Five U.S. Marines missing after their aircraft collided last week over the ocean off Kochi Prefecture were declared dead Tuesday, the Marine Corps said in a statement announcing the end of its search and rescue operations.
“After an update from the Joint Personnel Recovery Center, and a review of all available information, I have made the determination to end the search and rescue operations for the crew of our KC-130J aircraft which was involved in a mishap off the southern coast of Japan and to declare that these Marine warriors are deceased,” Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, the III Marine Expeditionary Force’s commanding general, said in the statement.
Smith said the KC-130’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders had not been located, “making it premature to speculate about wreckage recovery.”
Search operations, which also included vessels from the Self-Defense Forces, the Japan Coast Guard and the Australian military, began almost immediately after the KC-130 tanker plane collided with an F/A-18 fighter jet in midair during routine training early Thursday. Two marines from the fighter jet were rescued on the day of the crash, but one later was pronounced dead. Both aircraft were based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
The U.S. military has categorized the crash as a “Class A” accident, the most severe category in its four-level scale.
“Every possible effort was made to recover our crew and I hope the families of these selfless Americans will find comfort in the incredible efforts made by U.S., Japanese and Australian forces during the search,” Smith said.
U.S. Forces Japan head Lt. Gen. Jerry Martinez echoed this sentiment, thanking Japan and Australia for their efforts.
“I am incredibly proud of and grateful for the efforts of the U.S. military along with our Japanese and Australian partners,” Martinez said. “Support from the Japan Self Defense Forces and Coast Guard was immediate and life-saving, and I thank them for their professionalism, dedication and robust support throughout this massive operation.”
The U.S. Marines said the cause of the crash is currently under investigation, but noted that it is unclear whether aerial refueling was underway when the accident occurred.
Difficult refueling maneuvers would have been complicated by a lack of sunlight and the weather at the time. During such maneuvers, the smaller fighter approaches from the rear of the KC-130, which has a fuel line trailing behind. An extendable nozzle is then “plugged-in” to allow fuel to flow.
Accidents involving U.S. military aircraft have become a sensitive topic in Japan in recent years after a spate of crashes — especially in Okinawa Prefecture, which is home to the bulk of U.S. military facilities in the country.
In June, a U.S. Air Force F-15 fighter jet crashed in waters off Okinawa during a routine training mission. The pilot successfully ejected and was safely recovered by an Air Self-Defense Force search and rescue team.
In November last year, a C-2 cargo plane carrying 11 passengers and supplies from the base at Iwakuni to the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan crashed in the Philippine Sea during an annual bilateral maritime field-training exercise with the MSDF. Eight people aboard the plane were rescued, but three died in the accident.