- Visit to the USS Blue Ridge was the last stop on Panetta's visit to Japan
- He praises U.S. Navy for response to Japan's massive earthquake disaster
- Panetta is now in South Korea
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrapped up his stop in Japan Wednesday with a visit to the USS Blue Ridge, the command and control ship that oversaw the U.S. Navy's response to last March's earthquake disaster in northern Japan.
"It's remarkable, 22 ships, 19,000 personnel all involved in trying to help your fellow human beings," he said.
Operation Tomodachi was the U.S. military's name for the massive effort to respond when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami on the east coast of Japan. That tsunami badly damaged a nuclear power plant , which began leaking dangerous levels of radiation.
In addition to the Navy, thousands military service members and Department of Defense civilian employees worked on the relief as well.
Within hours of the quake, the Blue Ridge, which was on a visit to Singapore, loaded up with relief supplies and steamed back towards its home port outside Tokyo. Many of the ship's crew had no idea at the time if their families back at the port were okay, but they kept focused on their new mission.
Panetta, who hadn't yet taken over at the Pentagon, praised the crew for it's sacrifice.
"In the end the greatest service we do is when we are able to reach out and help our fellow human beings in need," he told sailors on the Blue Ridge. "And the work that was done here in that disaster, working with the Japanese Self Defense Forces and being able to respond to the drastic needs that people had as a result of that terrible earthquake, It's a great compliment to all of you," Panetta said.
He said their actions will have a long-term payoff for the United States. "I can't tell you how important it was to the alliance between the U.S. and Japan," Panetta said.
And even as Panetta was saying this, U.S. Navy sailors from the USS Mustion were in Thailand helping that country deal with the worst flooding in half a century. They've been working in a warehouse distributing relief supplies, visiting an orphanage to visit with the children. And the crew of about 300 took up a collection among themselves and will donate the money to the people of Thailand.
Panetta, who is now in South Korea, is visiting the Pacific region "to reinforce the U.S. commitment in Asia," according to the U.S. military.