CAMP SENDAI, Japan — Instead of running the show like they usually do in a disaster zone, U.S. troops are taking cues from the Japanese on how to assist in recovery efforts in the heart of the tsunami-ravaged coastline here.
“They want and need our help but they don’t need us to do everything for them,” Lt. Col. James R. Kendall said Friday from Japan’s Northeastern Army headquarters, just a few miles from the main rescue operations center in the Miyagi prefecture government headquarters.
Roughly 70 Marines, sailors, airmen and soldiers from U.S. installations around Japan formed a logistical hub here Wednesday to direct the tons of aid pouring in from the American military.
Marines from Okinawa were leading the operation with the help of troops and equipment from Camp Zama, Naval Air Facility Atsugi and Yokota Air Base. The team had established an air refueling point about 20 miles west of Sendai for the Japanese, and had distributed 25,000 cases of water and other provisions by Friday.
While some palettes had been off-loaded at the Sendai Airport — devastated but quickly recovering, according to U.S. officials — and other more stable locations, some goods had to be flown into hard-to-reach locations using special operations aircraft.
Focused on delivering supplies versus search-and-rescue operations, the Americans expected to deploy several 10-man humanitarian assistance survey teams on Saturday to determine where their help might be needed most, said 1st Lt. Nicklaus Eisenbeiser, a spokesman for the operation.
With more supplies on the way by plane and truck, the team was awaiting word from Japanese counterparts about what to do next and trying to stay out of the way in the meantime.
“We have to resist the temptation to jump in with both feet,” said Kendall, one of several officers specially trained to serve as defense go-betweens for the U.S. and Japan. “We don’t want to create a big footprint” and strain resources.
The U.S. military is used to conducting operations like the one in Sendai on a much larger scale in underdeveloped countries with little or no infrastructure, he said, adding that the Japanese are well-prepared and equipped to handle such crises.
While the Japanese Self-Defense Force is filtering the requests for U.S. assistance from Japanese civilian authorities, Kendall said the regimented and hierarchical nature of Japanese society makes plugging into their system easier than most.
American efforts did not seem to be factoring into the Japanese’s rescue operations nerve center at the Miyagi prefecture headquarters building Friday, though news of the U.S. military’s arrival was welcomed.
Japanese officials there said U.S. support should be helpful both in getting large amounts of supplies into the area as well as disseminating those supplies in smaller tactical vehicles, such as helicopters.
“In a situation like this we help each other,” said prefectural official Yuki Takayama.
Elena Sugiyama contributed to this report.