Area sailors recall aiding Japan disaster reliefWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | email@example.com
Editor’s Note: U.S. Navy Airman Alex Wolff is the brother-in-law of Special Sections Editor Sarah Ottney.
Airman Alex Wolff and ET2 Benjamin Perrine will never forget their front-row seats to history one year ago this month.
The two Genoa High School graduates were among the U.S. Navy servicemen stationed on the USS Reagan during a routine seven-month deployment.
The aircraft carrier happened to be near the Japanese coast on March 11, 2011, when a massive undersea earthquake triggered powerful tsunami waves that destroyed towns, damaged coastal infrastructure — including a nuclear power plant — and left tens of thousands dead, injured or missing.
“Once we heard word of the disaster, we headed directly to Japan to help out,” said Perrine, a 2006 Genoa graduate serving as an electronics technician. “It was exciting to be part of something big, something that was on national news for awhile.”
The carrier was part of the relief effort dubbed Operation Tomodachi, Wolff said.
“It was strictly a humanitarian mission. Tomodachi is Japanese for friend,” said Wolff, a 2007 Genoa graduate now serving as an aviation maintenance administrator. “We did vertical replenishment, which is basically using helicopters to send supplies ashore.”
Neither Wolff nor Perrine felt or heard the earthquake, so nothing seemed out of the ordinary — at first.
“Once we got close to the coast of Japan, it was obvious something terrible had happened,” Wolff said. “It was like an entire city was just floating away.
“There were so many boats just floating away and we would go by them and there was no one on them. It was just an eerie feeling. There were entire houses floating completely intact off the coast. It was weird just seeing someone’s entire life just floating away. That is definitely something I will remember forever. You got that feeling in your stomach like you wanted to help so bad, but there really wasn’t a lot you could do.
“I was really humbled by just the sheer devastation. I remember standing on the back of the ship one afternoon looking down at the water and seeing everything someone worked their whole life for just being washed out to sea. You see the family photographs and teddy bears and things like that just being swept away and it really makes you stop and think. I just felt extremely sad for what had happened to these people.”
Even though the carrier was close enough for sailors to see debris, Wolff said it was still “kind of a mystery” what was happening on shore and crewmembers got most of their news from television.
“We were off the coast, but most of the time we couldn’t actually see the shore so watching the news was kind of a way to see the disaster,” Wolff said. “You saw the debris floating in the water and it really made you wonder what it must look like on land.”
The ship sent most if its own supplies to aid isolated, rural areas of Japan.
“A lot of the roads there were totally destroyed, which left people trapped without power or food,” Wolff said. “The cold weather was a huge concern. We sent over countless pallets of nonperishable food items and water. Also a lot of blankets and cold-weather clothing.
“We got to the point that the ship actually started running out of supplies to send over so a call came down from the captain that they were collecting personal items. I personally sent some of my clothes and sweatshirts over on one of the helicopters. So did a lot of other people.
“I’m sure my clothes were way too big for whoever got them,” added the 6-foot, 3-inch Wolff. “I was about a foot taller than everyone else when I was walking around Japan.”
Wolff’s job was to wrap pallets of food and arrange them on the flight deck to be hooked by helicopters.
Perrine’s job was to stand watch over the ship’s on-board nuclear propulsion plants as reactor department personnel worked to contain radioactive contamination picked up by aircraft used in the relief effort.
“The nuclear disasters of the power plants was scary for us because we didn’t know how much radiation we were actually going to receive from the water or the plume clouds,” Perrine said.
Wolff said the cold weather off the coast of Japan in March made him homesick.
“It actually felt a lot like winter in Ohio,” Wolff said. “There was snow accumulating on the decks on a few different occasions which was actually pretty cool to see. It felt like home for a few days with the snow.”
Wolff — who is stationed at a southern California naval air station, where he returned when the deployment ended in September — said he was surprised the anniversary of the disaster came and went with little recognition.
“What surprises me is how little you actually heard about it,” Wolff said. “From being over there firsthand, you know that stuff isn’t just over with. I would love to see what it looks like now and what they’ve done in a year because I have to believe it still looks pretty devastated over there, considering only a year ago that whole coastline was washed out to sea.”
Perrine said the nearly nonstop relief efforts were stressful on the crew, but he is happy to have helped.
“I definitely feel that we made a difference,” Perrine said. “If you could imagine losing your home, all your belongings, being hungry, pretty much having nothing and then a supply of food, drink and clothing came, it might give you some hope or at least make you feel better. I think I will remember just being part of history. When people talk about the great tsunami that happened to Japan, I will remember where I was and what our ship did.”
“You just hope something like that never happens to you or the people you love, but seeing it firsthand was kind of a reminder that nature is just powerful and unforgiving. It could happen anywhere,” Wolff said. “It just really made me stop and think and remember there are a lot of things in my life that I take totally for granted. I know that probably sounds like a bit of a cliche, but seeing the disaster was a reminder of the things that are truly important to you.”