OSHIMA ISLAND, Japan --
Ten months after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami cut Oshima Island off from all assistance, Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit returned to the site of where hundreds of Marines and Sailors assisted in the recovery efforts there.
The 31st MEU responded to the island just days after the early 2011 disaster, bringing water, food, and supplies by air and sea from the USS Essex as part of Operation Tomodachi.
This most recent visit was intended to gauge how much the initial assistance helped, understand the follow-on recovery efforts and most importantly to see the people of Oshima once again.
“I thought that I would see more damage here,” said Col. Andrew R. MacMannis, commanding officer, 31st MEU. “It was really bad when we first arrived in March. Even though we operated here for several days, you could still tell recovery was going to take a long time. When we came into the port this morning and saw how much work was done since we left, it was really amazing.”
While he stood watching construction workers begin the rebuilding process near the port, children began emptying out of a nearby elementary school.
“It was very good to meet the kids that we helped,” MacMannis said. “To come back here and to see them in school, their lives returning somewhat to normal, it was really great.”
One of the children approached Lance Cpl. Brennan O’Lowney, a combat cameraman who was also with the MEU during the relief efforts. She was holding a laminated newspaper front page. “Is this you?” she asked. It showed her shaking hands with him as the MEU last left the island on April 6. She was happy to see him again, and they posed for a photo, recreating the scene ten months ago.
As the Marines of the 31st MEU walked the streets of the island, local residents approached, waving and repeating their gratitude. Some had tears streaming down their faces.
“We are so glad you came to help us, and so glad you have come back to see us,” said Morifumi Murakami, an Oshima resident. “After the disaster we were alone for days because the island was cut off from the mainland. The first people to come help us at all were you Marines.”
The island of Oshima was cut in two by the tsunami wave, which reached up to 60 feet above sea level. Remains of houses, trees, boats and personal items littered the island, clogging roads and the harbor. MEU Marines and Sailors assisted by removing over 400,000 pounds of debris and opening the harbor to ferry service.
“We are all very proud of the hard work done by the 31st MEU here in Oshima,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth J. Glueck, commanding general, III Marine Expeditionary Force, who led the visit. “The MEU’s efforts helped power to be restored to the island, debris cleared, showers set up, but most importantly, they brought hope to the people of the island.”
As he briefed local disaster officials, MacMannis said that the MEU was in Maylasia when the disaster struck. “We recalled everyone to the ship and set sail directly for Japan.”
After arriving off the coast of the mainland, the 31st MEU immediately set to work.
“The first request was for us to move some electrical trucks out to the island to help restore power,” he said. “That evening power was restored for the first time.”
Having electricity was doubly important because at the time of the disaster it was snowing, and the weather remained around freezing.
“Our unit has 2,200 Marines, and every one of them wanted to get off the ship and go help,” said MacMannis. “Every Marine or Sailor that came ashore here is very proud of the help they were able to provide.”
The leadership of Oshima Island expressed their gratitude for the amount of work that was done over the week that the Marines helped ashore. One of the only things they wished they had done in retrospect was to ask the Marines stay longer.
The local residents were impressed with how the Marines separated trash into different types (wood, metal and plastic), their intense work ethic and organization, and that they left the area so clean. “The three hundred Marines living here left our campsite so clean,” remarked Hironomu Sugawara, assembly member of Kesennuma who represents the Oshima district. “Even when a few tourists stay here they always leave trash, but the Marines left it spotless.”
“Thank you for the contributions you made here and for your hard work, assistance and for helping us recover,” said Sugawara. “The children were especially encouraged by seeing the Marines and spending time with them, and this has helped them begin the mental recovery process. The relationships that were developed are growing through your visit here and we hope to continue the relationship.”
The work of the 31st MEU came as part of a larger effort led by III MEF which involved 24,000 U.S. military personnel, resulting in the delivery of 246 tons of food, over two million gallons of water and 279 tons of other relief supplies during Operation Tomodachi.
The revisit to Oshima was part of a III MEF effort to review recovery progress, better prepare for future support, and to evaluate the impact of the homestay program.
“This important friendship started with the 31st MEU bringing disaster relief to the people of Oshima Island,” said Dr. Robert D. Eldridge, deputy assistant chief of staff, G-7, Marine Corps Installations Pacific. “Wanting to continue our commitment to them, we invited the children of Oshima to Okinawa for a very successful homestay visit. One thing that we hope comes from this most recent visit is the chance to work together in many other areas. This will benefit the wonderful people of Oshima, and it will also build on the special relationship between the people here and the 3d Marine Expeditionary Forces.”
As the Marines finished the visit and boarded the ferry for departure, dozens of residents lined the port, waving flags and cheering.
“The people of Oshima Island really gave me a message,” said MacMannis. “The amount of work and effort they have put in, after all that they have been through, gives me a message to keep on working just as hard. It is their show of commitment that gives us all hope for the future.”
The 31st MEU is the nation's only continually forward deployed MEU and remains America's force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region.