Students, Marines gather to share appreciation years later
SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced one of the deadliest natural disasters in its history. Now known as the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which struck the main island of Japan, the disaster claimed tens of thousands of lives. Following the tragedy, the Marine Corps supported Japan-led humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations during Operation Tomodachi.
More than two years later, on March 26, Kesennuma High School students from the Japanese island of Oshima visited Marines and sailors who participated in the operation to thank them for their assistance at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
“I regretted not being able to thank the (Marines) then because I couldn’t speak English really well,” said Mami Onodera, a 17-year-old Oshima native. “I couldn’t express my feelings and how thankful I felt. When the school announced the program to send students here, I immediately thought this is the time when I can personally go and thank them.”
Service members accompanied the students while they toured the depot’s command museum. Also joining the students was the honorary consul general of Japan in San Diego and members of the Japan Society, the leading U.S. organization committed to deepening mutual understanding, appreciation and cooperation between the U.S. and Japan.
Onodera, who was one of the many children greatly affected by the disaster, recalled her experience, as well as the Marines who helped with recovery efforts.
“It was just pure devastation,” said Master Sgt. Howard J. Tait, operations chief, S-3, operations and training, Recruit Training Regiment, MCRD San Diego. “It’s kind of hard to put a word on it. It was just total destruction, and there didn’t appear to be anything really salvageable.”
During the visit aboard the depot, Tait, who was the operations chief for Weapons Company, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, during Operation Tomodachi, had the opportunity to speak to the students. As he spoke about his experience in Oshima, he also showed ribbons that were given to him as he departed from the relief mission.
“The last day we were there, the residents brought out all kinds of media, children and people just to say thanks,” said Tait. “They started pulling out all these ribbons, and as we held one side and they held the other, we stretched them across.”
It is tradition in Oshima for residents to split a ribbon between themselves and visitors as they leave the island, symbolic of their friendship.
“It signified an unbroken bond between us,” said Tait. “No matter what seas or oceans separate us, we still remain friends for the help we provided there. Even though it seemed like an insignificant amount of time we were there for the amount of destruction there was, it was just their way of saying thanks.”
Many of the students were overwhelmed by the memento Tait kept. None of the students had ever seen someone keep the ribbon as an emotional token.
“It let them know that we cherished the smallest thing that they gave to us as a thank you,” said Tait. “In the sheer face of utter destruction of everything that they own, they were still able to muster the energy and time to come out, stand on a cold dock, say thank you, and wave goodbye.”
Their visit aboard the depot is another display of the endless amount of good will there is from both sides of the Pacific. Many believe the support service members provided created an everlasting impact on the citizens of Japan.
“The amount of gratitude from the people of Oshima is just huge,” said Onodera. “I will forever remember the Marines, and I will never forget what they have done for us. As far as the people of Oshima, they trust Americans and the people that came to help.”