By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
Over the past month, many stories of hardship and heroism have emerged from the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, but local community organizations feel that an important aspect of the crisis has been underreported by the media.
To fill that gap, a briefing on Operation Tomodachi — the ongoing disaster relief effort by the U.S. Forces in Japan — was given by representatives of the U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) on Monday at the Miyako Hybrid Hotel in Torrance. The event was presented by the Japan America Society of Southern California, Japanese Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and U.S.-Japan Council with the hotel and Kintetsu International as sponsors.
JASSC President Douglas Erber introduced the moderator, David Iwata, a member of the 2008 Japanese American Leadership Delegation to Japan. Iwata in turn introduced the panelists, stating that this was, to his knowledge, the first public program dedicated to Operation Tomodachi. Having reviewed both the U.S. and Japanese media, Iwata observed that very few stories cover those who operate under extreme conditions to bring tons of relief supplies to devastated areas.
‘Scouring the Countryside’
Cdr. Gregory Hicks, public affairs officer for the U.S. Third Fleet, showed images of relief work in the devastated coastal areas as he reported that U.S. forces — including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which was already on its way to Japan — responded to the crisis immediately.
“Operation Tomodachi … at one point had about 30 ships, about 30,000 personnel on the ground and on the sea supporting the government of Japan, the Maritime and Ground Self-Defense Forces, in all humanitarian efforts,” he said. “That right now has been scaled back. There are four ships in the area, including the Tortuga, the Safeguard, which is a mobile dive and salvage unit, the Essex and the Blue Ridge. The Essex is a large amphibious assault ship which carries a lot of helicopters … There’s about 4,300 people involved right now, and that level of effort is in accordance with what has been asked of the U.S. military.”
U.S. and Japanese forces were “scouring the countryside for weeks,” he said. “There were flights all over the northern part of Japan to look for an ‘SOS’ on the ground or a helicopter landing site or something like that to identify the thousands of sites still isolated, villages that needed water, medicine, food, blankets, kerosene.”
Hicks added that there are “chemical, biological, radiological teams on the ground to assist if needed with capability to augment the Self-Defense Forces.”
He explained that the Third Fleet, whose area extends from the West Coast to the International Date Line, serves as a “ready bench” for the Seventh Fleet, which covers the rest of the Pacific. “Our main responsibility at first was getting forces flowing in that direction … The future status is that we will continue to be partnered with the Seventh Fleet, and our military forces in Japan — Army, Air Force and Marine Corps — will continue to support the government of Japan and fulfill any requests.”
Noting that last year marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, Hicks remarked, “I think that we’ve got another bright 50 ahead of us. As solid partners and allies, our relationship just continues to get stronger.”
While the scale of the disaster has “tested every one of us,” he said, “for the long-term recovery and rebuilding and assistance, I think the help will be there. The president’s committed to it; our nation’s leadership is committed to it.” Although he is “a Navy guy,” Hicks said he is guided by the motto of the Marines, in which his father, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather served: “Semper fi. We will always be faithful, we will always be there.”
‘Japan Is a Priority’
Cdr. Dora Lockwood, director of public affairs for Navy Region Southwest in San Diego, also spoke about her background: “I would like to reiterate my personal thoughts and prayers with the people of Japan during this very difficult time. It is very personal to me as well because I have some Japanese heritage. My mother is Japanese … Her family is living in Akita. She also has family in Tokyo. So when this earthquake and tsunami struck, it struck me not only as a Navy person.”
She said that the U.S.-Japan partnership is “very, very important, and it’s very very critical during this time. As you look at the pictures, you’ll notice that the Japanese and the American sailors, soldiers and Marines are all working together, and it makes me very proud to wear the U.S. Navy uniform, but it also makes me very proud to have the Japanese heritage.”
Although the situation in Japan has been replaced in the headlines by Libya and U.S. budget talks, Lockwood reassured the audience that “whether you see it on the daily news here in the United States or whether it’s overshadowed by other things, you should know that … our care and our concern for the people in Japan is a priority.”
Lockwood read part of a statement issued from Japan by Adm. Patrick Walsh, commander of the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Fleet. He said he is proud of “our strong, forward-leaning soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, who, by their actions, demonstrate the commitment of our country, and in doing so, reveal the soul of our nation.”
