WASHINGTON — The U.S. has nearly 40,000 troops stationed in Japan, but officials are still scrambling to get the right military personnel and equipment positioned to deal with the widespread devastation caused by last week’s earthquake and tsunami.
Pentagon officials acknowledged that relief efforts have been limited as Japanese authorities wrestle with where U.S. forces are needed, and how they can best help with rescue and recovery efforts.
“It’s more a matter of having the government of Japan determine what type of assistance they need,” said Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. “We talked about positioning forces initially so we have that capability. Now it’s a matter of matching up the capability with the needs.”
The Japanese government has not yet asked the U.S. for an all-out, independent response effort in any of the affected prefectures, Lapan said. American forces have not been asked to assist with any of the nuclear reactor problems, and so far have been tasked mostly with search-and-rescue missions and humanitarian aid delivery.
That’s a change from last year’s Haiti earthquake, when that country’s government was crippled by the disaster and U.S. forces took the lead in organizing and coordinating of much of the relief operation.
Although the damage in Japan appears far worse than other recent natural disasters that have required a U.S. response, Lapan noted that American military aid there could turn out smaller in comparison because of the homegrown abilities of Japan, one of the wealthiest and most advanced nations in the world.
Still, the U.S. response so far has involved thousands of sailors and Marines, and included nearly every American military base in the region.
On Monday, three Marine Corps C-130J cargo planes packed with generators, fuel containers, communications gear and Marines left Marine Corps Air Station Futenma for Naval Air Facility Atsugi and MCAS Iwakuni.
Through Monday, the Marine Corps has flown 11 C130Js and eight CH-46 helicopters from Okinawa to various air stations in mainland Japan to assist with humanitarian relief efforts. A squadron from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona also has been tapped to help with the relief efforts.
The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, dispatched Friday to help with relief efforts, was set to move closer to land in coming days, to serve as a platform for refueling Japanese military aircraft. But U.S. 7th Fleet was forced to reposition the USS Ronald Reagan, with its 5,400 personnel, and other ships away from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant after low levels of contamination were found on the crews of three helicopters returning to the carrier from disaster relief missions near Sendai.
Currently, the Navy has eight ships off the coast of Honshu, with five more on the way later this week. That includes the amphibious dock landing ship USS Tortuga, dispatched from South Korea, which is scheduled to arrive at Akita on Tuesday with two heavy-lift MH-53 helicopters and the 700 Japanese security forces it picked up in Hokkaido this weekend.
U.S. Army Japan on Monday mobilized a 10-person team of translators, communications experts and combat medics upon request from the Japan Self-Defense Forces, to help with disaster assessment efforts in the Sendai area.
Navy helicopters have evacuated about 600 people from Takata City, 7th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Jeff Davis said in an e-mail message.
Despite those efforts, the hardest hit areas of the country are still without electricity and running water, and residents face hours-long waits for gasoline to run the few portable generators available.
“People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming,” Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, told The Associated Press. “We are only getting around just 10 percent of what we have requested. But we are patient because everyone in the quake-hit areas is suffering.”
U.S. military officials say 145 aircraft are currently available for the relief efforts, with 23 additional Marine Corp aircraft en route to the region.
Some 2,000 Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit are expected to begin arrive in country on Wednesday.
Lapan also noted that troops already stationed throughout Japan have taken part in additional relief efforts, again at the request of local authorities.
Reporters Chris Carroll, Leo Shane, Ashley Rowland, Erik Slavin, Grant Okubo, Matt Orr, and John Raiboroff contributed to this story.