PACIFIC OCEAN - Ships of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and embarked Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) arrived off the northeast coast of Japan's Honshu island on March 20 to provide humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) in support of Operation Tomodachi.
Shortly after arriving, two UH-1N Huey helicopters from the 31st MEU conducted surveys of the Hachinohe coastline to determine what areas were damaged, which roads could be used, and where Japanese nationals might be in need of assistance.
“The initial needs of the Japanese appear to be route clearance and debris removal,” said Lt. Justin Jomoto, Amphibious Squadron 11 future operations officer.
After conducting a vertical replenishment with USNS Matthew C. Perry (T-AKE 9) on March 21, the amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) launched four CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters from the 31st MEU to deliver 800 gallons of potable water and 768 blankets ashore.
"I am extremely impressed with the performance of our Navy/Marine Corps team aboard Essex," said Capt. David Fluker, commanding officer of USS Essex. "We were able to begin delivering water ashore today to our Japanese friends in need. The Essex team continues to stand ready to deliver whatever support is needed."
With more than 150 amphibious vehicles and 20 aircraft, the MEU is able to provide extensive distribution services by ground and air. Amphibious Squadron 11 is also capable of providing meals ready to eat, fresh water and bilingual personnel to assist in communication between U.S. service members and Japanese citizens.
“The 31st MEU brings a tremendous amount of capabilities to this situation. Our MEU is configured ideally to support humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations,” said Col. Andrew MacMannis, 31st MEU commanding officer. “Our Marine and Navy team can support delivery of resources through air, ground, or maritime platforms. We have medical staff, water production abilities, distribution resources, engineer assets, and much more to be able to help people who are suffering.”
ARG ships are capable of carrying out a variety of HADR operations using helicopters assigned to the 31st MEU and the Navy's Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 25 or amphibious craft assigned to Beach Master Unit One and Assault Craft Unit One.
“We have put ashore a forward command element at Sendai and liaison officers at the maritime response cell located at Yokota to liaison with host nation headquarters, in order to establish lines of communication, provide situational awareness and potential HADR tasking,” said Jomoto.
Each ship can provide fresh water, medical contingency support, search and rescue support, heavy lift capabilities and transportation via amphibious crafts.
The ARG can also use amphibious craft to transport Marines and supplies to the beach, as well as any victims back to the ship. Landing craft, air cushions can carry up to 23 people, while landing craft utilities can carry as many as 400. The ARG and the Marines of the 31st MEU are expected to focus their efforts in the vicinity of Miyako using its heavy-lift helicopters to deliver relief items ashore.
The Essex ARG is comprised of the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) and the dock landing ships USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49), USS Germantown (LSD 42) and USS Tortuga (LSD 46).
USS Tortuga (LSD 46) is off the coast of Hachinohe serving as an afloat forward service base for helicopter operations. Two MH-53s from HM-14 picked up and delivered 15 tons of supplies from Misawa Air Base to Yamagata Station. It is also expected to conduct a replenishment with USNS Matthew Perry. Matthew Perry is carrying 189 pallets of humanitarian supplies which it will deliver to the Essex ARG and Reagan Strike Group over the next few days.