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The Big Lily Pad: South Pacific base provides air bridge to war zone

Airman Magazine

by Tech. Sgt. Mark Kinkade photos by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung

Andersen Air Force Base's twin runways stretched toward Guam's rocky north shore in concrete ribbons toward the Pacific Ocean beyond. The vast ramp space was empty except for a single blue Air Force truck cruising along the perimeter road surrounding the flight lines.

Staff Sgt. Larry Morrison steered the truck over a rise and gestured across the giant patch of concrete.

"This is nothing like it was in October," the fuels specialist said. "It was wingtip to wingtip out here, like you see in movies about World War II. Airplanes everywhere. People everywhere. Just looking at that flight line, you knew we were at war."

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Andersen had a reputation as one of those "quiet bases" where the occasional airplane stopped for gas, and snorkeling the clear blue waters around the island was the highlight of a tour of duty.

But the war on terrorism changed all that.

The surge

Airman 1st Class Kevin Tolman graduated from technical school as a fuels specialist in September 2001 and was ready for what he had heard would be a quiet, sometimes boring, first tour of duty. He was ready to learn how to do his job in the "real world," but didn't expect a crash course.

"I was right out of school," Tolman said. "It was crazy around here. People told me they hadn't seen anything like it."

Tolman arrived on base about the same time as the first wave of aircraft came through for Operation Enduring Freedom. Fifteen KC-10 refuelers from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., and six KC-135s from Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., set up shop to pass fuel to aircraft headed for Southwest Asia. Tolman and others didn't know it at the time, but the surge had just begun.

From September to mid-May, Andersen's flight line was the epicenter of the air bridge activity. At the peak of the surge, up to 80 aircraft were parked on the ramp, including 23 C-5 Galaxy aircraft carrying supplies and people to the war zone. By the end of July, 3,211 aircraft had moved through Andersen carrying more than 37,886 passengers and 60,000 tons of cargo. Also, Marine Corps F-18 fighters - along with 1,000 Marines in support roles - were stationed at the base to fly combat air patrol missions for Operation Noble Eagle.

Although the surge was a substantial increase in operations tempo, Andersen is used to handling contingency operations. The base isn't the "Sleepy Hollow" many believe it to be, said former 36th Air Base Wing commander Col. Bernie Fullenkamp.

"Andersen brings three things to the fight: Airfield, fuel and bombs," said Fullenkamp, who commanded the base during the surge. "We're a big lily pad for leap frogging people, supplies, aircraft - anything we need to sustain a conflict - into the [Southwest Asia] region."

In fact, air traffic at the base has slowly increased in recent years, reaching a high of more than 38,000 flight operations in 2001.

The Enduring Freedom surge, however, pushed Andersen to its limits. The refueling aircraft were constantly landing, taking on more fuel, then launching again. In the first five months, the fuel depot issued nearly 38 million gallons of fuel - more than in all of 2000. At one point, the Navy had to bring in another 40 million gallons to restock the quickly dwindling fuel supply.

"We pumped our annual budget of fuel in two and a half months," said Capt. Brent Gibson, 36th Logistics Support Squadron fuels management flight commander. "We had a 300 percent increase in workload."

Every squadron on base was affected. The maintenance squadron built and shipped 576 joint direct attack munitions to the war [See "Not So Dumb Bomb," June 2001] and maintained the pipeline of ammunition, feeding everything from 9 mm bullets to 500-pound bombs to the war.

Ground equipment technicians tapped into an extensive war reserve of equipment to ship tents, generators, light carts and other gear downrange and to keep Andersen operations humming.

Base operations, the weather flight and the air traffic control tower touched each mission by providing support to transitioning aircraft. The tower's ability to keep up with the surge led to its recognition as the Air Force's best air traffic control tower in 2001.

For three months, nothing existed outside the mission, Morrison said.

"It was non-stop. I'd walk in the door at 6:30 a.m. and wouldn't get released until 8 p.m," he said. "There were lots of box lunches. Families and friends were something we thought about, but didn't see much of."

Locked down

The terrorist attacks added a twist to contingency operations at Andersen. Normally, the wing uses hotels in nearby Hagatna to house people when billeting is full. This time, however, the Air Force was in Force Protection Condition Delta. No one was leaving the base.

Making matters worse, the aircraft movement downrange was slowing. The forward operating areas were getting saturated, meaning people arriving at Guam for what were supposed to be four-hour layovers were forced to stay up to 36 hours.

"It was organized chaos," said 13th Air Force vice commander Col. John Jaczinski III. "There's a desire to get everything there and get it done quickly, but you have to consider the flow of the operation. You can't just send everything at one time."

The rapidly expanding population was stuck at the base, and the base had to find a way to take care of the people.

"They hadn't seen a shower. They hadn't slept," Fullenkamp said. "We needed to take care of those people."

Ray Stiers, Andersen's outdoor recreation programs manager and a 12-year Guam resident, said the base population swelled from about 2,000 people to more than 4,000 in a matter of days.

"This wasn't the busiest I've seen," said Stiers, who retired from the Air Force at Andersen. "But it was crazy. We used every billeting room and dormitory."

When those were full, the base used cots and converted an empty Department of Defense school into a 700-bed hotel, then started putting people in empty base houses. In some cases, up to 26 Marines were sleeping in what were once four-bedroom base housing units, but no one complained.

"Guys were really trying to make the mission," said Lt. Col. Stephen Fischer, commander of the 734th Air Mobility Squadron that oversaw mobility operations for Andersen's aircraft. "We had crews staying with their planes. The [director of operations] had to order some of them to go to bed. They didn't want to stop working."

The dining hall went from serving 150 people daily to more than 2,000 per meal. Base restaurants expanded their hours to allow more people access to food, and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service had a run on underwear and basic toiletries.

"Everyone was supposed to come here on a short layover," Stiers said. "The loadmasters wouldn't unpack personal bags because they were supposed to be leaving. There were a lot of people who didn't have a change of clothes or toothpaste for a couple of days."

While Andersen tried to make the transient forces comfortable, the local community suffered. The attacks cut off the tourism lifeblood of the local economy. And any possible relief from military people with money to spend downtown was locked up on the base.

"Downtown was a ghost town," Stiers said. "Some of the hotels closed temporarily. The clubs were shut down. You could drive down the main drag with a blindfold on and not hit anyone."

Eventually, the Air Force let people go downtown. The effect, Stiers said, was like opening the vent valve on a pressure cooker.

"People were getting tense. The pressure was building around here," he said. "As soon as we were able to start moving people, things got better. The folks downtown were absolutely thrilled to see GIs on the streets again."

The new normal

In June, the flight line was back to normal. But any resemblance to life before the war is only on the surface. Andersen is still in a contingency mode.

"It will never be the same," Fullenkamp said. "We have a lot of day-to-day work to get caught up on, and we have to apply our lessons learned for the next operation."

There are more visible signs of the "new normal" at the base. The houses used as temporary billeting now boast "contingency residence" signs. A community e-mail center set up in a tent during the surge has moved inside the dining hall so transient people can communicate with families and friends via the Internet.

Mission support programs, like the upgrade to the refueling system, road and taxiway repair, and other projects were given high priority, funded and are nearing completion. A $165,000 upgrade to improve security at the main gate was completed in June.

As long as there's a war on terrorism, Andersen will never return to the quiet days before Sept. 11, Jaczinski said.

"There are two things that could happen," he said. "[The U.S. could] declare victory and redeploy everything and everyone back home, or we can have more conflict in the Pacific region. Either way, Andersen's critical."

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