Hoping to help more, U.S. drops individual food packets over Bosnia

March 23, 1993|By San Francisco Chronicle

The Pentagon has changed the way it is dropping supplies over eastern Bosnia, showering hundreds of thousands of individual food packets across the area after weeks of shoving 1,500-pound bundles out of C-130 cargo planes.

The bundles had missed drop zones and drawn the unwanted attention and firepower of the well-armed Serbs to the Muslims the food was intended for.

Bill Wattenburg, a maverick California engineer known for his bizarre, yet effective inventions, said he persuaded the Pentagon to change.

Pentagon officials acknowledged that his idea was received with a fair amount of enthusiasm, although they said the change in relief supply strategy could have been "coincidental," because others also had broached the idea.

The Pentagon began using the new scattering method Saturday night, when three U.S. planes flying out of bases in Germany dropped about 17 tons of military-style meals over the besieged eastern Bosnian city of Srebrenica.

"You can shove a half a million of these things out the back of a C-130," Mr. Wattenburg said. "The people out there who are starving, they're shouting, 'Hallelujah, food's raining from the sky!' And they pick them up and eat them."

Mr. Wattenburg said he initially suggested to President Clinton and the military that U.S. forces drop millions of granola bars on the Muslim refugees.

But Pentagon nutrition experts dismissed the bars in favor of military "meals, ready to eat," or MREs, because the meals designed for combat troops pack more nutrition and energy into small packages. Each MRE packet contains three 1,300-calorie meals that can be eaten hot or cold.

One stumbling point of the 3-week-old U.S. relief program has been that the large pallets of food, dropped from an altitude of about 10,000 feet, either miss the drop zones and end up in Serbian hands or land where the huge white parachutes can be seen the next morning from Serbian gun positions high up in the hills. Serbian gunners reportedly fire on civilians trying to pick up the supplies.

But dropping individual packets in their 10-by-6-by-2-inch tough plastic wrappers makes recovery much easier.

"This scheme removes the danger aspect of parachute drops," Mr. Wattenburg said, "and allows immediate delivery to the most desperate -- the children who starve before bulk supplies arrive weeks or months later."

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