Japanese Students Thank U.S. Service Members on Anniversary of Operation Tomodachi
By Lt. Daniel McGrath, USS Essex (LHD 2)
To mark the second anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck off the coast of Northern Japan on March 11, 2011, Japanese High School students traveled from their home in Kesennuma to San Diego.
Their mission was to personally thank U.S. Marines and Sailors who assisted them during the relief effort known as Operation Tomodachi (meaning “friends” in Japanese). At Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego, they met with representatives of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, as well as local civilian U.S. and Japanese dignitaries. Speeches were made, memories shared, tokens exchanged, and many tears shed during a simple but powerful ceremony.
Under normal conditions; we live, work and play by the ocean, assuming that its tremendous power will remain a benign force. But when the 9.03 magnitude undersea mega thrust earthquake struck off the coast of Northern Japan, waves up to 133 feet raged ashore, leaving unimaginable devastation and death in their wake. Cars, buildings and people were swept out to sea by the receding waves. Fires raged ashore, causing further devastation and traumatizing the population. Compounding the crisis was the destruction of the coastal Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and the fearful prospect of total meltdown of one or more of its reactors when power and cooling systems failed.
U.S. Naval Forces in the region responded as quickly as possible, and numerous ships positioned themselves offshore. Fresh water, food, blankets and medical supplies were flown to coastal areas, and the heavy lift capacity of the Navy was brought to carry equipment to outlying areas for the cleanup effort. One of the largest ships to take part in the operation was USS Essex (LHD 2), then home to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). The focus of Essex and the 31st MEU came to be on Oshima Island, where a small force of Marines and Sailors took part in a cleanup effort to restore its harbor. Some of these Marines and Sailors met their Japanese counterparts at the MCRD ceremony for the first time since Operation Tomodachi.
For these Marines and Sailors, a lot has happened in two years. Each of them has deployed again. Some have been to Afghanistan on combat tours and others have deployed on humanitarian assistance and bilateral training missions around Southeast Asia.
It was good to revisit the events of two years ago and to interact with our Japanese friends. It was an affirmation that the U.S. Military is a global force for good. We remain mindful that our Japanese guests continue to live with the effects of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It will likely remain the singularly most powerful event of their lifetimes. We pray that they will successfully continue the patient work of knitting together the fabric of their communities, and rebuilding their homes, businesses, towns and way of life.