Today marks five years since the 9.0 magnitude Great Eastern Japan Earthquake struck off the northeastern coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island. Within 40 minutes the quake sent devastating tsunami waves, some as high as 133 feet, slamming into Japanese coastal areas.
The natural disasters and resulting destruction spurred a large-scale humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) event. Within hours U.S. Navy ships and aircraft assets were preparing to assist the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) in a relief effort dubbed Operation Tomodachi.
Twenty-four Navy ships, 140 aircraft and more than 15,000 Sailors and Marines delivered over 280 tons of relief supplies before concluding their involvement on April 8, 2011. Of the Navy ships that participated, 14 of them were from Naval Surface Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet (SURFPAC), including: USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), USS Chancellorsville (CG 62), USS Cowpens (CG 63), USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), USS Essex (LHD 2), USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62), USS Germantown (LSD 42), USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49), USS McCain (DDG 56), USS Lassen (DDG 82), USS McCampbell (DDG 85), USS Mustin (DDG 89), USS Preble (DDG 88), and USS Shiloh (CG 67).
Below are just five ways SURFPAC assets assisted in Operation Tomodachi.
- The disaster claimed the lives of nearly 16,000 people, injured more than 6,000 and left almost 2,600 people missing. To help displaced Japanese citizens, Sailors and Marines aboard responding ships voluntarily gave of their own limited personal items. Their contributions included warm weather clothing, wool blankets, non-perishable food, water and even some stuffed animals. The supply department on board ships also provided as many dry goods and bottles of water as possible.
- Eight weeks in to an extensive pier-side maintenance and upgrade period, USS Lassen braved inclement weather and got underway after three days of round-the-clock preparations to get the ship ready for at sea operations. To suspend their Ship Restricted Availability (SRA) the crew had to remove scaffolding, vent ducting and cabling, replace the flight deck’s non-skid coating, restore the ship’s watertight integrity and wrap up berthing and galley renovations. They also had to reinstall their Mk 45 5-inch Gun, Mk 32 Surface Vessel Torpedo Tubes, and 25mm gun mounts, and on-load supplies before departing Yokosuka, Japan to join the relief effort.
- USS John S. McCain used rigid-hull inflatable boats to conduct search and rescue operations off the coast of Japan while USS Cowpens, USS Preble, USS Shiloh and USS Curtis Wilbur, along with other ships, helicopters and aircraft, searched over 2,000 square miles of ocean in an effort to find tsunami victims’ remains off the north east coast of Honshu.
- In an operation also known as “lily padding,” USS John S. McCain was one of several U.S. ships that served as refueling stations for helicopters from the U.S., JSDF, Japan Coast Guard, and civilian authorities involved in the rescue and recovery effort.
- USS Essex Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) conducted an amphibious resupply of Oshima Island, which was left isolated and without utilities or any form of resupply capability after the tsunamis washed their ferries ashore. Later Sailors and Marines from the USS Essex ARG and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit participated in Operation “Field Day,” a clean-up mission on the island in conjunction with the Japan Ground Self Defense Force. They use Landing Craft Utility (LCU) boats to move four Humvees, a dump truck, a water truck, and a fuel truck to Oshima for use during debris clearance and together they worked to clear local schools, government buildings, and the port.
For nearly 70 years, the U.S.-Japan alliance has been the foundation of peace and security in Northeast Asia and the cornerstone of U.S. engagement in the region. As such, nearly 40,000 U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force troops and their associated resources are regularly stationed throughout Japan. These forces routinely train with their JDSF counterparts in many areas, including HA/DR and each of the four branches participated in the relief effort.
The very name of the operation indicates of the close nature of the U.S. relationship with Japan, as ‘tomodachi’ is the Japanese for “friend.” While Operation Tomodachi is the only real-world emergency HA/DR event the JSDF and U.S. Armed Forces have come together for, it’s widely been considered successful; no doubt in part due to the shared experience gained during years of prior bilateral training, exercises, and planning.