Known for its breathtaking sunsets, Malaysia is a spectacular country with many shops, beaches, and even a Starbucks coffee shop. It was the first time that the USS Essex was pulling into the port of Seppangar in Kota Kinabalu and everyone onboard was excited.
Liberty was called away and swarms of Sailors and Marines exited the ship, eager to see what this new port was all about. Unfortunately, 4 hours later, the fun had come to an end.
Northern Japan experienced a 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami that caused massive damage to Japanese coastal towns. Everyone was immediately recalled to the ship, and with help from their shipmates and shore patrol, all hands made it back to USS ESSEX within a couple of hours. The next morning, we were underway heading towards the island of Honshu in Northern Japan, cruising at about 20 knots for a 6 day transit to participate in Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) Operations.
As we watched the news, we began to see just how horrible things were in Honshu. Nuclear plants had been severely damaged, were unable to cool down properly and were leaking radiation. The numbers of the missing and dead were increasing and bodies unable to be found.
For the next 3 weeks, DET 4 participated in “Operation Tomodachi”. The name Tomodachi is a Japanese word meaning “friend.” Through helicopter and LCU (Landing Craft Unit) operations, the ESSEX Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and the USS RONALD REAGAN Carrier Strike Group (CSG) transported food, water, medicine and other pertinent supplies to those affected by the natural disaster while simultaneously conducting Search and Rescue Operations. Whether it was pushing aircraft to the shore, to “Eagle Control” for tasking, or coordinating HA/DR missions, TACC was busy and working hard facilitate safe and mishap free operations.
Two DET 4 Sailors represented Tacron-12 and went ashore to assist with the efforts on another level. LCDR Doug Lito spent a few days as LNO to the First Marine Air Wing Forward and Carrier Air Wing FIVE at the Atsugi Naval Air Facility. He then moved to Yokota Air Base to act as LNO to CTF-519 and Operation Tomodachi Maritime Response Cell Watch Officer, coordinating the flow of tasking between US Forces, Japan , COMPHIBRON ELEVEN and the 31st MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit). AC3 Daigle volunteered to go ashore and participated in a COMREL on the devastated island of Oshima, assisting with the clean up of a beachfront and clearing of roads.
During this extremely busy time, DET 4 personnel managed to continue training on positions, and were able to qualify 5 TAD/TATC Controllers and 3 TACC Supervisors in addition to earning 2 EAWS pins. Although focused on the mission of humanitarian aid, we didn’t lose focus on our other goals of moving forward in our qualifications and maximizing the manning flexibility within TACC.
After almost a month off the coast of Honshu, things slowed down. The Japanese Government stated they no longer required our assistance, and thanked us for all our help. Japanese Admirals and Generals and other high ranking officials came on board USS ESSEX and shook the hands of those they passed. Several media groups visited the ship to capture a first hand look at the impressive efforts of the Sailors and Marines. Following a closing ceremony ashore, a final handshake between RDML Katsui, JMSDF and RDML Jones, ESG-7, and a formal PASSEX between the ESSEX and the Japanese amphib, HYUGA, all HADR missions were stopped and our time here was done. The USS ESSEX is now on her way home, looking forward to a much needed break, but still standing by for any further tasking that may come our way. We look forward to Okinawa, Kadena AFB, and the Habu Hilton once again.