On 30 May 2022, a 5-meter-long metal tank was discovered on a beach in Higashi Village, alarming residents with its stench of fuel. Only after its discovery did the US military report that the tank had been jettisoned the previous day by a US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet flying off Okinawa’s coast. Soon after the admission, service members arrived to retrieve the tank – but the US military provided no further information about the circumstances of the incident.
Now, the accident report, obtained from the US Naval Safety Command via the US Freedom of Information Act, reveals how a series of problems led to the drop.
On 29 May, the Super Hornet had been supposed to land on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan, which was sailing near Okinawa – but a fire aboard the ship forced the pilot to divert and land at Kadena Air Base.
On the evening of the same day, as the pilot was flying from Kadena back to the ship, first he experienced a malfunction in his right engine and then a fire in his left engine. “I hesitated to ensure my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me,” said the pilot’s statement to investigators.
After he decided to return to Kadena, the pilot experienced, what he called, “a language barrier with Japanese controllers” before confirming with “An American from Kadena” that he intended to land there.
As the pilot returned to Kadena, he decided to dump some of the jet’s fuel over the sea, then at approximately 10~15 nautical miles (20~25 kilometers) from shore, he jettisoned the fuel tank. The pilot landed safely at Kadena. Subsequently, investigators estimated the incident cost the Department of Defense $23,346 in damaged property.
None of these details had been made public until Okinawa Times obtained the US Naval Safety Command’s investigation via the US Freedom of Information Act. The full report can be read here.
When Okinawa Times explained the details of the accident to the Mayor of Higashi Village, Touyama Masanobu, he expressed surprise that the tank had been dropped so near to where fishing boats may have been located. “If this is true, Uminchu (fishermen) cannot work with peace of mind,” he said.
After the tank had washed ashore, the village lodged a protest with the Okinawa Defense Bureau and regional office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – but, since then, it had not received any updates. "If this is information that could be obtained through a freedom of information request, the Defense Bureau would have been in a position to know it. Such facts uncovered after our demands and protests should be reported to the local community," Touyama said.
This is not the first time that Higashi Village residents have been troubled by US military aviation accidents. Notably, on 11 October 2017, a USMC CH-53E helicopter made an emergency landing, then burned on village farmland. In the aftermath, soil checks conducted by the USMC detected strontium-90 radioactive contamination at more than 5000 times background levels and contamination from PFAS – but the findings were not made public. Details of that accident, too, only came to light in reports obtained by this newspaper via the US Freedom of Information Act.
Additional reporting by Matsuda Shunta and Yamashiro Hibiki.