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One Marine rescued, another dead and five missing after midair collision off Japanese coast

Officials said five U.S. Marines are missing after two Marine Corps aircraft collided mid-air off the coast of Japan during a Dec. 6 refueling exercise. (Video: Reuters)

TOKYO — An aerial disaster involving a fighter jet and a refueling plane has prompted a scramble to find five missing Marines, with a sixth Marine declared dead and a seventh rescued safely from waters off the coast of Japan, Japanese and American officials said Thursday.

Japan’s Defense Ministry said its maritime forces found two Marines, both of whom were transferred to Japan to receive medical care. It has dispatched planes and ships to continue the search and rescue effort, alongside Japan’s coast guard and the U.S. military.

“We plan to keep at it all through the night,” Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ Joint Staff, said at a news conference. 

The U.S. Marine Corps initially said a “mishap” took place at 2 a.m. local time during routine training about 200 miles off the Japanese coast involving an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet and a KC-130 Hercules plane.

“The aircraft were conducting routine training, and aerial refueling was a part of the training,” the Marine Corps said in a statement. “As to what was taking place when the mishap occurred, that is under investigation.”

The first Marine was found soon after the incident and taken back to his base at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in southern Japan, where he has received medical care and is in “fair” 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 naval vessel before being transferred to a Red Cross hospital in Tokushima on the island of Shikoku, said Maj. Gen. Yasuko Onouchi, director general of public affairs in Japan’s Defense Ministry.

A Marine official said one of those Marines was later declared deceased. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation and its rapidly evolving nature.

It was not clear Thursday whether the recovered Marines were in the F/A-18 or the KC-130.

In a tweet, U.S. Ambassador William Hagerty applauded Japan and U.S. forces for their “immediate highly integrated response.” The Marines also expressed their appreciation for Japan’s efforts and those of the U.S. 7th Fleet, which has been flying Navy P-8A maritime patrol and reconnaissance Aircraft out of Kadena Air Base on the island of Okinawa.

The incident appears likely to add to concerns within Japan about accidents involving the U.S. military. 

The planes took 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 to suspend flights until the causes of the accident became clear, especially after another crash involving a Hornet in the Philippine Sea south 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 Super Hornet fighter from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan crashed into the sea south of Okinawa. Its two pilots were rescued safely by the carrier.

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. A F-15C Eagle Jet from the Kadena air base in Okinawa crashed into the sea in June, and its was 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 on 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 said at 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 has 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 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’s investigation found. The report blamed 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. 

Akiko Kashiwagi in Japan and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.

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