The USS Ronald Reagan, which has been deployed to Japan to assist in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. Photo: Dylan McCord/US Navy.
The USS Ronald Reagan, which has been deployed to Japan to assist in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. Photo: Dylan McCord/US Navy.

by Yoshiharu Fukushima & Iain Ballantyne

As Japan struggled to cope with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake and tsunami, which looked to have claimed thousands of lives and set off radio-active explosions at a shattered nuclear power station, a massive humanitarian aid and disaster relief operation was being staged by both Japanese and American naval forces. The Ministry of Defense in Tokyo announced that it was deploying 45 ships 190 aircraft and helicopters. The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) itself ordered 18 destroyers and frigates, in addition to 27 assault ships and other support vessels to sail as part of the mission, while the US Navy’s USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group (CSG) was expected off East coast of Japan within days of the disaster, having departed home bases in California six days earlier on a scheduled deployment. The Reagan was originally meant to participate in a joint training exercise in Korean waters, but she would now join the assault ship USS Tortuga, forward-based at Sasebo, the US 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge and the assault carrier USS Essex in assisting Japan, which had placed a formal request for help via the US State Department. The Japan-based aircraft carrier USS George Washington was possibly not available due to being involved in her annual maintenance period. The carrier was actually alongside her pier in Yokosuka when the earthquake and tsunami stuck, sailors aboard paying little attention to the gentle rocking of the ship at first, but then, as the movement got more violent, they realised something unusual was happening. The Commanding Officer made a broadcast revealing the ship was in the grip of natural disaster, instructing sailors and marines to secure any loose items. Tsunami warning sirens sounded across the naval base at Yokosuka.

On their way from Singapore to Japan, sailors aboard the US 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge move pallets of humanitarian relief supplies across the ship's flight-deck during an underway replenishment with the USNS Rappahannock. Photo: Fidel C. Hart/US Navy.
On their way from Singapore to Japan, sailors aboard the US 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge move pallets of humanitarian relief supplies across the ship’s flight-deck during an underway replenishment with the USNS Rappahannock. Photo: Fidel C. Hart/US Navy.

At Sasebo, the Tortuga immediately loaded aboard landing craft and the crews to operate them, as well as CH-53 heavy-lift helicopters. The Essex, at Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU) embarked, headed for the crisis immediately. Blue Ridge was at Singapore when the disaster struck, and was soon loading disaster relief supplies. American naval bases from Japan to Guam were affected by falling and rising water levels and buffeting, as well as flooding in some instances. US Navy vessels at Guam were ordered to leave port if possible. Two nuclear-powered attack submarines, the USS City of Corpus Christi and USS Houston, reportedly broke free from their moorings at Guam, but their crews, working with harbour tug boats soon had them secured to the pier again. The USA’s Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force headquarters at Misawa, Japan, was evacuated for a short term, ending up without power and relying on a generator. On the island of Okinawa, home base for thousands of US Marines and sailors, the Amphibious Force headquarters at White Beach prepared for the oncoming tsunami by evacuating some of its key watch-keepers to higher ground. The Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) base at Matsushima was hit by the tsunami, hurling jet fighter planes around like toys and sending some of them crashing into buildings. It was the northeast coast of Japan that suffered most from the earthquake and tsunami, which, aside from devastating coastal communities, shattered a nuclear power station causing radioactive explosions. According to details provided by the US Geological Survey, the earthquake and tsunami were preceded by a series of large foreshocks over a 48-hour period. These began on March 9, with a 7.2 magnitude quake 25 miles from the climactic earthquake site just off the Japanese coast. The US Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii issued a tsunami warning. The most serious similar incident occurred in December 1994 when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake occurred some 160 miles north of this year’s quake off Japan, killing three people and injured around 700. Extraordinarily, the Japanese government used the micro-blogging site Twitter as a major means of State-to-State communication. Noriyuki Shikata, deputy cabinet secretary for public relations and director of global communications in the Japanese prime minister’s office, communicated his thanks to Washington D.C., confirming that a request had been submitted for US forces in Japan to, according to the US Department of Defense, for ‘support efforts to rescue people and to provide oil and medical aid via the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.’ US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, grappling with the American response to turmoil in the Middle East, took time out to pledge the Pentagon’s support to Japan. He said: “This is a huge disaster and we will do anything we are asked to do to help out.”

The Ronald Reagan was due to be joined off the coast of Honshu, the main northern island of the Japanese home islands, by her escorts, the cruiser USS Chancellorsville and destroyer USS Preble. Joining Essex in her disaster relief mission would be the amphibious assault ships USS Harpers Ferry and USS Germantown. On her way from Singapore to Japan, the Blue Ridge met the fleet oiler USS Rappahannock for a Replenishment-at-Sea (RAS) to take on not only fuel but also other supplies. Aboard the fleet flagship as she steamed for the disaster zone, Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Jonathan Howton, reflected on the fact that this was not the first time he had been involved in the aftermath of a natural disaster. “I was aboard USS Iwo Jima when we provided aid to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” revealed Howton. “In a disaster situation you have to prepare for the unknown. You never know what’s going to happen.”

In the Sea of Japan, the day after the tsunami struck, MH-53 helicopters land aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Tortuga, which has been deployed to support earthquake and tsunami relief efforts in Japan. Photo: Lt. K. Madison Carter/US Navy.
In the Sea of Japan, the day after the tsunami struck, MH-53 helicopters land aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Tortuga, which has been deployed to support earthquake and tsunami relief efforts in Japan. Photo: Lt. K. Madison Carter/US Navy.

The US 7th Fleet had to withdraw after some of its helicopter crews became ‘radio active’ – click on the following link for more information: http://www.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=59065

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