U.S. Navy speeds to Japan to help with tsunami relief

U.S. Naval ships are speeding to Japan to assist that country in recovering from Friday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, which left at least 1,000 people dead and thousands more missing.

President Obama has promised Japan, one of the United States’ strongest and closest allies, whatever assistance it needs in dealing with its worst natural disaster since the Kobe earthquake more than a decade ago.

The magnitude of the disaster increased Saturday after an explosion at one of Japan’s nuclear plants. The extent of the trouble at the Fukushima Daiichi No. 1 reactor, which saw its cooling system damaged in the earthquake, was not immediately clear.

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One U.S. aircraft carrier is already in Japan, and the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet is mobilized to help with disaster relief.

"The mission right now is to provide any type of comfort to the people of Japan as possible," Lt. Anthony Falvo, a deputy public affairs office in the Navy, told CNN in an interview Saturday morning. Falvo was speaking from aboard the USS Blue Ridge, which is on its way from Singapore to Japan.

Falvo said the ship would arrive around March 18. 

"Right now we're assessing the situation and positioning our forces so that they are ready to respond and provide disaster relief if it is directed by the Secretary of Defense," Falvo told CNN.

In total, he said the U.S. has nine ships headed toward Japan to help with the relief effort. The U.S. would act in a supporting role to Japan’s government, Falvo said.

Japan’s government asked U.S. forces in Japan on Friday to support rescue efforts and to provide oil and medical aid via the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the vessel off the shores of Japan.

The U.S. has a large number of military assets in Japan, including personnel, ships and aircraft on based in mainland Japan and on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan on Friday said 38,000 military personnel, 43,000 family members and 5,000 Defense Department civilian employees are assigned in Japan.

Obama on Friday said the State Department is working to assist any U.S. citizens in the country, while the Defense Department is accounting for all military personnel.

Congressional leaders in both parties have spoken out in support of the assistance from local, state and federal officials.