TACLOBAN, Philippines — U.S., Australian and Japanese servicemembers are working together on the Philippines’ Leyte island, where their grandfathers fought some of the bloodiest battles of World War II 70 years ago.
The military men and women traveled there this month on a Japanese amphibious ship, the Kunisaki. Each day they’ve been going ashore on a hovercraft emblazoned with a red-and-white rising sun flag similar to the ensigns flown by ships of the Imperial Japanese navy. Many of those flags have been at the bottom of the sea off Leyte since October 1944, when the Japanese fleet was routed, despite the desperate use of kamikaze attacks, by a combined U.S.-Australian force in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The three nations have long since buried the hatchet. Their militaries are back in the Philippines honing disaster response skills in an event called Pacific Partnership.
More than 300 servicemembers — mostly from the U.S. and Japan — are participating in the Partnership’s northern leg, which began in early June and included two-week stops in Vietnam and Cambodia. A southern component, which began mid-May, involved East Timor and Indonesia.
The cooperation comes as Japan and the U.S. prepare new bilateral defense cooperation guidelines for the first time since 1997. The guidelines are expected to address a recent cabinet resolution calling for Japan’s forces to defend close allies for the first time since WWII, if not doing so would endanger the country. Japan’s national legislature, where the ruling party holds a strong majority, is scheduled to consider laws related to the cabinet resolution next spring.
Pacific Partnership was established in 2006 in response to the 2004 Asian tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia, Thailand and other countries.
The participation of the Kunisaki and its Japanese crew is a milestone: in past years, the command ship for Pacific Partnership has always been a U.S. vessel – either an amphibious, hospital or supply ship, said U.S. Navy Capt. Brian Shipman, commodore of the mission in the Philippines.
The Kunisaki transported most of those involved in the mission — including two Malaysians, nine Australians and 120 U.S. personnel, along with members of non-governmental organizations — to Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines.
Each morning, the hovercraft transports medics, veterinarians, engineers, civil affairs experts, public affairs staff and NGO workers to shore. At night, most return to the ship to sleep.
Shipman, whose regular job is leading Destroyer Squadron 21 out of Naval Base San Diego, said the three countries’ ability to deploy from a Japanese ship shows how much they have in common. The partnership prepares the militaries to respond to disasters in Southeast Asia, he said.
Locals have welcomed the humanitarian work by the servicemembers but haven’t forgotten the roles of America and Japan as colonial occupiers.
Both nations dealt out harsh treatment to Filipinos during the colonial period. Photographs on the walls of the Alejandro Hotel, where some U.S. servicemembers have been staying this month, show slave laborers and a village burning after it was set alight by Japanese troops during World War II.
Many Filipinos still harbor a grudge over the U.S. Army’s refusal to return church bells taken as war trophies from the town of Balangiga, where Filipino “insurrectos” massacred members of the U.S. 9th Infantry Regiment in 1901 prompting a brutal campaign of reprisals that left thousands dead on the island of Samar, which has been linked to Leyte by bridge.
However, the Filipinos, like the servicemembers, appear ready to let bygones be bygones. Crowds of smiling residents greeted the American and Japanese personnel as they went about their work in Tacloban.
In a sign of the sensitivities surrounding the return of Japanese forces to the Philippines, Japanese military personnel working alongside the Americans and Australians declined to be interviewed.
Hideki Asai, a Japanese doctor working with Internatioinal Emergency Medical Service Japan – one of the NGOs affiliated with Pacific Partnership – said he and the other Japanese personnel enjoy working with the Americans.
“They are very friendly,” he said.
Asai praised the quality of hospitals in the Philippines but noted that many residents couldn’t afford medical treatment.
Australian Army Capt. Darren Stendt, 37, a nurse, spent part of Thursday giving medical advice to a Filipino man who broke his arm in a motorcycle accident. Stendt said he’d worked with Americans at a hospital in Balad, Iraq, but it was his first time working with Japanese troops.
“We are the first Australians to ever work on a Japanese ship… voluntarily,” he said.
Thousands of U.S. and Australian prisoners of war were transported across the Pacific in “hell ships.” Packed below deck without adequate food or water, many did not survive the journey or their time in harsh POW camps on the Japanese mainland.
Some of the Australian and American personnel have complained about a monotonous diet of rice and squid on board the Kunisaki, but, otherwise, appear to work well with the Japanese sailors.
Stendt said he thinks it’s good that the Japanese are getting more involved in events such as Pacific Partnership.
“The Japanese started with medical forces into East Timor in 2000 and the Germans went to Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s good for both Japan and Germany to have broken those yokes of World War II.”