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The USS Essex (LHD 2), with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard, nears the coast of Japan at sunrise, March 27. The 31st MEU and Amphibious Squadron 11 delivered food, water, comfort items and commercial repair vehicles to residents on the isolated island of Oshima using U.S. Navy landing craft, demonstrating the MEU’s expeditionary capabilities in ship-to-shore amphibious operations. Marines and Sailors of the 31st MEU are conducting humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions in northeast Japan in coordination with the Japanese Self Defense Forces.

Photo by Capt. Caleb Eames

Navy-Marine Corps team brings crucial disaster relief to isolated island

27 Mar 2011 | Lance Cpl. Garry J. Welch

Two U.S. Navy landing craft carrying Marines and Sailors with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and Amphibious Squadron 11, as well as disaster relief supplies and Japanese electrical utility trucks, arrived in Oshima Island, March 27.

Oshima Island has been without running water and electricity since the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami ravaged the northeast coast of Japan, March 11.

“This island was supplied with water from a pipeline from mainland Japan,” said Kiichro Onodera, a local city worker. “After the earthquake, the tsunami destroyed the pump station. Since then, people have purified the water in the city pool and made it drinkable; that’s all we had.”

The Marines delivered nearly 2,000 gallons of water to the island today. Approximately 900 gallons were brought directly to a junior high school, which was being used as a shelter for 450 locals displaced by the disaster.

“This water will help supply over 3,000 people,” Onodera said. “People will now be able to shower, and do things they have not been able to do since the disaster happened.”

The Marines also delivered 1,738 meals ready to eat, 136 tarps, and 300 health and comfort kits to the Japan Self Defense Forces to distribute to those in need.

The health and comfort kits contain baby wipes, sun screen, toilet paper, soap, tooth paste and tooth brushes, shampoo and conditioner, lotion, eye drops, foot powder, razors, lip balm and tissues.

In addition to delivering humanitarian aid, the Marines and Sailors also transported local electrical utility vehicles from Kesennuma city to Oshima Island, to assist with restoring power to the isolated community.

The trucks were brought from the mainland port of Kessenuma nearby by a U.S. Navy landing craft because the bridge to the island was destroyed by the tsunami.

“This will help us to restore vital lifelines to Oshima from Kesennuma as soon as possible. Oshima island residents are suffering greatly,” said JSDF Maj. Shinya Takase, operations officer, 1st Division, 41st Infantry Regiment, in charge of disaster response in Kesennuma. “There is no electrical power at all. These vehicles will help them and help ease the situation. Japanese forces and Marines are doing very well in working through this together. At this moment, there is no other option to get these vehicles to Oshima. That is why we are so grateful for your help.”

With the landing craft transporting the vehicles, the vital infrastructure needed by the people of the island began to be repaired. By 5 p.m. today, the Marines of the 31st MEU received word that electricity had been restored for the first time in 16 days, due to their efforts in assisting the Japanese workers.

“We are extremely grateful for your cooperation and help,” Sasaki Masaetsu, maintenance manager in Kesennuma who rode an LCU to Oshima Island. “We now have a 400 kilowatt emergency generator, two bucket trucks, one crane, and a tools and materials truck, which arrived on your landing craft. We have 450 displaced people here on the island. These trucks will help us provide power for the displaced persons’ shelters, and the remaining homes, so they can have heat and light. It is an extreme honor to have the Marines here, we did not expect it, and we are so thankful.”

As happy as the Japanese were to receive the supplies, the Marines and Sailors of the 31st MEU were just as happy to lend a helping hand.

“To be able to come out here and do this was mind-blowing,” said Sgt. Kyle O. Mills, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear assessment and consequence management technician, 31st MEU. “We all saw the destruction on the news, but you just don’t know what it’s like until you are out here experiencing it firsthand, it was great to be able to do something to help these people.”

CBRN Marines were present during the operation as a precautionary measure to monitor radiation levels; ensuring there were no unexpected levels. In the event of any possible contamination; Marines were ready to decontaminate any equipment and personnel exposed.

“We took readings every half-hour to ensure it was safe,” said Mills. “For the entire operation the levels remained completely normal.”

As the day came to an end, and the Marines returned to the LCU’s, everyone who was involved knew they had made a difference.

“We came here to help our Japanese friends and support them in any way possible,” said 1st Lt. Robert Jankowski, the engineering platoon commander with Combat Logistics Battalion 31, 31st MEU. “This operation was very successful, we were able to give help and disperse aid to the displaced. All the Marines did a great job.”

The 31st MEU’s involvement is part of a larger U.S. government response, after a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan causing widespread damage. The 31st MEU is ready to support our Japanese partners and to provide assistance when called upon.

31st Marine Expeditionary Unit