Image: US Navy sailors load humanitarian supplies
MCSA Michael Feddersen  /  US Navia via AP
U.S. sailors load food and other humanitarian supplies Friday onto a helicopter aboard the USS Ronald Reagan off the coast of Japan.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 3/18/2011 5:28:55 PM ET 2011-03-18T21:28:55

As about 1,000 U.S. sailors began flying out of Japan on Friday, relatives in the United States expressed concerns about service members still in the country after last week's devastating earthquake and nuclear disaster.

The sailors — assigned to Carrier Air Wing 5, based at Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan — began flying their F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-6B Prowlers and E-2C Hawkeyes out late Thursday to Andersen Air Force Base on the U.S. territory of Guam, about 1,500 miles away in the Pacific Ocean. An unspecified number of other sailors were also being relocated to bases on the island of Okinawa.

The sailors, their aircraft and an undetermined number of dependents will remain there indefinitely to clear the way for other U.S. military units better equipped to carry out intense search and rescue operations on the ground in Japan, said Lt. Jodie Cornell, a spokeswoman for the Navy.

It's emblematic of the massive U.S. response to the Japanese disaster. The Defense Department is dedicating so many service members to the relief effort that it's having to pull others out to make room — enough to fill all the available military housing on Guam and spill over to pack 11 hotels that have contracts with the Defense Department, said Mary Torre, president of the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association.

Troops aiding with relief, cleanup
More than 17,000 of the roughly 49,000 U.S. service members in Japan have been assigned to the relief effort, the Defense Department said Friday, transporting tons of humanitarian supplies, clearing debris from flattened streets and neighborhoods, and providing high-pressure water pumps that are being used to help cool the critically damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dia-ichi plant.

But all of those 49,000 sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard members have families back home who have watched terrible scenes unfold in Japan over the last week, and many of them are afraid of what could happen to their uniformed loved ones.

From the moment she got a phone call from her sister telling her about the earthquake, Hortensia Palacios of Laredo, Texas, has been glued to the news. Her son, Marine Pfc. Richard Palacios Jr., 19, is assigned to Combined Arms Training Center at Camp Fuji in Gotemba.

Story: US charter flights begin to leave Japan

"Just a couple of days ago, we were on the phone talking, and I heard his furniture rattle, and he kept saying, 'Oh Mom, oh Mom,'" said Hortensia Palacios, who said her biggest worry is the threat of radiation.

She said she prays every day for her son and hopes she can get a package to him for his 20th birthday next week.

Emotional swings for families
Andrea Queen returned home to Jacksonville, Fla., a few weeks ago, leaving her husband, Jason Queen, a naval pilot assigned to Atsugi. Since the earthquake, she has been able to hear only on rare occasions from her husband, who has been deployed to the USS Mustin as part of the relief effort.

"It's scary. It's definitely not something that I try to think about a lot," she said. "He keeps reassuring me and telling me that everything's OK, so that makes me feel a little bit better."

For Queen and relatives of other service members in Japan, the scenes of devastation are hard to watch.

"I went from heartbroken to mad, I guess because I can't do anything and there are people that took such good care of me when I was there," she said."It's driving me crazy being here and not knowing what's going on."

Lt. Cmdr. John Perkins, a spokesman for Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam in Hawaii, acknowledged that the relief assignments take a toll on family members, too — those who live in Japan full-time and those who visit their relatives in the service.

"We actually are part of those communities. Our families are part of those communities," Perkins said. "We talk about key alliances with Japan, but it's also a personal alliance, a one-on-one alliance that we have built up over years."

Keeping track on Facebook
Danielle Hubbard of Newport News, Va., is one of the thousands of military spouses who followed their husbands or wives to live in Japan. She and her two children are among the military dependents evacuating the country under the authorized departure order the U.S. government put out this week.

Hubbard and the kids were expected to leave Friday or Saturday. But her husband, a sailor assigned to Atsugi whom she preferred not to name, is remaining in Japan.

