ON BOARD THE RONALD REAGAN — When United States Navy helicopters swept down on the school in a ruined Japanese village, survivors first looked hesitantly from the windows. Then they rushed out, helping unload food, water and clothes. They clasped hands with the Americans. Some embraced them.
Soon after the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, the United States military began what it calls Operation Tomodachi (Friend), one of its largest relief efforts in recent years. At present, about 20 American ships have massed off Japan’s northeastern coast, including the Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered carrier whose helicopters are busily ferrying supplies to survivors.
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That relief is getting through to sometimes difficult-to-reach coastal areas devastated by the March 11 double disaster. They are also the latest showcase in the Pentagon’s efforts to use its forces to win good will for the United States abroad, a strategy that it used successfully in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami there.
In particular, the United States has grabbed a chance to rebuild ties with a crucial Asian ally that just a year seemed to be flirting with pulling out of Washington’s orbit. The fact that American ships arrived so quickly on the scene has been a chance to demonstrate the value of having dozens of American bases in Japan, which hosts some 50,000 military personnel.
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“What we are doing here is diplomacy,” stated George Aguilar, the commander of the HS-4 Black Knights, a helicopter squadron on the Ronald Reagan. “This is our ideal friend in the region.”
Deep gratitudeIt seems so far to be a highly successful effort, at least in the areas the helicopters visited. On Sunday, as the squadron ferried supplies to towns devastated by the tsunami, usually to schoolyards or sporting grounds converted into landing zones, Japanese residents welcomed them with deep gratitude. Many were isolated when roads were washed away.
“We will always remember the Americans’ coming at a time when we needed help,” stated Osamu Abe, 43, an official in the town of Minamisanriku, where Commander Aguilar’s squadron dropped off bottled water, military rations and children’s clothing on Sunday.
At the same time, the American military has found itself trying to achieve a delicate balance. The United States has played a role in many aspects of the response to the recent crisis in Japan, including sending fire trucks to the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. But the Americans seem keen to avoid humiliating the Japanese, or suggesting that the United States is running the show.
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Indeed, Japan has at times appeared overwhelmed by the multiple disasters — the earthquake and tsunami have left more than 26,000 dead or missing, and hundreds of thousands homeless, and the plant still faces a possible meltdown. The United States mustered a big presence in tsunami-hit areas quickly, while Japan has been slow to reach some heavily damaged areas, especially around the nuclear plant. The Navy stated Monday that it had delivered 194,700 pounds in supplies to ruined areas, much of it essentials like food, water and clothing.
“We really appreciate this swift and massive capability,” stated Capt. Hidetoshi Iwasaki of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces, Japan’s navy.
Magnitude, locationA big 9.0 magnitude earthquake — fifth largest since 1900 — struck at 2:46 p.m. local time (12:46 a.m. ET) on March 11, centered approximately 100 miles east of Sendai city on Japan’s main island, Honshu.
TsunamiThe quake generated a tsunami of at least 23 feet that swept boats, cars, buildings and tons of debris miles inland in Japan. Smaller swells struck other Pacific Rim countries and even the United States, causing serious but far less extensive damage.
Casualties Police have confirmed 9,080 deaths, and 13,561 others are reported missing, Japan’s Kyodo news service reported on Tuesday.
Nuclear plantsWorkers have reconnected electrical power to all six reactors at the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, raising hopes that they may soon be able to restart the primary cooling system. The fuel rods in three of the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s reactors at the plant are believed to have at least partially melted, and the units are leaking radiation. In addition, the spent fuel pools containing used fuel rods all are experiencing increased temperatures and in some cases the water has receded to expose the rods, releasing more radiation. Japanese authorities, who have ordered the evacuation of a 19-mile radius around the plant, are working to restore power to the plant in hopes that they will be able to restart cooling systems. The U.S. has recommended that its citizens living within 50 miles of the plant evacuate the area or take shelter indoors.
Partly, the speedy response was a result of chance: the Ronald Reagan and its battle group happened to be passing nearby en route to war games off South Korea. The carrier, with a crew of 4,500, can launch aircraft and also create drinking water, something needed in the disaster zones.
The Americans stated they wanted to stay until the Japanese were able to get regular supplies into the remote coastal towns that were slammed by the waves. Japan appeared to be making steady progress in building such overland links, they said.
The American response to the nuclear crisis includes not only fire trucks, adding to efforts to spray water on the overheating fuel rods, but also United States reconnaissance aircraft, which have been helping the Japanese monitor radiation levels.
On the Ronald Reagan, emissions from the crippled plant have been an acute concern for the Americans. The Navy fliers stated they were trying to stay at least 50 miles away. When helicopters returned from relief, they and their crew were carefully scanned with Geiger counters.
The carrier itself has also pulled back to at least 100 miles away from the reactors. When the wind near the plant changed direction, the Ronald Reagan went into what sailors called “Circle William” mode — closing off all hatches and ventilation openings to prevent outside air from entering. Crew members stated radiation was something the ship had not had to deal with in years.
“We’re digging out the old cold war-era manuals on how to protect the ship from radiation,” stated Commander Aguilar, the squadron chief.
Commander Aguilar, 40, stated the damage and death toll from Japan’s tsunami were far bigger than another disaster in which he was involved in relief efforts: Hurricane Katrina.
He and other American helicopter crewmen stated they were stunned by the randomness of the tsunami, witnessed by a big ferry boat placed perfectly atop a three-story building, or an entire house floating intact miles out at sea, with curtains still in the window. A debris field of splintered wooden pieces of Japanese homes and capsized boats of all sizes encircled the Ronald Reagan, about 15 miles offshore.
Another surprise, the airmen say, was the lack of injured. The Reagan had considered offering its vast hangars as makeshift hospital space. However, few of the survivors who crowded into schools and other makeshift shelters needed emergency medical attention. The Americans stated they evacuated only a small number of injured, including a Swedish national with appendicitis.
“You were either in the way of the tsunami, or not,” stated Lt. Chad Upright.
At the crowded refugee center in Minamisanriku, where 250 survivors slept on the floor, Mr. Abe stated the most urgent thing needed was medicine for colds, fever and allergies. But the American airmen stated they could not hand out medicine without the permission of the Japanese government, which they did not have.
Something similar happened after the deadly Kobe earthquake in 1995, when foreign medical supplies and even physicians were turned away at the border by Japanese bureaucrats.
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This time, the Americans promised to ask the Japanese for quick permission to hand out American-made medicine, and for help in translating the directions into Japanese.
Much of what the Americans have handed out are goods taken from their own ships: extra food and blankets, and even the sailors’ own clothes.
There were stuffed toys for children, too.
To alleviate food shortages in the shelters, the Ronald Reagan sent 77,000 frozen hot dogs to a Japanese warship, which boiled them and gave them out.
The American aviators also seemed touched by the Japanese reception. In the squadron briefing room on board the Reagan, someone had hung a drawing of two smiling frogs saying, “Thank you!” and “by Saki Owada (age 5).”
Airmen in other squadrons also spoke at length about the Japanese warmth. Michael Adomeit, 34, a helicopter crew member from the destroyer McCampbell recalled one drop-off.
“There was this line of grandmas came out to give us hugs and state thank you,” he said. “It makes you realize how important this mission is.”
This story, “Rebuilding Lives and American Ties to Japan,” first appeared in The New York Times.
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Submited at Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011 at 5:00 am on World News by Alina
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