1980 – Mariel Boatlift

U. S. Coast Guard Operations During the 1980 Cuban Exodus

Diligence616 h 52 Color 1

HH-52A – Working with CGC Diligence

A huge Cuban refugee exodus took place in 1980.  The reason is deeply rooted in that nation’s internal affairs.  After the Cuban Revolution in 1959 a steady flow of Cuban immigration took place as Castro moved deeper and deeper into the communist fold. This was temporarily halted by the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1965, as economic conditions continued to deteriorate and opponents of government policies increased, Castro announced that the port of Camarioca would be opened to Cuban exiles who wished to return to Cuba to pick up relatives desiring to leave Cuba. This boatlift was terminated after President Johnson negotiated a safer and more orderly use of commercial aircraft for the transportation of refugees. These flights continued until August of 1971. A total of 263,540 Cubans came to the United States during this period. In April 1980 the Castro regime again initiated a large scale emigration to reduce discontent caused by Cuba’s deteriorating economic conditions. The exodus grew in magnitude to a point where it seriously taxed the ability of the United States to accommodate it.

On 1 April 1980 a group of six Cubans crashed the gate of the Peruvian Embassy and requested asylum. Castro exploited the incident and announced the gates to the embassy would remain open to all who wished to leave Cuba. By 6 April there were over 10,000 Cubans crowded onto the grounds of the Embassy. Castro had not expected this number and found himself boxed in. He was experiencing considerable negative publicity but realized the situation was an excellent opportunity to initiate another boatlift.  Shrewdly he made contact with the Cuban exile community and let it be known that if they came by small boat to the port of Mariel they could pick up relatives along with the refugees from the Peruvian Embassy. Castro’s message to the Cuban exile community came through loud and clear.  On 21 April two fishing vessels arrived in Key West with forty-eight Cuban refugees. The next day additional refugees arrived and during radio interviews they stated that the Cuban government had opened the port of Mariel to those wishing to leave. By 24 April there were close to 400 boats in Mariel harbor waiting to pick up refugees.

On 1 April 1980 a group of six Cubans crashed the gate of the Peruvian Embassy and requested asylum. Castro exploited the incident and announced the gates to the embassy would remain open to all who wished to leave Cuba. By 6 April there were over 10,000 Cubans crowded onto the grounds of the Embassy. Castro had not expected this number and found himself boxed in. He was experiencing considerable negative publicity but realized the situation was an excellent opportunity to initiate another boatlift.  Shrewdly he made contact with the Cuban exile community and let it be known that if they came by small boat to the port of Mariel they could pick up relatives along with the refugees from the Peruvian Embassy. Castro’s message to the Cuban exile community came through loud and clear.  On 21 April two fishing vessels arrived in Key West with forty-eight Cuban refugees. The next day additional refugees arrived and during radio interviews they stated that the Cuban government had opened the port of Mariel to those wishing to leave. By 24 April there were close to 400 boats in Mariel harbor waiting to pick up refugees.

The United States Coast Guard’s Seventh District, commanded by Rear Admiral Benedict L. Stabile, knew they were going to have a search and rescue problem to deal with. The question was:  How large?  Surveillance flights began 24 April from Air Station Miami utilizing HC-131 aircraft in the area south of Key West and twice daily patrol flights became routine.  An estimated 11 vessels had safely crossed to Cuba and had returned with over 700 refugees disembarking at Key West or Miami.  Nearly one thousand craft were observed southbound on the afternoon of the 24th. At least twenty could be seen from the patrolling aircraft at any given moment.  For the most part, these were Cuban-Americans who owned their own boat; typically a 20 to 40 footer primarily equipped for local pleasure boating. Those that did not have boats were paying large sums to small craft operators, such as shrimpers, to bring back relatives. At the end of April the Cuban Government reported over 1700 vessels were in the port of Mariel.  The Coast Guard responded to distress calls on a case by case basis.  Within a 21- hour period, Group Key West assisted sixteen craft and had a waiting list of twenty boats which had suffered mechanical failures and needed assistance. In addition to the Groups three patrol boats the cutters Acushnet (WAGO-167), Dauntless (WMEC-624), and Dependable (WMEC-626), the latter with a HH-52 helicopter embarked, patrolled the general area. 

