On May 27, 1997 rebel forces and military officers conducted a coup to overthrow the government of Sierra Leone. Foreigners in the country were at risk during this crisis and needed to be evacuated. A few months prior to the coup a U.S. Army Special Forces detachment had deployed in Sierra Leone for a joint training exercise. This detachment would take a leading role in helping to secure the U.S. embassy and residential compounds, provide intelligence to U.S. forces, identify helicopter landing zones, and assist in the overall conduct of the non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO).
The NEO was conducted by Joint Task Force Noble Obelisk established May 27, 1997 – consisting of the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3), the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), and the Special Forces detachment. The Kearsarge arrived on station off the coast of Freetown on May 28, 1997. The JTF conducted a series of three evacuations over six days that included transport of the evacuees by Marine helicopter to the Kearsarge and then disembarkation off the Kearsarge in Conakry, Guinea. US forces evacuated over 2,500 people – about 450 of the evacuees were American citizens and the rest third-country nationals. Operation Noble Obelisk was officially disestablished on June 6, 1997.
A Special Forces detachment from the 3rd Special Forces Group was deployed in April 1997 to develop a training plan in the development of a newly established Sierra Leone Army. The deployment was a Joint-Combined Exchange Training (JCET) rotation. The mission was to train a 300-man light infantry battalion – known as the RSLMF 1st Battalion over a three-month period. In late May SFODA 334 would find itself in the middle of a crisis and very involved in assisting in the evacuation of American and foreign citizens.
On the morning of 25 May the SF detachment learned of a coup taking place in the capital. The SF team quickly established communications with its company leadership (forward-deployed in Mali) and Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) of the situation. After having established a defensive posture at its training camp in Benguema the team sent out elements to search for suitable airfields, landing zones, and sites of naval landing craft. The next day the team moved to the embassy compound in Freetown. At that location they coordinated with Nigerian and other military units for security for U.S. citizens and the embassy and conducted a reconnaissance of helicopter landing zones . As advanced members of the MEU arrived the ODA escorted them to the evacuation sites and landing zones. Once the evacuation began the detachment organized convoys to the landing zones and coordinated for security during the NEO process.
During the NEO event the SF team played an important role in all aspects of the operation. The training of Special Forces detachments, cultural orientation, and relationships with embassies in their regional areas of operation make them ideally suited to assist in non-combatant evacuation operations. The actions of SFODA 334 reflect the adaptability, flexibility, and responsiveness of Special Forces units in the midst of an emerging crisis.
Photo: Evacuees from Freetown, Sierra Leone, are directed from a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter across the flight deck of the USS Kearsarge during Operation Noble Obelisk. Over 2,500 people from 40 different countries were evacuated. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Wes Cheney, U.S. Navy, May 30, 1997.
The Role of United States Army Special Forces in Operation Nobel Obelisk, by Francis M. Beaudette, MAJ, USA, CGSC, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2001, PDF, 112 pages.
Operation Noble Obelisk: An Examination of Unity of Effort, by William M. Kennedy, LCDR, CHC, USN, Naval War College, Newport, RI, 2001, PDF, 25 pages.
Operation Noble Obelisk, Wikipedia
Army Special Operations Forces Noncombatant Evacuation Operations, FM 3-05.131, November 2009.
Noncombatant Evacuation Operations, Joint Publication 3-68, November 2015.