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May 2011

Disaster! Operation Tomodachi
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Friends to the rescue

By Edward Baxter, MSCFE Public Affairs

In Onagawa, a woman reacts after discovering her mother's body in the wreckage.
A 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggers tsunamis that devastate Japan March 11, leaving more than 12,000 people dead, 164,000 displaced and 15,000 declared missing. In Onagawa, a woman reacts after discovering her mother's body in the wreckage. Reuters/Kyodo photo

In frigid temperatures off the coast of Japan, Military Sealift Command dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Matthew Perry delivered more than 200 pallets of humanitarian and disaster relief cargo to guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell.

McCampbell's helicopters transported this precious cargo to hard-hit areas of northern Japan after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered tsunamis March 11. More than 12,000 people were killed, 164,000 were displaced from their homes, and 15,000 were declared missing.

"The tsunamis tossed 300-plus-ton vessels a half-mile inland like they were toys," said Navy Diver Senior Chief Jon Klukas aboard MSC rescue and salvage ship USNS Safeguard, another MSC ship tasked in the relief effort.

Waves cross the Pacific Ocean following Japan's earthquake and tsunami in March
Waves cross the Pacific Ocean following Japan's earthquake and tsunami in March. Diagram courtesy of NOAA/PMEL

The U.S. Navy sent 20 ships, 140 aircraft and 19,000 personnel to support Operation Tomodachi, a Japanese word that means "friend." Ships included those in the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and USS Essex Amphibious Ready Group. At the center of this support were seven MSC Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force ships and MSC-chartered high-speed vessel Westpac Express.

The relief effort began March 13 when Reagan arrived off Sendai, about 190 miles north of Tokyo. Helicopters immediately delivered relief supplies ashore and conducted search and rescue and aerial reconnaissance missions.

Fast combat support ship USNS Bridge was the first MSC ship on site. Within days, more MSC ships joined the group, including Perry; fleet replenishment oilers USNS Pecos and USNS Rappahannock; dry cargo/ammunition ships USNS Carl Brashear and USNS Richard E. Byrd; and Safeguard.

"The disaster brought us together in a spirit to help save lives and provide relief supplies to those affected by this horrible tragedy," said Navy Operations Specialist 2nd Class Stephanie Santos aboard Perry.

USNS Safeguard
Military Sealift Command rescue and salvage ship USNS Safeguard sails into Hachinohe harbor March 25 to help clear wreckage so other support ships can enter safely. U.S. Navy photos

More than 700 civil service mariners, 80 sailors and 14 merchant mariners working for a private company under contract to MSC worked around-the-clock in the fast-tempo environment that included heavy rain, hail and snow.

In addition, Ship Support Unit Yokohama Director Sam Reynolds and his staff provided regional logistic support during relief efforts despite rolling power outages and the disruption of mass transit schedules.

USNS Bridge

Bridge was sailing toward the Republic of Korea when the ship was diverted to Japanese waters, arriving March 13, less than 48 hours after the earthquake struck. Bridge's embarked MH-60S Seahawk helicopters took to the skies, surveying the battered coastline. Bridge's air detachment officer-in-charge, Navy Lt.Cmdr. Steve Thomas, reported the widespread devastation he witnessed.

"We spotted a drifting commercial boat still tied up to a dock about 30 miles out to sea," Thomas said.

Bridge's helicopters then flew relief missions - sometimes landing on baseball fields and empty parking lots - to deliver more than 30,000 pounds of supplies ashore.

Throughout the mission Bridge also responded to short-fuse replenishment requirements, at times utilizing its full capacity to service multiple ships.

"It was not unusual to have two customers alongside port and starboard at the same time, and two in tow," said Bridge's civil service Cargo Mate Kevin Farrin.

In total, Bridge conducted 25 underway replenishment operations, delivering more than 1.8 millions gallons of fuel in support of Operation Tomodachi.

Grateful Japanese leave a message for Americans participating in the relief effort
Grateful Japanese leave a message for Americans participating in the relief effort.
Connecting pallets to a helicopter
A civil service mariner from MSC dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Richard E. Byrd connects pallets to a helicopter during an underway replenishment.
Navy personnel aboard command ship USS Blue Ridge arrange supplies
Navy personnel aboard command ship USS Blue Ridge arrange supplies after a vertical replenishment with MSC fleet replenishment oiler USNS Pecos.
USNS Carl Brashear prepares to replenish USS Curtis Wilber
MSC dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Carl Brashear prepares to replenish guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilber.
Moving cargo
U.S. Marines move cargo aboard MSC high-speed vessel Westpac Express.
Dry stores are loaded
Dry stores are loaded onto MSC dry cargo/ammunition ship Matthew Perry for delivery to dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry.

USNS Pecos

Pecos began its support to Tomodachi March 21 when the ship rendezvoused with U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge near Kyushu, Japan. Blue Ridge transferred 96 pallets of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief material to Pecos for delivery to the Essex Amphibious Group and the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group. Pallets, some weighing as much as 1,000 pounds, contained items such as water containers and water purification tablets, first-aid products, tarps, blankets and other supplies. The ship arrived off Sendai March 25 for more underway replenishment operations.

Forty-plus-knot winds made operations challenging March 26 when Pecos conducted unreps with guided-missile cruisers USS Chancellorsville and USS Shiloh, and guided-missile destroyers USS Preble and USS Mustin.