Mariel boatliftRecognition that the problem was going to grow was immediate. A request for supplemental assistance was made to the Atlantic Area Commander who ordered additional units transferred to the operational control of the Seventh District.  The units consisted of two additional HC-131s with double crews; an HH-3F with double crew assigned to Group Key West; two HH-52 aircraft assigned for shipboard operations; four additional cutters and three additional patrol boats. The Coast Guard mission was to provide maximum protection for refugee vessels transiting between Florida and Cuba. The SAR workload continued unabated. Helicopters and surface ships coordinated efforts for maximum effectiveness. By the end of April the volume of cases had become so heavy that accurate records could not be kept. It was not uncommon for a cutter to have five or six boats in tow and a number of survivors on board from swamped boats. During one 24-hour period the cutter Dauntless picked up 131 persons from six overloaded boats, two of which were disabled. Diligence had six craft in tow, was escorting two others, and had twenty-three persons on board from a sunken vessel.

Governor Bob Graham, in response to the rapidly expanding refugee problem, had declared Florida a disaster area by the end of April. During the first two weeks of May the number of refugees arriving Key West had approached 5,000 a day. The number of Immigration Service Officers had increased to fifty and an additional one-hundred Border Patrol Officers were assigned to the area. The refugee processing facilities were completely overwhelmed. Initially, Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the US Public Health Service and other involved government agencies worked independently of each other and often agency efforts were duplicated. The agencies quickly realized that a coordinated effort with guidance and approval authority at the local level was the only way the escalating situation could be handled. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was assigned to coordinate the efforts of nine different government agencies and five private organization and charities. FEMA quickly recognized that Key West could not accommodate the continuing influx of refugees. Expeditious relocation of the refugees off the Island was critical. A logistical and transportation system capable of transporting up to 10,000 people a day out of Key West was developed.

By the middle of May emphasis was being placed on bringing order to the boatlift and stopping the flow of refugees. The revised Coast Guard Operations Order of May 15 contained an additional mission. Units were to be heavily engaged in law enforcement as well as Search and Rescue operations. In addition to preventing the loss of life, Coast Guard units were directed to interdict southbound boats for the purpose of curtailing the sea lift; to ensure that all northbound arrivals terminate at Key West for processing; and to provide all concerned agencies with up-to-date and accurate intelligence on vessel movements. The Seventh District staff realized that a timely system for detecting and reporting southbound vessels was critical to reducing the flow of refugees. Coast Guard fixed wing search aircraft – HC-131s from Air station Miami and HC-130s from Air station Clearwater and Air station Elizabeth City – flew surveillance flights. Navy long-range P-3 aircraft from Naval Air Station Jacksonville augmented the Coast Guard flights. The Seventh District’s Operation Division coordinated patrols for fixed-wing aircraft; Group Key West scheduled coastal surveillance patrols for HH-3F and HH-52A helicopters operating out of NAS Key West; Flight deck equipped cutters scheduled flights for their own attached HH-52A helicopters. To facilitate the increased aviation activity, two additional HC-131, two HH-3F helicopter, and five additional HH-52A helicopters, four of which were deployed onboard flight-deck equipped cutters, were assigned from other aviation units.

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Direct water pickup of survivors

Group Key West was under the command of LCDR Sam Dennis. Key West was the primary departure and arrival point for the exile boats making the trip to Mariel and back. The SAR responsibility was along the coast out to 30 miles offshore. The group had quadrupled in size and operated and supported an imposing group of additional resources consisting of 110-foot, 95-foot and 82-foot patrol boats, and a large number of 41-foot utility boats. To assist with coastal rescue and surveillance, an HH-52A and two HH-3F Coast Guard helicopters were also assigned.

