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    Okinawa Marines Remember Op Tomodachi



    Story by Maj. Caleb Eames 

    3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade   

    As the solemn moment approached – 14:46 pm Japan Standard Time – the stillness was broken only by the sound of the countdown, and people weeping softly. The Japan emperor had just spoken words of encouragement to a still-recovering nation, and officials had given reassurances that the country will be better prepared next time. All remembered a moment exactly a decade earlier, before nearly 20,000 lost and the survivor’s world turned upside down.

    On March 11, 2011, a massive 9.0 earthquake and 140+ foot tsunami ravaged the Japanese northeast coastline, followed by a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station. Marines in mainland Japan felt the quake personally. Marines in Okinawa were notified of the quake by breaking news or flash message traffic. All followed the news of the tsunami inundating coastal cities, ports and farmland, and watched televisions as news helicopters circled the exploding nuclear power station.

    Across III MEF and MCIPAC (at the time called Marine Corps Bases Japan), Marines rushed into action. Operation Tomodachi would become the largest Japan-U.S. bilateral operation since the inception of the alliance dating back to post-World War II. Nearly 25,000 U.S. service members assisted with aid efforts across the affected areas of Japan for months. Here are three of their stories:

    [III Marine Expeditionary Force Deputy Commanding General and 3D Marine Expeditionary Brigade Commanding General Maj. Gen. Craig Timberlake (at the time a Brig. Gen.)]

    The 3D Marine Expeditionary Brigade had been re-activated as the lead crisis response element for III MEF in 2010, just a year prior to the disaster. Brig. Gen. (at the time) Craig Timberlake took command of 3D MEB on March 7, 2011. Four days later, on March 11, the massive 9.0 earthquake hit northeast Japan, and they were sent forward into one of the worst and most complex disasters ever.

    “The MEB deployed north to Sendai within six hours of receiving the order with four KC-130 and four CH-46 aircraft,” said Timberlake. “Our mission was to be the Forward Command Element for U.S. Forces Japan and III MEF. We were sent to Sendai, worked with Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s Northeastern Army. Our role was to be the liaison between the Japan military and the American military. When someone needed something from the American side, my job was to assist the Combined Joint Task Force Commander, General Eiji Kimizuka, with what he needed. Every meeting we had was joint and combined.”

    “The destruction of the Sendai airfield was widespread. When we first arrived at the airport, local officials thought it would take months to get aircraft back in there. Then the young Americans who serve as Marines arrived. Col. Craig Kozeniesky, commanding officer of Camp Fuji, marched to the sound of guns without waiting for orders in a fantastic display of leadership, bringing his Marines and equipment north to Sendai to reopen the airfield quickly. Additionally, Col. James Rubino, the commanding officer of Combat Logistics Regiment 35, stepped up to the challenge. They arrived to open the airfield, and in three days had relief supplies flowing in.

    “Strategically, the Japan / U.S. relationship was then and remains the cornerstone of security in the Indo Pacific. It was important for us to demonstrate to the world that when our ally needed help, we were there to help them, especially in the eyes of potential adversaries.

    “III MEF had done many humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions in third-world countries where either capability or capacity in the nation we were assisting was lacking. However, we had never done this sort of mission in a first-world developed nation, which had capability and healthy capacity. We had to complement Japanese military assistance and not compete with their robust efforts.

    “Relationships are the most important part of the operation, the grease that makes everything smoother. In this operation, individuals worked together who already knew each other, or who quickly got to know each other.

    “Our relationship with the Japanese was cemented reinforced by our actions in support of Operation Tomodachi. The people of Japan saw the U.S. come through to help them in their time of crisis. We can never forget that nearly 20,000 people lost their lives. We should always remember the people aspect of this.

