Marines in Sendai pushing for larger role in relief effort

A monk chants outside the Miyagi General Gymnasium, which has been converted into a morgue housing more than 100 bodies of unidentified earthquake and tsunami victims on March 24.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 26, 2011

SENDAI, Japan — A group of excited young Japanese girls jumped and shouted to 1st Lt. Sean McMahon, “Sign it! Sign it!”

They held up small footballs that a unit of Marines and U.S. soldier drivers brought to their disaster shelter in Watari city Friday morning, along with other toys, toothbrushes, soap and toilet paper. McMahon took a moment to sign the footballs for the giggling girls as well as a donated checkerboard shyly offered by a chubby Japanese boy.

After a whirlwind ceremony with local Japanese officials, the Marines and soldiers mounted up again in front of the school that had been converted to emergency housing for 680 Japanese displaced in the disaster here. The aid drop lasted no more than 30 minutes, yet residents lined the way out, applauding and thanking them.

After nearly a week in the disaster zone, it was the first time the Marines deployed here from Camp Fuji had met the victims they were sent to help.

As aid pours into Miyagi prefecture and other coastal areas that were destroyed by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, the Marine Corps based at the Sendai Airport has eagerly taken on requests for assistance by the Japanese military. Some 107,000 people have been left homeless in the area, and tens of thousands more are trying to dig out of demolished, mud-caked neighborhoods.

But there have been precious few missions like the hero’s welcome the Marines received at the Watari shelter city – moments that can mark military careers.

The Marines have run about 15 direct aid delivery missions since they arrived March 20, according to Capt. Kenneth Tarr, an operations and range control operator with Camp Fuji Combined Arms Training Center, which is called Task Force Fuji. But the troops who dropped aid at the Watari shelter had only run one previous aid mission, unloading supplies at a shelter at night, McMahon said.

McMahon said the mission Friday and the outpouring of thanks from the Japanese made a “huge difference” in the morale of his unit.

“I’m all warm and fuzzy. It took everything to keep my composure,” said Sgt. David Hertzog, a soldier driving one of the Humvees. “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.”

The unit has been “aggressively” pushing for a wider role in the relief effort, but any larger role depends solely on decisions by the Japanese military, CATC commander Col. Craig Kozeniesky told Stars and Stripes on Thursday.

The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Northeast coordinates relief work with the U.S. military during nightly joint meetings. Any need for assistance is passed along to the Marines based at the Sendai Airport. The request for the Watari relief mission Friday was made because the Self-Defense Force did not have enough manpower to handle the mission, said Japanese Maj. Fumio Takagi of the Joint Task Force Headquarters, which includes Japanese and U.S. military forces.

The relatively small number of requests so far compared to the massive amount of suffering might be due to the two militaries still working out a system to deliver aid, Takagi said.

“I guess we don’t have the understanding of each other yet,” he said.

U.S. military forces began to assemble and mobilize in the hours after the March 11 quake and have fanned out along the northeastern coast in Navy ships, helicopters and transport planes.

Here in Miyagi prefecture, the Air Force and the Marines have cleared large swaths of the Sendai Airport, which was hit by tsunamis and swamped with debris.

Residents holding out hope

Two weeks after Japan’s worst disaster since World War II, this prefecture has begun to inch toward improvement.

The Watanoha Elementary School shelter in the heart of the demolished city of Ishinomaki had been struggling to feed about 1,200 residents when top U.S. military officials and U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos visited Wednesday. By Friday, the muddy, cold shelter had classrooms filled with blankets, satellite phone service for residents, clean white boxes of U.S. military aid and a business from Tokyo handing out grilled sweet potatoes in the playground.

The shelter no longer had a problem with food and its biggest need was tissues for allergy season, said Kazunori Hino, a city worker at the shelter.

“There’s too much food,” shelter resident Toya Kikuchi, 15, said. “If we don’t eat it, it will spoil.”

Toya lives in the shelter with his grandparents, mother and brother after their home washed away in the tsunami that scraped away vast stretches of seaside communities. They share a school classroom with 30 to 40 others, Toya said.

Ishinomaki, which is north of Sendai, lies in ruins. Former sections of the city are unrecognizable jumbles of ships, vehicles and building materials. More than 29,000 people lost their homes, according to the prefecture government.

So, as aid flows to the area and shelter residents receive food and supplies, Japanese victims must now cope with how to move forward in the face of immense loss.

Ishinomaki residents Masahiro Shoji, 65, and his wife Hiroko, 61, never left their severely damaged home, which sits above the family business, a factory supply warehouse along some of the most badly damaged coastline.

The Shojis must use a makeshift bridge over fetid flood water or climb a ladder, cross the roof and crawl through a window to enter their battered property.

While other areas have begun clearing streets and emptying water-logged possessions from homes and businesses, the Shoji’s neighborhood remains nearly untouched by any recovery efforts.

Two weeks after the disaster began, there is no hope of water or electricity service, and the city’s streets are still flooded and covered with oily black mud and towering piles of debris and vehicles. The only sign of government and military assistance are the JSDF units that walk through the neighborhood poking the water and mud with poles in search of corpses.

“When we find a new office, we’ll move there,” said Hiroko Shoji, who has lived in her home there for 29 years. “It will be very hard.”

During an interview with Stars and Stripes on their roof Tuesday, a group of Japanese soldiers on their block loaded a corpse wrapped in a white blanket into the back of a military truck.

The bodies of the victims have been brought to 19 makeshift morgues that have been set up across Miyagi prefecture so families can identify the dead. On Thursday, about 744 bodies had yet to be claimed.

Yoshiko Kikuchi, 35, stood outside the Miyagi gymnasium Thursday holding a slip of paper labeled with the number 42. She travels regularly to the sports complex stadium, which was converted to hold about 100 bodies of those recovered in nearby coastal towns, in hopes of finding her younger brother Manabu Abe, 31.

Abe was swept away by a massive tsunami while driving in the town of Tagajo, she said. “He was really tall and we could always count on him.”

During each visit to the morgue, she and others are given a number and told to wait.

Eventually a morgue worker called Kikuchi’s number through a bullhorn, and she went inside and searched for her brother’s face among snapshots of unidentified dead posted inside the gymnasium.

She did not find him there Thursday and said he may still be alive because her calls to his cell phone are still being transferred to voicemail.

His phone is still on. It is what passes for hope in the bleak aftermath of the disaster.

“I want to believe he is still alive,” she said.

Elena Sugiyama contributed to this report.


A unit of Marines and soldiers drivers brought aid to a disaster shelter in Watari city March 25, 2011. Along with toys, the troops brought toothbrushes, soap and toilet paper.