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Private Nathaniel Retotal, a national guardsman from Hawaii, serves chow to soldiers and Marines during Yama Sakura at Camp Asaka, outside Tokyo. The mess hall/dining facility is one of the few places both services worked together during the exercise.
Private Nathaniel Retotal, a national guardsman from Hawaii, serves chow to soldiers and Marines during Yama Sakura at Camp Asaka, outside Tokyo. The mess hall/dining facility is one of the few places both services worked together during the exercise. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)
Private Nathaniel Retotal, a national guardsman from Hawaii, serves chow to soldiers and Marines during Yama Sakura at Camp Asaka, outside Tokyo. The mess hall/dining facility is one of the few places both services worked together during the exercise.
Private Nathaniel Retotal, a national guardsman from Hawaii, serves chow to soldiers and Marines during Yama Sakura at Camp Asaka, outside Tokyo. The mess hall/dining facility is one of the few places both services worked together during the exercise. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)
Sgt. Gerren Mims, also known as G-Whiz, is a laundry NCO by day and a DJ by night at the Yama Sakura exercise.
Sgt. Gerren Mims, also known as G-Whiz, is a laundry NCO by day and a DJ by night at the Yama Sakura exercise. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)

CAMP ASAKA, Japan — A Japanese Army Camp near Tokyo transformed into a small battle headquarters last week for the annual bilateral command post exercise Yama Sakura.

About 1,500 servicemembers, mostly soldiers from the Fort Lewis, Wa.-based I Corps, battled computer-generated enemies — and a real flu bug — to fulfill the mission: blend two nations’ fighting forces to better protect Japan.

The exercise is a high-tech and elaborate computer war game that uses real-world scenarios to test how well the two countries can cooperate and react.

All four services take part, but the exercise is primarily Army — U.S. Army and the Japanese Self-Defense Force Eastern Army, which is headquartered at Camp Asaka.

The exercise also allowed servicemembers to experience Japan, visit cultural sites and even, on rare occasions, relax.

Here’s a glimpse of life during the exercise, which wrapped up Saturday.

Culture tour

About 500 servicemembers were given the chance to explore Japan’s culture — and subways — during a shrine and culture tour of Tokyo.

A guide from the exercise’s chaplain’s office led soldiers to Meiji Shrine, the Imperial Palace and the Asakusa temple complex, where they also had a chance to shop.

Many tours stopped by a Hard Rock Cafe, and some had a chance to visit the temples and shrines of Kama Kura.

“I believe [the tours] have been the highlight of the exercise,” said I Corps Chaplain Col. Clarke McGriff.

The trips were so popular, the chaplain’s office added a second daily tour toward the end of the exercise.

Capt. Ben Dennis, a reservist from the 311th Corps Support Command in Los Angeles, was surprised to learn about the cultural and religious tours.

He said he was expecting “straight exercise” 24 hours a day, seven days a week while in Japan.

“It’s a great way to see the country,” he said on a tour Friday. “Everyone should take advantage of this ... it’s good for the soldiers.”

Most participants said Asakusa was their favorite, citing its mix of culture, history and shopping, said Army Sgt. Danny Licciardi, from Sagami Depot’s 35th Supply and Service Battalion’s Chaplain Section. Licciardi helped plan and lead many of the tours.

At one time he escorted 72 people on the tour, through a maze of trains and subways.

“We haven’t lost anybody yet,” he said proudly.

Dining jointly

Marines eat dehydrated rations in a “mess.” Soldiers boil food-in-a-bag and eat in a “dining facility” or a dfac.

The differences were no obstacle for the three Marines working alongside a dining facility full of Army cooks.

“We’re the loudest and most motivated,” said Cpl. James Fisher, with the 3rd Marine Division from Camp Courtney, Okinawa.

Fisher’s supervisor, Army Sgt. 1st Class Rauchelle Suggs, agreed. “That they are,” she said.

Suggs, with I Corps headquarters and headquarters company, was excited when she heard Marines would be among her staff cooks, along with active duty and reserve soldiers and National Guardsmen.

It was a challenge organizing everyone and creating one big team, responsible for feeding up to 1,000 people two times a day, she said.

“The first few days was tough. Now they pretty much challenge each other.”

Clean entertainment

By day, laundry attendant.

By night, star attraction of the Samurai Lounge at Camp Asaka: Sgt. Gerren Mims, known to all as G-Whiz.

“It all started last year,” Mims said, while attending the exercise laundry counter this year. “Last year my job was working MWR.”

That year, Mims brought his disc jockey equipment in case a chance arose to spin some discs.

It did, and he set up in the MWR lounge and filled Yama Sakura with good times and a welcome break for soldiers.

That didn’t escape I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Edward Soriano, who gave Mims an Army Achievement Medal and a general’s coin, Mims said.

This year, he was asked to do it again.

Mims began DJ-ing at 14. He’s now 27 and operations noncommissioned officer for Headquarters, Headquarters Detachment with the 35th Supply and Services Battalion at Sagami Depot. Every weekend he works at a club or concert in Tokyo.

“I like challenges. Doing something out of my realm,” he said. “For me, it’s an outlet. I’m able to make people feel happy and relaxed.”

— T.D. Flack contributed to this report.

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