As the tempo of operations continued to increase, with no let up in sight, the Group Commander, burdened with increased responsibilities, needed assistance in coordinating and maintaining air assets at his disposal. On 20 May 1980 the Coast Guard Aviation Detachment (AVDET) came into being with LCDR Mont J. Smith assigned as “Aviator-in-Charge.”  The detachment consisted of an aircraft maintenance officer, an enlisted maintenance supervisor, four HH-3E flight crews, three HH-52A flight crews, and three seven-man maintenance support sections. NAS Key West provided ramps space, limited office space and messing for Coast Guard personnel. Ground support equipment was obtained from CGAS Clearwater and a supply network was set up with CGAS Miami, CGAS Clearwater and the Coast Guard Aviation Repair and Supply Center (AR&SC) at Elizabeth City, N.C.  AVDET Key West grew into an “ad-hoc” air station — one of the busiest in Coast Guard history — significantly contributing to the successful response to the Mariel Exodus. A more detailed account of the creation and operation of the Key West AVDET is addressed at the end of this narrative.

The Cuban exile community became aware that Castro had used them. The make up of the people leaving Cuba was different than in previous years. During the Mariel Boatlift more than 20,000 men were forced to leave Cuba without their families; an extremely small percentage of the refugees were related to those in the exile community; close to 2000 of the 126,000 refugees were convicted felons and an estimated 3000 Cuban Intelligence Service agents, given a variety of assignments,  entered the United States.

On 2 June, the Coast Guard encountered a new situation when the 118-foot M/V Red Diamond departed Mariel, escorted by three Cuban vessels, with hundreds of people on board. The Coast Guard was ordered to prevent the vessel from coming to Florida.  When the Coast Guard cutters Dallas, Acushnet and Cherokee began to force the Red Diamond to change course the Cuban escort threatened to make a serious international incident. At 4:00 pm that afternoon the Coast Guard cutters were ordered to allow Red Diamond to proceed to Key West. The Justice Department said the decision had been made “for humanitarian reasons.”  Additional attempts at this type of operation continued. The United States recognized the threat of large commercial vessels capable of transporting thousands of people. Fortunately, diplomatic efforts persuaded Panama and other flag states to pressure Cuba into rejecting their ships for the boatlift. Vessels were stopped before sailing for safety violations and those that did go and return were seized. 

On 25 September 1980 the Coast Guard Cutter Point Thatcher was patrolling north of Mariel. A look at the cutters radar screen showed a series of blips on the radar screen departing the harbor entrance. By the next morning it had been confirmed that none of the 58 boats carried refugees. The boat crews told the Coast Guard that they had been forced to leave by the Cuban government. The 159-day boatlift was over! There were 600 stranded refugees who had already been processed that were flown out later.

RADM Stabile and staff, with Captain Raymond J. Copin as Chief of Operations, did an outstanding job. The task at hand was huge and they were forced to react to an ever changing situation orchestrated by Fidel Castro as well as an initial lack of a coherent policy on the part of the Administration. They opted to augment existing staff components and operational forces within the already established organization. Augmentation allowed the people most knowledgeable, having the greatest familiarity with the area and resource capabilities, to direct the operation on a day to day basis. This proved to be a wise decision. Operational authority was vested at the lowest level possible and was supported up through the chain of command providing a great degree of flexibility and the ability to meet the ever changing requirements. Jack Watson, President Carter’s Chief of Staff said “The Coast Guard’s response was outstanding, from the top of the organization to the boat operators on the scene — “Semper Paratus” was exactly right. The Coast Guard was ready and they had the flexibility to get the job done – they were creative in solving problems.”   

This was a large operation. The Coast Guard utilized twenty-two large cutters, eleven 95-foot patrol boats, twenty-six 82-foot patrol boats and twenty-one 41-foot utility boats during this operation. The Navy provided fourteen additional ships and aircraft from four aviation units. This effort also saw the greatest concentration of Coast Guard aircraft ever. Aviation resources were critical to the Coast Guard response to the exodus. Aircraft and aircrews were provided from fifteen Air stations. An additional eleven Air stations provided supplemental crews. There were a total of thirty-three fixed-wing aircraft and thirty-six helicopters that flew a total of 9,026 mission hours without an accident.

