WASHINGTON (March 11, 2012) -- President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta issued statements today marking the upcoming one-year anniversary of the "3/11" earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters that devastated Japan.Obama said he and First Lady Michelle Obama join all Americans in honoring the memory of the 19,000 victims lost or missing. "We continue to be inspired by the Japanese people, who faced unimaginable loss with extraordinary fortitude," he said.The 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck northeastern Japan in the afternoon of March 11, 2011, triggering a tsunami. The disasters killed an estimated 16,000 people and destroyed coastal villages, towns and cities in the Tohoku region. The earthquake damaged the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, which suffered cooling system failures, fires and explosions continued through March 15.Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the disasters were the worst crisis his nation had faced since World War II. Some 3,000 Japanese people remain missing.In today's statement, the president said the United States mobilized immediately to aid Japan in a relief effort named for the Japanese word for "friend.""At the peak of Operation Tomodachi -- our single, largest bilateral military operation with Japan ever -- the Department of Defense had 24,000 personnel, 190 aircraft, and 24 Navy ships supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts," Obama noted.Japan's government has led rebuilding efforts over the past year, Obama said, while U.S. experts "continue to support Japan's ongoing efforts to deal with the challenges associated with Fukushima."Obama said he and the first lady are grateful for the contributions American civilians and service members have made to Japan's recovery."On this day when our thoughts and prayers are with the Japanese people in remembrance of the hardship faced one year ago, let us also celebrate the recovery under way in Japan and pay tribute to Japan's unflagging dedication to bettering the lives of others throughout the world," the president said.Biden, in his statement, recalled his visit to Japan five months after the disasters."The survivors I met in Natori and Sendai made clear to me that the disaster met its match in the resilience and fortitude of the Japanese people," the vice president said. "While struck by the scale of the devastation, I also witnessed remarkable and inspiring progress in rebuilding homes, schools, and workplaces."In Sendai, Biden said, he visited an airport that had been flooded and later became a refugee center."A week after the tsunami, Japanese and American forces reopened a runway, allowing the arrival of hundreds of relief workers and more than two million tons of humanitarian supplies," he said. As Japan rebuilds, America will stand with its allies as long as it takes, Biden added."We join the Japanese people today in honoring the memories of those lost as they continue to work for a better future," he said.Panetta also expressed admiration "for the strength and resilience of the Japanese people," adding that he too, in a visit last year, had seen their determination to rebuild their country even stronger than before."The U.S. military was proud to support the government of Japan in responding to this disaster, and the success of these efforts is a testament to the strength of our alliance," the secretary said.The United States remains committed to helping Japan rebuild, Panetta said, and the U.S. military will continue to deepen its partnership with Japanese forces."Japan is more than just an ally," the secretary said. "It is also a great friend of America. Together we will continue to forge ahead to achieve peace, prosperity, and a better future for both of our countries."Panetta thanked the thousands of Defense Department men and women who responded to Japan's disasters."Within moments of disaster striking, the United States armed forces, under the leadership of [Navy] Adm. Robert Willard, were fully mobilized to support the Japanese government in its response and recovery efforts," he said.Willard commands U.S. Pacific Command, the nation's largest combatant command, and led U.S. relief efforts after the earthquake struck. Willard, who is retiring after a 39-year career, will hand that position over to Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III in a ceremony later today.Panetta said the greatest service anyone can perform is to help fellow human beings in need."Together, Japanese and American forces helped those in need, and solidified the friendship between our two great nations for generations to come," the secretary said.