USS BONHOMME RICHARD, At Sea --
Marines and sailors with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and Amphibious Squadron 11 (PHIBRON) held a moment of silence to commemorate the Japanese citizens who lost their lives during the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami on the flight deck of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), March 11.
On March 11, 2011, an undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0, the most powerful earthquake to affect Japan, struck off the coast of Honshu. Waves exceeding one hundred feet in height crashed ashore and swept miles inland, destroying homes, buildings, roads, schools and crippled major industrial facilities such as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
The areas around the power plant became contaminated with radiation, and across Kesennuma and Oshima Island in particular, families lost their homes, their possessions, and in some cases, their lives.
At the time of the disaster, the 31st MEU was on a regularly scheduled patrol, forcing an immediate recall of personnel from port calls in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Once in the vicinity of Japan, the MEU immediately began coordinating efforts with Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces and United States Forces Japan to quickly mobilize and join relief efforts. Operation Tomodachi (“Operation Friends” in Japanese) kicked off immediately with all branches in the United States military working alongside the JGSDF in the delivery of humanitarian aid.
“The PHIBRON-11/31st MEU team was tailor-made to provide island relief,” said Navy CAPT Heidi Agle, the commodore for PHIBRON-11 and a native of Moose Creek, Ala. “Recovery efforts were significantly accelerated by Marines and sailors working side-by-side with island residents.”
Oshima Island, located off the east coast of Japan, was isolated when a bridge connecting it to the Japanese mainland was destroyed and its ports were obliterated. The inhabitants were surviving on scarce food and water with no electricity prior to the arrival of the MEU – PHIBRON team.
“When we were in a (landing craft utility) heading toward the shore of the island, we just stared in awe at the level of destruction that happened,” said Sgt. Jacob H. Greenlief, a team leader with Weapons Company, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st MEU, and a native of Kirkwood, Ill. “When we got ashore, I couldn’t believe that huge boats, their concrete docks and all, lay in the middle of the road, far away from where the dock originally was.”
Each element of the Marine-Air Ground Task Force played a significant role in the recovery efforts. This included BLT 2/5, the current ground combat element for the 31st MEU.
Over the period of 10 days, aid was sent by sea and air, including food and water, electrical utility trucks, tarps, and medical relief supplies. Marines, sailors and Japanese civilians worked side-by-side in the face of the daunting relief task.
“As we walked over this crest that overlooked a village, it was just a huge bowl of destruction; hardly anything was left standing,” said Sgt. Seth D. McConville, a scout sniper with Weapons Co., BLT 2/5, 31st MEU, and a native of Murrieta, Calif. “Everything that ever belonged to these people was taken from them in an instant. We felt like we just had to help, whatever we could do to help.”
By the end of Operation Tomodachi, the MEU – PHIBRON team distributed more than 164,000 pounds of food and thousands of gallons of water to the Japanese people. Through it all, a deep respect grew between the citizens of Oshima and the Marines of the MEU that remains to this day.
Despite a busy training schedule full of amphibious exercises while underway, the Marines and sailors take time to remember the events in mainland Japan.
“General Mattis once said that when it comes to U.S. Marines, there is no better friend, no worse enemy,” said Col. John Merna during the ceremony, commanding officer of the 31st MEU and a native of Prince George’s County, Md . “The friendships made with the people of Oshima Island, for example, continue to this day. I encourage you to keep the people of Oshima Island and the victims of the 2011 disaster in your thoughts and prayers. The history of the 31st MEU - PHIBRON-11 team will be forever linked to the people of Oshima Island.”