ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Pref. — In a high school gymnasium carpeted with mud, a Japanese boy slipped and was helped to his feet by a U.S. Navy sailor, while close by a group of U.S. soldiers and local teachers mopped together in neat lines.

The unique cooperation launched Wednesday at Ishinomaki Technical High School in Miyagi Prefecture was part of efforts to get the school back up and running prior to the start of the new academic year Friday.

While all of the roughly 700 students were confirmed safe after the March 11 quake and tsunami, many of their parents and relatives as well as two recent graduates remain missing, according to the school.

“The school building was safe, but we were having a difficult time cleaning up the school,” said Principal Hideki Oguro. “The floors were filled with debris from collapsed walls and a muddy sludge, but we didn’t have water to clean it up.”

Mud was being removed from the first floor of the school so it can hold an enrollment ceremony and start classes in mid-April.

“I’m grateful for everyone’s help in the cleanup because I want to provide the students, some of whom have lost relatives or are still living in evacuation centers, with a place where they can feel safe,” Oguro said.

The U.S. team members dispatched from bases inside and outside Japan are part of around 18,000 U.S. service members involved in the relief and humanitarian mission named Operation Tomodachi (friend).

The team was joined by around 120 students, teachers and volunteers, as well as personnel from the Self-Defense Forces. The U.S. servicemen and women are also scheduled to help remove mud and debris at more schools in the city.

“We feel for your loss and also for the tragedy that happened. In general, we’ve been very impressed with the spirit of the Japanese people,” 1st Lt. Sean McMahon from Camp Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture said. “We are very excited to help out and get people back on their feet.”

Near the entrance of the school building where there were rows of shoe boxes, Maj. Chris Robertson from Honolulu was overseeing work by U.S. Marines to clear away the debris and mud.

“It’s an honor to help,” said Robertson, who has been working in devastated areas in the Tohoku region for a week.

The damage from the disaster is “heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s very important to get back to a normal way of life.”

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