Zenji Shimada, leader of a small sit-in near MCAS Futenma's main gate, said his group will protest there daily until a mass demonstration at Okinawa International Univerity is held Sept. 5.

Zenji Shimada, leader of a small sit-in near MCAS Futenma's main gate, said his group will protest there daily until a mass demonstration at Okinawa International Univerity is held Sept. 5. (Chiyomi Sumida / S&S)

GINOWAN, Okinawa — More protests are planned for Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the coming weeks.

A small group of people involved in a civil suit regarding base noise is staging a daily sit-in demonstration at a base gate and Ginowan city is planning what it’s characterized as the largest mass protest rally yet for Sept. 5.

The demonstrations are in response to the Aug. 13 crash of a Marine CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter at Okinawa International University next to the base, and the resumption of flight activity.

Three crewmembers, Hawaii-based Marines assigned to Futenma under a six-month Unit Deployment Program, were injured. No civilian casualties were reported. Debris from the helicopter, which clipped a university administration building and exploded into flames when it crashed nearby, was strewn over a wide residential area near the school.

On Sunday, the Marine Corps announced that the initial findings of an investigation into the crash showed the lack of a “small retaining device in a subcomponent of the tail rotor assembly” most likely caused the accident.

The missing part led to a loss of tail rotor control, according to a Marine news release.

“The Marine Corps takes safety on the air and ground very seriously,” the news release stated. “During the investigation of the cause of the accident, all CH-53D Sea Stallion flights had been temporarily suspended. Every CH-53D helicopter has since been thoroughly inspected for safety and cleared to resume mission essential flights.”

Six of the Sea Stallions left the base Sunday for amphibious ships being deployed to the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. That move drew strident protests from Okinawa officials, especially Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha, who wants the base, located in the middle of his city, closed. Okinawa prefecture and every town and city hosting military bases have filed protest resolutions with U.S. and Japanese officials.

The latest group to join the fray consists of plaintiffs suing the Japanese government and the base commander, claiming physical and mental damages from aircraft noise.

The group started a sit-in Sunday at Friendship Park, near Futenma’s main gate off Highway 58. A spokesman said they will gather there from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily until the city-sponsored Sept. 5 mass rally at the university.

More than 10,000 people are expected to attend that rally, a city spokesman said.

On Monday, about a half-dozen people took part in the Friendship Park sit-in.

“We are too angry for words,” said Zenji Shimada, sitting on a blue tarpaulin spread on the grass. Some 404 Ginowan residents are named in the noise suit.

“The crash and the resumption of flight operations of the same model of helicopter … we are just beside ourselves,” said Shimada, who leads the plaintiffs’ group. He criticized the Marines’ explanation of the crash as cursory. “We had to take some action. This is the only way left for us to show how enraged we are.”

Shimada said city residents have worried for decades about a helicopter crash.

“The crash was well expected, and our fears were one of the major reasons that drove us to file the lawsuit,” he said. “We must fight to stop the military from doing anything they can on Okinawa.

“The present situation makes Okinawa a militaristic colony of the United States,” he said. “Okinawa is not treated as a part of Japan. I must appeal to my fellow Okinawans to stand up and join us.”

Kazutoshi Hara, 24, a University of the Ryukyus student, joined the sit-in protest with a friend.

“We are here to condemn the crash and also the resumption of the flights,” he said. “The fear that the helicopters that routinely fly over our community might crash one of these days has become true.”

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