25 years ago: Commissaries in the Philippines served their communities amid a volcano eruption

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25 years ago: Commissaries in the Philippines served their communities amid a volcano eruption

by: Dr. Peter D. Skirbunt, DeCA historian | .
Defense Commissary Agency | .
published: June 15, 2016

FORT LEE, Va. – Twenty-five years ago this month, a natural disaster in the Philippines forced the eventual closure of all U.S. military bases in the country. Among the facilities that closed were three commissaries, one run by the Air Force Commissary Service (AFCOMS) and two by the Navy Resale Services Support Office (NAVRESSO).   

This event occurred nearly four months before all the military commissaries consolidated into the Defense Commissary Agency.  During this widespread disaster, personnel from AFCOMS and NAVRESSO distinguished themselves by focusing on the welfare of hundreds of military family members who depended upon the commissaries for their subsistence.

On June 10, 1991, the impending eruption of long-dormant volcano Mount Pinatubo on Luzon forced the evacuation of hundreds of military personnel and their families from Clark Air Base to Naval Base Subic Bay.

As things turned out, they had left Clark with little time to spare; just two days later, on June 12, the mountain erupted and covered Clark with volcanic ash.

Two days after the initial eruption, Clark Commissary Officer Bobby Peters, realized the hundreds of evacuees were putting a strain on supplies available at the Subic Bay commissary. Knowing there was a large amount of badly needed canned, packaged and bottled food at the Clark Commissary, Peters decided to go back to Clark and retrieve as much of that food as possible.  

Accompanied by a single Filipino volunteer, he drove a truck through a foot or more of fallen ash to the Clark Commissary. They were on their way when the mountain erupted again, but this time an approaching typhoon, Yunya, began blowing the ash cloud away from Clark and toward Subic Bay. Pressing on, Peters reached the Clark Commissary, and the two men scavenged the entire store for undamaged goods.

By the time Peters made it back to Subic, rain was beginning to fall, and Subic was beginning to be covered with wet ash. Soon a torrential downpour began. The evacuees and their hosts at Subic, as well as people at Naval Station San Miguel, began a truly terrifying experience. Torrential rainfall soaked the ash, making it as heavy as cement, while mud flows (known as lahars) began making travel impossible.

The wet, heavy ash snapped tree branches and collapsed roofs; two children were killed by one roof collapse. The day became dark as night, and the electricity was cut off when power lines snapped and transformers shorted out with loud explosions. In the oppressive heat and darkness there were no lights, air conditioning, or running water. Repeated earthquakes generated by the mountain, and vicious thunder and lightning brought by the typhoon, terrorized everyone. Dale Bauer, the Clark Commissary’s security officer, later put it succinctly: “We feared for our lives.”

Jack McGregor, DeCA’s Pacific Area logistics chief, well remembers the destruction wrought by the Pinatubo eruption. Back in 1991, he was assigned to Subic Bay as a NAVRESSO employee when it seemed as if Mother Nature had a personal grudge against the Philippines.  

“After the volcano, it became clear that if we didn’t pull together in true team fashion, it wasn’t going to do us all much good,” McGregor recalled during a recent interview. “When the decision was made to close Clark and leave Subic Bay open, the efforts to move product from Clark to Subic were set in motion. Remember, at the time, this was two separate agencies, so cooperation was key. And it went very well.”

When the typhoon passed, the people at Subic emerged from their homes and public shelters to discover scenes of destruction. Power lines were down, and buildings and vehicles were covered with hardened ash. Bobby Peters and more volunteers went back to Clark to finish salvaging the commissary, and discovered a “moonscape:” the base was partially buried under several feet of ash and lahars.

Many buildings, including commissary warehouses at Subic Bay and San Miguel, were damaged or destroyed, and the stores at San Miguel and Clark were beyond repair. Of the three, only the Subic store ever reopened.

The personnel from Clark and San Miguel were soon moved out of the Philippines, first by ship and then by air, and were taken to Andersen Air Base in Guam. From there, they were reassigned, and scattered to Air Force or Navy bases all over the world.

“I like to think that this is one of those life experiences that help us all understand just how important our mission is,” said McGregor, who temporarily housed a family of Clark evacuees in his Subic quarters.  “I have so many memories of the evacuation of dependents, and the grateful expressions when you gave somebody something as simple as a bottle of water. I’m proud to have been part of it, but I don’t necessarily want to do it again.”  

Subic Bay closed the following year (1992), when economics, political change, and the end of the Cold War compelled the closure of all U.S. bases in the Philippines. When they finished departing in 1993, it marked the end of a 95-year U. S. military presence that began May 1, 1898, at the outset of the Spanish-American War.

Note: To see a video on the agency’s YouTube page related to the Mount Pinatubo eruption, press the “Ctrl” key and click on the photo or go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuxTFdH0IBA.

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