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TOKYO — U.S. Naval forces are converging on Japan as part of a recovery effort in the wake of Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that has left more than 3,000 people dead and thousands others missing, the Navy announced Tuesday in separate releases.

Commander, Task Force 76 has organized a maritime response cell at the U.S. Forces Japan headquarters on Yokota Air Base to coordinate all Navy relief efforts. Much of that effort will be coming from the Essex Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG), comprising four ships, and the embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU — who together can provide fresh water, medical support, search and rescue, heavy lifting and amphibious crafts.

The San Diego-based USS Preble has already gotten involved, providing hundreds of pounds of supplies Tuesday to survivors.

Commander Task Force 76, the amphibious force for 7th Fleet, is the Navy’s lead agency for earthquake and tsunami response in Japan. Their maritime response cell set up at Yokota is the command responsible for advising USFJ and carrying out relief efforts from the air, ground and sea. The team includes representatives from other 7th Fleet task forces CTFs 70, 72, 73 and 74. The cell allows for effective coordination with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force during the disaster response.

“Seventh Fleet’s amphibious forces have a lot of experience with humanitarian and disaster relief,” said Rear Adm. Richard Landolt, commander, CTF 76. “So it makes sense to use that experience to shape our response and help our ally and regional partner recover from this catastrophic event.”

Essex ARG/31st MEU

“We train for [Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief] missions, and with everything from excess water-producing capacity to expanded hospital beds, the ARG-MEU team is well-positioned to handle all the immediate needs of most humanitarian crises,” said Capt. Bradley Lee, commander of Amphibious Squadron 11.

The Essex Amphibious Ready group, which includes the Sasebo, Japan-based USS Essex, USS Harpers Ferry and USS Tortuga, all from Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) 11, and the Sasebo-based USS Germantown, were at sea Monday preparing to do their part in providing humanitarian assistance/disaster relief support to Japan. They were expected to arrive in mainland Japan on Wednesday.

Joining the Essex ARG embarked aboard three ships is the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit from Okinawa, which includes more than 2,200 Marines and sailors. They, along with PHIBRON 11, were planning for a disaster relief exercise in Indonesia before being redirected to Japan when news of the actual disaster broke.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to our close friends and allies in Japan during this difficult time,” said Col. Andrew MacMannis, 31st MEU commanding officer.

Members of the 31 MEU were spread out at the time, with the majority of the Marines aboard the USS Essex. The amphibious assault ship had recently arrived in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, for a port visit when the tsunami struck. The crew and Marines were recalled, and the Essex set course for Japan on March 12.

The 31st MEU can use the Super Stallions and CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters, assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262, to move up to 260,000 pounds and transport as many as 860 passengers per day.

“Our biggest advantage is the heavy-lift capabilities our CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters provide,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Clifford Hanna. “With them, we can transport more personnel and supplies ashore.”

In the last two years, the 31st MEU and PHIBRON 11 team has responded to four disaster-relief situations.

USS Preble

The San Diego-based destroyer USS Preble, with sailors embarked from Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron Light Four Three, on Tuesday were one of the first groups to join the relief effort. They were called as first responders to survey the coastline and provide an aerial perspective to other ships in the area.

“We could see isolated areas where survivors had drawn in the dirt ‘SOS’ or a large encircled ‘H’ as a cry for help,” said Lt. Joe Landi, describing the patrol. “We landed nearby to assess the situation and determine what we could do to help.”

After interacting with stranded survivors and hearing accounts from HSL-43 crew members, Preble sailors volunteered to provide supplies to the Japanese from their own deployment provisions. Their contributions included warm weather clothing, wool blankets, nonperishable food and water. The ship supply department also contributed heavily, and in less than two hours the mess decks were full of supplies for the helicopter to deliver to survivors.


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