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Sailors and Marines aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan wave to Japanese sailors aboard the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JDS Hyuga during a pass and review April 4, 2011. Ronald Reagan was operating off the coastline of Japan to provide disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in support of Operation Tomodachi.

Sailors and Marines aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan wave to Japanese sailors aboard the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JDS Hyuga during a pass and review April 4, 2011. Ronald Reagan was operating off the coastline of Japan to provide disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in support of Operation Tomodachi. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Sailors and Marines aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan wave to Japanese sailors aboard the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JDS Hyuga during a pass and review April 4, 2011. Ronald Reagan was operating off the coastline of Japan to provide disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in support of Operation Tomodachi.

Sailors and Marines aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan wave to Japanese sailors aboard the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JDS Hyuga during a pass and review April 4, 2011. Ronald Reagan was operating off the coastline of Japan to provide disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in support of Operation Tomodachi. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

An aerial view of Oshima-Mura, Japan, 11 days after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. Ships and aircraft from the USS Ronald Reagan operated off the coast to provide humanitarian assistance in support of Operation Tomodachi.

An aerial view of Oshima-Mura, Japan, 11 days after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. Ships and aircraft from the USS Ronald Reagan operated off the coast to provide humanitarian assistance in support of Operation Tomodachi. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

U.S. Marines with Joint Task Force Fuji and Japanese soldiers clear debris at Minato Elementary School in Ishinomaki , Japan, April 1, 2011. The Marines were participating in Operation Tomodachi, a joint humanitarian assistance operation in response to the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

U.S. Marines with Joint Task Force Fuji and Japanese soldiers clear debris at Minato Elementary School in Ishinomaki , Japan, April 1, 2011. The Marines were participating in Operation Tomodachi, a joint humanitarian assistance operation in response to the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. (Courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corp)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Japanese officials formally thanked U.S. military personnel for supporting survivors of the devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

About 500 people from both nations attended the event Monday — which also marked the 61st anniversary of the Japan Self-Defense Forces — at the U.S. Capitol, Japanese broadcaster NHK reported Tuesday.

Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, presented a letter of appreciation to Capt. Thom Burke, former commander of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which served as a floating refueling station for Japanese and U.S. helicopters flying Operation Tomodachi relief missions to Japan’s battered east coast. More than 15,000 people died in the disaster.

Ronald Reagan — which returned to Japan last week to serve out of Yokosuka Naval Base as the centerpiece of U.S. Pacific forces — was one of the first Navy ships to respond to the disaster.

“We knew where we were going, and we knew what we were going to do and we were proud to support them,” Burke told NHK.

During the ceremony, the U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force bandmembers played “Hana wa Saku” — “Flowers Will Bloom” — a song written to encourage survivors struggling to rebuild their lives.

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