"I'm extremely worried for my kids knowing that my husband has to stay behind," she said. "They're preparing them with the mop suits — you know, for the radiation — so they'll be in full gear. It's pretty scary.

Story: Q&A: What are the symptoms of radiation sickness?

"Just knowing that your leaving your spouse behind because he's an active-duty military member is kind of upsetting," she said.

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Many families closely track postings on the military's various Facebook sites, where service members are occasionally given space to write about what's going on.

Cmdr. Julie Sellerberg, who is assigned to the Navy Region Southwest Complex in San Diego, wrote of the stress of knowing a spouse is in such a dangerous assignment. Her husband, Lt. Cmdr. Kurt Sellerberg, is executive officer of the USS Preble, which is flying round-the-clock relief missions from off the Japanese coast.

"It is often hard when he or I deploy because the ones we leave behind do not have a clear picture of what we are doing while we are gone," Julie Sellerberg wrote on the Navy's official blog.

But she added: "I am proud to be able to show my children photos from the USS Preble Facebook page or turn on the news and tell them that Daddy is there helping the people of Japan with humanitarian aid."

Alex Johnson is a reporter for msnbc.com. NBC stations KGNS of Laredo, Texas; KUAM of Guam; WAVY of Portsmouth, Va.; and WTLV of Jacksonville, Fla., contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: US military mobilizes to aid Japan

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Map: Japan earthquake

  1. Above: Map Japan earthquake
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  3. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Timeline Crisis in Japan

Explainer: The 10 deadliest earthquakes in recorded history

  • A look at the worst earthquakes in recorded history, in loss of human life. (The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsumani that affected eastern Japan is not included because the fatalities caused, about 15,000, are fewer than those resulting from the temblors listed below.) Sources: United States Geological Survey, Encyclopedia Britannica

  • 1: Shensi, China, Jan. 23, 1556

    Magnitude about 8, about 830,000 deaths.

    This earthquake occurred in the Shaanxi province (formerly Shensi), China, about 50 miles east-northeast of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi. More than 830,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Damage extended as far away as about 270 miles northeast of the epicenter, with reports as far as Liuyang in Hunan, more than 500 miles away. Geological effects reported with this earthquake included ground fissures, uplift, subsidence, liquefaction and landslides. Most towns in the damage area reported city walls collapsed, most to all houses collapsed and many of the towns reported ground fissures with water gushing out.

  • 2: Tangshan, China, July 27, 1976

    Chinese Earthquake
    Keystone  /  Getty Images
    1976: Workers start rebuilding work following earthquake damage in the Chinese city of Tangshan, 100 miles east of Pekin, with a wrecked train carriage behind them. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
    Magnitude 7.5. Official casualty figure is 255,000 deaths. Estimated death toll as high as 655,000.

    Damage extended as far as Beijing. This is probably the greatest death toll from an earthquake in the last four centuries, and the second greatest in recorded history.

  • 3: Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 9, 1138

    Magnitude not known, about 230,000 deaths.

    Contemporary accounts said the walls of Syria’s second-largest city crumbled and rocks cascaded into the streets. Aleppo’s citadel collapsed, killing hundreds of residents. Although Aleppo was the largest community affected by the earthquake, it likely did not suffer the worst of the damage. European Crusaders had constructed a citadel at nearby Harim, which was leveled by the quake. A Muslim fort at Al-Atarib was destroyed as well, and several smaller towns and manned forts were reduced to rubble. The quake was said to have been felt as far away as Damascus, about 220 miles to the south. The Aleppo earthquake was the first of several occurring between 1138 and 1139 that devastated areas in northern Syria and western Turkey.

