Sunday, April 15, 2012

Operation Tomodachi - An MC's story of disaster and discovery

Bird's eye view of horror:  MC3 Tidd hitching a ride in a Sea Hawk helicopter.

Below photos, unless otherwise noted, are by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd.  

Stop by  and Reagan's Facebook for full photo information..

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake occurred east of the island of Japan.  It would trigger disaster after disaster, in a seemingly endless string of events that took the lives of over 15,000 Japanese citizens.  

Our lives are also made up of events.  Every once in a while one arrives and sets fire to our dull routine, and pushes us further than ever before.  As you read MC3 Tidd's story, think about what you would feel if you were faced with the events that he witnessed.


I met Alex in Bremerton, Washington, when the Ronald Reagan pulled in.  He had that brash, confident vibe going on that, sigh, brought back memories of me at 24.  Except he's way smarter and more self-aware than I was at that age.  

As we put back a few beers at the bar on base, he mentioned he had written a story on his experiences during the disaster in Japan, but had never tried to publish it anywhere.  

I think I can help with that.

HH-60H Sea Hawk helicopters from the Black Knights of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 4 prepare to lift off.

 MARCH 15, 2011

Damn, it’s cold, I thought to myself. 

          Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Carringer had hauled open the heavy side door of our HH-60H Sea Hawk helicopter as we banked alongside the Japanese waterfront for our first look at the tsunami-ravaged Honshu coast. The icy rush of air came as a shock—the first of many.

          I, like everyone in the helo, was wearing a “dry suit,” a watertight twist on the traditional wetsuit and vitally essential for survival in extremely cold waters. Hammering that point home was a note on the whiteboard in Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 4’s ready room aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. It read:

Water Temp:
     39 degrees (F)

Estimated survival time in water:
     45 minutes with dry suit
     5 minutes otherwise

Fresh snow lined the hillsides of what I was told was the Miyagi Prefecture as we continued up the coast. The small but steep mountain cliffs jutting severely from the ocean briefly reminded me of San Francisco, my hometown, but I shook that thought away as I took in the landscape.  Cruising at a touch over 100 miles per hour about 500 feet off the ocean, the rural countryside would have been beautiful in most any other circumstance. Marring the pristine waterline were all manner of debris—buoys, fishing nets, floating sections of dock that had broken away. 

Small capsized boats broke the surface here and there, but the land was otherwise devoid of human life. 

           Our helicopter was among the first on scene after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck northern Japan March 11, 2011. I had been at dinner in one of Ronald Reagan’s galleys when CNN broke the news of the disaster. As more and more of my fellow sailors took notice of the broadcast, silence fell over the room. We were transiting the Pacific on our way to an exercise with the South Korean military, about halfway between Hawaii and our first port-of-call of our 2011 deployment—Busan, Republic of Korea. 

As I watched the murky water wipe away the lives of so many Japanese citizens, I knew right away our plans had just changed.

          Four days later I was strapped into the gunner’s belt of one of the legendary Black Knights of HS-4’s venerable Sea Hawk helicopters, in the company of one of their most experienced air crews. 

          But I wasn’t one of them.

           I was a photojournalist from Ronald Reagan’s Graphics Media department, picked for this assignment because of my swimming qualifications and proven ability on the flight deck of our floating airport.  The previous day, our photo and video guys had been crossed off the flight manifest at the last minute when HS-4’s executive officer rightfully proclaimed that potentially-rescued victims took precedence over us.

           It only took one day to realize they wouldn’t be finding any survivors in those waters.  Now soaring at triple-digit speeds in the freezing cold, I had one thought going through my head:

First these people endure one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history. The earthquake generates a wall of water 30 feet high in some places that absolutely ravages their coastal towns. All that water sparks the failure of a nuclear powerplant, releasing untold radiation into the atmosphere. 

And now it’s f*cking snowing.

           I was flying a reconnaissance mission with HS-4 one day prior—my first flight with the Black Knights—when chatter picked up over the radio. We were canvassing a designated area for survivors but finding only empty fishing boats, large islands of debris and the occasional drifting house when the pilots of my helo and several others in the area began a distressed conversation I couldn’t fully understand.
The Sea Hawk banked abruptly as we headed for home. Over our Sea Hawk’s circuit, I asked one of the aircrewmen what had happened. 

Evidently, he replied, we had flown through a “radiation cloud” and had to return to the ship immediately.

Once back on the flight deck, we were directed toward one of the ship’s Chemical, Biological and Radiological (CBR) stations. As we disembarked, a team from the ship’s Reactor department (Ronald Reagan is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier) immediately descended on the Sea Hawk.

