AT SEA --
EARLY DAWN ON THE USS SOMERSET
I awoke inside my coffin rack to the sounds of bottles and other small items clanking on metal surfaces as the USS Somerset rocked back and forth amidst violent waves. I checked my phone to look at the time. 0400. Damn. I still had an hour before work. I opened up an electronic book I was reading the night before; Haruki Murakami's South of the Border, West of the Sun. After swiping through the pages, I saw a quote I had highlighted a while ago:
“What we needed were not words or promises, but the steady accumulation of small realities.”
The quote referred to building a relationship between two people. However, I felt it also applied to relationships between organizations and it summarized our mission here as interpreters and liaisons. We were responsible for breaking down language and cultural barriers between the United States Marine Corps and Japan's Western Army Infantry Regiment. But more than that we made sure they received the training and knowledge necessary to build a long-term relationship. It was our job to facilitate a steady accumulation of small realities.
I lost myself in the book and soon enough it was sunrise. The Japanese will have already pre-staged their military personnel at the embarking ramp for loading onto the landing craft air cushion hovercraft, ready for their amphibious assault. I washed my face and wiped it dry with a Japanese handkerchief - my most precious keepsake; it was a gift from my mentor and I received it while I was studying for a year in Kobe, Japan. The handkerchief reminded me of the discipline and hard work that I respected so much in the Japanese culture. It seems the Japanese I’d met always do their best in every aspect of life.
It was time for me to do my best as well.
I met up with the other Marine interpreters on the flight deck. There were four of us total. First was Kaya, a half-Japanese, half-American girl from Utah, who spoke with a valley-girl accent in English, but whose Japanese was impeccable. Christopher was also half-Japanese, half-American, and had some of the best knowledge of Japanese technical terms. Finally, we had Aric, a California kid who had a solid basic foundation of Japanese and who could be counted on to provide supplies and other things we needed when we were over tasked. As the lead noncommissioned officer for the USS Somerset interpreter detachment, I was responsible for tasking each of them out and maintaining accountability.
We headed down the embarking ramp and put our ear plugs on as the deafening sounds of grinding machinery echoed from the belly of the ship, otherwise known as the well-deck. The well-deck was a massive metallic atrium flanked by several ramps from which multiple vehicles could board the hovercrafts and deploy into the water. Its walls were covered with pipes, chains and other metal components. Violent waves crashed and flooded into the main ramp and a couple of curious seals were brave enough to wander into it before being chased away by the Sailors in charge of safety. They were worried the seals would be harmed when we launched.
The Japanese soldiers had already lined themselves up on the walls of one ramp. The combat cargo staff noncommissioned officer, a tough-as-nails woman named Staff Sgt. Jazmen Ruiz, gave me a roster of the Japanese soldiers' names and explained the embarking procedures to us.
The other embarking Marines were already hard at work using hand and arm signals to direct vehicles and ensure the safety of their Japanese soldiers. They made sure that the vehicles fit together in either the ship or the landing craft air cushion, similar to a game of Tetris.
“Time to add embarking specialist to my list of military occupational specialties,” said Kaya, a Marine who by trade worked for the 7th Engineer Support Battalion.
What she said wasn't far from the truth. We really were required to have knowledge of multiple jobs when working as interpreters and liaisons. Interpretation is tricky, and it's difficult to translate and teach about something you don't fully understand yourself. Furthermore, each word and sentence has subtle connotations and nuances. It's extremely important to not only know the subject, but also the culture of the group of people you are talking to if you want to effectively communicate with them. We owed a lot to Ruiz who was a good teacher herself. She ran us through multiple drills and rehearsals until we were comfortable in the role.
I performed the roll-call and directed the Japanese to each station. I also walked them through embarking procedures prior to them loading up their vehicles and boarding the landing craft air cushion. Kaya went up to the tower and was broadcasting boarding and staging announcements. Christopher was attached to the Japanese landing force and was already lined up with them. We made sure that if the Japanese leadership had questions about the procedures, we provided answers to them or we directed them to the proper subject matter expert.
After the hustle and bustle, 1st Lt. Jacob Greenslade, the officer-in-charge of the embarkation and I got the idea to grab breakfast for the Japanese soldiers. Having staged two-hours prior to the launch and due to the high operational tempo, we knew the Japanese wouldn't have had time to eat breakfast at all. I took Aric with me and went up to the galley where we talked to the lead petty officer who, after some wheeling and dealing, was more than happy to provide us with enough boxes of Pop Tarts, cereals and fruits.
