NAVAL AIR FACILITY ATSUGI, Japan — Within hours of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami hitting the coast of northern Japan March 11, Marines with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265 received the call to assist the Japanese people with aid and relief efforts.
The Marines immediately took action to provide support – transporting their helicopters more than a thousand miles from their home station aboard Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Japan. The first CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter from the squadron arrived on mainland Japan 24 hours after the disasters occurred. The full force of the squadron was established at Naval Air Facility Atsugi within 56 hours.
In the immediate aftermath of the natural disasters, U.S. Forces Japan established a 24-hour crisis action team to assess the U.S. military capabilities and assets available to support the Government of Japan and Japan Self-Defense Force’s disaster relief efforts.
HMM-265 conducted operations under a bilateral partnership, lead by the government of Japan, to transport troops and relief supplies into areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami – known as Operation Tomodachi. While transporting supplies, the squadron also flew zone reconnaissance over northern Japan, looking for areas where displaced citizens gathered and made signs, asking for critical items.
When pilots spotted a sign, the coordinates were transmitted by radio to a command center that organized follow-on aircraft to deliver supplies such as food, fuel and water.
By April 1, the squadron had flown 352 hours and transported 117,000 pounds of humanitarian assistance cargo in support
of Operation Tomodachi.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to help the Japanese people affected by this disaster,” said Lance Cpl. Steven Reppen, helicopter crew chief with HMM-265 who had been flying into the affected areas, transporting food, supplies, troops and fuel to Japanese forces distribution centers.
“Seeing the disaster for the first time, it felt like a piano had dropped onto me,” said Reppen. “It is hard to fathom the magnitude of what happened, but it is rewarding to see the smiling faces and waving as we drop off supplies.”
The squadron worked shifts to provide continuous, 24-hour operations, said Cpl. James W. Gendron, flight equipment non-commissioned officer in charge.
“The helicopter I was in delivered 2,000 pounds of food and water to a secluded mountain town north of Sendai,” said Gendron. “The entire town was completely wiped out, except the high school on a hill where hundreds of people had gathered.”
Many sites like the town Gendron experienced were found, and supplies were delivered as directed by the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force.
U.S. Pacific Command, along with U.S. Forces Japan, responded as quickly as possible to meet the requests of the government of Japan.
The Marines worked with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force to deliver essential supplies to distribution points in northern Japan.
“I am proud to be a part of the relief efforts, and it is an honor to be asked to help our allies and friends in this time of need,” said Reppen. •