A loyal Japan Security Watch reader, who occasionally produces translations of Japanese magazine articles, forwarded some interesting bits from “Disaster Relief Operations of the JSDF for the Great East Japan Earthquake”, published in the magazine “Sekai no Kansen” (Ships of the World), June 2011. The article was written by Hidemichi Katsumata, chief of the editorial board, the Yomiuri Shimbun. Excerpts from the translation follow.

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On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m., a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, centered off the coast of Sanriku, occurred.  This earthquake registered an upper 7 on the Japanese intensity scale in the northern part of Miyagi Prefecture.  Twenty minutes later, at 3:06 p.m., another earthquake, centered off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture occurred being recorded M7.0.  Moreover, at 3:15 p.m., an M7.4 earthquake hit off the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture.

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On March 11th, after 3 p.m., 15 minutes after the earthquake occurrence, the North East Army, the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) (headquartered in Sendai-city) sent its reconnaissance helicopters from nearby Camp Kasuminome to the disaster sites and had JGSDF liaison staff dispatched to municipalities in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures that requested Disaster Relief Dispatches.

Matsushima Air Base.

At that moment, a high tidal wave warning was issued and an evacuation order was released in Matsushima Air Base of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) in Matsushima City, Miyagi Prefecture.  This air base was facing the sea.   ”A tsunami is coming.  Evacuate to the third floor of the building!”  Soon after this, a tsunami surged onto runways and hangers as if the water was swallowing the facilities.  Wood drifting in the water came over the submerging runways, and 18 of two-seated F-2B, training fighter jets that cost approximately 12 billion yen each, and 28 other aircraft including UH-60 rescue helicopters inside or in front of hangers, were instantly sunk.  Some airplanes were pushed 300 meters along by tsunami.  Moreover, the first floor of the main building and electric source facility and computers of the control tower were all destroyed.  Matsushima Air Base lost most of its functions.  The only airplanes that escaped from the destruction were the ones of the 11th air unit, so-called “the Blue Impulse,” which had been moved to Ashiya Base in Fukuoka Prefecture to demonstrate memorial flights on March 12 Ceremony for Kyushu Shinkansen lines becoming available along the entire line.

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The headquarters of the Yokosuka District, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force whose responsibility areas include disaster areas between Sanriku to off Ibaraki Prefecture, also became busy.  An earthquake measured a lower 5 on the Japanese scale of seven also hit Yokosuka City with strong horizontal oscillation.  Thinking that the Yokosuka District had a relatively small space, Vice Admiral Hiromi Takashima, Commandant, Yokosuka District, established an operation room on the second floor of the headquarters of the Self-Defense Fleet, which was located 10 minutes drive from the Yokosuka District headquarters.  From the new operation room, he ordered “all ships depart towards off Kinkazan.” It is the first time for the Yokosuka District commandant to assumed command of the entire JMSDF since the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 during the time of the former Imperial Yokosuka District Base.

After 3:30 p.m., an escort ship Harusame departed as the first dispatched ship from Pier Yoshikura in Yokosuka.  Harusame left with its peculiar metallic sounds.  By around 10:00 a.m., 17 ships in port left for the disaster site.  Among these ships, a supply vessel Tokiwa, which was in port during its training period, received an order to deliver an emergency cargo shipment.  At 9:30 a.m., the Tokiwa left loaded with prepositioned emergency food such as about 95,000 can food, 14,200 meals of bread, 1,050 blankets, searching equipment such as electric saws, and portable toilets.

There were some members of the 17 ships who could not be ready in time for departure because they were taking vacation or for other reasons. (According to the JMSDF executive staff.) These members boarded ships that left later.  There were about 100 Tokiwa members amongst them.

JASDF RF-4J reconnaissance aircraft.

