A UH-60JA Black Hawk assigned to the Japan Ground-Self Defense Force.

A UH-60JA Black Hawk assigned to the Japan Ground-Self Defense Force. (Japan Ground Self-Defense Force)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa ⁠— A diving unit has recovered two bodies from the wreckage of a Japanese military helicopter that crashed in the East China Sea earlier this month with a lieutenant general aboard.

The two unnamed males were taken Sunday to Hirara Port on Miyako Island, where their deaths were confirmed at 6:55 p.m. and 7:05 p.m., a Ground Self-Defense Force spokesman told Stars and Stripes by phone Monday.

Three additional bodies remain in a section of the UH-60JA Black Hawk's fuselage discovered Sunday morning in 350 feet of water north of Irabu Island, southwest of Okinawa, the spokesman said.

The 8th Air Wing aircraft disappeared from radar at 3:56 p.m. April 6 during a reconnaissance flight 11 miles northwest of Miyako Airport. It carried 10 aboard, including four members of the wing, a member of Camp Miyako’s security force and five members of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s 8th Division headquarters staff, including division commander Lt. Gen. Yuichi Sakamoto.

Sakamoto, 55, was appointed division commander less than a month ago. He previously served as commander of the 12th Brigade.

The two recovered bodies arrived around noon Monday at Naha Airport, Okinawa, aboard a CH-47 Chinook helicopter from Camp Miyako, according to Japanese public broadcaster NHK. The Ground Self-Defense Force spokesman declined further comment.

Six surveillance aircraft, seven Japanese navy and coast guard vessels and 380 personnel continued the search Monday for the remaining five crew members and the rest of the aircraft, the spokesman said. Some government spokespeople in Japan are required to speak to the media only on condition of anonymity.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Monday confirmed the deaths on his official Twitter account.

"It is a deep regret," he said. He vowed to reunite Sakamoto and the missing crew members with their families.

The Black Hawk had flown to Miyako from its base on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, and crashed 10 minutes after taking off from Miyako Airport.

The crew last radioed air traffic controllers about two minutes before the helicopter disappeared from radar but said nothing about in-flight emergencies.

Initial search efforts were hindered by currents and an abundance of coral on the seafloor.

The wreckage and at least three bodies were first discovered at around 10 p.m. Thursday using sonar and underwater cameras, a Ground Self-Defense Force spokeswoman said Friday. A remotely operated underwater vehicle launched the next day revealed “severe” damage to the aircraft section.

Rough seas kept divers from the area until Sunday, a Joint Staff spokesman said by phone that day.

More than 20 pieces of the helicopter have been found, including portions of the nose, rotor blade and fuel tank, according to the Ground Self-Defense Force on Thursday. The aircraft’s flight recorder has not been found.

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Keishi Koja is an Okinawa-based reporter/translator who joined Stars and Stripes in August 2022. He studied International Communication at the University of Okinawa and previously worked in education.
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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

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