"The biting-cold and strong winds made it essential for the Pecos team to wear very warm clothes and be extra sharp while on deck," said Navy Operations Specialist Chief Terry Eckles aboard Pecos.

During its support effort to Operation Tomodachi, Pecos completed nine unreps and delivered more than 2.3 million gallons of fuel to other supporting ships.

USNS Carl Brashear

Brashear loaded more than 800 pallets of humanitarian cargo at Sasebo's Juliet pier March 20 and set sail later that day to join the Navy ships operating off northern Japan.

Closing on Reagan, debris spread by the tsunamis made navigating the waters challenging. "Drifting shipping containers are difficult to see," said Brashear's civil service master Capt. Mike Grogan.

Brashear completed 17 underway replenishment missions, delivering more than 1 million gallons of fuel to ships supporting Tomodachi.

USNS Matthew Perry

Like Bridge, Matthew Perry was heading to South Korea when civil service master Capt. Jonathan Olmsted received a call to assist Operation Tomodachi.

Perry loaded food, repair parts and bottled water March 15 at Okinawa, Japan.

"This short-notice requirement meant loading supplies and passengers and getting underway within hours," said Navy Cmdr. John Brughelli, officer-in-charge of Perry's military detachment.

Like MSC's other ships, Perry continuously maintained a high operating tempo. In one instance, three Essex and Shiloh-based Navy helicopters transported relief cargo from Perry to Harpers Ferry and Tortuga while, simultaneously, USS Shiloh and USS Mustin received fuel from Perry by connected replenishment.

"[It was] an amazing scene, conducted smoothly, and all due to the professionalism of each and every civilian mariner and sailor aboard," Brughelli said.

Perry spent 21 days supporting Operation Tomodachi, completing 17 separate replenishment events and delivering more than 1.5 million gallons of fuel.

USNS Richard E. Byrd

Byrd was in Singapore when the ship was ordered to join Reagan. Arriving off Sendai March 30, Byrd's embarked SA-330J Puma helicopters airlifted hundreds of pallets of relief supplies to Preble and landing dock ships USS Harpers Ferry and USS Tortuga.

During a March 31 vertical replenishment operation with Tortuga, a thick fog blanketed both ships, reducing visibility to near zero. One of Byrd's MSC-contracted Puma helicopters was ordered to land immediately.

"At one point, we lost sight of Tortuga completely," said Byrd's Chief Mate Fred Cullen.

Tortuga was 300 yards off Byrd's port side at the time. Once the fog lifted, the Puma headed back to Tortuga to complete its final mission of the day.

Byrd completed 16 underway replenishment evolutions, delivering 210,000 gallons of fuel to Tomodachi-support ships.

USNS Rappahannock

Rappahannock was also in port at Singapore when civil service master Capt. David Murrin conducted an emergency personnel recall. "We mustered crew members and got underway within 10 hours," Murrin said.

As soon as the ship cleared the last buoy in the Singapore Strait, Blue Ridge pulled alongside. Rappahannock delivered fuel, stores and humanitarian relief supplies to Blue Ridge for transport to mainland Japan. Rappahannock then loaded diesel and aviation fuel at Sasebo, Japan, March 24 before sailing for Gwangyang, South Korea, arriving March 27. There, Rappahannock loaded 289 pallets of bottled water, which the ship delivered to Yokosuka, Japan, March 30. Less than 24 hours later, the ship was underway again in the direction of Sendai.

Rappahannock completed 10 underway replenishment missions delivering more than 2.4 gallons of fuel.

USNS Safeguard

Safeguard was pierside Yokosuka, Japan, awaiting orders to depart for a scheduled dive and salvage mission to the Pacific Island of Yap, when civil service master Capt. Ed Dickerson got the call to divert and assist Japan. Safeguard's embarked Navy Mobile Diving Salvage Unit One divers, USS Tortuga-based Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 5 and Underwater Construction Team Two divers got to work March 25 at the hard-hit port of Hachinohe.

Safeguard, along with shallow-draft landing craft from Tortuga, used side-scan sonar to survey more than 4.5 million square yards of harbor and removed 5 tons of wreckage including cars, a small storage building and a massive concrete block. Due to Safeguard's efforts, the ship was able to clear a channel for a commercial liquid natural gas tanker to safely dock at Hachinohe to deliver vital heating fuel for the first time since the earthquake struck.

Safeguard and Tortuga shifted to the ports of Miyako and Oshima beginning March 29 surveying channels and moving underwater hazards through April 8.

HSV Westpac Express

Westpac Express made two sorties in support of Operation Tomodachi. The MSC-chartered ship moved 450 tons of cargo, including 7-ton trucks, fuel tankers, generators and water tanks from Okinawa to Iwakuni, Japan, arriving March 15. On March 20, Westpac Express loaded 226 pallets of bottled water at Pohang, ROK, off-loading at Iwakuni the next day.

Japan offers gratitude

Operation Tomodachi concluded April 8 when Reagan was ordered to end HA/DR operations.

"It is my sincere wish that those of you who will depart from the relief efforts to assume a new mission, leave with a feeling of utmost pride for taking part in a noble cooperation like Operation Tomodachi," said Japan's Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.

Navy Lt. Tony Beard, assigned to Commander Task Force 73, contributed to this story.