Rescue operation success: Missing member found alive in Hakkoda Range

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman William Rodriguez
  • 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

In a remarkable display of community solidarity, a collaborative effort between U.S. military members and Japan Search and Rescue successfully located and rescued a missing community member in the Hakkoda Mountain Range.

The ordeal began on December 29th, when a the 67-year-old mother of a Misawa Air Base member halted contact with her son at 1:30 p.m. while snowshoeing in the Hakkoda Range, sparking concerns within the family.

Promptly, notifications circulated among personnel and concerned community members, highlighting the urgency of the situation. The response from leadership was swift, leading to the formation of a capable team comprised of six backcountry skiers, additional support personnel, and medical professionals by 9:20 p.m. the same day.

“I was notified by some Navy chiefs and a few other leadership members from around the group, asking me if I was able to facilitate any response to the missing member,” said U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Andrew Waldo, 35th Maintenance Squadron production superintendent for precision-guided munitions. “Given my background in mountain rescue, they called to see if I could help.”

The team prepared for a nighttime rescue but faced a setback when their request for access to the mountain was denied due to adverse weather conditions and Japanese protocols. The weather turned windy that night with flurries, light rain and temperatures in the low 30s. 

“Our leadership had to engage with the Japanese National Police to request opening these gates in Aomori,” said Waldo. “Sadly, the request was denied. Japan Search and Rescue has first right of refusal. That was their justification for denying the request.”

Though understandable, the denial emphasized the need for future discussions on facilitating expedited access for trained and qualified personnel during rescue operations.

The first team departed at 8 a.m. the next day, with the second team on standby. Anxiously awaiting updates, the team, along with the missing member's family, received the news they had been hoping for at 9:40 a.m. - she was found alive and uninjured.

“The area is known for avalanche danger and tree wells,” said Waldo. “The atmosphere was anxious, but we hoped for the best. She survived by digging into the side of a tree well, protecting herself from the elements and high winds. The rescuers reached her, and she returned under her own strength.”

The missing member's resourcefulness played a crucial role in her survival. She sought shelter in a tree well to reduce exposure, and by staying near the location that her phone last pinged a cell tower, she ensured her own safety.

“Her son, another Air Force member, couldn't facilitate the rescue, though his career field would have been perfect for it,” Waldo explained. “It was stressful for him. The son and daughter-in-law were admirable in maintaining their composure. When we received confirmation that she was alive, the son, who speaks Japanese fluently, translated the news. It was a relief to know she was alive and uninjured.”

The Japanese Search and Rescue Team, along with the U.S. military members and other volunteers, demonstrated exceptional commitment and professionalism during the operation.

The Misawa community's rapid response showcased the strength and unity that defines its members. The courage and resilience of the missing member, coupled with the dedication of those involved in the rescue, made this operation a true testament to the spirit of service and cooperation within the Misawa community.