    “There were three individuals on my staff that I’m particularly proud of: LtCol Karl Rohr – the MEB G3, Col Chris Coke – the MEB Chief of Staff, and Dr. Robert Eldridge – our political advisor and Japanese government expert. Dr. Eldridge had prior existing relationships, intense knowledge of the culture, language, political processes, and understood how to work with people. Every time we had an issue, he was one of the first people I talked with. Without him, we would not have been as successful as we were. It is now ten years later I don’t believe anybody has done as much to further the relationship between the US and Japan than Dr. Eldridge.

    “I must also give great credit to JSDF and Lt. Gen. (at the time) Kimizuka, who overnight went from being the commanding general of the Northeast Army to being the commanding general of the CJTF. Many of the SDF families were affected by the tsunami. Lt. Gen. Kimizuka himself went days without showering, ate what his troops ate, and had an even-handed approach when with dealing with the government and agencies who were not used to being part of a JTF formation. He was absolutely critical to the success of Operation Tomodachi. His performance led to him being made the head of the JGSDF.

    “My only two regrets are that I wish we could have done more to help the people of Japan at that time, and that Lt. Gen. Kimizuka didn’t live to see how his legacy carried on. He died in 2015 having greatly improved how the JGSDF worked. Joint Service work had been previously unfamiliar, and learning how to be interoperable within a JTF is hard work for any country. It took a law for us to be joint, and the Japanese never had the same forcing mechanism as the Goldwater-Nichols Act.”

    “I see a bright future and good coming from our shared experiences. The Japan / U.S. relationship is the cornerstone to security in the Indo-Pacific. The relationship between the two countries, if properly nurtured, will serve both nations and the region for years to come.

    [U.S. Forces Japan J-32 Current Operations Branch Chief and Foreign Area Officer, Lt. Col., USMC (Ret) (at the time a Maj.) Giuseppe Stavale, attached in support of III MEF-Forward for Operation Tomodachi.]

    “At 1446 on March 11th, I was working at the U.S. Forces Japan headquarters in Tokyo. Noise abatement was in my portfolio, and all the aviation noise issues came through our office. We were working an issue involving Futenma when the building starting shaking. Being in mainland Japan, you are accustomed to quakes and tremors, much like living in California. There was a rolling noise and a jolt. Typically, they would last a few seconds and be gone. But this was different, it kept going, and we knew it was different when the file cabinet drawers started opening and the doors started swinging. All the staff left the building and gathered in the parking lot, and we thought it died down. No sooner did we go back inside and sit down, then it started back up even stronger, and we left the building again. Later we found out that it lasted for more than five minutes.

    “Kids were getting out of school around that time, and my high-school freshman daughter would typically use a combination of bus and train to get home. That particular day she did not take the train, instead was going to walk due to staying after school. We started hearing about extensive damage, fires breaking out. I was trying to get in touch with my daughter to ensure she was ok, but all the cellular phone networks stopped working, either due to outages or being overwhelmed by volume of calls. We were watching the news footage, seeing collapses, and we realized that it reached much further than Tokyo, it was extensive. Then we got the tsunami warnings. We finally tracked down my daughter who had been on the way to the train station, but she was smart and moved to a point where I could pick her up in my car. We had a TV & navigation system in the car, and we started seeing footage of the tsunami hitting. I thought, “Oh my God,” and called my wife immediately. My wife was home alone with our twins, huddled in the living room, praying the roof wouldn’t collapse on them. Thankfully it was built well.

    “There were rolling blackouts across the region. The tsunami hit the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, and took out the emergency generators that were used to pump the water to cool the reactor, which caused the reactors to melt down and blow up. That contributed to the lack of power everywhere in Northern and Central Japan. There were also numerous second and third order effects, such as damaged refinement capabilities, which caused a lack of gasoline.

