The U.S. military has launched a massive relief effort in the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan by deploying some 17,000 personnel and 15 ships off the coast of Japan.

Pentagon spokesman, Col Dave Lapan, in an off camera press briefing, told reporters that 14 naval ships along with their aircrafts and helicopters are already off the coast of Japan carrying out relief and rescue operation for the thousands of people affected by the devastating earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that struck Japan last week.

One more ship is scheduled to reach Japan by today, thus taking the total to 15.

In all 17,000 sailors and marines have been deployed for the job, Lapan said, adding that till yesterday morning the military effort had included 113 helicopter sorties and 125 fixed-wing sorties, moving people and supplies, helping in search and rescue efforts, and delivering 129,000 gallons of water and 4,200 pounds of food.

Two fire trucks too were delivered to the Japanese officials on their request, which is being operated by the Japanese crews.

Pentagon, he said, however, is not involved in helping Japan with the nuclear power reactors, which have been damaged in the natural disaster. These help are being provided by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“We have, in the military, all types of capabilities from equipment to trained personnel. But it all goes back to a request from the government of Japan for assistance. And we just have not gotten that at this point,” he said.

There are nuclear power experts on two US aircraft carriers in the region.

“Remember, we’re talking about the United States military - we train and equip all of our people to operate in all kinds of environments. So we know how to measure, we know how to test, we know how to respond, we know how to take precautions,” he said.

Lapan said USS Blue Ridge, the command ship for Navy Vice Adm Scott R Van Buskirk, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, is scheduled to arrive Thursday and is expected to remain in the area.

The USS Essex, USS Harpers Ferry and the USS Germantown - with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard - “will remain on the western side [of Honshu] rather than transit around to the east because of the at-sea debris field and the radiation hazard,” Mr. Lapan added.

The Pentagon spokesman said they are taking all precautionary measures to protect their personnel from any type of possible radiation coming from the damaged nuclear power plants.

Helicopter crews departing Naval Air Facility Atsugi are being given doses of potassium iodide to help protect their thyroid glands from possible exposure to radiation, he said.

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