EAGLE RIVER — When John Hillyer first saw reports of the devastating 2011 Japan tsunami, the Eagle River jet pilot’s first reaction was to pack his bags and head home.
“As soon as this hit it was so hard to watch,” said Hillyer.
At the time, Hillyer — a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve who flies full time for FedEx — was commanding the reserve’s F-22 unit, a position that made it difficult for him to leave Alaska for an extended period of time.
“I was never called,” he said.
Hillyer was disappointed he couldn’t help in the immediate relief efforts, especially since he’s got deep ties to Japan.
“I actually grew up in Tokyo, to the point where Japanese was my first language,” he said.
His father was stationed in Japan during Hillyer’s formative years, and Hillyer’s first duty station in the Air Force was there. After leaving active duty, Hillyer began flying Pacific routes for FedEx out of its Anchorage hub. But he’s never made any deliveries like he did last month.
Hillyer, along with Capt. Terry Bull, earned international headlines when the FedEx pilots helped return items lost in the tsunami — found washed up on beaches in Alaska — to their rightful owners.
The mission began when the items were discovered on Alaska beaches this spring. After it became clear that some of the pieces could be identified and returned to their owners, Hillyer said FedEx — whose international shipping hub is in Anchorage — sprung into action.
“They’re kind of uniquely positioned to help, having the largest international route structure,” said Hillyer, who routinely flies to Japan, Hawaii and Southeast Asia for the shipping giant.
It was quite a trip.
After arriving in Japan, Hillyer and Bull left their cockpit and walked across the tarmac carrying the items — a basketball, volleyball, soccer ball and fishing buoy — as the Japanese press clamored for photos.
“The media requests for this were huge,” he said.
The FedEx team’s first delivery was to a woman named Miura, who used to own a restaurant in the town of Minamisanriku. Miura’s restaurant — along with most of the town — was destroyed in the disaster, and the giant wave also took several decorative fishing buoys that Miura had hung outside her business. One of the lost buoys had particular sentimental value to the elderly woman.
“The (Japanese language) character on the buoy was the first character in her husband’s name, who had passed away long ago,” Hillyer said.
That’s the one that was found in Alaska. The instant Miura got her hands on the buoy, Hillyer said, was one he’ll never forget.
“There was a big emotional attachment there,” he said. “It was just a great moment.”
The trip was Hillyer’s first chance to see the devastation wrought on coastal areas of Japan firsthand. Seeing the effects the epic waves had was sobering, he said.
“Whole towns were completely destroyed,” he said.
After delivering the buoy, the team next stopped at a nearby middle school to deliver a basketball that was found by a student at Craig High School in Southeast Alaska. Hillyer said the students were overjoyed to have their ball back, but the scene wasn’t nearly as emotional as the buoy return.
“Their first reaction was to take the ball and shoot with it in celebration,” he said.
Hillyer’s final delivery came when he and Bull returned a lost soccer ball to its rightful owner, a young boy. But rather than the media frenzy that surrounded the two earlier deliveries, there was no fanfare on this stop.
Hillyer explained that because the autographed ball was presented to the boy as a gift from his classmates after leaving third grade, many of the signatures on it were from children who had perished in the disaster. The boy’s family did not want to make a big deal of such a bittersweet memento.
“It was kind of a somber delivery, but very much appreciated,” he said.
He said he was struck by the variety of reactions to the deliveries.
“We saw a whole spectrum of emotions from these folks,” he said.
Hillyer couldn’t help but notice the coincidences that led to his flying across the Pacific with the lost items.
“It just so happened that from these devastated areas in Japan, these balls ended up in Alaska,” he said.
Hillyer said getting to be part of the effort to return the lost items made him feel like he finally found a way to help victims of the tsunami.
“It was hard to watch, so when I was asked to do this it was like, ‘Hey, I am able to contribute,” he said.