    “We quickly manned the Crisis Action Team (CAT) and stood up the Bilateral Joint Operations Center with augments from across the area. Another Army major and I were assigned as the CAT chiefs, day and night, on 12-hour shifts. As I came in first thing in the morning to start my shift on 12 March, I saw III MEF forward personnel trying to find their way to USFJ. My former Detachment Officer-In-Charge from my time at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, Lt. Col. Rohr, had been assigned to the III MEF without my knowledge, and there he was walking with all his gear. They were hiking in the direction of USFJ, and I stopped and asked if they needed a ride, and we moved into organizing the crisis together. They were there to tie in with the CAT and synchronize efforts to figure out how we could best help the Japanese. I remember the USFJ Commander, Lt. Gen. Burton Fields, did the best thing he could have done in that first meeting – he set the tone and let everyone know that our primary mission was to help our allies. A lot of smart people came together and focused our efforts on the Japanese needs in what became known as the Joint Support Force.

    “We were coordinating all the capability and capacity we could, including working with the USS Ronald Regan flying search and rescue; delivering food, water, fuel in different areas; organizing supplies. I remember we had to organize delivery of sports energy gel to a certain area. General Bansho – who led the first contingent of Japanese in Iraq – came to form the lead Japanese touchpoint at USFJ. The first 10 days were the toughest – getting it all together and getting it organized.

    “Task Force Fuji deserves more recognition than they received. Col. Kozeniesky didn’t wait for orders. On his own initiative, he took all his Marines, capability in the form of trucks, heavy equipment and other vehicles, and pointed in the direction of Sendai airport. How that happened was probably a miracle, because we were told that Sendai airport – the busiest in the northeast – was a total loss. But here come the Marines from Fuji with their ‘can do’ attitude, and their willingness to help. It started with those young Marines starting to clear the area, then before you know it, the runway was clear and relief flights were rolling in. Medical supplies, experts in recovery, and others central to the efforts were able to get in quickly. If it wasn’t for the help of the Fuji Marines, who knows how long Sendai would have taken to reopen. Once they cleared that runway, and the relief flights became regular, it gave everyone a lot of hope.

    “Once we were augmented by arriving forces, the Japanese Foreign Area Officers were tasked out immediately to other critical roles. I was tasked to help out III MEF forward at Camp Sendai, and was also assigned at times to help out operational units with my language skills. My most vivid memories were being out in the affected areas and helping with the clearing, getting the debris out of the roads in order to open up relief distribution. We also facilitated the U.S. Army with establishing shower units, which was essential for cleanliness and very therapeutic.

    “After a couple weeks at Sendai, USFJ gave me a new mission to travel with US Department of Energy subject matter experts from the U.S. to monitor the radiation from the nuclear meltdown. There was a need for a Japanese language speaker to coordinate with the local authorities and the police to coordinate installing devices. The experts built mobile radiation measurement devices - neat contraptions powered by car batteries - using parts from a local hardware store. We did two missions around the 30 km no-go zone. The first trip was to four locations by U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopters and the second mission was to the other four sites. The JSDF met us at each location, and we linked up with the local policemen in that area. Together, we installed these monitoring devices at Japanese policebox locations. The Japanese police men were retired police officers who put their uniform back on to man these posts in the time of crisis. And then data was sent back to the monitoring stations to track radiation spread. We had to wear dosimeters, and monitored the radiation exposure. When we were in the radiation area, the monitors activated, making clicking noises, and then when we came back, we were monitored and checked again.

    “We were learning tremendous amounts about the types of radiation, amounts of radiation, how it is affected by weather, and what it does to you. We had U.S. Navy nuclear experts come in to help us understand how to work and figure out what is actually dangerous. We were required to carry iodine pills which were supposed to be taken if we reached a certain amount, although I never personally needed them. The U.S. showed its commitment to Japan by deploying the U.S. Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force in order to mitigate radiation hazards.

    “The very day the earthquake occurred, Yokota Air Base accepted emergency divert flights from Japanese commercial airports. Those Japanese civilian flights landed on our military base, where the service members took care of hundreds of stranded passengers, giving them food, information, shelter, and helping to coordinate onward movement. This set the conditions on how we were going to take care of our friends.

