Col. Masahito Iyota, commander of Camp Miyako, a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force base, died aboard a UH-60JA Black Hawk that went down in the East China Sea, April 6, 2023.

Col. Masahito Iyota, commander of Camp Miyako, a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force base, died aboard a UH-60JA Black Hawk that went down in the East China Sea, April 6, 2023. (Japan Ministry of Defense)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa – Japan’s army identified two officers Thursday whose remains were recovered from the wreckage of a military helicopter that crashed into the East China Sea earlier this month with 10 aboard, including a division commander.

The Ground Self-Defense Force also identified Col. Masahito Iyota, commander of Camp Miyako, a key installation halfway between Taiwan and Okinawa, as among the missing.

Col. Toru Niwata, 48, and Maj. Hiroki Kouso, 34, both division headquarters staff, were identified as two of the five bodies recovered since Sunday from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force UH-60JA Black Hawk, a Japan Defense Ministry statement said Thursday. The aircraft crashed April 6 shortly after departing Miyako Airport.

“It is with great regret that we inform of their deaths,” said Gen. Yasunori Morishita, Ground Self-Defense Force chief of staff, during a Thursday press conference at the ministry in Tokyo. “I would like to express my condolences to their families.”

As of Friday, six bodies have been found and five recovered.

One body remains with the aircraft section found April 13 in 350 feet of water just offshore of Irabu Island, southwest of Okinawa.

The Japanese military is preparing quickly to raise the aircraft section from the seabed, Morishita said.

Some government spokespeople in Japan are required to speak to the media only on condition of anonymity.

The Black Hawk was on a reconnaissance flight 11 miles northwest of the airport when it went down with Lt. Gen. Yuichi Sakamoto, commander of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s 8th Division; Niwata, Kouso and two other division staff members; four members of the Air Self-Defense Force’s 8th Wing; and Iyota aboard.

Iyota was previously described as a member of Camp Miyako’s security force. He took command of the base in March 2022. His replacement, Col. Hayato Higa, was transferred from the 5th Engineer Group at Camp Takada in Niigata prefecture, Morishita said.

Sakamoto, 55, was appointed division commander March 31. He previously served as commander of the 12th Brigade. He was replaced Friday as division commander by Maj. Gen. Shinichi Aoki, who is being promoted to lieutenant general, Morishita said. Aoki was previously the commander of 11th Brigade.

Four surveillance aircraft, four Japanese navy and coast guard vessels and 390 personnel continued the search Friday for the remaining four crew members and missing parts of the Black Hawk, said a spokesman from Japan’s Joint Staff.

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 they said nothing about in-flight emergencies.

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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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