SENDAI, Japan — The mission for one group of U.S. soldiers working in northern Japan’s tsunami zone is simple — put smiles on the faces of people whose homes were damaged or destroyed in last month’s disaster.
Fifteen members of the Camp Zama-based 296th Army Band have been in Miyagi Prefecture for the past two weeks performing free Dixie-land concerts at evacuation shelters. On Thursday, several hundred evacuees sat amid donated bedding, clothes and food parcels in the Rokugo Middle School gymnasium in Sendai taking in the soldiers’ tunes.
Sgt. David Timmons, 29, of Cincinnati, was the first band member to hit the stage, warming up the crowd with a drum solo before the rest of the musicians joined in to play “The Stars and Stripes” — a military waltz — that had the audience clapping along.
“We are very humbled and pleased to be here to play for you tonight,” Sgt. 1st Class Bill Hobson, 31, of San Diego, Calif., told the audience.
The band launched into a 40-minute set of Dixie-land music, included songs such as “When the Saints Come Marching In”, “Jambalaya”, “Hello Dolly” and “Livery Stables.”
During the show, U.S. soldiers danced with the crowd and coaxed a young boy up on stage to play the maracas. It wasn’t long before a dozen kids were up there with him playing tamborines and dancing with the soldiers.
Older folks in the audience joined in. Evacuees and soldiers could be seen doing the conga around the gym, smiles illuminating from their faces.
“It was wonderful,” evacuee Hiromi Sato said of the concert. The father of two who’s been living in the shelter with his family since the March 11 tsunami flooded their house said he was glad to see is daughters, Natsuki, 11, and Ami, 8, smile.
“It has been a long time since we last felt happy and had fun,” he said, as his daughters inspected backpacks full of small gifts from the Camp Zama Boy and Girl scouts after the show.
“The best part was when the soldiers came down and asked everybody to dance with them and they were giving people high-fives,” Natsuki said.
Evacuees Kazuo and Takeko Terashima, both 60, and fans of Japanese Enka music, got on their feet and enjoyed a dance. Terashima, who spends her days working as a nurse at the evacuation center, said she’s kept a lid on stress from the disaster so far.
“I think it will come later,” she said, adding that the concert was a morale boost. “I lost a lot of things, but because of the tsunami, I was able to know everybody here and experience things like the band today,” she said. “People from all over Japan and all over the world are rooting for us.”
Timmons, the drummer, said his band will keep performing at evacuation centers in northern Japan until they are told to head back to Camp Zama.
“We have no idea when the tour will end,” he said. “As long as we can get them stomping and dancing.”
Elena Sugiyama contributed to this story.