Counter-measure washdown on the flight deck.
Inside the CBR station, another Reactor team similarly descended on us. We each were given a thorough scan with a Gieger meter, seeking out hotspots to determine if we could expect a lymphoma-filled future. My flight suit, dry suit and boots were all confiscated and whisked off to God-knows-where but, thankfully, I was given a clean bill of health. 


Now, just one day later, we were cleared to resume our humanitarian mission—albeit with a stiff warning not to stray within 100 nautical miles of the damaged nuclear plant. I was tasked with two roles: collecting intelligence data on potential landing zones and providing media coverage of whatever went on. I shivered through all those layers while tightly grasping my Nikon as we descended down the mountainside toward what was left of a civilization.
I checked and rechecked my gear, making sure I had good batteries and extra memory cards at the ready. I had received all of three weeks training in still photography at the Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Md., several years ago. While DINFOS instructors do their best to instill in their students how to react to uncontrolled action, my real lessons had come from shooting F/A-18 Super Hornets launching off the flight deck at over 200 miles per hour. But the fact of the matter was simple—there’s no way to prepare for a disaster of this magnitude other than through sheer experience.

At 24 years old, I don’t know that I was fully prepared for what I would see. The devastation was near total in the lowlands, with mountains of wreckage where houses once stood—houses a lot like the one I grew up in—surrounded by countless overturned automobiles. Scattered, larger buildings still standing were the rare exception, and even they wouldn’t be habitable again for a long time.
Just as impressive were the boats and ships littering the landscape, washed ashore by the wall of water. My Nikon’s shutter slammed open and closed as fast as my numb hands could fire the trigger, capturing the strangely surreal sight of a thousand-person ferry boat resting atop a three-story building as though God himself had placed it there. Or a large crab boat, balancing precariously on a concrete jetty some 20 feet off the water. The unnatural new homes for these vessels stood in stark contrast to the horror surrounding them.


The Sea Hawk shuddered as it air braked suddenly and pulled into a sharp turn. As we came around, I spotted why we had slowed to a hover.  

Scrawled into the solid rock of a hillside 
were the letters “S.O.S.” 

The aircrewmen searched the airspace for tree limbs and power lines, known affectionately to helicopter crews as “widowmakers,” before shouting the all clear on both sides. We descended toward a small clearing a hundred feet from the rock that would have to do as a makeshift landing zone.


Carringer and Petty Officer 3rd Matt Thomas, the other HS-4 rescue swimmer assigned to this flight, hopped out of the helo first as I followed close behind. No sooner had we cleared the rotor blades chopping over our heads than a light flatbed truck came chugging into the clearing. It came to a halt and two Japanese men and a young boy climbed out of the cab.
Carringer and Thomas approached the three and greeted them in English, but they just shook their heads. Carringer produced a green, laminated notecard with several phrases printed in Japanese and English. Using the card as their guide, the aircrewmen checked off the various needs of this location—food, water, a first-aid kit and other essentials.

Using the translator card.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord/Released)

           Providing aid to a disaster of this magnitude was an enormous task. As of yet, USS Ronald Reagan and its air wing were the only real resources on scene. After a few days in the area, C-2A Greyhound cargo planes would constantly be coming and going from the aircraft carrier, packed to the gills with vital supplies for the relief effort. But when we first arrived, we only could give what we already had with us.  Our Sea Hawk was loaded with cases of bottled water and packaged food, which we gladly handed over to the Japanese. But, surprisingly, they didn’t want all of it. 

One of the greatest impressions I would take away from Operation Tomodachi would be the Japanese’s steadfast dedication to taking no more than they felt they might need. 

As the Sea Hawk’s rotors began churning up more and more dust, the aircrewmen jotted down the landing zone’s desired supplies for future missions, then informed me it was time to leave. As I followed Carringer and Thomas back into the helo, I caught one last glimpse of the Japanese citizens beside their truck. 
All three were bowing as we lifted off the deck.

Chief Naval Air Crewman Steven Sinclair hugs a Japanese citizen after tsunami relief efforts at a coastal Japanese city.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin B. Gray/Released)

Two more days of rescue operations had gone by when I received the call to fly again. This time I’d share a helo with Petty Officer 3rd Class Seth Eslin and Petty Officer 2nd Class Zach Delcorte, using cases of bottled water, boxes of warm clothes and wool blankets for seats in the crowded cabin.
A lot had changed by the third day of Tomodachi. The Black Knights were joined by several helicopter squadrons based off the amphibious command ship USS Blueridge (LCC 19) for delivery runs. F/A-18F Super Hornets from Ronald Reagan were flying low-altitude recon missions, proving constant updates as the situation developed. Coordinating it all was a squadron of E-2C Hawkeyes, the aircraft famous for the 24-foot diameter roto-dome attached to its fuselage, using their high-tech equipment to manage the battlespace by sending precise flights of supplies exactly where they were needed most.

