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Seabees Rescue Japanese Community from Boulder

OKINAWA, Japan - For the past year, commuters traveling along the primary access road that connects the Heshikiya community to the White Beach Naval Facility in Okinawa, Japan, did so at their own peril. Perched roughly 150 meters above the road on the mountainous face of an exposed ridge, a boulder the size of a compact car peered down the cliff, threatening to fall at any moment.

Composed of different types of dirt, stone, clay and held in place by a small natural dirt wedge about the size of dustpan, the boulder’s size and consistency could easily crush through the average Japanese vehicle and kill anyone traveling on foot. 

With no money left in his budget, the Heshikiya District Chief Mitsuo Shinya struggled to find a solution that would allow the open transit of this important road and remove the dangerous conditions threatening those under his charge. 

“I’ve been working on trying to get the boulder removed for a year and a half,” said Shinya through an interpreter. “I want to thank the Seabees for helping solve this problem. They’re motivation and spirit assured me they could get the job done.”

Led by Chief Construction Electrician Chance Agnew, 13 Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3 ventured to the ridge above White Beach January 14-29 to rid Heshikiya of their problem. Agnew’s plan was simple in theory – use equipment in battalion’s existing inventory to climb the ridge, lock workers safely into place, then use a jackhammer and several other heavy tools to bust the boulder a part, piece-by-piece. 

Agnew combed NMCB 3 looking for members who had both advanced rock climbing experience and gear so they could safely execute his plan. Logistics Specialist 2nd Classes Eric Johnson and Travis Pommer, best friends and both assigned to NMCB 3’s Supply Department, answered Agnew’s call. Having safely completed more than 200 climbs between them, the two-man team was able to expertly use the 200-foot climbing ropes, carabineers and harnesses found in the battalion’s inventory to allow Agnew’s team of Seabees to remove the cliff-side tumor both safely and within the allotted time. 

Prior to actually putting hands on the boulder, Agnew and his team spent days clearing paths leading through the triple-canopy jungle that surrounded the ridge. This helped them gain safe access to the job site. These trails allowed the team to transport a generator, their jackhammer, fuel and other tools, including a wire litter in case someone was injured. Once access was established and gear staged, Pommer and Johnson created a solid anchor point using a redundant locking system. The system locked their ropes and climbing harnesses onto multiple catch points to ensure the only thing sent tumbling down the cliff was the boulder.

“That was the biggest challenge,” said Agnew. “Getting access through this thick jungle and ensuring everyone was taking their time, paying attention and looking out for each other. We had good radio communication, so we could each pass along whatever was needed in case of an emergency, a corpsman on site and an ambulance on site from White Beach not more than 300 meters from where we worked.”

Once their climbing system was secure and anchors set, Agnew and his team donned climbing helmets, eye protection and climbing harnesses to climb up and onto the boulder. They used a large jackhammer to drive steel rebar stakes into the heart of the rocky beast. These stakes allowed large sections of the boulder to shed safely from the mass and roll easily down the slope. 

“Once we were able to get safely locked in position, our top crew did a great job sending us tools, food, staying hydrated and making sure we could stay in our work rhythm,” said Agnew. “We trusted our climbing experts to keep us safe and they trusted us to get the work done. The teamwork was perfect.”

As the team watched the last piece of the boulder collapse into the dense jungle, the crew – spread out across the job site – cheered and high-fived, allowing the nearby populace to hear the Seabees’ joy having eliminated a threat to the community and made a true impact to the district’s safety.

“It’s great knowing that our Seabees can safely execute such a complex job,” said Agnew. “I’m really proud of my team and impressed with the way everyone came together – White Beach, the Japanese district and city officials, CFAO, and all the other resources that provided equipment and materials for us to get this project done safely. It was great to be a part of something and make a difference.” 

NMCB 3 is a vital component of the U.S. Maritime Strategy, providing details deployed to Okinawa, Atsugi and Yokosuka, Japan; Chinhae, Republic of Korea; China Lake and San Clemente Island, Calif; Timor-Leste, Tonga, Cambodia and the Republic of the Philippines. 

Each operate independently and are capable of providing disaster preparation and recovery support, humanitarian assistance, and combat operations support, while the U.S. rebalances forces in the Pacific.

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