YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The largest remaining unit of U.S. servicemembers in the tsunami-ravaged regions of northeast Japan will be drawing down to about 20 soldiers in the coming weeks, Army officials said Thursday.
The Army’s I Corps Forward — which has been clearing buildings and supplying assistance to evacuees since shortly after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan — is sending soldiers back to Camp Zama and Okinawa as their missions end, officials said.
There are currently fewer than 100 soldiers on the ground, said Army spokesman Maj. Randall Baucom.
In the aftermath of the disaster, between 15,000 and 20,000 servicemembers from all four branches were engaged in relief and recovery efforts.
By the first week of April, the sea and air units that comprised the bulk of the response had pulled out of the affected regions, after Japanese authorities declined further assistance.
Although the Army is the smallest element of the U.S. military in Japan, its staff officers play key roles as liaisons with Japan’s ground forces.
“As long as the government of Japan and the Self-Defense Force requires our support, we are here and available,” said I Corps Forward commander Maj. Gen. Michael Harrison, in a recent phone interview with Stars and Stripes.
Despite repositioning soldiers back to their bases, there is no particular end date set for totally ending support, Harrison said. U.S. military officials continue to discuss joint operations with their Japanese counterparts daily, he said.
In a pinch, hundreds of soldiers could be sent to the northeastern city of Sendai by convoy or aircraft within hours, Baucom added.
During their time in the northeast, soldiers have cleared schools and train stations covered in rubble and muck, and they have provided more than 1,000 showers per day at evacuation shelters. They have also entertained children and provided several band concerts.
However, the area they have been working to help since March remains a rubble-strewn land where thousands of homes and buildings have been obliterated, and many Japanese have been left with nothing. The cleanup alone will take years in each of the stricken prefectures, according to Japanese government estimates.
There are more than 100,000 Japan Self-Defense Force personnel currently engaged in relief efforts, including 70,000 ground troops, according to Japanese government websites. Non-governmental aid groups and other volunteers are also assisting in the recovery.
The Army is lending shower sets it has been running for evacuees at 12 locations to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, who will operate them “for the foreseeable future,” Baucom said.