CAMP ZAMA, JAPAN - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District celebrated 50 years of service with a grand celebration at Camp Zama’s Community Club, June 13th.
The event was attended by not only members of the Japan Engineer District, but welcomed distinguished visitors; Maj. Gen. Joel Vowell, Commanding General, U.S. Army Japan, Brig. Gen. Kirk Gibbs, Commanding General, Pacific Ocean Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mr. Damon Lily, Director of Programs, Pacific Ocean Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Command Sgt. Maj. Jerry Dodson, Command Sergeant Major, U.S. Army Japan, Mr. Shinichiro Miyakawa, Procurement Director, South Kanto Defense Bureau, Col. Christopher Tomlinson, Commander, U.S. Army Garrison Japan, Col. Kenji Honda, Commander, 4th Engineer Group, Japan Ground Self Defense Force, Col. Yoshiyuki Hirano, Commander, Zama General Support Unit, Japan Ground Self Defense Force, and Lt. Col. Oliver Barfield, the Acting J9, U.S. Forces Japan.
The festivities began with a performance from the nationally-known Japan Ground Self Defense Force 31st Infantry Takayama Taiko Drum Team, who gave three performances on traditional Japanese percussion instruments as a celebration of the Japan Engineer District’s half-century of service to Japan.
Guest speaker Brig. Gen. Kirk Gibbs noted that this trip to Japan would mark the very first time he was able to see the country up close, as during his previous visits, COVID restrictions had confined his activity to on-base only.
During his remarks, the general walked the crowd down the 50-year timeline of JED’s growth and prosperity, blossoming from a single office on the island of Okinawa, to 12 different offices across the entirely of Japan by 2022. “On May 15, 1972… down in Okinawa, the island was reborn back into Japanese hands,” he said, referencing the famous post-war turnover that saw the island territory revert from American control to Japanese. “And here at Camp Zama [on that same day], the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] Japan Area Office was reborn as the Japan Engineer District. One District to oversee military and host nation construction not just in Okinawa, but throughout the entire nation of Japan.”
Gibbs also spoke at length about the JED’s triumphant Iwakuni Runway Relocation Project, describing how an entire mountain had been moved into the sea to create land, housing two new runways for Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni which is located in southern Japan.
“Yet more impressive than moving mountains are the hands that made it possible. The strength and success of the Japan Engineer District is its people. No single person can move a mountain, but as a group… if everyone pitches in, little by little, mountains can be moved,” he said, motioning to the crowd. “You are all proof of that.”
Col. Gary Bonham expressed to those gathered how honored the district was that Brig. Gen. Kirk Gibbs would choose to fly all the way to Japan, jumping through the many hoops COVID had caused for international travel, just to attend the day’s event.
“General Gibbs… your words remind all of us in the Japan Engineer District of our wonderful legacy in Japan as the premier DoD construction agent in all of Asia,” JED’s 41st Commander said. “It’s easy for us to look at Japan Engineer District’s long trail of innovation and success as a reason to say that we’re great. And we are… we’re truly special. But while we are prouder of our projects than many of you will ever know… they are not why we are great.”
“The truth is, none of those projects… not the new schools… not the new runways… not the new campuses… storage facilities… you name it… [would ever] exist without the people who make up the Japan Engineer District,” Col. Bonham continued. “They are the reason behind the District’s rich legacy of innovation in constructing facilities for U.S. Forces Japan.”
In addition to the taiko drum performance, the event also featured a hand-crafted Japanese daruma doll made especially for the occasion that, in the Japanese tradition, has no eyes. According to legend, one eye is painted in when a wish is made, the other when that wish comes true. Shelly Spayde, Deputy District Engineer for Programs and Project Management, Japan District, painted in a solitary dot for the dolls left eye.
“Today I fill in the first eye with the wish of prosperity and good fortune for not only Japan Engineer District, but the American [and] Japanese alliance. It is my hope that in 50 years’ time, the other eye will be filled in as proof of the strength of our friendship,” she said.
Next, various items including a hard hat, a commander’s coin, and the original orders establishing Japan Engineer District were placed into a time capsule to be sealed and opened again in the year 2072 for the District’s 100th Year Jubilee.
In true Army tradition a cake cutting was also held to commemorate the event. This cake cutting, however, was special. JED is comprised of offices around the nation of Japan, most of which were too far away to make the trip to the celebration. On a large screen above the stage, live video feeds from every office flicked on, remotely ushering each office into the proceedings, remotely. Scenes from Misawa in the north of Japan to Yokosuka near the center of the island nation to Okinawa far in the tropical south appeared on the screen—every location with their own cake.
JED Commander Bonham led a cake cutting charge with the wish of another 50 years of prosperity. On the count of three, knives fell across every U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office across the nation, separated physically by distance but unified in that moment by the spirit of pride and celebration.
Capping the event was a traditional Japanese sake cask cracking by Col. Bonham and Japan Ground Self Defense Force Cols. Honda and Hirano. Once the vat of sake was cracked open, a toast was led by Mr. Shigeru Endo, a long time JED senior project manager who had recently retired but had returned for the event.
“Here’s to 50 years of great work,” he said. “And another 50 more to come!”