Although the Ronald Reagan Strike Group now had a much better understanding of how to manage the humanitarian effort, circumstances on the ground were growing worse. 

Overturned cars and rubble had effectively rendered many roads impassable to some of the most critical locations, making air support vital to the survival of the refugee centers.
Now one of many helos scouring the Miyagi Prefecture, our mission sounded simple on paper: fly to an assigned LZ, give them what they need, return to Ronald Reagan and do it again.
In reality, however, we had more freedom to act on the fly. That fluidity came into play during our second supply run, when word came from one of the Hawkeyes that a new LZ had been found not far from our current location. Our Sea Hawk banked hard to the right as we set a new course.


Eslin and Delcorte kept a keen eye on the surrounding terrain as we slowly made our way through a narrow valley. Light snow was falling and visibility was unfailingly minimal, as it would be throughout Tomodachi. Occasionally, the guys would spot an infamous widowmaker, sending the helo lurching in one direction or another as they called out the warning. I tried my best to stay out of their way while keeping an eye on my camera gear.
The valley opened up into a large clearing that was strangely divided by a railroad embankment. On the far side was our target LZ; an elementary school set on a hill. The other side, well, the other side was completely f*cked for a solid mile from the ocean to the embankment, which apparently had been enough to stop the flood.

 We came to a soft a landing in the mud of a soccer field outside the school. Delcorte and Eslin had to rush out of the Sea Hawk as a crowd of children and adults came pouring out of the gymnasium, warning them not to come within the rotor wash. Obediently, the Japanese waited just beyond the reach of the blades as Delcore and Eslin started unloading the helo.

Near as we could tell, our supply run 
couldn’t have come a moment too soon. 

The elementary school lay at the foot of the mountainside and opened up toward the railroad embankment. There was absolutely no way in or out by land, meaning this shelter needed everything we had with us.
As Delcorte continued unloading supplies, I followed Eslin toward the school. We were greeted by what I can only guess was a family, an adult male and female and two small children. They spoke broken English, meaning the green notecard would be worth its weight in gold once more.
While Eslin worked with the family on their shelter’s needs, I timidly ventured inside the gymnasium. 

I felt like an intruder, but I also realized that this might be the only photos from inside a shelter. 

The somber eyes of displaced Japanese citizens met mine as I removed my flight helmet and stepped onto the hardwood floor in my muddy boots. I tried not to let my nervousness show in my smile as I bowed to the victims of the terrible tragedy I had witnessed only from high in the air.
Once again I was impressed by the Japanese’s way of handling the situation that had been thrust upon them. Gathered inside the gymnasium around propane heaters were their children and elderly, while every able-bodied man and women helped move and organize the supplies from our helo. Mattresses and blankets covered most of the floor, alongside the few personal possessions they had managed to save. Though somber, their eyes showed realization and appreciation as some returned my bow, while still others shook my hand as I meekly made my way around the room.
After snapping a few photos, I walked outside toward the Sea Hawk. Eslin and Delcorte were unloading the last of the supplies for the locals as I walked past the Sea Hawk. Our exit was fast approaching, but morbid curiosity got the best of me as I walked through the mud toward the railroad embankment. I spotted the road that passed beneath a trestle bridge and headed for a close-up look at what lay on the other side.
It was exactly as we had thought, but that didn’t make it any easier to witness. I stepped through the wreckage, surrounded by literal mountains of demolished businesses, cars buried beneath rubble and houses collapsed upon themselves. I felt the pain of these people in knowing their neighborhood could just have easily been mine in another world.

At once, Eslin appeared behind me, gesturing emphatically that it was time to go. Several children stopped us on the way back to the Sea Hawk to take a picture with them in front of the helo. These kids were managing to find some fun in life despite the horror that had washed over their world. I don’t know that I had ever been so humbled in all my life. I was moved by the incredible display of human perseverance and resolve I had born witness to, both inside the gymnasium-turned-shelter and beyond the wall of the embankment.

           I would fly five missions over the course of USS Ronald Reagan’s involvement with Operation Tomodachi and see many more incredible acts of endurance. The plight of these people was unimaginable, but their resilience was humanity at its finest.

---MC3 Alexander Tidd

Thank you for sharing this personal story with us.  And thank you to all the Sailors that put themselves in harm's way to reach out to the Japanese.

By the way, Tomodachi means friend.


  1. This is a great story from MC Tidd. Thanks for sharing.

  2. The Tsunami was 30 meters (up to 40m), not 30 feet.

  3. Thanks for making me relive those days.