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Under a wintry backdrop in northern Japan this month, thousands of soldiers with Fort Lewis, Wash.-based I Corps and associated units from Okinawa are conducting one of the country’s two main bilateral field-training exercises.

North Wind ’04, which runs Feb. 8-March 3, requires soldiers to ski cross-country carrying weapons, fire artillery and learn to cooperate with troops who may not speak English — all while battling the winter cold.

While this year’s annual exercise will be much the same as in years past, the support staff orchestrating it might be an unfamiliar sight.

Instead of the 35th Supply and Services Battalion from Sagami Depot, Japan, a new group will lead logistics: the 505th Quartermaster Battalion from Torii Station, which also is in charge of all the fuel used by the U.S. military on Okinawa.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for us to show our versatility,” said Maj. Sean Ahrens of the 505th Quartermaster Battalion.

During exercises, 505th supply and service personnel create a task force that oversees logistics. The group is responsible for postal operations, dining facilities, morale activities, banking and medical aid.

“We’re not accustomed to driving in snow, so we’ll have to get used to it,” Ahrens said. “Six people left Okinawa last week six days early for drivers’ training on the snow and ice” and to get acclimated “to the frigid temperatures, surroundings and environment.”

The support groups are to arrive first and leave last, officials said, setting up the physical and administrative infrastructure for hundreds or even thousands of soldiers who attend the exercise.

They ensure there are enough beds, the bathrooms work and the laundry is up and running.

For the past few years, the 35th Supply and Services Battalion — the Samurais — have done the job.

This year, Col. Jan Berry, commander of the 10th Area Support Group, opted to give the Okinawa-based 505th Quartermaster Battalion the assignment.

“It’s a great opportunity for them,” Berry said. The job will give the quartermasters more versatility to meet the changing needs of the military.

In Iraq, for instance, engineers, drivers and even infantrymen occasionally were called on to do support jobs they’d never practiced.

The 505th is the battalion in charge of more than 76 miles of pipelines and all fuel for U.S. servicemembers and facilities, including jets and ships, on Okinawa.

Attending North Wind means new experience, better readiness and a foray into the snow and cold of northern Japan, officers said.

“This is a new experience, but we’re up for the challenge,” Ahrens said.

Berry said the soldiers who will go to North Wind will need special winter gear, such as overcoats and sleeping bags, skis, even snowshoes. They’ll be trained to deal with conditions such as snow blindness, hypothermia and frostbite.

“It’s a chance to allow them training, to execute a logistics support mission,” she said. “Soldiers are extremely versatile.”

To ready the site, the quartermasters will get some help. Postal, finance, Army and Air Force Exchange Service, chaplain, veterinary and medical personnel will be assigned to serve as the experts. The quartermasters will be in charge of coordinating those resources.

The rationale for the change can be traced to the Army’s overall transformation last year. The service switched from geographically based operations into two functional sections: one for garrison and another for mission.

In the past, Japan was one region and Okinawa another. Now, all garrison operations, such as bases in Japan and Okinawa, fall under the command of U.S. Army Garrison Japan.

All mission activities, including the 35th Supply and Services Battalion in Japan and the 505th Quartermasters on Okinawa, fall under the 10th Area Support Group — which, Berry indicated, gives her as 10th ASG commander more flexibility in preparing for exercises.

Mark Rankin contributed to this report.

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