Great East Japan Earthquake 10th Anniversary Ceremony

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Chris Jacobs
  • 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

U.S. Air Force Col. Jesse J. Friedel, the 35th Fighter Wing and Misawa Air Base installation commander, hosted a commemoration ceremony with Japan Air Self-Defense Force and local civic leaders to honor of the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake at Misawa Air Base, Japan, March 11, 2021.

The ceremony honored more than 15,000 people who lost their lives to the historic earthquake and tsunami. It also highlighted the efforts of American and Japanese forces, under Operation Tomodachi, to provide humanitarian assistance to thousands of civilians affected by the disaster.

“In Japan, there is a saying that goes ‘Disaster comes when we have forgotten about it,’” said Misawa City Mayor Yoshinori Kohiyama. “In recent years, with large scale disasters in Japan and around the world, we have come to recognize disaster can strike at any moment. Misawa City has developed with the support of many people in times of disaster and hardship.”

The ceremony included a Moment of Silence at 1446, the time the 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred approximately 43 miles off the Oshika Peninsula; video remarks from Kohiyama and former Misawa Air Base installation commander retired Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rothstein; a speech from Friedel; and a symbolic renaming of the Officer’s Club ball room to the “Tomodachi Room.”

“As a lasting tribute to the thousands of citizens who tragically lost their lives 10 years ago, and to recognize the combined efforts of U.S. and Japanese forces during Operation Tomodachi, I hereby officially rename this room as the Tomodachi Room,” said Friedel. “As one of Misawa’s major event venues, this room will continue to serve as a site for U.S. and Japanese citizens to forge friendships and deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance for decades to come.”

Days after the Great East Japan Earthquake hit, Misawa AB became a regional hub for support and logistics to Japan. Early reports of deaths, missing and injured people neared 5,000, mostly in the Miyagi Prefecture. Misawa AB’s relative proximity to the disaster site made it the best suited reception point for international Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams.

By March 13, 2011, two teams from the U.S. arrived in Japan, and in quick succession teams from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Switzerland joined in the recovery effort. The 35th Logistics Readiness Squadron transported an estimated 385 USAR personnel and 28 canines to the various disaster recovery sites.

On March 16, the American Red Cross at Misawa AB and the Emergency Family Assistance Center coordinated the first off-base group trips to volunteer in the local community in what would be eventually called “Misawa Helps.”

The program was encouraged by Rothstein, with his coined catch phrase “Have you done it?” Soon, the 35 FW assumed responsibility for the program, and by March 24, wing leadership was receiving daily updates. In time, the Misawa Helps program became an alternate duty location for both military members and local Japanese civilian employees to help rebuild the local community.

“I know it wasn’t that much and I know it was only a drop in the bucket compared to how much was needed,” Rothstein recalled. “But nonetheless, I am grateful I was able to be there and to also help lead our base community through those times.”

He also noted relations between Japan and the U.S. are more than just government to government, but also “built person to person, on the individual level.”

Recovery efforts lasted several months. Starting in April, Misawa Helps started organizing trips to the Port of Hachinohe in order to assist in clean-up efforts. By the time the Government of Japan began formal recovery efforts, more than 6,000 volunteers, including then Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Gary L. North, participated in 73 missions, and put in more than 36,000 man-hours to help.

Additionally, the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron sent their Heavy Equipment Section with operating loaders, dump trucks, excavators and bulldozers to the Hachinohe Fuel Depot and Fishing Port to remove heavy debris totaling more than 600 cubic meters of sediment, debris, cars, and boats. The 35th CES Utilities Section provided water on a daily basis to four evacuee and casualty collection points near Ishinomaki City in the Miyagi Prefecture. The two-man team and water truck were the sole source of drinking water for more than 8,000 displaced tsunami victims.

Misawa AB also served as a collection and throughput for donations both locally and from international groups who wanted to help those in need. Food, bedding, clothes, and other donated items were delivered to the Miyagi Prefecture by the 35th LRS. The 35th FW Chaplains Corps created transition kits for displaced families, which included rice cookers, food, bedding, and other things a family would need to set up a new home.

Misawa AB’s Sollars Elementary started an origami crane drive intended to raise money for a new school in Sendai and the Misawa Officers’ Spouses Club gathered warm clothing to donate. One of the largest contributions came from The Ron and Don Radio Show in Seattle, Washington, which collected 50 tons of donated goods for local orphanages that was delivered by the 35th LRS.

Misawa AB’s contributions and assistance were recognized by the Government of Japan, culminating in a visit from Mr. Katsuya Okada, then Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Japan on May 14, 2011. 

“When the earthquake struck, Team Misawa did exactly what they were expected to do. They helped our Japanese allies overcome the disaster and return to normal life,” said Friedel. “During the days and months after this horrific event, the world saw the alliance between our countries show its true colors.”

Ten years later, Misawa Air Base remains an active partner for good in the Misawa and larger Japanese community.

“When you enter the main gate of Misawa Air Base and drive onto Friendship drive there is a larger electronic sign that states – ‘Together, We Are Stronger,”’ said Friedel. “This saying holds true, from the establishment of U.S. forces at Misawa Air Base after World War II, to the support we provided to Japanese citizens under Operation Tomodachi ten years ago, to our combined efforts to deter regional threats, and combat the spread of COVID today.”