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Navy’s Humanitarian Operations Highlighted in New NHHC Publication

08 December 2023

From Clifford Davis

WASHINGTON NAVY YARD – Recognizing a gap in the modern literature of the U.S. Navy regarding the importance of humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations, one Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) historian fills the void with his latest publication "A Global Force for Good: Sea Services Humanitarian Operations in the Twenty-First Century."

Marking the seventh naval history publication by Dr. John Darrell Sherwood, this new book analyzes the responses of the U.S. Navy and its partners to three of the most destructive disasters in recent history: the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Japan's triple disaster in 2011.

Based on original oral histories with service personnel who participated in these HADR operations through numerous interviews conducted by Dr. Sherwood and a team of naval reservists, studies of humanitarian operations authored by the staff of Center for Naval Analyses, and documents held by NHHC’s archives, Sherwood has crafted a vivid and compelling narrative of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard’s willingness and ability to help civilians in severe distress.

"I had contemplated writing a book on humanitarian operations for many years. The initial inspiration came out of my research on the U.S. Navy in Vietnam," said Sherwood. "During that war, the Navy and its sister sea services conducted numerous humanitarian operations ranging from providing medical support for civilians to massive non-combat evacuation operations."

As many Navy ships are within a few days of steaming distance from areas of the world that are highly prone to natural disasters, the sea services are often a crucial first responder when an ally or partner nation suffers a catastrophic natural disaster – one too big for local authorities to effectively respond to and manage. Sherwood's first example highlights the third largest earthquake since instrument recording began in 1900: the 9.1 magnitude Indonesian earthquake and tsunami that struck the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and other countries on Dec. 26, 2004.

The effects of the tsunami caused widespread death and destruction, with over 167,000 people killed in Sumatra, Indonesia alone. Waves reached up to 98 feet (30 meters) in areas, destroying entire villages and towns. To provide HADR support to stricken areas, the U.S. launched ‘Operation Unified Assistance.’ Within days of the disaster, Carrier Strike Group Nine (CGS 9), which included the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), was dispatched to the providence of Aceh in northern Sumatra. Just two days behind CSG Nine was an expeditionary strike group led by USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). A special Marine Air Ground Task Force and the hospital ship USNS Mercy rendered medical and engineering support, subsistence, and extensive debris removal.

“Forward presence in the Western Pacific was a key enabler for the U.S. Navy’s response during the critical early days of the crisis when such basic needs as food, water, and emergency medical support were in critical demand,” said Sherwood. “We had no military relationship with Indonesia and yet the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) quickly linked up and executed a complex, combined operation.”

The Navy's accomplishments in the Indonesian incident are numerous as ‘Operation Unified Assistance’ was a model of HADR; the Navy delivered over 5.8 million pounds of food, water, and other urgently needed supplies to disaster victims. The effectiveness of the relief provided by the Navy and its partners in the other services would set the two countries on a path towards reconciliation, improving diplomatic and military ties that extends to present day.

“Operation Unified Assistance greatly improved diplomatic as well as military-to-military relations between the United States and Indonesia,” continued Sherwood. “It became the inspiration for the Navy’s recruitment slogan in 2009 and also the title of this book.”

The next example Sherwood discusses is Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest and most destructive hurricanes in U.S. history. Making landfall on the Gulf Coast in the early hours of Aug. 29, 2005, it devastated the city of New Orleans and surrounding communities with storm surges breaching levees, and flooding much of the city. It left thousands of people trapped and stranded, killed over 1,800 people, and caused an estimated $125 billion in damages. In response, the U.S. government launched Joint Task Force (JTF) Katrina, one of the most extensive HADR operations in its history, directly coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but also involving many other government and state entities such as the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Housing and Urban. Development, National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Navy.

The Navy played a vital role in the Federal military response to Hurricane Katrina. Within days of the storm, 12 Navy warships, nine logistic ships from Military Sealift Command (MSC), 68 naval aircraft, and 10,000 Sailors responded to the disaster to focus on three main areas: search and rescue, medical assistance, and logistical support. The warships included the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), the amphibious assault ships USS Bataan (LHD 5) and USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), landing platform dock ship USS Shreveport (LPD 12), landing dock ships USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) and USS Tortuga (LSD 46). These ship’s and aircrews helped deliver approximately 2.2 million pounds of food, water, and other essential supplies, medically evacuate or rescue over 1,700 people, and transported another 8,512 people from rooftops, flooded streets, and even the Superdome, which had become a makeshift shelter for thousands of people displaced by the storm.

Other ships like the mine countermeasures ships USS Defender (MCM 2) and USS Gladiator (MCM 11), coaster minehunter USS Falcon (MCH 59), and rescue and salvage ship USS Grapple (ARS 53), conducted survey operations and removed debris from shipping channels and major waterways. Naval ships also served as floating hotels and logistics providers for other first responders, while naval shore facilities served as bases for many of the 2,600 Marines and other service members deployed to the region – federal, state, and local responders and government personnel. Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base (NAS JRB) New Orleans served as one of the most significant staging bases for Coast Guard search and rescue operations, while Seabee’s from Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport, Mississippi, cleared 750 miles of roadway, removing 20,000 tons of debris and obstructions, rebuilt 130 schools and public buildings, and erected tent camps for displaced residents. Overall, the Navy's response to Hurricane Katrina was a success story and a testament to its capabilities and commitment to serving the American people.