Walsh said of the Japanese people, “What is very, very clear is that they are willing to spend the rest of their lives building a future for their children, no matter the toll and no matter the cost.”
‘Largest Operation in History’
Lt. Cdr. Yuichiro Kawanami of the MSDF spoke as the Japanese liaison officer for the U.S. Third Fleet. He noted that when the disaster struck, the SDF deployed more than 100 aircraft, 50 ships and 100,000 people, nearly half of Japan’s military personnel. Thousands of reservists, including many civilians, were mobilized.
“This is the largest operation in the history of the Self-Defense Forces,” he said.
The SDF’s tasks have included search and rescue, transportation, distributing water, food and fuel (particularly to remote areas such as the island of Oshima), medical care, providing bathing facilities, and helping repair damage at the nuclear plant.
“The Self-Defense Forces have rescued 19,000 people and recovered 8,000 bodies after the earthquake, but still a large number of people are missing, so we continue to look,” Kawanami reported. His slide show included shots of MSTs (mine sweeper tenders) and EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) teams searching for victims.
As examples of joint efforts, Kawanami said that U.S. vessels transported about 900 Ground Self-Defense Force troops and about 250 vehicles, the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Fleet conducted search and rescue operations off the coast, and a flooded runway at Sendai Airport was restored quickly by Japanese and U.S. troops.
Kawanami pointed out that the two sides regularly exchange liaison officers and that he has made “strong friendships” while serving in that capacity. Because the U.S. and Japan participate in RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) and other military exercises, they “established a relationship” and were able to “cooperate closely” during the current crisis, he said.
“People from both sides of the ocean should be happy that your taxpayers’ money is going to a good cause,” commented Iwata, who also announced that both Hicks and Lockwood are being promoted to captain in September.
During the Q&A session, some members of the audience were critical of the Japanese government, suggesting that it delayed help for the victims by initially turning down the U.S.’ offers of aid. Hicks said that the U.S. has responded to all requests. “It’s whatever you need from us. There’s been no declining of that at all. What do you need? … We want to help. We’ll bring everything to the table. But in the end, we’re supporting the government of Japan.”
Hicks downplayed the issue of U.S. forces’ exposure to radiation, saying that the real heroes are those who “are putting their own lives at risk every day” by working on-site at the nuclear plants. The U.S. forces are only exposed “a couple of hours at a time” and go through decontamination procedures, he said.
Update from Government
Consul General Junichi Ihara closed the program with an update: “The government is mobilizing all the resources with the help of the U.S., France and other countries to contain this nuclear disaster … The situation remains very, very grave. We cannot say that we’ve achieved full control, but I think we are trying all the efforts to manage the situation.
“I assure you that we are checking all the radiation in the water and atmosphere and so on, so it is safe to go to Japan except certain areas. It is safe to eat Japanese products because we don’t allow contaminated food and products into the market. It is safe to buy anything imported from Japan … But I have to say that this nuclear crisis takes years, maybe decades to completely overcome all the damage made to the soil, to the plant itself, and it is technically very, very difficult to extract the broken fuel rods from the reactor.”
Ihara also discussed long-range goals. “The government is in the process of formulating a multi-year rehabilitation plan which will go beyond simple restoration … We’ll try to rebuild cities or towns on the basis of new concept. Of course it takes time, it takes money, but the government has already started this kind of rehabilitation process.”
He added, “We are so grateful to many people … for their generous support and encouragement and solidarity with Japanese victims.” But he cautioned, “Because of logistical difficulties, the affected areas are not capable of handling effectively in-kind support or cannot provide necessary logistical support for volunteer people … It is very important for any volunteer support to have good contacts in Japan. Those contact organizations or people should … pass the products through customs procedures and transport all those products to the areas. If you just send the relief items and nobody takes care of those items in Japan, that will create a mess.”
Ihara concluded, “Many Japanese have come to understand through this crisis who we can really count on … Images of U.S. troops alongside their Japanese counterparts searching for tsunami victims in a muddy field, or the USS Ronald Reagan operating offshore near the devastated coast to support full-scale rescue and relief activities, and all the numerous helicopters and vessels of both U.S. and Japanese Self-Defense Forces transporting relief supplies to isolated areas, are all powerful messages to the Japanese people.”