MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP SMEDLEY D. BUTLER -- On Sunday, October 19, 2014, I had the privilege of flying with members of the U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey squadron, VMM-265, otherwise known as the “Dragons,” up to Wakayama Prefecture for the disaster relief exercise “Wakayama Alert.” I write, “privilege,” because it was so not only because the squadron, which has been in Japan for a little over two years now and recently won the Chief of Naval Operations Safety Award for 2013, but because it was an honor for me and the rest of the III Marine Expeditionary Force/Marine Corps Installations Pacific team to participate with the Ospreys for the first time in a local disaster drill.
Our formal relationship with Wakayama began approximately one year ago in September 2013 when elected officials and their staff visited MCAS Futenma to learn about the air station and the Osprey, and continued when I visited there that December at the invitation of the prefecture assembly to give a lecture about the lessons learned from Operation Tomodachi following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011. I was impressed with the interest Wakayama Prefecture had in disaster preparedness and pleased when Governor Nisaka Yoshinobu stated during an unexpected in-call that the MV-22s would be very welcome to come to his prefecture. Shortly after this, he told the same thing to then-Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori, and subsequently planning began to include the Osprey in this year’s drill.
Wakayama is a truly scenic and historic prefecture on the southwestern portion of the Kii Peninsula, just below Osaka. Its name, which is a combination of the Waka Inlet and the nearby Oka-yama (Oka Mountain), also reflects the geography of the region—mountains (and valleys) and lots of coastline. As such, the prefecture has experienced a disproportionate amount of tragedies, include devastating flooding as a result of Typhoon No. 12 in August 2011 (which killed more than fifty residents), heavy rains in July 1953 (that killed more than one thousand residents), flooding in 1889 that destroyed hundreds of homes and farms and killed more than two-hundred people, and the 1946 Showa Nankai Megaquake that killed more than one-thousand people in Wakayama and surrounding areas, just to name a few.
This year’s drill, which was the first time for us to participate in one sponsored by Wakayama and the first time for the Ospreys to participate in a prefecture-level sponsored exercise, was based on a magnitude 8.7 earthquake striking off the Kii Peninsula, unleashing a massive tsunami. Some 6,000 people from numerous organizations, official, civic, military, and private, participated, as did approximately twenty-three aircraft, including police, fire, medical, and SDF helicopters.
Since the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, the response to which U.S. Forces were able to play a critical role in supporting, there has been an increased interest in partnering with U.S. Forces, especially the Marine Corps, with its rapid response capabilities and extensive experience in responding to natural disasters throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Many people throughout the world were especially impressed with the capabilities that the MV-22 demonstrated during the response to Super Typhoon in what is known as Operation Damayan. It flew a total of 349 missions, delivering personnel, food, water, medicine and other supplies to hard-to reach areas desperately in need of them, and brought back the sick, injured, elderly, women and children for treatment and further assistance.
One Japanese medical doctor who witnessed its use went so far as to say the “Marine Corps’ Osprey was the only thing that worked in the devastated area. It saved the day.” While that might sound like an overstatement, particularly as responses need to be joint and combined and no one single entity or piece of equipment can do it all, the MV-22 is certainly the platform of choice in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions. Its range (the distance it can travel), its speed, and the amount it can carry, combined with the fact that it can land virtually anywhere like a helicopter means that more aid can be brought more quickly to an affected region. And this, of course, means that more lives can be saved.
This is something that the Japanese government and Self-Defense Forces have increasingly realized, too. By chance, an MV-22 supported a joint SDF drill hundreds of kilometers off the southeastern coast by bringing senior SDF leaders out to the Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer, the Ise, on November 12, a few days after the disaster struck the Philippines. Symbolizing this increasingly deep cooperation and interoperability between the Marine Corps and the SDF, it was the first time an MV-22 had landed on the Ise and the first time it had been done in the Western Pacific.
The mission out to the Ise then was not only to deliver the leadership safely and quickly (indeed, no Japanese helicopter could travel that far) but to allow both the pilots and the ship’s crew to work together in landing the aircraft aboard their ship at sea, refuel, and communicate. These are experiences that pay off in real-world operations. Unbeknownst to anyone at that time, importantly, later that month, the Ise was dispatched to the Philippines to provide support to the ongoing relief efforts as part of a larger Japanese contribution there.
While participating in the disaster drill in Wakayama, we also had the opportunity to land on the Ise, delivering key civilian leaders including the vice minister of defense, vice governor of the prefecture, commanding general of Middle Army Headquarters, and their respective subordinates, as well as medical personnel and role-playing victims out to the ship for command-and-control purposes or medical assistance. As one of the pilots who was involved in the exercise, Captain David Goodman, said to me during one of the portions the flight, which included stops at Nanki Shirahama Airport, Kushimoto, and the Ise before returning to Iwakuni (all in the matter of four hours including substantial time on deck and at the landing zones), “this is as it should be. Through participating, everyone becomes comfortable with their roles and responsibilities and can work together when needed. It builds the bridges for the future.” Goodman, and his co-pilot, Captain Zachary Passini, would know. They saw the worst of the damage during Operation Damayan and brought relief and transported injured as angels from the air.
No one wants a disaster to strike, but I believe the people of Wakayama Prefecture and Japan as a whole will be able to sleep even better now following yesterday’s drill knowing their SDF, central, prefectural, and local government officials, and the U.S. Marine Corps continue to partner and “build bridges” for the future.
Eldridge, a 24-year resident of Japan, served as the political advisor to the Forward Command Element established at Camp Sendai by 3D Marine Expeditionary Brigade during Operation Tomodachi, and spent the past three-and-a-half years since the March 11 disaster forging relations with likely-to-be-affected prefectures ahead of the next big disaster. He can be reached at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org