US friends dig deep for isolated Japanese island

[Photo: US Marine Corps members clear debris with a local boy whose house was devastated by tsunami on Oshima island, off Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.]


By Kentaro Nakajima and Koichi Nakamura
Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer and Photographer

KESENNUMA, Miyagi - Restoration work on Oshima island, located off Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, has suffered significant setbacks because ships have struggled to dock at the island's completely devastated port.

However, life on the isolated island has begun to improve since the electricity supply has gradually been restored, thanks to the U.S. Navy's amphibious warfare ship USS Essex, which is capable of delivering heavy machinery and other items to shore even where there is no port.

The quake had raised the level of the seabed, preventing ships from entering or leaving the island's ports, which used to anchor the island's lifeline ferries to Kesennuma city.

A US Marine Corps' landing craft utility, or LCU, played a major role in the island's restoration. The shallow-bottom craft carries large vehicles and can dock in shallow water.

A Yomiuri Shimbun reporter and a photographer joined U.S. marines on board the USS Essex on Sunday. The marines were on their way to Oshima to help with restoration work.

The activities were planned as of Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. military's humanitarian aid mission for victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

A three-day intensive search for missing people by the Self-Defense Forces, Japan Coast Guard and U.S. military finished on Sunday. The operations, conducted in coastal areas in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, found a total of 79 bodies, including 12 bodies found by the SDF and one by the JCG on Sunday.

About 90 ships and about 130 airplanes were involved on the search mission's last day.

On Oshima island, a man cried while watching the muddy remains of his restaurant be demolished by heavy machinery. One hundred meters away, Takujiro Komatsu, 67, had run the sushi restaurant for 38 years. The restaurant had been carried to its present site by the tsunami.

The man operating the machine was a US Marine Corps member. Other marines were clearing debris nearby.

Komatsu bowed his head to the US marines, saying tearfully, "They searched through debris for my precious sushi tub."

At 4 am Sunday, about 160 US marines and Navy personnel approached Oshima island from the USS Essex. They were members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, a rapid-response force stationed in Okinawa Prefecture.

They gathered at the LCU docked inside the bowels of the Essex at 3 a.m. and loaded it with the goods needed for their one-week outdoor stay on the island, such as tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, clothes, water and food. Heavy machinery and relief supplies for islanders, including water, were piled high on the deck of the LCU.

Amphibious assist

The LCU left the USS Essex from its rear gate and continued to Oshima island, about 20 kilometers away.

About 100 US personnel were squatting in small gaps between heavy machinery and aid supplies. There was little space to spare. They barely moved, huddling up to avoid the cold wind during the one hour trip to the island.

It had snowed on the island, and the ground was covered in half-frozen muddy water.

After the earthquake, the island of about 3,500 people became isolated, and hardly any relief aid arrived until recently.

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