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ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (AP) -- Desperate, homeless villagers on the tsunami-ravaged island of Sumatra mobbed American helicopters carrying aid Saturday as the U.S. military launched its largest operation in the region since the Vietnam War, ferrying food and other emergency relief to survivors across the disaster zone.
From dawn until sunset on New Year's Day, 12 Seahawk helicopters shuttled supplies and advance teams from offshore naval vessels while reconnaissance aircraft brought back stark images of wave-wrecked coastal landscapes and their hungry, traumatized inhabitants.
"They came from all directions, crawling under the craft, knocking on the pilot's door, pushing to get into the cabin," said Petty Officer First Class Brennan Zwack. "But when they saw we had no more food inside, they backed away, saying `Thank you, thank you."'
"The mob decided how we distributed the food. There were so many hands outstretched I don't think any package touched the ground," added Zwack, of Sioux Falls, S.D.
The helicopters took off from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, staged in calm waters about three miles off the Indonesian province of Aceh along with four other vessels to launch the sprawling U.S. military operation.
More than a dozen other ships were en route to southern Asian waters, with the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault vessel carrying Marines, headed for Sri Lanka, which along with Indonesia was the worst-hit area. The mission involves thousands of sailors and Marines, along with some 1,000 land-based troops.
Governments and global organizations have pledged about $2 billion in tsunami disaster relief, the United Nations said Saturday. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi raised Japan's offer to $500 million from $30 million, topping President Bush's pledge Friday of $350 million.
Thailand's Vietnam War-era air base of Utapao has become the airlift hub for the region. C-130 transport planes were already conducting sorties to Jakarta and the Sumatran cities of Medan and Banda Aceh, according to a statement Saturday by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.
U.S. Navy medical staff are also on the ground in Meulaboh, a decimated fishing village where several thousand bodies have been recovered. The Navy is considering a request from Jakarta to establish a field hospital there.
As many as 100,000 people are feared dead on Sumatra, which was closest to the epicenter of last Sunday's catastrophic quake and tsunami. Although aid has been piling up in regional airports, officials have had trouble getting it out to the areas in need and the U.S. military was expected to ease the bottleneck.
The Lincoln's operations officer, Cmdr. Matthew J. Faletti, said the New Year's Day effort off Sumatra was focused on ferrying emergency relief, including biscuits, energy drinks and instant noodles, to communities along the 120-mile stretch of seacoast south of the city of Banda Aceh.
Most of the 25,000 pounds of aid supplies delivered Saturday were picked up from Australian and other foreign shipments at Banda Aceh and then rushed by the helicopters to coastal town, where tens of thousands were killed by the giant wall of water.
U.S. military medical and damage assessment teams were also landed with helicopters flying in heavy winds, rain and low clouds. Supplies had to be dropped from craft hovering over some water-logged areas where landing proved impossible.
"There is nothing left to speak of at these coastal areas," said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Vorce, a pilot from San Diego, California. The tsunami left a swath of destruction as deep as two miles inland, with trees mowed down like grass and the only evidence of buildings in many communities the bare foundations, pilots said.
Many residents were camped out on high ground, either afraid to return to the seacoast or having nothing to return to.
The town of Meuloboh, where some 50,000 people had once lived, was about 80 percent destroyed, Faletti estimated.
The pilots encountered a number of foreign and Indonesian aid workers but distribution of supplies was difficult since the vital coastal road, most bridges and two small airports near Meuloboh had been washed away. "It looks like the sheer force of the water buckled the road from underneath," Vorce said.
Officers said information was being gathered on how best American resources could be used including the skills of machinists, masons, carpenters, divers and general laborers among the more than 6,000 crew members on the giant carrier.
"Everyone is champing at the bit to go out and help," said Vorce. "Today wasn't about a paycheck."
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)