COMMENTARY - "Thank You" is not necessary; U.S. forces honored to help reopen Sendai

  • Published
  • By Col. Robert P. Toth
  • Joint Force Special Operations Component
I cannot put into words the carnage left behind by the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent 33-foot tsunami March 11, 2011. More than 300 miles of eastern coastline along Japan's main island of Honshu was destroyed. Some of the most graphic initial images were of Sendai Airport and its nearby cities of Natori and Sendai. As shocking as it was to see videos of Sendai Airport and the surrounding towns being overrun by the tsunami, nothing could prepare us for the firsthand view of the area when we arrived at Sendai Airport March 16.

The images of an unusable airport covered with thousands of smashed vehicles, twisted aircraft, uprooted trees, shattered houses, water, sand, fish and seashells are recorded on film and in our memories. However, in stark contrast, today's image of Sendai Airport is one of hope and recovery.

From the beginning, our vision was to coordinate with our Japanese counterparts to facilitate the reopening of Sendai Airport which would enable delivery of humanitarian aid directly to the heart of the disaster area. On March 16, we achieved our vision as we landed the first fixed-wing aircraft on Sendai Airport's main runway.

Four days after that first MC-130 landed, our Japanese and American team cleared the entire runway, allowing C-17s to land. Together, we established a hub and aid began to flow into the epicenter of the disaster. Little did I know this would inspire the people of Miyagi Prefecture to view the opening of Sendai Airport as a symbol of hope. Prior to our arrival, the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, the Civil Aviation Bureau, and the Sendai Airport Authority believed Sendai's Airport would never open again.

The process of restoring Sendai Airport to pre-tsunami form required a great deal of cooperation between the Japanese Government and Self Defense Forces, the U.S. Air Force, Marines, Army, Navy and government agencies. A bilateral coordination board was established. Initially, the board developed a plan for SOF Airmen to temporarily handle all airfield operations to allow delivery of aid while Japanese workers performed recovery operations. When units from the Army and Marines arrived on March 20, they were quickly integrated into this process. With additional help on hand, the bilateral coordination board developed a plan to transition all airport operations back to Japanese control based on key milestones.

We reached one of those key milestones April 1 when U.S. Air Force combat controllers transferred tower operations over to Japanese air traffic controllers at Sendai Airport. As I flew into Sendai Airport that day, I was thrilled to hear the voice of a Japanese controller in the Sendai tower, proudly clearing us to land.

In those short 21 days, U.S. Air Force combat controllers at Sendai Airport controlled over 250 aircraft from the Air Force, Marines, Army, Navy, and Royal Australian Air Force participating in Operation Tomodachi. Those aircraft delivered more than 2.31 million pounds of humanitarian aid and more than 15,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline to fuel humanitarian convoys and recovery vehicles.

While U.S. forces worked around the clock to run airport operations and deliver aid, teams of Japanese workers at the airport worked furiously with heavy equipment to clean the airport and repair infrastructure.

As I approached Sendai Airport for the last time April 3, I could not believe I was looking at the same airport that was in utter ruin only 19 days ago. Even more unbelievable was what I saw on final approach to the runway. As we crossed the beach on a half-mile final to runway 27, I looked down and noticed the Japanese word Arigato "thank you" spelled out using 20 to 30 foot pine trees that ere knocked down by the tsunami.

Our effort here on Honshu pales in comparison to the effort put forward by the people of Japan, and when we depart, their struggle will continue. They have put forth tremendous effort in the midst of struggling for survival and searching for those lost.

Japan Ground Self Defense Force Lt. Gen. Eiji Kimisuka, commanding general of Joint Task Force Tohoku, visited Sendai Airport April 5 and oversaw the final transfer of airport operations from U.S. military personnel to the airport authority. As Sendai Airport opened April 6, the airport returned to the state it was in the morning of March 11 - fully operated by the people of Japan.

All U.S. forces that participated in Operation Tomodachi at Sendai Airport are stationed in Japan on the islands of Honshu and Okinawa. I think I can speak for them when I say it was our honor to help the people of Japan: our hosts, friends and neighbors.

To the men and women of the U.S. Air Force's 353rd Special Operations Group, United States Marine Corps Task Force Fuji, Marine Logistics Regiment 35, and Army Logistics Task Force 35: I thank you for your hard work to help re-open Sendai Airport and restore hope to the people of Japan.

Saint Augustine once said, "We deserve no praise when we do things we ought to do and they are right."

To the people of Japan: a thank you is not necessary.