by Tim Flack
18th Wing Public Affairs
3/11/2015 - KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Four
years ago today - March 11, 2011 - I was sitting in my office on Misawa
Air Base, on the northern tip of the main island of Japan, when a
massive magnitude-9 earthquake rocked the island nation.
It was 2:46 p.m., and I was finishing up my shift as a Stars and Stripes
reporter. It was a slow news day for me since all the Airmen were
participating in a base-wide training exercise.
As the building began to shake violently, I made the decision to head
outside, joining a bunch of people who also had fled the arts and crafts
center that shared my parking lot. I distinctly remember hearing
children crying and the strange squeaking coming from the rocking cars
and the swaying street lights. I jumped with a start when a wave of
water crashed through the front doors of the indoor pool across the
street. The earthquake had generated a mini-tsunami in the pool, a
terrible foreshadow of what was headed for multiple communities dotting
the rough and rocky coastal shoreline.
Sirens blared in Japanese, warning of an 18-foot tsunami. Our house sat a
full mile from the coast, but I elected to drive inland with my family
just to ensure we would be safe. Hours later, in a full electrical
blackout, with snow falling and multiple aftershocks, I decided to pack
up our quilts and head back to base to sleep in my office.
I'm a military veteran, but I was still amazed at how quickly the Air
Force jumped into action, changing course from exercise to real-world
emergency. Base personnel raced to set up generators for power, and the
next morning I found the commissary packed with people stocking up on
food, water and other supplies. In the following weeks, Misawa became a
hub for recovery efforts, and I was lucky enough to see how all of the
U.S. military services helped in Operation Tomodachi.
Then-Col. Michael Rothstein, 35th Fighter Wing commander, told me his
immediate priority was taking care of the community, providing heat,
water, food and, eventually, full electricity. He directed the Airman
and Family Readiness Center to establish an Emergency Family Assistance
Control Center in the base's Mokuteki Community Center. Within hours,
more than 1,000 people had attended briefings and used Air Force
communication lines to call home. My family and I showered in the gym
and slept on five of the more than 200 cots the 35th Force Support
Squadron had set up in the Potter Fitness Center.
Members of the world's two best search-and-rescue teams landed at Misawa
Air Base enroute to some of the hardest hit coastal fishing villages. I
followed their convoy to the village of Ofunato. The rescue workers
searched for survivors in the devastation where thousands of homes had
been demolished by the powerful tsunami.
In the weeks and months that followed, I wrote about the thousands of
volunteers from Misawa Air Base who reached out to assist friends and
neighbors in the local communities. Volunteers first traveled to nearby
Hachinohe, and continued to make their way south, logging countless
hours digging out sludge, cleaning up debris and providing crucial
manpower for clean-up efforts.
In Hachinohe, then-Tech. Sgt. Gregory Bird took a break from lugging
huge chunks of debris to explain why he volunteered. "I want to get them
back on their feet as soon as I can," he said of Hachinohe residents.
Misawa hosted other services who joined the efforts, including U.S. Navy
helicopter crews. I sent a note to family and friends after flying on
one resupply mission, explaining that it was awesome to watch the U.S.
military put its technology to work on Operation Tomodachi.
"The military has mobilized thousands of troops, there is an entire
carrier battle group sitting off the coast and directions are coming
from an airborne command and control center," I wrote. "But when it
comes down to it, the best help still comes via physically and mentally
exhausting work, small crews lugging thousands of pounds of water, food,
clothing, medicine and toiletries one helicopter flight at a time, box
by box, into some pretty remote and devastated areas."
A small team of U.S. Navy Seabees who were stationed at Misawa Air Base
continued to labor for months after the earthquake. I interviewed them
in July 2011, when a three-man team had continued to clean debris fields
with two Navy front-end loaders and a dump truck.
Billy Knox, then leading chief petty officer of the public works
department at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command on Misawa Air
Base, said the decision to keep helping was easy.
"It's our bread and butter," he said of the construction work.
Base residents also collected supplies, held fundraisers and found other ways to help the local Japanese communities.
Gemini Sanford, who helped volunteer at a local orphanage, collected 132
bags of food, seven boxes of fresh vegetables and 30 gallons of milk to
donate to the Bikou-en Children's Care House. She told her in-laws
about the efforts during a call home. They called a Seattle-area radio
station, and Gemini found herself repeating the story on "The Rond and
Don Show" on KIRO-FM. The radio hosts challenged their listening
audience to lend a hand.
The end result was 200 tons of supplies, valued at $1.2 million, which
were collected and sent to Misawa. Gemini's effort to help one orphanage
blossomed into a project that aided similar homes all across northern
"I am awed and inspired by the fact that something that started as small
as trying to get enough food for a week or two ... has blossomed into
something that can do so much good for so many people," she said. "I'm
really, deeply moved."
Four years later, I'm still awed and inspired by what I experienced during Operation Tomodachi.