Five years ago this month, a megathrust earthquake shook the northeast coast of Japan and triggered a tsunami that swallowed whole communities. The devastation tested the strength not only of the Japanese people but of the US-Japan partnership and alliance.
For decades, the American military had trained with Japan's Self-Defense Forces to counter outside threats. No one anticipated the Great East Japan Earthquake, the fourth strongest temblor since record-keeping began in 1900.
One thing was clear. Americans had not only 40,000 troops but many thousands of family members living in Japan, some in the affected areas. From the start, we and the Japanese responders felt the urgency as we worked side by side to rescue survivors and deliver relief supplies.
As commander of the Navy's 7th Fleet when the quake hit on March 11, 2011, I had strong ties with my counterpart, VADM Kensei Kuramoto, the commander of Japan's maritime forces. I had only to pick up the phone to relay the message, "We are ready to help you. Tell us what you need," and we knew our teams would pull together to do what was asked and needed.
What happened next became a massive, coordinated response by Japan and U.S. defense forces and civilian officials. Within 24 hours, we had positioned the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and other 7th Fleet assets to render assistance and coordinate with VADM Kuramoto's Japan Maritime Defense Force ships. From there, helicopters flew missions to help rescue an estimated 20,000 stranded survivors and bring water, food and blankets to remote communities.
We Americans made it clear from the start that Japan's officials were making the decisions. We were in support. The joint effort soon earned the unofficial label "Tomodachi," which means friendship in Japanese, and somewhere along the way "Operation Tomodachi" became the official name.
As we had exercised countless times before, Japan and U.S. military units fully integrated into a single command in support of the relief efforts. To assure seamless coordination, Japan stationed liaison officers on board the Ronald Reagan, and we had Navy officers aboard the Japanese ship JS Hyuga.
U.S. troops helped re-open airfields and seaports to allow the arrival of emergency supplies. The city of Sendai's airport, crucial for the region, was under water and its runways covered in so much debris that some observers feared it would be useless. U.S. Marines, working with Japanese civil authorities, brought the airport back into service by March 15, just four days after the disaster.
All told, the U.S. military supplied 24,000 personnel, 189 aircraft, and 24 Navy vessels for the humanitarian and relief effort. When flooding caused the nuclear power plant disaster at Fukushima, U.S. support continued by bringing personnel and equipment to aid in the radiological control efforts.
Just prior to the Great East Japan Earthquake, the United States and Japan had been celebrating a half-century of a military alliance that had turned two former foes into close allies, working together to preserve peace in the Asia-Pacific. However, as clearly evident in Operation Tomodachi, there is nothing like a complex, dynamic--and in this case horrific--tragedy to demonstrate the true strength of our relationship.
Operation Tomodachi revealed a new dimension in the U.S.-Japan alliance. As an elderly man from the Misawa area of northern Japan told our troops, "We knew you were neighbors... Now we know you are friends."
Those feelings need fostering as a reminder that our two nations, a world apart geographically, stand together for democracy and the rule of law.
In that spirit, the two governments and private sponsors have established a Tomodachi cultural exchange program. Americans caught a glimpse this past New Years Day, when 20 teenagers who survived the earthquake rode on a Rose Parade float sponsored by Honda Motor Co. and gave thank you hugs to US service members.
Tomodachi's mission is to invest in Japan's next generation and deepen relations between the U.S. and Japan, a worthy effort for both nations.