    “We had this big earthquake, followed by a massive tsunami, followed by a nuclear disaster, and we had the thought that if anyone ever tried to introduce all those factors into an exercise, they would be fired. That would never be allowed to be a scenario, never be allowed to happen, because it was so unlikely. But it happened. And then there were lots of aftershocks, including a big one near Mt. Fuji. I remember the briefings that day covered Mt. Fuji, and how it is dormant, but not dead. It is known to erupt every 300 years or so. The last eruption was in the 1700s, and therefore the briefer said that Mt. Fuji could erupt. We immediately started thinking about how to get lava and ash experts, volcanologists, and other specialists to our location to assist. It was easy to get worked up, because anything could happen at that point. If you told us Godzilla was on the way, we probably would have believed it. There was a lot of concern at that time.

    “This event validated the relationships we have and why we have them, the need for that information flow in time of crisis, and the importance of communication in our bilateral relationship. It continues to get better with time. Those relationships enable information sharing and communication. This is why we need people that learn Japanese, know who to talk to, know who your counterparts are. It’s not just a person on the other end of the phone, or a radio, but understanding who they are and how they think. We had been focused on other regions, and many of us had a veneer understanding of how the Japan inter-agency and JSDF worked. Many didn’t know their counterparts. But Dr. Robert Eldridge knew them, and he took the III MEF leadership and many other general officers and staff and introduced them to the right officials and explained how agencies plug into each other, and made it work. He was the right guy at the right time, and he deserves a lot of recognition.

    “I was really proud of being able to contribute to helping install radiation monitoring devices, proud to be able to help at the Sendai Airport, proud to be able to help in cleaning out schools in Ishinomaki, proud to be able to give a shoulder to an elderly Japanese woman to cry on. She then encouraged me even more than I encouraged her. The Japanese probably taught us more than we taught them about how to behave amidst disaster. Some people use the word ‘resilient’ or ‘stoic.’ Unfortunately, in U.S. disasters recently, we saw some disappointing stuff, to include looting, fraud, price gouging and other things. There of course is a lot of goodness too, not to discount that, but the Japanese showed how although it may be very tough and there may be a lot of personal pain, they were resilient and moved forward. There were examples of U.S. forces delivering materials to isolated areas by helicopter, and instead of taking the small amount assistance available at the moment, the Japanese people often tried to refuse the aide, preferring to wait until everyone could have enough to share. There is a lot about that which we Americans can learn from.

    [31st Marine Expeditionary Unit Supply Officer and Foreign Area Officer, Lt. Col. (at the time a Capt.) Paul Bartok, MEU liaison officer to Forward Command Element for Operation Tomodachi.]

    Marines and Sailors of the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit under the command of Col. Andrew MacMannis were conducting distributed operations, with the USS Harpers Ferry less than a day away from Indonesia for a scheduled disaster exercise. But the majority of the MEU were on the USS Essex just arriving for a port call in Indonesia when they were recalled to join relief efforts with the Japan Self-Defense Force in responding to the Tohoku disaster.

    “I remember I was the very last person off the boat for the port visit. We had pulled in a day late, and we were all behind in our work, so I stayed to finish some things. Everyone left the ship quickly to go do activities, tours, other things, but myself and another officer, Capt. Matthew Frick, were the last to leave. We had just gotten into a taxi and were only about 10 minutes down the road when I got a call on my blackberry telling us to get back to the ship. We returned, and sure enough there in the news was the tsunami, and Fukushima, and we thought, ‘we are going.’ Surprisingly, we got everyone on the ship that day and left early the next morning. We didn’t have a real mission yet, just a be prepared to assist warning, we had to just go.

