LIANE HANSEN, Host:

The U.S. military has deployed thousands of troops to help Japan deal with the aftermath of the March 11th earthquake. American military bases throughout Japan are being used as staging areas for disaster response teams. And as the situation as the damaged nuclear power plants continues, the Department of Defense has authorized the voluntary departure of any U.S. military dependents from the main island of Japan.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from a U.S. Air Force base in the north of the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTERS)

JASON BEAUBIEN: Air Base Misawa is home to two squadrons of F-16 fighter jets but right now its tarmac is lined with U.S. Navy Sea Hawk helicopters, C-130 transport planes and Japanese Self-Defense Force helicopters, all working on earthquake relief missions. On Saturday, Naval Reservist Mike Wendelon from Cambridge, Massachusetts offloaded four tons of blankets and two tons of food from a Navy cargo plane.

MIKE WENDELON: This will be our first trip today but we'll be back for another round before the sunset, so.

BEAUBIEN: The blankets and food were collected by residents on the U.S. Marine Corps Air base at Iwakuni on the southern tip of the main island. From here, they'll be shuttled into the coastal areas where hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes in the disaster.

Misawa was been a staging area for American, French and British search and rescue teams. Air Force Colonel Mike Rothstein is the commander of the base.

MIKE ROTHSTEIN: We've got food and water coming through here and other sorts of supplies. There's Japanese helicopters and there's U.S. helicopters here that can help, you know, do some of that short-haul lift to the places that need it. So, we're going to continue to operate and we're going to continue to be here to support the Japanese.

BEAUBIEN: The U.S. military is also doing aerial surveillance of the damaged nuclear power plants. The aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan and the destroyer, the USS Preble, are both off the northeast coast helping move relief supplies into some the hardest hit areas. Service members have been cleaning up debris from the tsunami in several coastal towns.

At the Misawa Air Base, their work has been complicated by the loss of electricity at the base. They've been running on generators for days and trying to ration their limited supply of power. Misawa, as well as every other U.S. base on the main island of Japan, also faces another challenge. Last week, the Department of Defense authorized a voluntary departure of all dependents from Honshu, Japan's main island. This order potentially could lead to thousands of dependents being flown back to the U.S.

There are more than 40,000 dependents of American military personnel stationed in Japan, although not all of them are on them are on Honshu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN SPEAKING OVER PA SYSTEM)

BEAUBIEN: At a ballroom in the enlisted club at Misawa, hundreds of people, many of them children, are being processed to get on flights back to what's being called the safe haven of the U.S. mainland.

Air Force Major Tom Esser from Covington, Louisiana is helping to coordinate the exodus of military family members from this base.

TOM ESSER: We've got - and the numbers are changing, obviously this is an evolving process as people make their decision - but we've got relatively 1,600 people that have said I would like to leave.

BEAUBIEN: Jennifer Sentillion is waiting with her newborn baby, Leeland, to get processed for departure. Her husband is deployed to the Middle East. Sentillion gave birth to their first son on March 8th and then three days later the quake pounded this area.

JENNIFER SENTILLION: Yeah, it was the day after I brought him home from the hospital. So, that was a little scary, a little overwhelming but we're OK.

BEAUBIEN: Sentillion says she's not extremely worried about the crippled nuclear reactors because they're fairly far away from here but she says it's been hard on base with the power cuts. The area has also already run out of baby formula, so she'd like to leave at least temporarily.

SENTILLION: I'm going to go stay with my dad and visit my husband's family since they're all in the same area. And it'll give them a chance to meet him and kind of give me a break too, you know, a newborn, bringing him home, it's tough.

BEAUBIEN: While many U.S. military dependents are pulling out, the commander of the base says the ongoing relief and the eventual recovery effort in Northern Japan is going to dominate the work at this facility in the months to come.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Misawa Air Base, Northern Japan.

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