The last humanitarian mission Sherwood explores in the book discusses the events of March 11, 2011, when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Honshu, Japan, triggering a devastating tsunami that ravaged a 200 square-mile swath of Japan’s eastern coastline within 30 minutes. With waves reaching over 130 feet, the tsunami swept ashore, engulfing entire towns and cities, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake, killing over 19,000 people, displacing over 500,000 more, and causing an estimated $234 billion in damages.
In response, the U.S. Armed Forces and Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF) launched ‘Operation Tomodachi’ (translated as ‘Operation Friend’). With forward-deployed Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force personnel at sea and stationed at various shore-based commands throughout Japan, the U.S. military immediately volunteered its resources to the JSDF. The United States served as coordinating entity for much of the operation, striving to provide unique capabilities to enhance and compliment the ongoing JSDF efforts, which lead to the largest combined operation in the modern history for the JSDF.

The Navy’s response to the operation was swift and comprehensive. The Ronald Regan Carrier Strike Group (CSG 5) – led by the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Regan (CVN 76), cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG 62), guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DDG 88), and fast combat support ship USNS Bridge (T-AOE 10) – was on routine deployment when the strike group changed course in the Western Pacific Ocean and arrived on the Japanese coast the next day. Other ships like the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), amphibious assault ships USS Essex (LHD 2) and USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), landing helicopter assault ship USS America (LHA 6), and amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) came to assist in the HADR operations. Shore-based aircraft from NAS Atsugi and Naval Air Facility Misawa, along with Seabee’s and salvage units also assisted. These forces assisted with the JSDF, which deployed 106,000 personnel, 60 ships, and 500 aircraft for the operation, named ‘JTF-Tohoku’ by the JSDF.

The overall U.S. support, on behalf of the Navy’s response to ‘Operation Tomodachi,’ was also impressive. At the peak of the operation, over 24,000 Sailors, 24 ships, and 190 aircraft participated in delivering over 260 tons of supplies to the Japanese people, including 189 tons of food, 2 million gallons of water, and ample supplies of medicine. The Navy’s missions also included search and rescue/recovery, logistical support, ocean and port surveys, salvage operations, and infrastructure restoration.

"Operation Tomodachi demonstrated the enduring value of the American presence in Japan to a citizenry often skeptical of the military,” said Sherwood. “It also validated Japan’s own armed forces, which led the combined operation and contributed the most personnel to the effort.”

One instance of HADR operations that Sherwood notes he regrets not including in this book due to the vast amount of information is, “Operation Unified Response,” a massive, multi-agency joint response to a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the island nation of Haiti in January 2010. Together, with support from the other services, the Navy and the Marine Corps evacuated 16,412 U.S. citizens, delivered over 2.6 million liters of water and 17 million pounds of food, performed 1,000 surgeries, treated more than 9,000 patients, and reopened the international airport and port facilities.

The U.S. Navy’s successful response to the natural disasters and humanitarian crises in Indonesia, New Orleans and surrounding areas, and Japan highlighted the sea service’s unique and extraordinary ability to carry out such operations in the 21st twenty-first century. Operations Unified Assistance and Operation Tomodachi, along with the Navy’s participation in JTF Katrina, saved countless lives and alleviated mass human suffering. They restored vital infrastructure in disaster-affected regions, mitigated negative consequences of these disasters, showcased unique naval capabilities, and underscored the value of the sea services for citizens, policymakers, and foreign partners. For the Navy itself, the dedication and professionalism of its personnel to assist those in need, raised morale throughout the ranks and provided invaluable training in a range of military-related missions and skillsets.

“I want to encourage Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen to read this book not only to learn about humanitarian operations but to hear the stories of the service personnel who participated in these operations,” said Sherwood. “For me, the highlight of this project was interviewing those who served and hearing their amazing stories…these stories breathe life into the narrative, making it a true story and not simply a dry study.”

To download a 508-compliant PDF format of the book, visit or scan the QR code below.

To check out other digital publications from NHHC, visit Additionally, many of these publications can be purchased as hardbound copies via the Government Publishing Office Bookstore by visiting

The Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard, is responsible for the preservation, analysis, and dissemination of U.S. Naval history and heritage. It provides the knowledge foundation for the Navy by maintaining historically relevant resources and products that reflect the Navy's unique and enduring contributions through our nation's history and supports the fleet by assisting with and delivering professional research, analysis, and interpretive services. NHHC is composed of many activities including the Navy Department Library, the Navy Operational Archives, the Navy art and artifact collections, underwater archeology, Navy histories, ten museums, USS Constitution repair facility and the historic ship Nautilus.
For more news from Naval History and Heritage Command, visit


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