Arctic-focused US Army unit joins forces with Japanese soldiers on Hokkaido
Stars and Stripes January 26, 2024
CHITOSE, Japan — U.S. soldiers from a division that specializes in extreme cold-weather operations are putting their skills to the test alongside Japanese troops on the northern island of Hokkaido this month.
Blackfoot Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment — part of the 11th Airborne Division based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska — is training at Camp Higashi Chitose of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force.
The 150 U.S. soldiers and 650 troops from Japan’s Northern Army are together for North Wind, a bilateral exercise that began Jan. 22 and wraps up Wednesday.
The airborne division was reactivated in Alaska 18 months ago as part of a renewed effort to train and equip soldiers to fight in the Arctic, a region the Pentagon had largely ignored for decades.
Pentagon leaders in recent years have said U.S. troops must be prepared for potential conflict in the Arctic as near-peer competitors, including Russia and China, increase operations in the region rich in natural resources and where melting ice has opened new sea routes.
Blackfoot Company soldiers also took on their Japanese counterparts Friday in a marksmanship competition at Camp Higashi Chitose.
The contest required troops to sprint across snow for about 50 yards, turn, and sprint back to a firing position and engage targets 30 yards away.
Crowds of soldiers gathered to watch their comrades slip and slide across the range, provoking loud cheers when marksmen fell or received a red flag for missing their target.
One competing paratrooper, Spc. Nicholas Konieczny, an avid snowboarder, moved smoothly across the snow and hit all his targets.
“I’m used to walking in this kind of stuff,” he said.
Northern Army officials declined interview requests at the range Friday.
The snowy conditions are normal for the Alaska-based troops, Blackfoot Company commander Capt. Dylan Davis said ahead of the marksmanship contest. He said the unit is prepared to fight anywhere in the Indo-Pacific and in November parachuted onto Hawaii before loading up and parachuting back into Alaska.
On Thursday, the paratroopers practiced skijoring, said Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Wood, the company’s first sergeant. Skijoring involves towing troops on skis behind a tracked vehicle, something the U.S. Army practices in Alaska.
A field exercise Sunday to Tuesday involves a mock attack by the Americans and a mock defense by a combined force of American and Japanese troops, Wood said.
Equipped with rifles, machine guns, land mines and anti-tank weapons, the troops will drag sleds laden with Arctic space heaters, tents and shovels for about 7 ½ miles to prepare camp sites, he said.
The Hokkaido trip isn’t all field training for the paratroopers, who arrived in Japan on commercial flights.
Before they reached the exercise area, Spc. Justin Catilla, an assistant machine gunner, rode a train to Sapporo, the largest city on Hokkaido, and explored its markets.
“We saw lots of neon signs with Japanese writing,” he said.
Catilla said he bought souvenirs and posters and “went to McDonalds and had a Godzilla burger.”