(by Chester Dawson, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) CAMP SENDAI, Japan – The series of disasters that has befallen Japan since March 11 has complicated the U.S. military aid effort, as cooperation with Japan’s government, inclement weather and a radiation fears have hampered the humanitarian mission.

U.S. military aid missions, such as the one last year to quake-devastated Haiti, are routine. And while Operation Tomodachi (Japanese for “friend”), using the many American troops already based in Japan, has delivered tons of aid and equipment to those hardest hit by the destructive forces of nature in Japan, the magnitude-9.0 earthquake, ensuing tsunami and especially the unfolding nuclear-power crisis have weighed on the U.S. armed forces relief mission.

The first U.S. Marines Corps humanitarian assistance survey teams, or HAST, raced north from bases in the southernmost Japanese prefecture of Okinawa early on the day after the quake. Just a few hours after notice of their deployment, they arrived primed and ready at bases outside Tokyo. But it wasn’t until Wednesday that the first of four teams was sent to northern Japan, and then only to deliver a few loads of bottled water shipped out of Yokota Air Force Base, along with donated food trucked in by Japanese from other parts of the country.

One clue to the delay: As the first Marine HAST team waited on the tarmac in Yokota to board a troop transport, a specially equipped U.S. Air Force plane carrying radiation-detection equipment taxied by after having flown in close proximity to the two damaged nuclear plants.

The plane was “hot,” in the words of one U.S. military aviation officer, using jargon for something on which radiation has been detected.

The U.S. military’s attention was divided between two separate missions: the well-publicized humanitarian effort and a quieter campaign to assess the extent of leakage from Japan’s troubled coastal reactors.

On Sunday, the pace of assistance picked up as three U.S. Marine KC-130J cargo planes carrying water and supplies became the first flights to land at Sendai airport since it closed after the earthquake struck.

In addition, four Marine Sea Knight helicopters flew out of a U.S. Navy base in Atsugi near Tokyo with 18 pallets of clothing and two pallets of food to Yamada Radar Site, north of Sendai. On Saturday, six of the helicopters delivered 76 barrels of kerosene to several distribution points north of Sendai.

The frustration with the delay was evident Thursday when the Marine commander in charge of the relief effort insisted the show would go on, nuclear crisis or not. “We expect to deliver more water, more blankets and more food sources once we get our hands on them,” Col. Greg Timberlake, forward commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Sendai in northern Japan, said.

The first Marine detachment sent to Camp Sendai, which lies just over 50 miles north of the radiation-spewing power plants, came unprepared for the snowstorms, lacking standard-issue winter parkas and insulated boots. But the outfit was well-equipped with hand-held radiation detectors, full body suits with breathing hoods and ample supplies of potassium iodide, a preventive against radiation poisoning of the thyroid gland.

A map of Japan on the wall of the U.S. Marine officers’ headquarters at Camp Sendai bore a large red circle indicating the 50-mile-radius “no-fly zone” around the nuclear power facilities, which are located between Tokyo and the tsunami-stricken north. The atmosphere was tense in the Marine officers’ makeshift “war room”-a recess in a hallway of the local Japanese staff officers’ headquarters building.

In one sign of the stress as the nuclear crisis unfolded, an American official helping to coordinate activities with the Japanese Self Defense Forces grew teary-eyed when discussing these cooperative efforts. To be sure, that official said the two militaries were largely on the same wavelength. But other U.S. and Japanese military sources said language, protocol and cultural barriers had proved more daunting than expected, especially for two close allies.

Even so, it came against a backdrop of higher level joint U.S.-Japan efforts to prevent a nuclear meltdown.

In addition to advice from American experts sent by President Barack Obama, the U.S. military has provided Japan’s Self Defense Forces with equipment to help cool exposed nuclear fuel rods. But that initiative, along with the dispatch of American nuclear experts to Japan, has been separate from the humanitarian aid-focused Operation Tomodachi.  [NOTE: The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are the unified military forces of Japan that were established after the end of the post-World War II Allied occupation of Japan. For most of the post-war period the JSDF was confined to the islands of Japan and not permitted to be deployed abroad. In recent years they have been engaged in international peacekeeping operations. Recent tensions, particularly with North Korea have reignited the debate over the status of the JSDF and its relation to Japanese society. from wikipedia]

The commander of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, which is based in Japan, noted the difficulty posed by carrying out humanitarian operations amid the threat of a nuclear meltdown.

“We are dealing with a disaster of enormous scale, in a challenging environment where we have to contend with the reality of radiological contamination,” wrote Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk in a posting on his Facebook page on Saturday. “It creates complications in our planning and execution, but I am more confident each day that we have the ability to manage and mitigate this risk without endangering the health of our people.”

Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  Visit the website at wsj.com.