Over 126,000 refugees crossed the Straits of Florida in craft that were marginal and in various states of disrepair. Amazingly there were only forty-five known fatalities. This is directly attributable to the talent and professionalism of those personnel working the air and sea. Over 1,300 separate SAR cases were reported. This is an impressive number considering that there was a period at the end of April when the Coast Guard was too busy to record them. Thousands of lives were saved. This operation stands out in Coast Guard annals as one of the Service’s greatest achievements.

Coast Guard Aviation Detachment Key West

Aviation resources proved to be critical for boatlift operations. HC-131 Convairs from Coast Guard Air Station Miami flew the first surveillance flights providing data to help evaluate the developing situation. As the pace increased, HH-52 helicopters were deployed upon the increasing number of Coast Guard cutters with flight deck capabilities. Additional fixed-wing assets were assigned to the Miami Air Station. By 5 May 1980 there were five surveillance flights made each day by HC-131 aircraft from Coast Guard Air Station (CGAS) Miami and HC-130 aircraft from CGAS Clearwater, augmented by Navy P3 aircraft from NAS Jacksonville. Initially all aviation support for helicopter operations was conducted out of CGAS Miami.

The shortest distance between Mariel and a port in the United States was across the Florida Straits to Key West. To assist with coastal rescue and surveillance and provide support for forces afloat a HH-52 from CGAS Miami and two HH-3Fs, one from CGAS Clearwater and one from CGAS Elizabeth City were deployed to Coast Guard Group Key West. The helicopters at Key West were deployed from a parent air station as a pre-positioned SAR resource — usually for a period of two or three days. Each carried a parts and service kit and obtained support from their air station.

On April 14 LCDR Mont Smith and LCDR Tom Burnaw arrived at NAS Key West as the CGAS Clearwater HH-3F replacement. They obtained a briefing from LCDR Jim Leskinovitch, an HH-52 pilot and the senior aviator from CGAS Miami. Both LCDR Leskinovitch and LCDR Burnaw were aircraft maintenance officers and Jim explained to Tom how NAS Key West had become a “drop point” for aviation resources. A number of HH-52s would come ashore from their assigned cutter, refuel, perform a 10-hour tail rotor maintenance check, re-supply with parts requested from their home air station, water wash the engine and proceed back to their ship. LCDR Smith and LCDR Burnaw analyzed the situation. Aviation assets were growing and operations were continuing without let up. The Group Commander, LCDR Sam Dennis, burdened with a rapidly increasing workload, needed assistance in coordinating the operation and maintenance of aviation assets. The three met to set up a structure that would provide logistical, maintenance, and operational support for aviation resources attached to his command. An OPLAN was drawn up and submitted to CAPT Ray Copin, CCGD7 Operations. He bought the plan and made it happen.

Coast Guard Aviation Detachment (AVDET) Key West came into being on 20 May 1980. LCDR Mont J. Smith was designated as “Aviator-in-Charge” (AIC) and staffed with an aircraft maintenance officer, an enlisted aircraft maintenance supervisor, four HH-3F flight crews, three HH-52 flight crews and three seven-man maintenance support sections. Allocated ramp space and a small office were acquired from NAS Key West. Ground support equipment and a temporary communications center were airlifted in from CGAS Clearwater. A supply network was established with the Coast Guard Aviation Repair and Supply Center (AR&SC) at Elizabeth City, N.C. whereby helicopter replacement parts would be furnished from stock at CGAS Miami and CGAS Clearwater; critical items normally available only from the inventory control point were expedited overnight by express delivery from AR&SC. Administrative supplies and equipment were obtained, messing provisions for attached personnel were arranged with NAS Key West, and billeting of personnel was contracted out to local motels. An aviation liaison officer, LCDR Jim Marcotte, was assigned to the Group Commanders staff serving as a link between the Group and the Seventh District Chief of Operations in Miami.

