Second in a four part series that will run through Friday.

Somewhere, dug in on this hill, were more than 100 heavily armed Japanese troops.

The scenario was this: 3 Company, Western Army Infantry Regiment, Japan Ground Self Defense Forces, had landed on Camp Pendleton’s Red Beach and pushed ashore into the coastal foothills. The next phase of the exercise was the passage of lines. While the Japanese held the outer ring of the “beachhead”, a U.S. Marine tank platoon consisting of four M1A1 Abrams tanks would push through friendly front lines and continue the advance of the U.S. – Japanese force. The tanks would avoid cutting Japanese communications wires and crushing the Japanese in their positions by traveling through two designated lanes.

Theoretically, a very easy exercise. But this is where it got hard.

*  *  *

The hillside the Japanese were dug in on was directly in front of us, approximately 400 meters away. 3 Company, WAIR had paused and assumed hasty defensive positions. I was told there were at least a hundred Japanese on the hill in front of me, but I couldn’t see anyone. It was a little disconcerting, because if they had emerged from cover and simply stood out in the open they would be plainly obvious. But they weren’t. They were up there on the hillside, well camouflaged on a hillside green with early spring vegetation. The Marines told us that the WAIR troops had dug in so well that the simulated opposing force, a Marine TOW anti-tank section, had nearly driven on top of them.

Before I knew it there were four Abrams tanks bearing down on the press contingent. Admittedly there were a lot of distractions. I was trying to follow everything around me, and there was the constant noise of helicopters droning above — but I was surprised that I didn’t notice four seventy-ton tanks approach until they were only about two hundred meters away. I immediately understood how the M1 Abrams got the nickname “Whispering Death” in NATO exercises.

They were four tanks of C Company, 1st Marine Tank Battalion. One by one they lumbered down the trail, past the assembled soldiers and reporters and parked in a straight line. Each tank bore its nickname painted on the bore evacuator: Dante’s Inferno. In ‘N Out. Nacho Libre. Shake ‘N Bake. Each carried fording gear for the engine, and the turret bustles overflowed with water, ammunition cans, spare parts and sacks of personal gear. The tanks halted, turned their turrets in the direction of the Japanese positions, and shut down their engines.

The Marine lieutenant in charge dismounted his tank to confer with his Japanese counterparts. The Japanese, consisting of a 3 Company RTO and an English translator, were attempting to tell him where the friendly WAIR troops were located, where they wanted the tanks to go, and how they planned to guide the tanks through their lines.

The action was called a passage of lines, when one military force passes through another. The chance of mistaking friendly units for hostile in such an action is high, as well as the possibility that the moving units could disrupt friendly positions. The tank platoon would split into two sections and each would head up separate roads. The tanks would have to stick to the roads due to environmental restrictions — the training area was apparently on the habitat of a rare ground squirrel, and as a result the tanks were prohibited from bounding across the landscape cross-country. The Japanese had marked the route with orange and red road cones to clearly identify it.

It was the kind of coordination that would have taken two different groups of the same nationality, speaking the same language, about thirty seconds to coordinate. At the absolute most. In reality, it took more than five minutes, possibly as long as ten.

No, that’s not me. I know it looks like me. It’s not. 

The Marine lieutenant, a look of great concentration on his face, tried to decipher the heavily accented English and emphatic hand signals of the translator. The translator was not a very good translator, and I doubt the lieutenant had ever heard Japanese English before. I watched it all and decided I could do better figuring out what he meant, but not much better. Trying to understand my father’s father had endowed me with only lukewarm powers. I also decided I was glad I was only watching and wasn’t responsible for actually understanding any of it.

I wandered over to the small grouping when I realized that they had been there for a few minutes. I stayed and filmed for about four minutes. I stopped filming, walked away, and they were still going at it. Then suddenly the tanks started up and lumbered away up and over the hill, careful not to disturb the ground squirrels. I decided that this little moment, the good and the bad, was the U.S. – Japan security alliance in a nutshell.


Iron Fist 2011

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch