CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The mayor of Hirara City on Miyako Island wants the U.S. military to find another gas station between Okinawa and the Philippines.
Earlier this week, Toru Ishimine took to the streets of this small island roughly 180 miles south of Okinawa to protest a scheduled landing of U.S. military helicopters at the island’s community airport this weekend.
Ishimine passed out 5,000 leaflets, printed at the town’s expense, asking island residents to join him in demanding that U.S. Marines refrain from making the refueling stops by Okinawa-based helicopters bound for the Balikatan 03 military exercise in the Philippines.
“The airport is for the community,” the mayor said. “Use of the airport by the military could be detrimental to the lives of the residents of all the islands in this area. Together with the citizens, I oppose the use of the airport by the military.”
Under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the U.S. military has the option of using civilian airports on islands in southern Okinawa to top off their tanks and for emergency landings. A similar protest was lodged two years ago when Marine helicopter pilots stopped off at a civilian airport on Shimoji Island as they traveled from Okinawa to Guam and the Philippines.
“Miyako Airport is used by many residents and tourists,” Ishimine said in his pamphlet. “I am enraged about the forced use of a commercial airport by the military.”
The refueling is expected to go on as scheduled, a Marine Corps spokeswoman said.
“The Marines Corps has submitted an application to the Okinawa Prefectural Government for the use of the Miyako Airport to refuel six CH-46E helicopters,” said 1st Lt. Amy Malugani. “Due to the flight range of helicopters, refueling at Miyako Airport is an operational necessity.”
Malugani said the helicopters are a vital part of the Balikatan exercise.
“The Marine Corps makes every effort to limit the impact of military training on the people of Okinawa, while at the same time meeting its obligations under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security and other related agreements,” she said.
“For Balikatan 03, the Marine Corps is deploying the majority of our Marines and sailors, helicopters and equipment by alternate means of transportation. Despite our best effort, the Marine Corps was not able to find any other alternative transportation for these six CH-46Es, except to fly themselves, requiring a single refuel stop en route, as these helicopters cannot be refueled in the air.”
She noted that the exercises in the northern Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia “are an important part of our effort to enhance relationships and maintain security in the region.”
They have an added benefit to Okinawa, she said: “These exercises also take Marines and their equipment away from Okinawa for extended operations off island.”