Marines return to Oshima 10 years later

Paying respect. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Courtesy Photo/Released
Paying respect. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Courtesy Photo/Released

Marines return to Oshima 10 years later

by Maj. Caleb Eames
3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade

JAPAN -- A decade ago this week, elements of III Marine Expeditionary Force raced north into freezing temperatures of Northeast Japan to answer an allied call for help after the devastating March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. The 3D Marine Expeditionary Brigade flew to Sendai to set up a Forward Command Element with the Japan Self Defense Force. And simultaneously, Joint Force units from across the region under U.S. Indo-Pacific Command were sent to many other areas of Japan devastated by the disaster, all as part of Operation Tomodachi.

One of the units that responded was the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which after turning around from a planned disaster relief exercise in Indonesia, landed on the small isolated island of Oshima on March 27, 2011 to deliver electrical utility vehicles to restore power, and later to begin massive debris clearance operations.

Prior to the Marines’ arrival, the islanders had received no outside assistance, as the ports had been blocked with debris, ferries washed ashore, and all connection to the mainland was severed. The tsunami wave reaching more than 40 feet high washed completely over the center saddle of the island, destroying everything in its path.

On March 7, 2021, Marines from the U.S. Embassy Tokyo and 3D Marine Expeditionary Brigade attended the Oshima Island 10-year anniversary of the disaster. The people of the island unveiled a memorial inscribed with “Friendship Forever,” honoring the strong relationship between themselves and Okinawa Marines.

“We are so grateful for their assistance in our time of greatest need, 10 years ago.”

A Marine at the ceremony commented, “The people of Oshima are heroes. They survived losing everything they owned in a terrible disaster, yet they maintained their positive attitude and worked even harder than the Marines did to clear debris, restore order and rebuild. They are an example of perseverance through adversity and of indomitable spirit despite overwhelming odds.”

Attendees at the ceremony included city officials and residents of the island who survived the disaster and worked with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit to relieve suffering in the area. According to officials, the work underscored the importance of interoperability with our Japan Self-Defense Force partners in support of the Japan/US alliance.

“The Marine Corps work in Northeast Japan during Operation Tomodachi with the Japan Self Defense Forces was one of the most important alliance building events in the last few decades,” said Lt. Col. Paul Bartok, Marine Attaché, US Embassy Tokyo. “As the 3D MEB moved quickly into Sendai, the 31st MEU worked on Oshima, and U.S. forces rushed to the aid of our friends and neighbors throughout Tohoku, we worked through complex issues and learned valuable lessons about interoperability and crisis response that we continue to use today. If ever called upon in the future, the Marine Corps and the Joint Force is better able to respond with our Japanese allies because of the hard work done ten years ago in that crisis.

After the disaster, the islanders had no power, running water, nor heat, although temperatures were often below freezing. The school swimming pool was being used for drinking water until the Marines landed with water, as well as hot showers and heavy equipment to move hundreds of tons of debris. As Marines moved debris, they also searched for family valuables or heirlooms amongst the destroyed houses, collecting what they could and setting them aside in case they could be claimed.

In all, more than 300 Marines and Sailors with the 31st MEU worked on the island for more than a week, assisting more than 3,000 local residents, who were finally able to have power, water, and importantly, heat. Marines also returned fishing boats to the water that had been swept up into the hills by the tsunami waves so fishermen could begin to work again.

And after the Marines finished their portion of the mission and returned to Okinawa, the relationship continued through a series of exchanges, said Dr. Robert Eldridge, former Marine Corps Installations Pacific Government and External Affairs Deputy G7. He proposed a cultural exchange just days after the start of Operation Tomoachi in order to bring healing to the citizens of the island.

“When a community experiences a major disaster, there is plenty to be done in terms of physical recovery and reconstruction. However, one of the most difficult parts of the recovery and some of the most often ignored are the emotional, mental and spiritual recoveries that needs to happen,” said Eldridge, who also attended the ceremony. “The Oshima Island relationship with the Marine Corps in Okinawa represents that critical portion of the island’s recovery that is far deeper than the superficial buildings, bridges and construction. Nowhere is this more important than with the children involved with a disaster, who are our future.”

Marine Corps Installations Pacific sponsored three official iterations of the Oshima/Okinawa Youth Cultural Exchange Program, with youth from Oshima travelling to Okinawa to spend time with the Marines and their families. During the homestay exchanges, Oshima children, including some who had lost family members in the disaster, briefly traded the devastated surroundings of their island for a multi-day trip to Okinawa, staying with military or civilian Department of Defense host families. They experienced the base’s youth programs and resources, including swimming pools, American food, sports and cross-cultural events, all designed to relieve stress, decompress and renew hope.

Raymond Richards, a civilian employee at Marine Corps Installations Pacific at the time of the disaster, invited two girls to stay with him, his wife, and his daughter for one of the exchanges. Their relationship has continued since then, although they were unable to travel to this 10-year anniversary ceremony.

“I wish we were there today as the people of Oshima observed the 10-year anniversary of that terrible day on March 11, 2011,” said Richards. “My wife and daughter attended Miki and Chika’s elementary school graduation in 2012, and we were all there six years ago when they graduated from middle school. We even attended their high school graduation ceremony in 2018 too. It’s heartbreaking that we aren’t there today but we are proud of our Oshima-daughters for sure. The strength and perseverance shown by them over the past 10 years has been inspiring.”

“Visiting the Marines in Okinawa was a great thing in my memory,” said Koki Onedera, one of the youth invited to Okinawa who was 11-years-old at the time of the disaster but now is 21. “The most important thing was the importance of connections and chance to interact with people. We were isolated and the homestay program was a huge help to me. It gave me hope for the future.”

Those events sparked further lasting unofficial relationships, with Marine and other families travelling north to Oshima, and reciprocal visits by families from Oshima visiting Okinawa.

“My relationship with the Marines grew closer each time I visited Okinawa or they visited me here on the island,” said Wataru Kikuta, who was only eight at the time of the disaster. His family’s home and fish shop were only meters away from the ocean, near the main Uranohama Port.

As an 8-year-old trying to shovel through the remains of his family home to find valuables, he was seen by many of the Marine responders as symbolic of the island’s strength amidst disaster due to his never-ending energy, hard work and directives to Marines telling them where to dig. He was even portrayed on the front page of a national Japanese newspaper while the 31st MEU was working with his family and others on the island in the recovery efforts.

He visited Okinawa twice since that time, including once with the exchange program, and has received visits from Marines and other officials dozens of times since. Now 18, and at nearly 6 feet tall towering over some of his former Marine helpers, he remembers those times fondly. “Ten years ago the Marines were impressed with my work and when I showed them what to do,” Wataru said. “Now I realize how much we helped each other.”

The inscription on the 3-11 Oshima memorial reads, “You are an Inspiration Showing Perseverance and Strength.” That can be read two ways, as the people of Oshima expressing their gratefulness for the Okinawa Marine’s assistance, but also as the Marines who landed saw great strength and perseverance in the people of Oshima, representing the strength of the Japanese spirit amidst adversity. This close relationship between the island and the Marines embodies the “Tomo-ni” (along together) of the Japan/US alliance - “Friendship Forever.”

3D MEB remains resilient, ready and relevant and III MEF remains forward, faithful and focused to work with our Japanese friends and allies to respond to crisis as directed in the future.

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