- Associated Press - Monday, April 25, 2011

SHICHIGAHAMAMACHI, Japan | Soldiers prodded marshy ground with slender poles and cleared mounds of rubble by hand Monday as 25,000 troops mounted Japan’s largest search yet for the bodies of nearly 12,000 people missing in last month’s earthquake and tsunami.

The operation was the third intensive military search since the March 11 disaster, which splintered buildings, flattened towns and killed as many as 26,000 people along Japan’s northeastern coast.

With waters receding, officials hope the team, which includes police, coast guard and U.S. troops, will make significant progress during the two-day operation. By Monday evening, 38 bodies had been found, the military said.

In the town of Shichigahamamachi, a line of about two dozen Japanese soldiers walked in unison across soggy earth and muddy pools, plunging their poles about 2 feet into the muck to ensure that they don’t miss any bodies buried below.

The search focused on a marsh drained in recent weeks by members of the army’s 22nd Infantry regiment using special pump trucks.

Other soldiers cleared mountains of rubble by hand from a waterfront neighborhood filled with gutted and teetering houses. Four people in the neighborhood were missing, said Sannojo Watanabe, 67.

“That was my house right there,” he said, pointing to a foundation with nothing atop it.

He surveyed the neighborhood: “There’s nothing left here.”

In all, 370 troops from the regiment were searching for a dozen people still missing from Shichigahamamachi.

The regiment had been searching the area with a far smaller contingent, but tripled the number of troops for the two-day intense search, said Col. Akira Kun itomo, the regimental commander.

The search is far more difficult than that for earthquake victims, who mostly would be buried in the rubble, said Michihiro Ose, a spokesman for the regiment. The tsunami could have left the victims anywhere, or even pulled them out to sea.

“We just don’t know where the bodies are,” he said.

Bodies found so many weeks after the disaster are likely to be unrecognizable, black and swollen, Mr. Ose said. “We wouldn’t even know if they would be male or female.”

A total of 24,800 soldiers - backed by 90 helicopters and planes - were sent to comb through the rubble for buried remains, while 50 boats and 100 navy divers searched the waters up to 12 miles off the coast to find those swept out to sea.

“It’s been more than a month since the massive earthquake and tsunami, but we still have lots of people still missing,” Defense Ministry spokesman Norikazu Muratani said. “We want to recover them and return them to their families.”

More than 14,300 people have been confirmed dead and nearly 11,900 remain missing.

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