SENDAI, Japan — U.S. and Japanese troops swarmed like worker ants over a massive pile of debris Saturday in the playground of Minato Elementary School in northern Japan’s battered Tohoku region.
Minato, in the seaside town of Ishinomaki, is one of 42 tsunami-damaged schools that the Japan Self-Defense Force has asked the U.S. military to help clear as part of an effort to get local children back to class by April 21, according to U.S. officials.
For three days, the troops at Ishinomaki worked with the help of heavy machinery to reduce a pile of debris that included everything from wrecked cars and bicycles to armchairs, bedspreads, snowboards, appliances and pots and pans. They also did their best to recover family photo albums tangled in pieces of twisted metal that used to be the students’ playground equipment.
“I even found a dead sea turtle and a dead iguana,” said a U.S. Marine sifting through the wreckage, Cpl. Josh Brands, 22, of Sussex, N.J.
Sgt. Ryo Tatara, a JSDF air defense artilleryman helping with the cleanup, said valuable items like money and jewelry, as well as things of personal value like diplomas, awards and photographs, would be handed over to local police and government officials so the owners could claim their property.
By Saturday there was a clear path to the front entrance of the four-story school, which has been home to hundreds of evacuees after the tsunami leveled the area. Japanese officials said Sunday once the school reopens, new accommodations will be found for the evacuees.
But there was still plenty of work to be done. Troops were still loading dump trucks with trash from head-high piles. A cemetery behind the building still had at least a dozen upturned vehicles leaning amongst the shrines and headstones.
Yoshiaki Shoji, 60, a local council member was at the school Saturday helping organize the evacuees food and clothing. Shoji said he’s anti-military and believes strongly in his nation’s pacifist constitution. On this day, he said he was grateful for the military’s help.
One of those working amidst the destruction, Marine Capt. Adan Maldonada, 33, of El Paso, Texas, said 60 Marines from Camp Fuji and Okinawa and 20 soldiers from Camp Zama were involved in the cleanup alongside several dozen Japanese troops.
“There were 205 kids here but one died in the tsunami,” Maldonada said, adding that a adult’s body had been recovered from the playground Friday afternoon.
The tsunami, which reached 30 feet in some parts of the neighborhood, submerged the first floor of the school. A clock on the front of the building stands at 3:48 p.m., the time at which power was cut March 11.
Col. Abe Shohei, 45, operations officer for the JSDF 5th Brigade, said many of the school’s students had their homes destroyed by the tsunami.
“More than 10,000 people were evacuated from this area,” he said. “About 2,000 have been able to go home and live on the top floors of their houses but they still don’t have electricity or water.”
Each student, as well as children from a nearby kindergarten, will receive a backpack full of treats and trinkets donated by the Camp Zama Girl Scouts, Maldonada said.
Keiko Hoshi, 42, has been living at the schoolhouse with her daughters, Arisa, 13, and Hinako, 11, since they fled to the reinforced building on the day of the tsunami.
Hoshi, whose husband is a local construction worker, remembers running into the school with her family as water rose in the playground, then watching the massive wave destroy the neighborhood.
Nowadays Arisa and Hinako spend their time helping clean up what’s left of the family home or playing in the school library with eight other children still living there. The children were excited when the “cool” American soldiers arrived to clean up around the school, Arisa said, adding that one soldier gave her a silver plate he found in the rubble. She said she hopes the school reopens in time for the new school year. “The hardest part is being at school but not being able to study,” she said.
One of the Americans helping with the clean up, Staff Sgt. Frederick Kennebrew, 35, of College Park, Ga., a 35th Combat Service Support Battalion soldier out of Camp Zama and father of four elementary school kids, said he feels a personal connection to the Minato students.
“My kids are still in Japan,” he said, explaining that he and his wife had decided not to evacuate the children under a voluntary program offered to U.S. military dependents.
“A couple of my kids are being taught by Japanese teachers,” he said. “Until I go back to the States, Japan is my home. None of my kids go here but it (Minato) is still my school right now.”