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10 years on: Operation Tomodachi still a symbol of U.S.-Japan bonds

Washington, March 6 (Jiji Press)–As Japan prepares to mark 10 years since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear accident, the Operation Tomodachi rescue efforts by U.S. forces in the aftermath are still remembered as a symbol of the deep bonds between Japan and the United States.

 

Despite the unprecedented challenges from the disasters and friction between the two nations’ governments, a strong desire to help the victims drove U.S. military personnel to rush to the rescue.

 

Largest Japan-U.S. Operation

 

Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, who was the commander of the 7th Fleet of the U.S. Navy at the time, was on the island of Borneo when he learned about the massive earthquake that had struck Japan.

 

As soon as he saw images of the tsunami unleashed by the earthquake, Van Buskirk decided that “a big humanitarian assistance and disaster relief support for the people of Japan” would be needed.

 

He ordered all ships in the fleet based at Yokosuka in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, to prepare for potentially aiding the disaster response. The commander himself flew to Singapore, where the flagship Blue Ridge was berthed.

 

Stocked with as much aid supplies as possible, the ship departed for Japan the day after the quake.

 

“We knew that we were going to bring all of our capacity and capability, offer it up to where it can be best used, coordinate with our counterparts immediately, and make sure that they knew we were there to help,” Van Buskirk said.

 

It marked the start of the largest-ever operation by Japanese and U.S. forces, involving up to 24,000 U.S. military personnel, 24 ships and 189 airplanes.

 

No Showers

 

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was heading to the Korean Peninsula from Hawaii when it received an order to change course for disaster relief efforts. By then, Thom Burke, then commanding officer of the carrier, was already heading for Japan.
 

Burke previously lived in Yokosuka for two years, and had friends in Japan.

 

“I was certainly interested in being able to do whatever we could to help on a personal level, besides just a professional level,” he said.

 

The ship arrived off the coast of tsunami-hit Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, on March 13. Such large amounts of debris, driftwood and houses were floating around that it was possible to walk on them. There were no survivors.

 

Using aircraft on the carrier, U.S. troops searched for isolated villages from the air while staying cautious about radioactive material dispersed from Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s <9501> disaster-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

 

The Ronald Reagan also served as a runaway on the sea for distributing relief supplies by helicopter.

 

Col. Craig Kozeniesky, commanding officer of Combined Arms Training Center at the U.S. Marine Corps Camp Fuji at the time, also rushed to support the disaster victims.

 

With trucks and heavy machinery from the camp, Kozeniesky and the Marines at Camp Fuji arrived at Sendai International Airport in Miyagi Prefecture on March 19 to help with disaster relief.

 

“I had been in a pretty bad part of western Iraq during the height of the Iraq War, where there was a lot of fighting, a lot of buildings destroyed, and we were right in the middle of it all,” he said. “But it wasn’t nearly as bad as what was up in that part of Tohoku (northeastern Japan) region and Sendai.”

 

The U.S. forces removed debris from the airport runway and distributed supplies. They did not use the temporary showers, as they were set up for the disaster victims.

 

“Japanese people would turn away supplies to give it to a neighbor that was in need more than themselves,” he remembers. “All that did was motivate us. We saw that and I said if these people have this type of attitude, then we should, too, and we should help them as much as possible.

 

Lessons from Disaster

 

Meanwhile, the disaster had caused a rift between Japan and Washington.

 

Robert Luke, former minister-counselor for political affairs at U.S. Embassy Tokyo, said that the two countries had misunderstandings as Japan did not have reliable information on the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

 

“Because they didn’t have the information, when we asked them, they couldn’t give us the information,” he said. “And the problem was they weren’t willing to admit that they didn’t have the information themselves, so to us it just seemed like…the Japanese government is hiding, they don’t want to share the information with us.”

 

At one point, there was a plan to evacuate all U.S. citizens in Japan.

 

But the strong bond between the U.S. forces and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces helped overcome the challenges. Operation Tomodachi’s ultimate goal of helping the victims of the disaster drove the two governments to set up an information-sharing framework, gradually resulting in less friction.

 

“I think it demonstrated our ability to, in times of crisis, come together and put together the kinds of cooperation mechanisms we needed to work together as two independent defense forces,” Luke said regarding the operation.

 

“That was all very positive.”

 

He also said the U.S.-Japan alliance is becoming increasingly important for regional stability amid the growing influence of China, adding that he hopes the lessons of the disaster and Operation Tomodachi will be put to good use for a long time.

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