Big role for Ospreys in flying supplies to quake-stricken S. Japan
KUMAMOTO, Japan — Maj. Jack Beene hasn’t slept much in the last couple of days.
As the first U.S. troop on the ground in Kumamoto Airport since a series of earthquakes shook the region, Beene — a C-130 pilot and Japanese linguist — was charged with making sure the local airport could handle U.S. aircraft bringing in needed supplies for the disaster victims.
At the city airport, U.S. C-130 Hercules transport planes and MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft have been helping Japan Ground Self Defense Force soldiers from the nearby Camp Takayubaru move supplies and equipment in recent days.
“There’s some damage to the airport,” Beene said during a break outside the hangar where Japanese troops were coordinating military flights into and out of Kumamoto.
But a repair team has been fixing cracks in the tarmac at night and, by Tuesday, the airport was once again open to civilian aircraft, he said.
The quake death toll rose to 45 Tuesday afternoon after the discovery of a body in southwest Japan. The Kumamoto Prefectural government estimated 183,882 residents were in emergency shelters as of Sunday night, with many others sleeping outside or in vehicles.
Monday, the first U.S. C-130 flights, out of Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, delivered several Japanese military vehicles to Kumamoto, while two Ospreys, flying out of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, ferried supplies, including blankets, toiletries, food and water, to a nearby stadium.
“Humanitarian assistance is one of the core missions of the C-130,” said Capt. Travis Wilkes of the 374th Airlift Wing soon after landing at Kumomoto. He had flown in on a Hercules laden with two four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi trucks for the Japanese troops.
The Ospreys were due to deliver more relief supplies on Kyushu on Wednesday, U.S. officials said.
“The Ospreys executed a long-range mission and were able quickly deliver supplies … demonstrating [the] ability to land in remote locations on unprepared surfaces and deliver badly needed aid,” 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit commander Col. Romin Dasmalchi said in the statement.
Meanwhile, the Navy has sent nine sailors from the USS Bonhomme Richard to the Japanese helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga to help land Ospreys aboard the flat-top ship, Task Force 76 spokesman Lt. David Levy said.
While the supplies are flowing into and out of the airport, residents of nearby Mashiki have started to clear up damage despite regular aftershocks that rattle their homes.
The tremors, including a magnitude-7 shock Saturday, sent mud barreling down nearby hillsides, ripping thick clusters of bamboo from the ground. Some homes collapsed, although most appeared to have survived, with roof-damage evident from blue tarps hastily draped by their owners. Just getting to parts of the town is now a challenge because of debris and damage to bridges and road surfaces. In parts of Mashiki, the jolt lifted the pavement by 2 feet.
Takumi Hamasaki, 14, was picking up roof tiles from his front yard with his father on Tuesday.
The damage to his house is severe, but not as bad as what happened to the house across the street, which has collapsed to the point where it’s possible to touch the top of the roof while standing on the ground.
Hamasaki said he was at home with his father when the earthquake hit. The shake was so severe that the house sank several inches.
“Dishes fell out and it was in a mess,” he said.
But the damage was even greater at his grandfather’s house in another part of town, Hamasaki said.
The home survived the first quake, but an aftershock caused its walls to crumble and stone walls to fall. The house didn’t collapse, but roof tiles have detached, and the collapsed walls have exposed the building’s internal beams, he said.
“I heard that one-third of the houses in Mashiki town collapsed. It’s in abject misery.”
Hamasaki said he was grateful that none of his loved ones were hurt, but the family is still struggling. The damage to their homes has forced them to sleep in their car, he said.
Electricity has been restored to their part of town, but there is still no running water. The family is surviving on emergency supplies of water, canned food and instant noodles for now.
The most urgent need for Mashiki residents is drinking water.
“The water out of the faucet is dirty, so I want water I can easily drink,” Hamasaki said.
Meanwhile, Beene, who was sporting a three-day growth on his chin, was preparing to wrap up his part of the mission and board a flight out of Kumamoto.
“I haven’t enjoyed not taking a shower for several days, but my suffering is very small compared to the people who have lost their homes,” he said.
Many of the Japanese soldiers now at the airport live nearby. Some have lost their homes and been forced to move their families to Camp Takayubaru. Children’s shouts and laughter echo around the hangar where the Marines are working.
Beene can empathize with the Japanese troops. He was deployed to Afghanistan out of Yokota in March 2011 when the last major earthquake struck Japan. At the time, he had some nervous Skype conversations with his family about the disaster, he said.
James Kimber and Erik Slavin contributed to this report.