Soon, the Self-Defense Forces faced the situation that they never imagine before.  They gradually understood that damaged areas were hugely widespread when they received information from the JGSDF helicopters and the JASDF’s RF-4 jet reconnaissance planes (Hyakuri Base, Ibaraki Prefecture).  However, there was no concrete information to decide to which disaster areas the JSDF forces should be first deploy for searching and rescue activities because the municipalities’ communication systems were also destroyed and so were totally disconnected.

Previously, on October 2008, the North East Army, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF), conducted an earthquake exercise, “Michinoku ALERT2008,” presupposing that “M8.0 earthquake, centered off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, occurred, and then tsunami attacked off the coast of Sanriku, causing scores of casualties and victims.”  This exercise was as a large-scale exercise with a total of 16,000 people participants from 22 cities and towns off the coast of Sanriku and 35 related agencies and organizations such as the Japan Red Cross Society and the Tohoku Electric Power Co., other than JGSDF, JASDF, Iwate Prefecture and Miyagi Prefecture.  During the disaster drill , the JGSDF sent its units.  The JGSDF’s disaster prevention operations were based on the premise that most of information were provided by the victim municipalities.

Mitsubishi UH-60JA utility helicopter

“In the Great East Japan Earthquake, many town halls were destroyed by tsunami and the damage of each place was too immense so that the functionality of the municipal government itself was gone.  The precondition to deploy units based on information from afflicted areas was collapsed,” said a GSDF staff member.  Given this situation, the JGSDF immediately had about 20 helicopters departed.  The helicopters included ones from the 1st Helicopter Unit, Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture and Camp Kasuminome and CH-47 and UH-60 of the 12 Brigade from the air base in Somabara, Gunma Prefecture, one after another.

The helicopters were sent to get a grasp of the damage and rescue residents who were isolated on roofs and other places as soon as the helicopters found them during their survey from the sky.  ”We just recue when we find them from the air.  It was not only municipal governments that had lost access to information, but the police and fire departments as well.  We had to continue rescue operations by gathering information by ourselves.”  (Said by a JGSDF staff member.)  The rescue helicopter units entered the sites based on self-gathered information and they had to wait until dawn to start a full-scale mobilization of rescue activities.

Meanwhile, the JMSDF’ units, which left Yokosuka Base also arrived off the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture and Kinkasan area one after another on around 5 p.m. on March 12.  The escort ships came running at a speed of 27 knots and supply vessels also came at a speed of over 20 knot, but the closer they got to the area, the more they saw cargo containers and drums moving up and down on the surface of water and unmanned fishery boats floating.  Fully-destroyed houses were swept away and driftwood was scattered.  Each time some parts of a house were found in the waves, escort ships and supply vessels employed a small boat and carried out its search for survivors.

JS Tokiwa on right. AP photo.

Commander Masanori Takahashi, Commanding Officer of the supply ship Tokiwa recalled the scenes, “I never thought it could be as bad as that.”  CDR Takahashi had previously served as CO of the escort ship Takanami,  and he had experience of relief operations by immediately arriving off the coast of Phuket Island when the Takanami came from the occurrence of the earthquake and tsunami disasters off the coast of Sumatra Island, Indonesia in December 2004.  Takanami was on they way back to Japan after its fuel supply operations.  ”We saw numerous palm trees and beach parasols in the water.  However, what we saw off Sanriku was incomparable to that.”

U.S. Navy photo.

Moreover, there was a lot of wood drifting in the water filling the ports of Souma (Fukushima Prefecture), Sendai, Miyako (Iwate Prefecture), where the JMSDF ships were supposed to unload emergency goods.  Because of this condition, large ships could not come along the piers because cars and trucks were also sunk and it changed the water depth.  ”We could only transport goods by shuttle between supply vessels off the coast and the land, after fully mobilizing ship-borne helicopters and also launching helicopters from Tateyama, Chiba Prefecture,” according to a JMSDF staff member.  The largest disaster relief operation of the JMSDF in its history had just started at that time, but another crisis was already getting close.

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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