OSHIMA ISLAND, Kesennuma, Japan -- The U.S. Ambassador to Japan marked the 11-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 disaster in Northeast Japan with a visit to the island of Oshima, meeting U.S. Marines and islanders united by Operation Tomodachi.
For his first trip outside of the Tokyo area, Ambassador Rahm Emanuel, formerly the White House Chief of Staff during the Obama administration, made a series of stops along the coastal areas of Kesennuma to commemorate the 3.11 anniversary. He met with local politicians and affected residents, discussed the Marine Corps’ rapid response to the disaster as part of Operation Tomodachi, and saw firsthand the community rebuilding since the triple earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster devastated the region. Marines shared the inspiration they saw in the strength and resilience of the people of Oshima, while islanders thanked the Marines for coming to the rescue after the island was isolated by the tsunami.
“The strong relationship between the Marines of Okinawa and the islanders of Oshima, which started 11 years ago during the disaster and endures as this community rebuilds, is a beautiful picture of the partnership between the United States and Japan,” said Ambassador Emanuel. “We are stronger together, as Operation Tomodachi shows. The U.S-Japan alliance is unshakeable.”
Marines of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade from Okinawa and the U.S. Embassy Tokyo‘s Defense Attaché Office, as well as family members of Marines, accompanied Ambassador Emanuel on March 10 as he toured the Kesennuma City Earthquake Museum, the site of a former junior high school. The school has cars jammed into third-story classrooms left untouched as a powerful reminder of the scale of the disaster. Later that day, the Ambassador met with the Mayor of Kesennuma City to jointly lay flowers at the Kesennuma City Reconstruction Prayer Park and speak to assembled press.
“The Marine Corps quickly came to help us in the disaster and we saw them rescuing and helping our people in this region. We felt the closeness of the Americans in this part of Japan, as well as the strength of your abilities,” said Shigeru Sugawara, mayor of Kesennuma City. “We are grateful for your help in our time of need.”
While standing on the island’s highest point on March 11, Marines of 3D MEB and the U.S. Embassy Tokyo briefed ambassador on the relief efforts, including how the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit came ashore on Oshima March 27 – April 6, 2011. During Operation Tomodachi, Marine Corps helicopters landed in the baseball field in the island to deliver supplies, while U.S. Navy landing craft came ashore in the harbor to bring equipment and personnel. The Marines provided food, water, used heavy equipment to clear debris from ports and roads, provided hot showers for island residents, and worked in sub-freezing temperatures, all while being dusted by fallout radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power station meltdown. Marines also crawled through mangled and overturned homes to salvage family heirlooms.
“We were honored to help during Operation Tomodachi,” said Lt. Col. Paul Bartok, the Marine Attaché at the U.S. Embassy Tokyo and member of the 31st MEU during the disaster relief efforts. “Marines deployed from Okinawa and Indonesia immediately to the disaster areas, set up a response headquarters in Sendai, and were the first responders to arrive on the island of Oshima. We are so grateful to our Japanese friends and neighbors. Their strength and resilience through the disaster was an example to us all.”
Later, the Ambassador had opportunity to meet the Kikuta family, island residents who were helped by Marines. Reiko and Takeshi Kikuta explained how their then 8-year-old son Wataru first met the Marines while attempting to recover valuables from their home and fish store, which has been destroyed by the tsunami. As Marines observed, he became an example of the strength of the people of Oshima through his work ethic. The Marines also were also recognized by the people of Oshima.
“When I saw the Marines arriving, I knew that we were rescued,” said Reiko Kikuta. “I felt that when they arrived, we would finally make it. They helped my son and they helped us all to recover from the disaster. They are our lifelong friends.”
The Kikuta family visited Okinawa Marines several times during a follow-on homestay program, instituted after the disaster to enable children to receive respite from the devastation and trauma experienced as well as to provide cultural experiences for children of Oshima and U.S. service member host families.
Ambassador Emanuel, the Kikuta family, Marines and their family members and other islanders viewed a memorial installed and dedicated by the island commemorating the relationship between the Marine Corps and Oshima Island. The memorial inscription reads, “You are an inspiration, showing perseverance and strength. Friendship forever, with sincere gratitude for Operation Tomodachi 2011.”
The Marine Corps has continued to maintain the relationship with Oshima over the years, including several visits by III Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Corps Installations Pacific Commanding Generals; the III MEF Marine Corps band, and numerous other personal and professional exchanges by Marines and Marine Corps families. Families and children of Oshima have also continued to visit Okinawa, maintaining close relationships with Marines and families who helped during Operation Tomodachi. Stronger Together – Tomi Ni.
The 3D MEB assisted during Operation Tomodachi by sending a forward command element led by (at the time) Brig. Gen. Craig Timberlake, to help manage the complex combined disaster relief operations spanning the Tohoku coastline.
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