One year later: Response by AMC, mobility Airmen for Operation Tomodachi 'unprecedented'
Tech. Sgt. Andrew Dunn, 15th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, conducts a pre-flight maintenance inspection before departing on a humanitarian mission to Japan Mar. 12 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. The plane will visit various Air Force bases in Japan during its mission to to provide support for Japan relief efforts in the wake of tsunami and earthquake damage there. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathan Allen)
by Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
3/15/2012 - SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- When the island nation of Japan was struck with an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011, the world answered the call with an unprecedented response -- and so did mobility and contingency Airmen.
Among those leading the worldwide effort that delivered aid and support to the people of Japan were the men and women of Air Mobility Command. Master Sgt. Shawn Salyer was among the first to respond.
Assigned to the 621st Contingency Response Wing's 817th Global Mobility Squadron at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., Salyer led a team of 15 air transportation Airmen, or aerial porters, to Misawa Air Base, Japan, to support Operation Tomodachi -- the name U.S. Pacific Command gave the operation meaning "friend."
"We were seeing the news and knew what we were possibly getting into," Salyer said reflecting on the events a year later. "We left on March 19 and were there for nearly a month supporting Air Mobility Command contract air missions delivering aid to the country. The team did exactly what they train to do every day in aerial port operations and provided top quality work."
News and history reports, photos and videos from a year ago reflect the "complete devastation" some areas of the country suffered in the wake of the disaster. However, thanks to the world's "open hand of hope" life is slowly returning to normal.
On the day of the disaster at Yokota Air Base, Japan -- home of the Pacific Air Forces command's 374th Airlift Wing, mobility Airmen were immediately ready to assist. According to one report, Yokota "became an interim landing site for 11 aircraft which were diverted from quake-stricken airports."
Thanks to that quick action, mobility Airmen like aerial porters from AMC's 730th Air Mobility Squadron were able to support 599 airline passengers and crew. That effort was just the beginning of the support which mobility Airmen eventually provided.
Another aerial porter who supported Tomodachi at Misawa said he was just glad to have the opportunity to help.
"I felt it was beneficial to serve the people this disaster affected," said Senior Airman Matthew Sanders, one of the 15 aerial porters on the team who deployed to Misawa from the 817th and 818th GMS' from Joint Base MDL. "When we were there, we got to see what they [the Japanese people] went through and I was glad to be one of those people who were there to help."
At the 618th Air Operations Center (Tanker Airlift Control Center) at Scott AFB, work was also getting done to aid the effort.
Responsible for the command and control of AMC aircraft missions around the world, the TACC was quick to respond, immediately planning missions to Japan. Within the first 24 hours following the disaster, three C-17 Globemaster III missions were launched. The first aircraft, operated by the 62nd Airlift Wing departed March 12, 2011, carrying more than 30 tons of cargo. The second aircraft departed less than 30 minutes later from Joint Base Charleston, S.C.
USPACOM and PACAF had the lead role throughout the Japan relief effort. Mobility air force assets and personnel Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Misawa AB; Kadena AB, Japan; and Yokota were among those helping coordinate relief efforts. President Barack Obama himself highlighted the results of the hard work of mobility Airmen.
"We've flown hundreds of missions to support the recovery efforts, and distributed thousands of pounds of food and water to the Japanese people," President Obama said at the time.
Wherever mobility Airmen were working from, or whatever base they came from, they were all part of a combined effort by the U.S. military and the world to help the people of Japan.
Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said March 17, 2011, that U.S. forces were working alongside people in organizations "representing nearly 100 other countries" that provided aid and support to the stricken Japanese populace.
AMC aircraft alone flew 127 sorties, carried 6,213 passengers and transported 816 tons of cargo on the airlift side, according to TACC statistics. In air refueling sorties, AMC tankers off-loaded 489,300 pounds of fuel to aircraft making their way to Japan with relief supplies.
Salyer added that his team provided logistical support and processed 405 tons of cargo from 29 airlift missions as one part of their month-long stay in Japan for Tomodachi.
"What our team did demonstrated exactly what all of our contingency response forces are capable of doing on short notice for humanitarian operations around the world," Salyer said.
As operations continued into April, mobility Airmen also played an integral role in the voluntary assisted departures of military families to the U.S. from Japan in late-March -- an effort dubbed Operation Pacific Passage.
"The TACC and mobility Airmen around the world were key players in supporting Operation Tomodachi," said Brig. Gen. Dewey Everhart, 618th AOC (TACC) commander. "We proudly look back at the work mobility Airmen did then to support the need of the Japanese people and their nation. Air Mobility Command executed nearly 400 (overall) missions offloading more than 3,000 tons of cargo. Our people make a difference every day, and we are confident in our ability to help people around the world, answer their call and provide that open hand of hope when they need it the most."
Of the overall effort, Japanese Defense Minister Kitizawa, may have said it best in a USPACOM news story about Operation Tomodachi.
"I have never been more encouraged by or proud of the fact that the United States is our ally."
(U.S. Pacific Command Public Affairs; Master Sgt. Sabrina Foster, Thomas Kistler and James Hodges, Air Mobility Command Public Affairs; AMC History Office; Capt. Justin Brockhoff and 1st Lt. Marshel Slater, 618th AOC (TACC) Public Affairs; Staff Sgt. Robin Stanchak and Airman 1st Class Katrina Menchaca, 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs, and American Forces Press Service contributed to this report.)