9 Times the United States Evacuated Its Military Families Overseas

Refugees from South Vietnam debark U.S. Marine Corps Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters on the flight deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19) during Operation Frequent Wind, before the fall of Saigon. (Arthur Richie/U.S. Navy)

Most duty stations overseas are overwhelmingly safe, but sometimes bad things happen. When it goes down, military members and dependents need to be evacuated in a hurry.

Most recently, the threat isn't global terrorism, hostile forces or a natural disaster -- it's COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus.

While the coronavirus has not yet triggered evacuations from military bases overseas, it's not something anyone can rule out at this point. There have been facility closures in Vicenza, Italy, and bases in Germany are preparing for a potential lockdown.

A soldier in South Korea is the first U.S. military member to contract the disease, and a military dependent has also tested positive in South Korea. So combating the spread of the virus is no doubt a top priority for military brass. The best way to do that would be to keep the military out of harm's way entirely.

And it wouldn't be the first time the U.S. left in a hurry. If history serves, it's better not to mess around.

1. Cyprus, February and July 1964

UNFICYP peacekeeper escorts elderly Greek woman across bridge in Ayios Theodoros, from Turkish sector to Greek sector. (United Nations)

On Dec. 21, 1963, violence erupted between Greek and Turkish residents of Nicosia, the capital of the island nation. Two Turkish Cypriots were killed, and eight others, both Greek and Turkish, were wounded. In the days that followed, armed bands of opposing ethnic groups roamed the city streets, shooting indiscriminately. In what came to be known as "Bloody Christmas," dozens were killed.

Read: What Happens When an Overseas US Military Base Is Evacuated?

By February, the United Nations was ready to send in 10,000 peacekeeping troops to reassert law and order. On Feb. 9, however, bombs went off near the American embassy. Almost immediately, the U.S. government ordered the evacuation of all military personnel and dependents. In July 1964, more would be evacuated to Beirut after the toppling of the Greek-led government in Nicosia. Turkey would invade the island later that month.

2. South Vietnam, 1965

Dependents of American servicemen depart Saigon in 1965.

It might come as a surprise that, at the outset of the American involvement in Vietnam, more than 1,800 U.S. military dependents accompanied service members in Saigon. As the Johnson administration ramped up its attacks on the North, however, American dependents were forced to leave. Military dependents were returned to the United States, but many diplomatic and intelligence officials' families discussed forming "exile colonies" in Thailand and Hong Kong.

"A couple of hours away is better than 20 hours aways," one wife told an Associated Press reporter.

3. South Vietnam, April 1975

A South Vietnamese helicopter is pushed over the side of the USS Okinawa during Operation Frequent Wind, April 1975. The helicopter, which carried two Vietnamese officers, a woman and two children, had to be disposed of to make room for the extensive Marine Corps helicopter operation helping to evacuate the city of Saigon. (U.S. Marine Corps)

On April 3, 1975, President Gerald Ford announced that the Vietnam War was over for the United States in a speech at Louisiana's Tulane University. He also announced that C-141 Starlifter aircraft had begun to repatriate American troops, personnel and their dependents, along with Vietnamese orphans. Over that month, almost 400 U.S. Air Force sorties evacuated 45,000 people from South Vietnam as North Vietnam closed its grip on the southern capital of Saigon. But the U.S. ambassador and embassy staff, along with thousands of South Vietnamese refugees, remained.

In the closing days of April 1975, the U.S. launched Operation Frequent Wind, in which Marine Corps and Air Force special operations helicopters departed from Navy aircraft carriers to evacuate the remaining American officials and whatever refugees they could. In the mission's last two days, 71 helicopters flew more than 2,000 air sorties between Saigon and the 7th Fleet.

4. Lebanon, February 1984

Marines stand in front of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, which was destroyed by a terrorist bomb attack. The Marines are members of a multinational peacekeeping force. (U.S. Marine Corps)

In 1975, Lebanon's fractured ethnic and religious groups descended into what would become a 15-year civil war for control of the country. Regional neighbors, the United Nations and even the U.S. Marine Corps couldn't bring stability to the country. Marines died defusing bombs and were shot by snipers. Finally, on Oct. 23, 1983, two truck bombs struck the multinational peacekeeping force barracks in Beirut, killing 220 leathernecks, 41 other U.S. service members and 58 French paratroopers. At the time, it was the largest non-nuclear explosion ever recorded.