While Aric distributed the food, I recognized a sleepy face in a Japanese military vehicle, a militarized version of the Toyota Mega Cruiser. It was Mas, a staff sergeant with the Japanese Army and the platoon sergeant of their Fire Support Team. I had been working with him for two years when I was attached to the 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company. A real modern-day samurai, he was proficient in conducting call-for-fire, whether it was artillery, mortars, naval guns or even close air support. I opened up a pack of Pop Tarts and said hi.
“Been a while man,” I said to him in Japanese, grinning. I handed him a Pop Tart which he happily received. He then got out of his vehicle and distributed the food to his guys.
“Thanks,” said Mas. “This'll help out a lot. It's good to see you again.”
“No problem. You guys got enough water?”
He smiled and showed me his canteen.
“Awesome. Let's grab some coffee and play some Japanese poker when you guys get back.”
“Sounds like a plan,” he said. He and his troops looked a lot less sleepy as they ate.
It was nearly 10 a.m. by the time the last of the landing force embarked and our day had just begun. The day before, I organized a gear class for the Japanese landing force officer and his staff taught by Cpl. Simmons, an infantry platoon sergeant with Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Simmons was an example of what retired Gen. Charles Krulak defined as the strategic corporal: knowledgeable about his job field and physically strong. Although Simmons was rough around the edges, he spoke clearly and with intent. Simmons also wanted to build a relationship with the Japanese and he understood that the decisions he makes at his level can have a significant impact on the mission.
The Japanese soldiers were more than happy to receive knowledge from the experienced Marine grunts on how to improve their mobility and combat effectiveness by properly configuring their gear. Simmons and his Marines showed the different configurations of their packs, depending on personal preference, which weapons they needed to carry and their experiences in the field.
Simmons and his platoon had interacted with the Japanese before in Marine Corps Ground Air Combat Center Twentynine Palms. A few of his Marines even sparred with one of the Japanese soldiers who happened to be a Judo Black Belt. Simmons kept an open mind about what the Japanese had to teach and his Marines were more than happy to step up and teach too. They each used hand gestures and body language to communicate in addition to their words.
“It's all about comfort,” said Simmons as he loosened the straps on his pack, allowing the hip strap to settle on his lower back, beneath his plate carrier. “Each ounce of pain compounds itself when you're patrolling.”
Due to the success of the class, we got ambitious and tried to plan and execute an informal small unit tactics class to be held that afternoon during some downtime. We had gotten permission from the Marine first sergeant and were pretty excited for it.
Until then Kaya, Aric and I kept ourselves gainfully employed, resolving any logistical, planning and operational issues that came up and functioned as the intermediary between the staff of the USS Somerset and the Western Army Infantry Regiment's landing force staff. Such tasks included resolving any issues that the Japanese landing force commander had about transportation and communication for the amphibious landing exercise, being the middleman for media content between the Japanese staff and Marine Corps public affairs and conducting physical training with both the Japanese soldiers and the Marines.
It was early afternoon and nearly time for the small unit tactics class. The Japanese had gathered an entire platoon at the flight deck to participate. I looked for Simmons and he was nowhere to be found. I found out that he was ordered to conduct rehearsals and construct terrain models for their amphibious landing and assault. Now, any Marine who has been in the Corps longer than 30 minutes knows that plans change all of the time, but I was worried about how the Japanese soldiers would react to the sudden change of plans.
There are many ways to apologize in Japanese, and I used the most formal expression: “Moushiwake arimasen”, which meant I made a mistake and that I had no excuse. The lesson was canceled. Their officer-in-charge released them back to their regular tasks.
“Hey, no big deal. This happens in the Japanese military too. Plans change,” said Yuya, a Japanese Army ranger who I had went to the gym with before. It came as a welcome relief that the Japanese were also used to abrupt changes in plans.
“Yeah, that’s the military isn’t it?” I scratched my head and laughed at myself. We then sat at the flight deck for a while and relaxed for a bit. There would be another chance to teach.
After dinner, I visited the command center in the bridge and made sure there were no additional interpreting tasks required from us. I then went back to the sleeping quarters, sat on my coffin rack and opened up the Murakami book.
As I started to doze off, I heard somebody call my name. It was a Japanese officer we nicknamed Slick, for his long hair which was gelled back and his incredible English-speaking skills. I got out of my coffin rack and suited up. His superiors tasked him with getting some of the video footage from Marine Corps Public Affairs and he didn't know how to reach them. Sounded like a job for me.
Ultimately, we were there as interpreters and liaisons to break down the language barrier, and offer Marines a way to communicate with, understand and navigate the differences in culture of the foreign military we were working with.
More than that, I believed we were facilitators, being the intermediary between the higher level commands of both sides, we were the first to know what needed to get done, and thus, it was also our job to make sure it got done.
It was our job not to only to convey words or promises, but to provide the steady accumulation of small realities.
I put my boots and my blouse on and got to work.