Special Operations Airmen supporting Operation TOMODACHI reposition to Okinawa

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Aaron Cram
  • 353rd Special Operations Group
Airmen of the 353rd Special Operations Group completed their forward-deployed support of Operation Tomodachi when they returned here April 4 and 5 after nearly three weeks of supporting relief efforts from Yokota Air Base.

The Air Commandos of the Pacific received the call to support relief efforts while deployed to Korea. In early March, the group deployed approximately 350 Airmen and six MC-130s to Korea in support of Joint Chiefs of Staff exercise FOAL EAGLE. Less than one week into the exercise, on March 11, a devastating 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami ravaged the east coast of Mainland Japan. In response to a request from the government of Japan, half of the deployed airmen and three MC-130s further deployed to Yokota Air Base to support Operation Tomodachi.

Special Operations Airmen from the group deployed from here provided their unique expertise to multiple joint organizations supporting Operation Tomodachi. In total, the group flew 161 sorties; delivered 878,000 pounds of cargo; transported 534 personnel and offloaded 185,000 pounds of fuel.

"For the last three weeks, our special operations airmen worked around the clock from Kadena AB and forward operating locations at Yokota, Daegu, and Sendai Airport to support relief efforts for our hosts, friends and partners -- the people of Japan," said Col. Robert Toth, the Joint Force Special Operations Component commander for Operation Tomodachi and 353rd SOG commander. "Our tireless efforts working alongside Japanese officials, our fellow Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and military forces from other partner nations made a difference in the area that was hardest hit by this tragedy. Through this extraordinary display of teamwork, led by the Japanese people, we were able to assist the Japanese government by delivering desperately needed supplies day and night. All involved should be proud of what was accomplished during these relief efforts."

While deployed, SOG Airmen at Yokota made up the majority of personnel assigned to the Joint Force Special Operations Component of the Joint Support Force, or JSF. The mission of JSF is to support the Government of Japan with disaster response in the wake of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Airmen from the group also worked in small teams at various airfields and locations to provide their unique expertise in critical specialties-- the most notable location being Sendai Airport. The remaining SOG forces at Korea and here supported relief efforts as well.

A combined team from all five squadrons assigned to the group and Detachment 3 of the 25th Intelligence Squadron also worked closely with Japanese emergency management officials March 16 to reopen Sendai Airport. Once reopened, the airport became the major hub for relief efforts in northern Japan and SOG Airmen were there to support operations at the airfield until they returned here.

Staff Sgt. Ian Anderson , an air transportation specialist with the 353rd Special Operations Support Squadron, spent 15 days working at Sendai Airport. To him, the long, cold days of unloading and loading over 2.3 millions of pounds of water, food, blankets and other relief supplies was worth every minute.

"I really felt honored to be able to assist Japan in its time of need, because Japan has given me so much, and the people are so courteous," he said. "To have a tragedy like this happen to this country, I felt that if I didn`t do something for Japan, it would be almost an insult. To know that I was able to do as much as I did, really made me feel great. I can definitely say that out of all the things that I have done and will do in my military career this will always be one of the, if not the, shining moments that I will remember forever. It was just amazing how this event happened, yet the people of Sendai still maintained such a positive outlook despite all of the events that occurred."

As of April 3, U.S. Air Force combat controllers had controlled over 250 aircraft at Sendai Airport transporting 371 personnel supporting relief efforts, more than 2.3 million pounds of cargo and over 15,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel. The ability to reopen the airport and conduct relief operations at the airport is something the commander said people should be proud of.

"The devastation the caused by the tsunami in Sendai was unreal," said Colonel Toth. "You cannot imagine the destruction. Water, mud and debris covered the entire area until our combined efforts of Japanese and U.S. forces came together and opened the airfield. It's another shining example of the success of teamwork during Operation Tomodachi. I could not be prouder of what was accomplished. "

The group commander reiterated that Airmen of the 353rd SOG stand ready to support relief efforts as they reposition back to their home base of Kadena on Okinawa.

"Repositioning to Kadena, our home base, better postures our force for long term support to the people of Japan," said Colonel Toth. "We stand ready from here to support future Operations Tomodachi missions as required. The Japanese people continue to be a great host for our forces here on Okinawa while they are recovering from this tragic disaster on Honshu. It will be our pleasure to return the favor and provide future support should they ask."