  • 4: Sumatra, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2004

    Aerial images show the extent of the devastation in Meulaboh
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    MEULABOH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 29: In this handout photo taken from a print via the Indonesian Air Force, the scene of devastation in Meulaboh, the town closest to the Sunday's earthquake epicentre, is pictured from the air on December 29, 2004, Meulaboh, Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. The western coastal town in Aceh Province, only 60 kilometres north-east of the epicentre, has been the hardest hit by sunday's underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Officials expected to find at least 10,000 killed which would amount to a quarter of Meulaboh's population. Three-quarters of Sumatra's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out after the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. (Photo by Indonesian Air Force via Getty Images)

    Magnitude 9.1, 227,898 deaths.

    This was the third largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the largest since the 1964 Prince William Sound, Alaska temblor. In total, 227,898 people were killed or were missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in South Asia and East Africa. (In January 2005, the death toll was 286,000. In April 2005, Indonesia reduced its estimate for the number missing by over 50,000.)

  • 5: Haiti, Jan 12, 2010

    Haitians walk through collapsed building
    Jean-philippe Ksiazek  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Haitians walk through collapsed buildings near the iron market in Port-au-Prince on January 31, 2010. Quake-hit Haiti will need at least a decade of painstaking reconstruction, aid chiefs and donor nations warned, as homeless, scarred survivors struggled today to rebuild their lives. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK (Photo credit should read JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

    Magnitude 7.0. According to official estimates, 222,570 people killed.

    According to official estimates, 300,000 were also injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti. This includes at least 4 people killed by a local tsunami in the Petit Paradis area near Leogane. Tsunami waves were also reported at Jacmel, Les Cayes, Petit Goave, Leogane, Luly and Anse a Galets.

  • 6: Damghan, Iran, Dec. 22, 856

    Magnitude not known, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake struck a 200-mile stretch of northeast Iran, with the epicenter directly below the city of Demghan, which was at that point the capital city. Most of the city was destroyed as well as the neighboring areas. Approximately 200,000 people were killed.

  • 7: Haiyuan, Ningxia , China, Dec. 16, 1920

    7.8 magnitude, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake brought total destruction to the Lijunbu-Haiyuan-Ganyanchi area. Over 73,000 people were killed in Haiyuan County. A landslide buried the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County. More than 30,000 people were killed in Guyuan County. Nearly all the houses collapsed in the cities of Longde and Huining. About 125 miles of surface faulting was seen from Lijunbu through Ganyanchi to Jingtai. There were large numbers of landslides and ground cracks throughout the epicentral area. Some rivers were dammed, others changed course.

  • 8: Ardabil, Iran, March. 23, 893

    Magnitude not known, about 150,000 deaths

    The memories of the massive Damghan earthquake (see above) had barely faded when only 37 years later, Iran was again hit by a huge earthquake. This time it cost 150,000 lives and destroyed the largest city in the northwestern section of the country. The area was again hit by a fatal earthquake in 1997.

  • 9: Kanto, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923

    Kanto Damage
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images
    1923: High-angle view of earthquake and fire damage on Hongokucho Street and the Kanda District, taken from the Yamaguchi Bank building after the Kanto earthquake, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    7.9 magnitude, 142,800 deaths.

    This earthquake brought extreme destruction in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, both from the temblor and subsequent firestorms, which burned about 381,000 of the more than 694,000 houses that were partially or completely destroyed. Although often known as the Great Tokyo Earthquake (or the Great Tokyo Fire), the damage was most severe in Yokohama. Nearly 6 feet of permanent uplift was observed on the north shore of Sagami Bay and horizontal displacements of as much as 15 feet were measured on the Boso Peninsula.

  • 10: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Oct. 5, 1948

    7.3 magnitude, 110,000 deaths.

    This quake brought extreme damage in Ashgabat (Ashkhabad) and nearby villages, where almost all the brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged and freight trains were derailed. Damage and casualties also occurred in the Darreh Gaz area in neighboring Iran. Surface rupture was observed both northwest and southeast of Ashgabat. Many sources list the casualty total at 10,000, but a news release from the newly independent government on Dec. 9, 1988, advised that the correct death toll was 110,000. (Turkmenistan had been part of the Soviet Union, which tended to downplay the death tolls from man-made and natural disasters.)

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