By Airman 1st Class Stephen Pulter, 18th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 12, 2021
Members of the 320th Special Tactics Squadron assess the damage at
Sendai Airport in Japan, March 16, 2011. The 353rd Special Operations Group's involvement in OperationTomodachi is one of the many examples that contributed to earning the Meritorious Unit Award. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse)
Ten years ago on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, followed by a massive 33-foot tsunami, decimated the coast of Honshu, Japan. In the aftermath, the Government of Japan reached out to the United States for assistance and Team Kadena was ready to respond.
Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami struck, a devastating radiation-filled explosion occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The chain of events resulted in the deaths of over 15,000 people and left thousands more injured and unaccounted for, setting off Operation Tomodachi – meaning “friend” – a joint humanitarian effort between Japan and the U.S. to provide relief to impacted Japanese civilians and U.S. military bases.
On March 12, 2011, a Navy P-3 Orion departed Kadena AB and was the first U.S. aircraft on station at Honshu Coast for Operation Tomodachi. The P-3 Orion began to make initial damage assessments along the Japanese coastline, mapping numerous debris fields and allowing both Japanese and U.S. operations to resupply isolated Japanese personnel.
Units and assets continued to join the effort to include a KC-135R Stratotanker from the 909th Air Refueling Squadron, bringing over 50 engineers from the 18th Civil Engineer Squadron to begin restoring power to Misawa Air Base within 32 hours of being notified.
Additionally, the 33rd and 31st Rescue Squadrons came together to provide even more essential personnel and assets for the relief efforts to include pararescuemen, combat rescue officers, a search, evasion, resistance and escape specialist and a communications specialist. Despite half of the 33rd RQS being deployed to Afghanistan, when word of the disaster hit, they rapidly deployed available units on Kadena to assist, recalled Lt. Col. Gabriel Brown, the 33rd Rescue Squadron commander.
The 33rd RQS HH-60 Pave Hawks and personnel began search and rescue efforts over the city of Tokyo and as far north as Sendai. They also assisted by bringing food, water and medical supplies to displaced Japanese citizens. Search and rescue eventually transitioned to air sampling missions, enabling detection of the presence of radiation in order to help ongoing operations. In addition, both rescue squadrons offered humanitarian aid by moving supplies and radiation suits around the region.
The 353rd Special Operations Group deployed units under the order of Col. Robert Toth, the Joint Force Special Operations component commander. The units included the U.S. Army’s First Special Forces Group and Naval Special Warfare Unit 1. Additionally, the 320th Special Tactics Squadron and 17th Special Operations Squadron were called in. However, due to inclement weather they were unable to land at Sendai as originally planned, and ended up landing at Matsushima Airport to establish Air Traffic Control services, opening that area up for the first humanitarian aid and disaster relief supply delivery and distribution.
“The weather was incredibly bad … Our aircraft iced up and we had to turn around,” Brown said. “When we were planning the mission I remember the glass was broken in the airport, and these workers were in there working hard to keep missions flowing with cold air flooding in. I won’t forget seeing that selflessness.”
With Matsushima Airport open, control was transferred to Japanese forces and the focus was now on opening up Sendai Airport. The 1st Special Operations Squadron landed an MC-130H Combat Talon II and offloaded supplies and a forklift to assist Marines from Task Force Fuji as well as the U.S. Army’s Combat Logistics Regiment 35 in clearing the airport. When Sendai was finally cleared for use, C-17 Globemaster III, C-5, and Boeing 747 aircraft were able to drop off disaster relief supplies loaded by the 733rd Air Mobility Squadron and 18th Logistics Readiness Squadron.
“Sendai was key to getting a lot of the relief goods and teams in from around the world to come in and assist with rebuilding and helping the Japanese people,” said Larry Haro, the 33rd Helicopter Maintenance Unit equipment specialist. “How could nature in a matter of minutes destroy so much? I felt so heartbroken for the people that were affected.”
While some estimated it would take five years to open up Sendai Airport, with Japanese and U.S. forces working together, it was ready for commercial operations in just over a month, allowing 900 tons of humanitarian relief to be delivered and over 400 passengers to be transported. With Sendai open, Japanese forces regained control of the airport and Kadena’s role in Operation Tomodachi concluded on April 13, 2011.
It goes without saying, none of these operations could have happened without the maintenance teams ensuring every aircraft for every unit was ready and capable to respond as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“It was a combined effort,” said Capt. Tracy Jenne, 33rd HMU officer in charge – an Airman at the time of the disaster. “We are a maintenance unit along with our brothers and sisters at the Rescue Squadron. It really opened my eyes to the impact of what we do with our allies and how we take care of each other.”
A decade later, Operation Tomodachi represents a pinnacle of companionship between Japan and the U.S., with support for each other continuing to be reciprocated to this day. Presently, 54,000 service members of USFJ spend thousands of hours volunteering and contributing to the local communities every year, continuing to demonstrate the precedent of the friendship between the U.S. and Japan that Operation Tomodachi represents.
“The U.S. and Japanese alliance is arguably the most important of this century,” Brown said. “This is a friendship that is to the bone, and we will absolutely respond in a time of need.”