Navy marks 30 years of participation in Japan snow festival

By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 4, 2013

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Sun, rain and earthquakes are like the biblical plagues for a snow sculptor – just ask the team of U.S. sailors who had to cope with all three at the 64th Annual Sapporo Snow Festival.

The six sailors, from five Naval Air Facility Misawa commands, had five days to complete a Navy-themed sculpture for the festival, which begins Tuesday on the northern island of Hokkaido. In celebration of the base’s 30th consecutive year of involvement, the team chose their most ambitious design in recent memory: a replica of the Yokosuka-based USS George Washington’s forecastle.

The team battled the elements and seemingly insurmountable odds, including the collapse of their nearly completed sculpture with a day to go — a problem that also hit the 2011 effort — but rallied in what has become one of the Navy’s most successful community outreach events in Japan.

“We had to overcome a few obstacles,” said Misawa snow team leader Chief Petty Officer Christopher “Billy” Knox. “But it held together, and everything worked out great. Everyone is happy with it.”

The team — dubbed Task Force Snowflake — began work on a 6-by-6-foot block of snow Wednesday and made quick progress, Knox said. However, the members were deflated when they arrived Saturday and found that rain, followed by unusually warm temperatures, had reduced their sculpture to slush.

“The guys were disappointed,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Parnell Nauta, a native of Guam. “I was devastated.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Ismael Ponce, of Hobbs, N.M., called it “heartbreaking.”

He had spent the better part of three days on the seashell, which was gone.

After the initial shock, the team sat down and vowed to soldier on. They basically had to start over with only a day to go before the deadline.

“I didn’t think it could be done,” Ponce said. “But we actually made it better. I’m pretty satisfied.”

The team worked late into the night Saturday and got into a groove, Knox said. When they felt they had a chance to finish by Sunday’s noon deadline, they called it a night.

They returned to their barracks at a nearby Japan Ground Self-Defense Force base, where they were rocked by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake centered in southeast Hokkaido.

No one was hurt, but they all prayed that their sculpture was still intact. When they arrived the next morning, they found it was fine. That was especially important to Knox, who is leaving the station in July after three years as snow team leader.

“Out of three times, this is definitely the best one,” Knox said. “This being the 30th year of NAF Misawa building a sculpture, we really want to give this city something to remember and to do right by the crew of a proud war ship.”

The festival runs for a week and draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to Hokkaido each year to see the efforts of world-class snow sculptors. Last year’s Misawa team created a bust reprisal of the Navy’s iconic “Lone Sailor” statue.


The 2013 Misawa snow team from left, Airman Gabriel Neri, Petty Officer 3rd Class Shawn Mullen, Chief Billy Knox, Petty Officer 2nd Class Parnell Nauta, Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Miller, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ismael Ponce. The team is from Naval Air Facility Misawa and created a snow sculpture on behalf of the base for the city's annual festival on northern Japan's Hokkaido Island. This is the 30th year that the naval installation has sent a delegation of sailors to take part in the city's festival. They created a scaled-down replica of USS George Washington's forecastle out of snow and ice.


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