U.S. Ship Delivers Aid To Japan

Marine Lance Cpl. Gregory Pollina pulls a pallet of relief supplies to a waiting helicopter aboard the USS Essex, which is conducting operations in support of Operation Tomodachi. The  Marines and Navy are flying the much needed aid to the tsunami-devastated northeast coast of Japan.

Marine Lance Cpl. Gregory Pollina pulls a pallet of relief supplies to a waiting helicopter aboard the USS Essex, which is conducting operations in support of Operation Tomodachi. The Marines and Navy are flying the much needed aid to the tsunami-devastated northeast coast of Japan. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

The USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship that had once fought Japanese forces in the Pacific, is now part of a relief operation providing supplies and logistical support to Japan.

The effort is called Operation Tomodachi, or "friend."

The Essex carried 2,000 men and women off the coast of Japan on March 19, joining more than a dozen other U.S. ships there trying to help after a powerful earthquake and tsunami left some of the country's infrastructure in tatters.

On the ship, Marines and sailors haul food and supplies across the flight deck. Crews load helicopters with pallets of rice and water, blankets and toothbrushes, fajitas and Pop-Tarts. The choppers will deliver them to supply hubs, from which they'll be distributed to Japanese evacuees.

Crew members aboard the USS Essex brace against the rotor wash from a Marine helicopter that is also taking part in Operation Tomodachi.

Crew members aboard the USS Essex brace against the rotor wash from a Marine helicopter that is also taking part in Operation Tomodachi. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

Marine Col. Andy MacInnis says the Essex has heavy-lifting capabilities that the Japanese need.

"I think where they've come to us is there's a couple places they couldn't quite get to with all of their assets, and they've asked us to use our [helicopters] to pick up supplies somewhere and get it to places they can't access by roads right now."

Below deck, young Marines fill 5-gallon plastic jugs with water. The Essex can desalinate up to 100,000 gallons of seawater a day.

Taking all this in is Capt. Ide Masanori, a liaison officer with Japan's Self-Defense Forces. He's aboard the Essex to find out what it can contribute to relief efforts. He says he's worked with the crew of the Essex before, but not under anything like the current circumstances.

"We have long history and experiences of how to deal with natural disaster as a disaster relief operation, but this is out of our imagination, right? In entire Japanese history, this is the largest natural disaster," Masanori says.

Trust 'Built Over Time'

The Essex is part of the 7th Fleet. It's is based on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the only such unit permanently based in Asia. While the unit conducts training and exchanges with most Asian militaries, Rear Adm. Scott Jones says that its ties with Japan are particularly close.

"It's all about communicating and building those relationships, because you just can't surge that trust and confidence in people. It has to be built over time. And that's what I think you see here," Jones says.

Last year, then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was forced to resign after he backed down on his pledge to get the U.S. Marine air base at Futenma off the island of Okinawa.

Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, says that Operation Tomodachi will help Tokyo and Washington put the military base issue behind them — at least for now.

"The earthquake and its aftermath have really, in a way, suspended the whole business of government, not just on the U.S. base issue, but broadly on many other topics," Nakano says.

Nakano says that while more cynical observers may see Operation Tomodachi as a mere public relations stunt, Japanese are by and large grateful for the outpouring of support from the U.S. military and from the international community in general.

Correction March 29, 2011

The audio and a previous Web version of this story incorrectly identified the Essex as part of the 31st Expeditionary Unit. While the Essex does carry members of that unit, it actually belongs to the 7th Fleet.

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