    “I remember that deployment vividly. I had been in Thailand, Philippines, Cambodia, and Malaysia, all in a month’s time. My daughter was born only 12 days before that deployment began, and my wife was like, ‘Ok, have fun, and I’ll stay here with a newborn.” That was also the first deployment after two years on the MEU that I stopped bringing my Japanese electronic dictionary which I had since I first became a Japanese Foreign Area Officer. Despite my expertise, I had not had the chance to work with the Japanese in my job, so I didn’t bring it and I left it at home. Sure enough, as soon as we pull out of port, I called my wife and told her to contact a Marine I knew, who is going to be at a certain place at a certain time, and to bring him this electronic dictionary. He then would get it to an aircraft. That aircraft would fly out to the ship as we passed Okinawa. Sure enough, better than DHL, the next day someone came into the office and asked, ‘is this yours?’ and hands me the dictionary. It made it all that way to my hands, thank goodness!

    “Because of my past work with the defense attaché at the embassy, I knew how to get into contact with their office. I called the people I knew, and I said we are here, we are coming, how can we help. I called MAJ Steve Browne, US Army LNO to the Northeastern Army, to coordinate. The day of the disaster was his first day on the job, and he hadn’t even made it to his work location. He was still in Tokyo checking in. I had to fight for it, but as the ship’s only Japanese speaker, I was assigned to the group from the MEU that would link up with 3D MEB Forward Command Element in Sendai about 5 days after the disaster.

    “Around the time we approached Japan from the South, the ship and MEU staffs were deciding how to get to the northern portions. Should we go left along the Sea of Japan, or right up the Pacific Coast? Because of the nuclear disaster playing into the calculations, we went up through the Sea of Japan. At that point it was really rough on that side, and people were very seasick. I actually flew into Iwakuni, which was a long flight for a CH-46, stayed the night, and then jumped on a C-130 to Sendai. There were only six of us, but we had the Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear specialist from the MEU with us. There was also Civil Affairs, communications, the Battalion Landing Team executive officer, and myself. We arrived and the cellphone coverage was awful. I finally linked up with MAJ Browne in Matsushima, but as we waited, they were bringing by Japanese F-2 aircraft that were absolutely caked with mud, and you could see where the water went up to, higher than a person. Just devastation, but the runway looked to be working amazingly.

    “We finally get into Sendai in the middle of the night, and met key staff and plugged in anywhere we could. The basic idea was ‘what do you need us to do.’ The Japanese were not familiar with the Marine Expeditionary Unit, so it was daily explaining what we do. They asked us if we had showers. We said we have one. But then they said they preferred baths, which we don’t have. Our plans didn’t take into account the Japanese culture. It was a daily mission to explain what we do. I went on a couple missions to Ishinomaki to help at schools, and airports. Just as we were figuring out how to employ the MEU in Oshima, I was sent back to the ship. I wanted to go ashore on Oshima Island to help, but after already having been ashore for 10 days, the command wanted to give others a chance to help and let me get back to my normal job as a supply officer. Being a FAO is always a difficult balance of normal duties and utilizing specialize language skills.

    “I had a lot of friends on the Japanese side because of experience as a Foreign Area Officer in Japan. One of them called me and said that he was a CH-47 pilot, and was flying daily missions over the Fukushima nuclear power station, dumping water into the reactors trying to cool them. Another of my friends was with the decontamination units outside Fukushima. On the ship, we had a (at the time) Japan Ground Self-Defense Force liaison officer Capt. Masanori Ide, who was an excellent interpreter. Fast forward to when I was assigned as the III MEF liaison to the Western Army years later, my sponsor was Masanori Ide. Amazing what a small world we live in.

    “It all goes to show that relationships matter. Through their ability to connect at a personal level, people like Lt. Gen. Glueck, Col. Grant Newsham, Dr. Robert Eldridge, all kept the momentum going and made it happen even when it was difficult. These types of relationships not only served an important purpose during the disaster relief efforts then, but continue help us implement the lessons learned and honor the legacy of Operation Tomodachi even today.



    Date Taken: 03.11.2021
    Date Posted: 03.14.2021 05:16
    Story ID: 391349
    Location: KESENNUMA, MIYAGI, JP 

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