TOKYO – Two U.S. Marines were rescued from the ocean Thursday but five remain missing after a fighter jet and a refueling plane collided in midair off the coast of Japan, Japanese and American officials said.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said its maritime forces had found two Marines, both of whom have been transferred to the U.S. military to receive medical care. It has dispatched planes and ships to continue the search and rescue effort.
The Marine Corps initially said a “mishap” had taken place at 2 a.m. local time during an exercise about 200 miles (320 km) off the Japanese coast, involving a F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet and a KC-130 Hercules, adding that the circumstances were “under investigation.” Officials later confirmed the accident occurred during refueling.
The first Marine was found soon after the incident and taken back to his base at the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in southern Japan, where he was receiving medical care and is in a stable condition, the Marines said.
The second was picked up at 12:13 p.m., more than 10 hours after the crash, and was taken onboard a Japanese military vessel before being transferred to a Red Cross hospital in Tokushima on the island of Shikoku, Maj. Gen. Yasuko Onouchi, director general of public affairs in the Japan’s Ministry of Defense said.
In a tweet, U.S. Ambassador William Hagerty applauded Japan and U.S. forces for their “immediate highly integrated response.”
But the incident will do nothing to dampen concerns within Japan about accidents involving the U.S. military.
The planes had taken off from Iwakuni, one of the biggest U.S. air bases in East Asia, which sits on the southeastern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, about 25 miles from Hiroshima. It hosts around 15,000 personnel, with U.S. Marines alongside units of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force.
The mayor of Iwakuni, Yoshihiko Fukuda, called on the U.S. military suspend flights until the causes of the accident became clear, especially after another crash involving a Hornet off the seas of Japan last month. Fukuda told the local assembly that Iwakuni’s commanding officer Col. Richard Fuerst had called him on Thursday morning
“I first expressed our regret for the accident that has happened. And we talked about our hope that the crew would be rescued as soon as possible,” he said, according to his office. “And I called on the commander to hold off aircraft operations until the cause of the accident becomes clear, because people are increasingly worried about it.”
Last month, a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan crashed into the sea off the coast of the southern island of Okinawa. Its two pilots were rescued safely.
In mid-October, a MH-60 Seahawk helicopter from the Ronald Reagan also crashed into the Philippine Sea shortly after takeoff, injuring a dozen sailors, while a F-15C Eagle Jet from the Kadena air base in Okinawa crashed into the sea in June, with its pilot rescued.
“We would like urge the Japanese government and the U.S. military to investigate the cause of the accident and take measures thoroughly to keep such accidents from happening again,” Fukuda added.
Concerns about accidents are even sharper in the island of Okinawa, which hosts about half of the 54,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country, including many Marines and the largest U.S. Air Force base in the Asia-Pacific region at Kadena.
“The incident is regrettable, but our focus at the moment is on search and rescue,” Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told a news conference, according to news agencies. “Japan will respond appropriately once the details of the incident are uncovered.”
But the concerns about U.S. military aviation accidents are not unique to Japan, and a growing list of accidents around the world have prompted congressional hearings and talk of a crisis.
In April, the Military Times reported that accidents involving all of the military’s manned fighter, bomber, helicopter and cargo warplanes rose nearly 40 percent from fiscal years 2013 to 2017, and had doubled for some aircraft including the F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets.
At least 133 service members were killed over that time period, the Military Times’ investigation found, blaming massive congressional budget cuts imposed in 2013, intensified by nonstop deployments of warplanes and their crews, an exodus of maintenance personnel and deep cuts to pilots’ flight-training hours.
“My heart goes out to the families and colleagues of Marines involved in this tragedy,” Hagerty, the ambassador, said at an event at Waseda University in Tokyo, according to the Reuters news agency.
“They risk their lives every day to protect Japan and to protect this region and sometimes they pay the greatest costs. So I want to emphasize this security alliance that we have is critical and it is moving forward to the right direction,” he said.