USS ESSEX, At Sea --
One year ago on March 11, an undersea earthquake rocked the eastern coast of Japan, its 9.0 magnitude making it one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world since 1900. Just 70 kilometers off the coast of Tohoku, the quake triggered a violent tsunami which damaged more than one hundred thousand buildings, killed or injured tens of thousands of people and caused meltdowns in reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, aboard ships of Amphibious Squadron 11 deployed near Indonesia and Malaysia, responded to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to the devastated areas in mainland Japan.
One of the thousands of U.S. military personnel deployed in support of what was dubbed “Operation Tomodachi,” or “friends,” was then-Lance Cpl. Garry Welch, a combat correspondent with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
“We stopped in Malaysia for a liberty port call visit during the float,” said Welch, a Huntington, Mass. native. “We were in town for only about two hours when shore patrol directed a mass recall to the ship. That’s when we found out what happened.”
Within 24 hours following the recall of the 31st MEU, Welch was underway to Japan aboard the USS Essex (LHD-2). While en route, the Marines and Sailors learned the full extent of the damage caused by the tsunami, seeing aerial reconnaissance photographs and watching news clips of the giant waves crashing ashore.
On the isolated island of Oshima, near Kessenuma City, seven-year-old Wataru Kikuta looked over what was once his house, now reduced to rubble. His parents were scavenging for any salvageable items they could recover from the wreckage. He wanted everything to return to the way it was, but moreover, he wanted someone to help him and his parents. Looking up toward the ocean, he spotted the faint outline of a ship.
Aboard the USS Essex, helicopters of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 (Reinforced), 31st MEU, were loading food, water and blankets and U.S. Navy landing craft were launching with Marines, Sailors and tons of relief supplies. Inside one of the landing craft was Welch.
“Heading ashore was a surreal feeling, because even though we saw everything on the news and knew what was going to meet us ashore, there was still that feeling of the unknown,” said Welch. “Looking over the side of the landing craft, the water was covered in debris. I saw a little child’s shoe float past and thought, oh no.’”
Once the MEU hit the shore, the first priority was to clear any obstructing debris from the port to allow follow-on landing craft with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies and vehicles to come safely ashore. Welch’s job while on-island was to document the relief efforts and produce news stories, but when that was completed, he helped out with the clearing and assisting the local families affected by the disaster.
“During one of the days I was there, I photographed a young boy cleaning up the remains of what was once his family’s house,” said Welch. “After I got my photos, I set my camera down and helped the boy out.”
Flanked by Marines aiding him in cleaning up and recovering personal items, Wataru was beside himself with appreciation. The happiness never faded from his face.
“The whole time I was helping him, he was always smiling and giggling, talking to me in basic English,” said Welch. “Just by looking at him, you wouldn’t have been able to tell that pretty much everything was taken from him.”
The Marines and Sailors of the 31st MEU were on Oshima Island for several days, only leaving after the locals were able to operate independently and an ample amount of food, water and supplies were left behind.
After one year, follow-on deployments and a promotion, Welch sat in front of a Japanese news camera and spoke of his experiences during Operation Tomodachi for a one-year-later television special. Among telling what he saw and did, Welch told of the boy and his enthusiasm in working alongside the Marines to clean up the area.
“He had such a bright outlook on it all despite the circumstances,” said Welch during the interview. “It was a real honor to be helping him and being able to meet him. He is the real hero.”
Back on Oshima Island, Wataru and his parents were watching the one-year-later anniversary special on TV, seeing the video clips of the waves crashing through their island. Then Welch came on screen and spoke of Wataru. The boy smiled wide once again.
During the following deployment, once more aboard the USS Essex off the coast of Okinawa during the MEU’s certification exercise, Welch received an unexpected email. It was a scanned letter of thanks from Wataru and his family.
“I am so happy that you remembered me and I was able to see you again,” said Wataru in the letter. “I want to become a man like you who helps people when they are in trouble. I will never forget you and the other Marines.”
The letter was signed, “Your Tomodachi.”