Four months later, President Ronald Reagan announced that the Marines would be leaving Beirut for good, save for a small force to guard the U.S. embassy.

5. Liberia, August 1990 and April 1996

U.S. citizens and others evacuated from Monrovia, Liberia, are led away from a U.S. Air Force MH-53 Pavelow helicopter at the airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on April 11, 1996. (Senior Airman Richard M. Heileman/U.S. Air Force)

The United States doesn't have a history of colonialism in Africa, but the one place where similar ties exist is Liberia. The West African country was founded by repatriated former slaves from the United States. When civil war erupted in the country in the late 1980s, American involvement was scaled back and, by 1990, U.S. citizens in the country were evacuated by the Marine Corps. Later that year, rebels would execute Liberian President Samuel Doe.

Some Americans stayed in the country despite threats from rebel leader Prince Johnson to round up foreigners. In April 1996, heavy fighting again broke out around the country, and the U.S. military led a daring evacuation of all Americans as bodies littered the streets of Monrovia.

6. The Philippines, June 1991

Military and civilian personnel stop at a distribution point to collect food and water for their trip to Naval Station, Subic Bay, during the evacuation of Clark Air Base. Mt. Pinatubo is visible in the background on the upper left corner. (U.S. Air Force)

On June 15, 1991, Mount Pinatubo on the Philippine island of Luzon erupted, the end result of months of seismic activity and smaller magmatic eruptions. While the days leading up to the major eruption saw ash clouds more than 80,000 feet high, the June 15 eruption launched ash even further and damaged the nearby U.S. military facilities at Clark Air Base and Naval Base Subic Bay.

As a result, Pacific Air Forces ordered both installations evacuated, and the U.S. military began to move 20,000 troops and their families from the Philippines to Guam and then on to the U.S. A few "Ash Warriors" stayed behind during the eruption, but very few Americans ever returned. Both bases are now controlled by the Philippine government.

7. Lebanon, July 2006

Airman 1st Class Jared Lamber walks down the aisle of a C-17 Globemaster III during evacuation procedures from Lebanon to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, July 23, 2006. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall)

In one of the largest overseas evacuations of Americans ever, the U.S. military pulled out some 15,000 citizens as Israeli Defence Forces and Hezbollah fighters clashed at Israel's border with Lebanon. After Hezbollah made an unprecedented border raid into Israel, the IDF responded with a large air campaign targeting Hezbollah's military sites and Beirut's international airport. Then, Israel launched a ground invasion of southern Lebanon.

Two days later, the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, along with civilian boats, began a Dunkirk-like exodus of Americans out of harm's way. For 34 days, the IDF fought a "surprisingly well-trained and equipped" Hezbollah. It took the U.S. military 17 days to clear its citizens from the line of fire.

8. Japan, March-May 2011

Members with the Japanese Search and Rescue team search through the damage and debris on March 17, 2011, in Unosumai, Japan. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock)

In March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck the coast of Honshu, Japan's main island. The resulting tsunamis caused a major meltdown at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Radioactivity began spewing into the air as the meltdown progressed and the water from the spent fuel pools began to leak. The Japanese government established a 12- to 18-mile evacuation zone. The U.S. military established a 50-mile zone and began moving its people out.

The U.S. military and Japanese Self-Defense Forces moved as quickly as possible to respond. The U.S. 7th Fleet assembled 19 ships, 140 aircraft and 180,000 personnel to relieve the Japanese people and evacuate the areas affected. Nearly 15,000 people were evacuated and more than 8,300 bodies recovered. It was the SDF's largest mission ever.

9. Turkey, March 2016

An Air Force crewmember carries a military dependent out of a C-17 Globemaster III at Baltimore Washington International Airport, Md., April 1, 2016. (Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee/U.S. Air Force)

In the wake of a coordinated Islamic State bombing and shooting attack in Brussels, Belgium, that left 35 dead, including a U.S. Air Force officer and his family, the Pentagon ordered the evacuation of military dependents at bases in Turkey. The evacuation affected airfields in Incirlik, Izmir and Mugla, resulting in the removal of 670 military dependents.

Read: U.S. Military Families Ordered to Evacuate Turkey

Though the military didn't have specific intelligence on ISIS targets in Turkey, the move was "taken in an abundance of caution." While military family members were taken back to the U.S., service members would continue their tours in Adana -- what family members called "a new 15-month deployment."


-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com.

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