1. What factors have hindered the U.S. military’s efforts to assist the Japanese in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake?

2. How soon after the earthquake were U.S. Marine humanitarian assistance survey teams (HAST) in Tokyo prepared to assist in relief efforts?

3. What two separate missions divided the HAST attention?

4. What supplies have/are the U.S. delivering to the stricken areas?

5. What additional assistance is the U.S. providing to Japan apart from our humanitarian relief?

6. a) Read about Operation Tomodachi under “Background” below. Have you read/heard about this assistance the U.S. military is providing to the Japanese?
b) What is your reaction to U.S. assistance? Be specific.


JAPAN’S SELF DEFENSE FORCES:  Read about JSDF at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japan_Self-Defense_Forces#History.

UNITED STATES ASSISTANCE TO JAPAN:  OPERATION TOMODACHI:  Operation Tomodachi is a United States Armed Forces assistance operation to support Japan in disaster relief following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.  Read more below:

Many if not most of the American military bases in Japan are involved in some manner in Operation Tomodachi.

  • Yokota Air Base in Fussa, western Tokyo, is the Operational Command center, and furthermore functions as the aviation hub due to the washout of the Sendai airport by the tsunami.
  • Kadena Air Base, Okinawa is the hub of airpower in the Pacific.
  • Marine Corps Air Station Futenma
  • Misawa Air Base, Honshu Combined services and JDF
  • Naval Air Facility Atsugi
  • Camp Zama which includes the USARJ Health Physics & Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Program


  • The United States Navy moved 10 naval vessels closer to Japan to provide aid.  The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its battle group were moved to the east coast of Honshu.  As well as the group’s own helicopters the Ronald Reagan served as a refuelling platform for Japan Self-Defense Forces helicopters.
  • Navy helicopters based at Naval Air Facility Atsugi were made available for search and rescue immediately after the tsunami and later assisted with food drops.
  • The destroyers USS McCampbell and USS Curtis Wilbur … and their helicopters were made available for search and rescue. The landing ships USS Essex and USS Germantown, with the embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, were moved from the Sea of Japan to the east coast of Japan.
  • USS Blue Ridge, which had just arrived in Singapore at the time of the earthquake, was loaded with relief supplies and prepared to sail for Japan.
  • USS Tortuga, an amphibious dock ship, transported 300 Japanese civil defense workers from the island of Hokkaido to Honshu with 90 vehicles.


The US Navy dispatched aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and other vessels flew a series of helicopter operations. A spokesman for 7th fleet naval personnel stated that monitoring equipment indicated that the warship had been exposed to radiation. Separate hand-held equipment also picked up the contamination on 17 crew members, (presumably those who had participated in rescue operations). Commander Jeff Davis said that the exposure was low enough that after the crew washed with soap and water, follow-up tests were negative. Davis minimized the exposure as comparable to routine civilian activities and reiterated the US Navy’s commitment to the relief operation.


  • United States Marine Corps facilities in Japan escaped major damage, with no reported casualties.  This intact infrastructure allowed Marines from III Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler to mobilize aid quickly.
  • Marines based at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma have moved command and control teams and systems to NAF Atsugi.  Eight KC-130Js from VMGR-152 and eight CH-46E transport helicopters from HMM-265, all from MCAS Futena, were made available to transport rescue teams and equipment, as well as provide search and rescue.
  • MV Westpac Express, a civil-registered fast ferry chartered by the Marine Corps, was made available to transport equipment from Okinawa to Honshu.


  • A United States Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker arrived at Misawa Air Base on March 14 with the first batch of relief workers and 50 civil engineers from Kadena Air Base.
  • Two C-17A Globemaster cargo aircraft from Joint Base Lewis-McChord were made available to transport rescue teams and equipment.
  • Yokota Air Base is the hub for air operations from which cleanup crews were dispatched to clean up Sendai airport. At a Town Hall meeting, the Commander of the 374th Air Wing USAF presented an overview of joint forces operations in support of the Japanese and emphasized teamwork between various players. He stated that “we are very blessed” to be in the nation of Japan because it has a highly sophisticated set of technologies to minimize the damage but that the personnel, logistic and financing problems were formidable.
  • He repeatedly asserted that the situation is “eminently controllable” in part due to highly experience personnel available for various contingencies. US military personnel stationed at the Air Base expressed interest in making cash donations – in dollars or yen – to the American Red Cross and other organizations working in the Japanese relief effort.
  • Several Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the U.S. Army Japan Aviation Detachment have been made available for relief efforts. A disaster assessment team from I Corps (United States) Forward departed Camp Zama and arrived in northeastern Japan on March 14 to assist in relief and humanitarian operations as well as set up a forward logistics base for supplies. (from wikipedia)
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