Thursday, April 7, 2011

Operation Tomodachi

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

THURSDAY, APRIL 7, 2011 AT 9:09 P.M.

Marines from Camp Pendleton’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment clear debris piled up on Oshima Island in Japan. U.S. Marines

The Marines taught Cpl. Adam Shatarsky to use his field shovel to dig fighting holes.

In Japan, however, the Camp Pendleton Marine found himself using it to rescue photographs and family heirlooms from piles of rubble.

Shatarsky knew nothing would be quite normal after arriving in Oshima, the Japanese island where 300 Marines spent the past week righting boats and clearing away homes toppled by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

“One of the things that struck me right off the bat, there was a car flipped upside down on top of a tree,” said the 29-year-old Marine from Camp Pendleton’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before. The very first thing that stuck out in my mind was — there’s a lot to be done here.”

The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit was dispatched as part of the U.S. military’s recovery effort in Japan, called Operation Tomodachi or Operation Friends.

With it went about 1,200 San Diego County Marines who supply the unit’s infantry contingent.

The San Diego-based aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and its support ships were among the first American ships on the scene along Japan’s damaged northeast coast. After three weeks of assistance, the Reagan group departed this week.

A 7.1-magnitude aftershock that hit Thursday did not damage any U.S. military assets or harm American troops, the Pentagon said.

About 45 miles from earthquake’s epicenter, Oshima got a wallop from the March 11 tsunami waves. Passenger ferries that service the island’s towns washed ashore, landing 400 feet up the beach, according to the Marines.

The island became a snarl of destruction. The Japanese forces couldn’t dock to help the 3,000 townspeople; there was too much debris in the water.

Enter the Marines.

They arrived in landing craft that are intended to deliver boots onto beaches. Dating to World War II, these vessels put down a ramp and Marines troop out.

Cpl. Seth McConville, a 22-year-old from Murrieta, said it was immediately clear to him that the hand of friendship would need a sturdy working glove.

“Anything you could see was destroyed and pulled toward the water, or in the water. Definitely, no one was landing there besides us,” he said.

“That’s when a couple of us were like, ‘Oh, man, this place is wrecked.’ ”

Arriving Saturday, the Marines dug in. They began clearing roads and bays.

It was cold work, with snow fluttering down some days. They slept in tents and ate prepackaged meals.

Initially, the shellshocked Oshima citizens watched from a respectful distance, waving and offering thank-yous in shaky English.

But as the Marines attacked the mess with shovels, rakes, even garden hoes, the Japanese residents started coming around.

“When they got used to us being there, and seeing what we were all about, they started coming down with personal requests,” said Shatarsky, who lives in Huntington Beach.

The residents had belongings in the homes that were now, quite literally, upside down. Before the bulldozers turned the houses into piles, the owners hoped to retrieve their irreplaceables.

“The people didn’t have the strength to get in there and pull that stuff out,” said unit spokesman Capt. Caleb Eames, in a telephone interview from the amphibious assault ship Essex.

“It took the Marines to climb in there and pull stuff out of the way, and to lift up corners of broken roofs to get in there and pull the stuff out,” he said.

“I personally watched one lady just in tears, thanking these guys for saving a family heirloom, a big tub for making sushi,” Eames said.

It was five days of elbow grease.

In addition to the troops on the ground, Marine helicopters delivered supplies to the shore and flew reconnaissance missions.

In recent days, American troops arrived with portable hot shower units. The delivery meant the first hot showers for residents in weeks.

Schooled as a mortar man, Shatarsky said none of his training as a Marine really applied to this situation.

But, he added, it didn’t matter.

“Toward the end, it wasn’t like the Japanese and the Marines were separated. It was kind of like everyone coming together,” he said.

“And I don’t think people need training for that. I think in a time of need, people just come together.”

Operation Tomodachi

Since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, U.S. military forces have been providing humanitarian assistance under Operation Tomodachi, or Operation Friends.

U.S. 7th Fleet forces have delivered more than 260 tons of relief supplies and flown more than 160 aerial reconnaissance and search sorties.

Involved in the effort

• Four ships – the Essex, Tortuga, Blue Ridge and Safeguard

• 54 aircraft

• 4,295 personnel, including about 1,200 Marines from a Camp Pendleton infantry battalion serving with a unit assigned to the Essex

Previously involved

The San Diego-based Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, which includes the Chancellorsville, Preble, Shiloh and Curtis Wilbur, ended active support this week.

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