Story by Greg Mitchell, USNH Yokosuka Public Affairs
YOKOSUKA, Japan – “I wasn’t sure what to expect because, after disasters in other places, things happen unexpectedly, depending upon what country you are in. I wasn’t really prepared for what I was about to encounter but then again, who really is?”
Those were the words of Lt. Michael Bozek, who previously served as Facilities Department Head for U.S. Naval Hospital (USNH) Yokosuka, from August 2009 to January 2012. In October of 2011, roughly seven months after the devastating effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Bozek and four other staff members of the hospital set out on a journey to provide relief efforts at Fukushima Rehabilitation Facility in Iwaki-city, Fukushima prefecture.
The Great East Japan Earthquake measured
Measuring at 9.0 in magnitude, the earthquake ruptured a 500-kilometer-long fault zone off the northeast coast of Japan March 11, 2011 at 1446 p.m. local time. Its epicenter was 130 kilometers off Sendai, Honshu, occurring at a relatively shallow depth of 32 kilometers. A tsunami ensued within the hour, with waves averaging 33 feet and maxing out at one point the height of over 133 feet according to researchers. Seawater breached the coastlines, destroying buildings and homes. A nuclear meltdown occurred at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing radiation fallout and land to be deemed inhabitable.
According to international scientific researchers, the resulting earthquake was about 1,400 times stronger than the 6.9 magnitude Kobe earthquake that killed more than 5,000 people and injured 26,000 in 1995. The shaking was so great that it was felt as far away as Tokyo, 230 miles from the quake’s epicenter.
Seismologists with the National Earthquake Information Center at U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) stated that the earthquake generated roughly the amount of energy that the U.S. consumes in one year. One year.
Operation Tomodachi was created by the United States Armed Forces and for six weeks featured the efforts of over 24,500 personnel representing each branch of service, to include 200 ships providing assistance and aid to assorted families.
Aftermath: The destruction left behind
The damage and destruction left by the Great East Japan Earthquake has been deemed immeasurable.
Per a Japanese National Police Agency report issued on March 7, 2016, 15,894 deaths were confirmed, 6,152 injured and 2,562 people missing across twenty prefectures, as well as 228,863 people living away from their home in either temporary housing or due to permanent relocation. Previously in an agency report dated Feb. 10, 2014, it listed 127,290 buildings as being totally collapsed, with a further 272,788 buildings ‘half collapsed’, and another 747,989 buildings partially damaged.
The earthquake and tsunami also caused extensive and severe structural damage in north-eastern Japan, including heavy damage to roads and railways as well as fires in many areas, and a dam collapse. Around 4.4 million households in northeastern Japan were left without electricity and 1.5 million without water.
The World Bank’s estimated economic cost was US$235 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in world history.
Then Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was quoted as saying, “In the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan.”
Despite personnel receiving the opportunity to depart voluntarily, USNH Yokosuka continued to do its part to support the remaining service members and their families, to include Department of Defense (DOD) civilians in the local base community. Staffers who chose to remain behind often worked extended hours to help the facility maintain medical services and perform functions such as monitoring radioactive levels throughout the base and issuing potassium iodine pills.
“It was chaotic here but I think it is fair to say that for us who chose to remain, we did our best to work through each and every challenge we had in front of us,” said Christopher Labato, USNH Yokosuka Command Evaluator and one of the few staff members currently onboard that was here five years ago.
USNH Yokosuka departs to support
Located 38 Kilometers (23.6 miles) southwest of Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima First Nuclear Reactor, the facility houses severe physically and mentally disabled children. What drew Bozek there from the beginning is strictly a coincidence.
Yoriko Nemoto, a staff member at USNH Yokosuka, told Bozek about her friend, Toshiko Endo, who was a nurse at the facility who had been helping with the refugees of the disaster. Nemoto informed Bozek about the efforts made by Endo and her colleges there within the facility to care for youth who could not be relocated due to their extreme health conditions. It was there that Bozek decided to lead a team to do a visit.
When the facility was founded in 1951, it experienced financial woes, but was able to overcome the hardship due to a generous donation of $4,000.00 by an American doctor from USNH Yokosuka in 1952. From there, the facility began to thrive. Once Bozek heard about this, he decided that the hospital should attempt to rekindle the relationship by way of a facility visit, especially due to the recent atrocities.
The trip, consisting of approximately 5 hours from Yokosuka, was driven by USNH Yokosuka’s own driver, Minoru Yabuta, who also served as a translator. Yabuta not only drove the volunteers to Fukushima but also had the opportunity to help clean a local seaweed factory, as well as take in the scene of the destruction.
“I was at a loss of words,” said Yabuta. “I was totally surprised and at the same time shocked at what I was observing. It was absolutely worse than I thought. It’s one thing to see the damage on TV but with your own eyes, it is truly overbearing.”
When the crew arrived, they met with the staff members and the students, providing items such as towels, blankets, various snacks and music CD’s. Volunteers entertained staff members by playing the piano, singing and using computers to draw pictures with the children.
A second visit resulted in volunteers leaving the hospital with a card that contained the children’s handprints, representing a symbol of their appreciation.
Bozek swears that he will never forget the people who were a part of the trip, nor will he forget the professionals at Fukushima.
“The workers at this facility, at personal risk for themselves, stayed to take care of the handicap patients,” said Bozek. “When I told them I looked at them as heroes, they just told me that it was their duty.”
“The kids were amazing. I remember one of them was able to draw pictures with his toes using an improvised mouse tied into a computer (could not move his limbs). I saw why they risked their safety for these patients because they were still human.”
The most recent visit to the facility occurred October 12, 2015 by 16 faculty and staff.
“I gained more respect for the people, which was already there,” said Lt. Wayne Simonds, USNH Yokosuka CPI Program Director. “Their ability to bounce back and move forward with their lives and to rebuild after the earthquake and tsunami is truly amazing. Keeping fellowship and comradery with them says that we as American people would always be there to help.”
The ultimate goal for organizers is for engagements to continue in the future.
“I would love to go again because it was a great experience,” said Simonds. “I think it is a great opportunity for anybody within the hospital to go to meet the staff at the hospital and to see what they do. Also, you get to see the area and really understand what occurred there and get the true feeling of how our comrade amongst the Japanese nationals and Americans, how strong our bond is between us.”