walls of the embassy compound.
The evacuation was declared complete at 0343 on 6 January when the last CH-46 wave returned to the USS Guam. The ships turned north for Muscat, Oman, with 281 evacuees, including eight ambassadors, 61 Americans, and 39 Soviets. The entire expedition lasted less than 10 days. From the launch of the CH-53Es to the return of the last CH-46s, the evacuation itself had lasted less than 24 hours. On 11 January, the USS Guam and USS Trenton offloaded the evacuees in Muscat, including an infant born aboard ship, bringing the operation to a successful conclusion. EASTERN EXIT, which resulted in the rescue of 281 people — from 30 different countries — from a bloody civil war, was the result of the synergistic employment of widely dispersed joint forces that rapidly planned and conducted a NEO in the midst of the Gulf War.