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Coast Guard Cutter Dallas WHEC 716 with HH-52 Helicopter on board

The CGD7 Chief of Operations worked with COMLANTAREA to arrange personnel and aircraft rotation cycles. Where in the past crews and aircraft had been deployed for two or three days they were now assigned to the unit, on a temporary basis (TAD), for periods of thirty to forty-five days. Supplemental crews were also provided. Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) were developed and initiated. As the workload increased augmentation crews came aboard and mixed crews became the norm. You were apt to have found a Mobile aircraft commander with   a Clearwater co-pilot and an E City enlisted flight crew flying a Borinquen helicopter. It all worked flawlessly — a real credit to service-wide aircrew standardization. This concept would prove to be invaluable many times over in future years. The AVDET aircraft averaged eight daylight hours of “boatlift” patrol in the Group Commanders area of responsibility. One HH-3F and one HH-52 were maintained on a 24-hour “Bravo Zero” SAR status. An additional HH-3F was kept on two hour standby. AVDET Search and Rescue was on-going but of note was the launch of two HH-3Fs and one HH-52 helicopters in darkness in the early morning hours of 17 May when a 30-foot vessel carrying fifty-two Cuban refugees grounded and sank on a coral reef south of Key West.

An additional HH-3F was kept on two hour standby. AVDET Search and Rescue was on-going but of note was the launch of two HH-3Fs and one HH-52 helicopters in darkness in the early morning hours of 17 May when a 30-foot vessel carrying fifty-two Cuban refugees grounded and sank on a coral reef south of Key West. All fifty-two persons were hoisted to safety in an operation where twenty-three persons were hoisted by one HH-3F, twenty-two persons by another HH-3F and seven by the HH-52 in a simultaneous operation.

CAPT William J Brogden, on the cutter Dallas, was the On-Scene-Commander Surface Vessels. He acted as the command-and-control ship and strung out 210 foot WMECs, with HH-52s aboard, on stations along the track line from Mariel to Key West. The HH-52s provided short-range reconnaissance and tactical SAR. The concentration of helicopter assets aboard mobile support platforms in a “target rich” environment provided a greater synergy and a high degree of effectiveness. CAPT Brogden conducted conference calls to operating units every night on HF radio. LCDR Smith, as (AIC), participated in the net. He was briefed on operational requirements, logistical requirements, and ascertained aircraft maintenance and parts requirements. The shipboard helicopters had been deployed to a specific cutter — but this was not the way to operate efficiently and effectively in the given situation. The option of cross-platform operations to other flight decks, including the Navy’s Amphibious Assault Vessel Saipan, was a requirement. In addition the WMECs were limited on aircraft fuel and freshwater for engine wash.  The 10-hour rotor inspections were not labor intensive but could be difficult and sometimes dangerous because the rotor would extend out over the fantail when the helicopter was secured in the landing grid. A non-operational helicopter was of no value to the cutter — so it evolved that the helicopters would come to the AVDET for maintenance and repair, water wash engines, and obtain a full load of fuel. The HH-52 assigned to Key West, was in many instances, utilized as an “operational spare.” HH-52 flight crews were assigned to helicopters, not necessarily their own, and deployed to where they were needed.  Personnel and high priority cargo were routinely transported between ship and shore. The AVDET, in addition to providing Group SAR, had also become what the Navy would later call an AVLOGDET or “Aviation Logistics Detachment.”

All AVDET personnel were TAD. LCDR Mont Smith was relieved as AIC by LCDR Jack Stice who in turn was relieved by LCDR Bill Meininger. Here again planning was evident. Each had been assigned to the AVDET prior to being appointed AIC and each was familiar with the “Drill” prior to becoming AIC thereby providing continuity.

This was a truly remarkable operation. A group of LCDRs, strongly backed by CAPT   Bob Whitley, Commanding Officer CGAS Clearwater and CAPT Ray Copin, CGD7 Chief of Operations, planned, established and operated an “ad-hoc” air station under the Group Commander with an operational workload as great as or greater than any other aviation unit at the time.  AVDET Key West was not a dedicated unit – it was operationally created by men of vision who were willing to operate outside the box and answer for it.  The unit was exceptionally well run and highly effective. It became the model for future aviation deployments in support of alien and drug interdiction operations.

2017-06-22T14:50:35+00:00