CAMP PENDLETON -- Japanese soldiers and U.S. Marines stormed Red Beach just after dawn Saturday in amphibious assault vehicles deployed from the USS Anchorage, a naval transport ship two miles off shore.
The war exercise -- a culmination of a four-week training exercise known as Iron Fist 2017 -- was based on a fictional retake of a captured remote Japanese island, with Marines and Japanese light infantrymen storming the beaches.
The scenario reflects some of Japan's growing concerns over China's increasing military might and an ongoing conflict between the two countries over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. In 2012, Japan nationalized the islands, which are near rich fishing grounds and untapped natural gas.
Earlier this month, in his first foreign trip as defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis visited Japan, where he reaffirmed U.S. support in defending Japan and the Senkaku Islands.
As part of Saturday's exercise, soldiers from the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force took the south end of the beach; Marines from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit seized the north side. The assault vehicles enabled ground forces to secure a village on the beach's north end. At the south, Japanese soldiers waited to move further inland to take over another village.
The exercise -- now in its 12th year -- is meant to improve U.S. and Japanese collaboration. It trains Japanese soldiers in Marine Corps strategies of operations from the air, land and sea. This year's exercise involved 500 Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and 350 Japanese solders and eight officers from the Japanese Navy. It also included two naval ships and air support.
The month-long training exercise started with planning to simulate the invasion, using combined arms, live-fire, amphibious assault and explosive ordnance training. Training focused on Japanese soldiers learning how to drive and fight with armored amphibious vehicles. The training is especially important because Japan plans to launch its Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade by March 2018.
"This is indispensable for achieving our objectives," said Major Gen. Shigao Kaida, of the Western Army Infantry Regiment of the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force, pointing out that Japan is a country of more than 8,000 islands. "It is a rare opportunity for us to do this regimental exercise. Our mission is to protect our country and those islands no matter what happens."
Saturday was the first time Japanese commanders worked side-by-side with Marine and U.S. Navy commanders in setting up a joint command and control element on board a U.S. Navy ship, said Capt. Brian Villiard, with the 13th MEU.
That's a far cry from how Japanese and U.S. Marines and sailor started training in 2006. Then training exercises focused on a platoon of Japanese soldiers training with Marines in rubber boats off Coronado Island, said James Whittaker, a retired Marine major who participated in the earlier renditions of Iron fist and now was the training contractor and planner.
"In the first year, the Japanese didn't want to be photographed next to an AAV (amphibious assault vehicle) because it might look to aggressive to their neighbors," he said. "Now they're buying them."
Major Gen. David Coffman, deputy chief of operation for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said learning is on both sides and not just the Marines teaching Japanese soldiers.
"Our capabilities to operate together across the Pacific to defend our democracies is what our operation is about," Coffman said.
While most attending the beach assault were military officials, local and international journalists, some Orange County residents also got a chance for a rare opportunity.
Representatives from Anaheim's 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit Adoption Committee braved the dawn chill to check out the action.
"This bring back memories of my own training," said Jim Job, 70, a Marine who served in Vietnam. "These are the guys we support. It's great to see the stuff they go through."
For Roberto Cardenas, of Anaheim, it was a live look at taxpayer dollars in use.
"I can see what we're paying for to defend our country," the 70-year-old said. "And I can see how we and our allies will defend the free world. What we do in our organization to support these young men and women, is only a little compared to their sacrifice."