The invading army's forces dug in on the slopes of Japan's most famous symbol, the snowcapped Mt. Fuji. Late in the afternoon, the sun started to drop behind the majestic mountain, and sleek helicopters swept in low from two directions towards the enemy's position. Under fire from the chattering machine guns of the enemy's armored vehicles, Japanese and American infantrymen leapt from the choppers to block the enemy's advance toward Tokyo.
The scenario is fictional. But ``Orient Shield,'' a two-week joint training exercise that began Nov. 7, was real. It was the largest such bilateral operation to date for the allied armies.
The sight of United States and Japanese soldiers training together is still a novelty here. Despite a 33-year-old US treaty commitment to come to Japan's defense in case of attack, such exercises began only four years ago.
Although small in scale by NATO standards, Orient Shield is a striking sign of the increasing scope of US-Japan military ties. The soldiers of the first division of Japan's Eastern Army and the US Army's 25th Division were training in earnest to be prepared to fight side by side if necessity ever requires it.
The Hawaii-based 25th Division is not a stranger to Japan, but it has been a while since the division's last visit. The ``Tropic Lightning'' Division first reached Japan's shores in 1945, staying for five years as part of the US Army of Occupation. The division is back 35 years later to train with the Japanese ground self-defense force.
Japan's US-authored, anti-war Constitution is partly responsible for the relatively slow pace of military cooperation. It prohibits Japan's participation in ``collective defense'' pacts like NATO. The Japanese government's interpretation of the document's renunciation of ``war as a sovereign right of the nation'' allows its armed forces to be used only for ``self defense.'' Any US-Japan defense links that even hint at the use of Japan's forces outside its own territory is a political taboo.
The US Navy and Air Force, which have units permanently stationed in Japan, have a longer history of joint training with their Japanese counterparts. These forces, says Lt. Gen. Charles Dyke, the US Army commander in Japan, ``have the advantage of conducting much of their interoperability training `over the horizon' -- outside the range of immediate public interest.''
Changing public attitudes in Japan are more tolerant now of a more visible military role. Orient Shield, which might have been the subject of great attention 10 years ago, drew only a few hundred demonstrators to the gates of the Japanese Army base near Mt. Fuji.
A 1978 Japan-US agreement on defense cooperation opened the door to a wide variety of bilateral activities. US and Japanese Army officers now work together twice a year in command post exercises, mapping battle tactics, and joint deployment of their forces without the actual troops present. US and Japanese commanders meet regularly to discuss issues ranging from contingency plans for a major conflict to ensuring that their armies can talk to each other over their radio sets.
Field training exercises like Orient Shield provide the soldiers with an opportunity to exchange notes on battle tactics, use each other's equipment, and even meet for friendly combat on the softball field. The 3,000 participants in Orient Shield, equally divided between the two countries, practiced using helicopter-borne assaults, tanks, field artillery, mobile air-defense units, and small units under live fire.
Men from the 25th praised the skill and training of the Japanese. ``They're much more disciplined than we are,'' said one US GI crouching in the tall grass of Fuji's foothills. ``They are the best helicopter pilots we've seen,'' said 10-year veteran chopper jockey, Capt. Chris Acker from Delaware, Ohio.
The Americans' modern equipment, compared to Japan's more obsolete materiel, drew envious comments from the Japanese.
``We were really surprised at your equipment,'' said Lieutenant Kurihara. ``It is so much better than ours, even your uniforms and sleeping bags.'' The newly introduced, ultra-modern UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters that the Americans flew at breakneck speeds at treetop level were the subject of awed attention from the Japanese troops.
``The purpose of this exercise,'' said the US commander, Brig. Gen. John Sherman Peppers, ``is to learn from each other.'' For example, he said, ``the Japanese are absolute masters at using the natural foliage for camouflage.''
``I wouldn't mind fighting alongside them anytime,'' said the much-decorated veteran of two tours of duty in Vietnam.