Flying high above Japan in a Marine helicopter, West Gardiner native Lt. Col. Damien Marsh has an enlightening view of the Japanese people as they struggle to recover from a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Delivering relief supplies to survivors, with a personal radiation detector hanging off him on every flight, Marsh says the international media is missing what he sees as the most striking aspect of the disaster.

“The real story is how great the Japanese response has been, their preparation, and the amazing sense of community we’ve seen, and the grace of the Japanese people,” said Marsh, 42, the commanding officer of a squadron of Marine helicopter pilots flying relief missions from Tokyo.

“We fly over people standing in long lines for food, fuel and water. There are no riots, there is no looting and there is no selfishness,” said Marsh, a 1987 Gardiner Area High School graduate. “I think the world has much to learn from the conduct of the Japanese people during this crisis.”

Marsh has flown missions with another Mainer in his squadron, Lt. Joseph Patrick McConnell, 26, a 2003 Cheverus High graduate whose parents still live in Scarborough.

“Northeast Honshu looks just like coastal Maine,” Marsh said, describing one part of Japan where they have flown in supplies. “Imagine the impact on two pilots from Maine when we flew over the ridgeline and first saw the total devastation to what looked like our home state.”

“Entire cities and fishing villages have been erased,” he said. “Only the grids of streets remain. Imagine seeing an entire town scraped off its foundations and plowed a mile inland.”

Marsh is commander of about 200 Marines, 100 of whom are currently in Tokyo flying relief missions. The rest are either at a U.S. base on Okinawa, or stateside for training.

Marsh was on Okinawa when the earthquake struck. His squadron started flying north to the stricken area the next day.

Within 48 hours, they had eight helicopters capable of hauling cargo, people or both, and 100 Marines in Tokyo to assist the Japanese government in relief operations.

Their primary task has been delivering food, water and clothes to isolated survival shelters. They also have delivered tons of heating oil to shelters — recently delivering 42,000 pounds of heating fuel in a single day. And while in the sky, they look for survival shelters below in need of supplies.

“The Japanese people have been amazing,” he said. “They have remained calm and graceful. When we deliver supplies, they only take what is needed, then ask us to take the rest to other shelters in need. When we land next to a school, all the adults form long lines and help us unload supplies. There is always a sincere ‘thank you’ when we leave.

“Sometimes, the kids hold signs that say, ‘Thank you, America.’“

He said they are in an area a safe distance away from regions experiencing radiation from damaged nuclear plants. They still fly with radiation detectors on their flight gear, taking routes meant to avoid plumes from the damaged plants. And after every flight, aircraft are washed and everyone is scanned for radiation before being allowed to leave their hangar.

He said the greatest risk is the cold, as their helicopters have no heaters and fly through subfreezing temperatures as they go over mountains.

“We are proud to be able to help in any way possible. Many of the squadron members purchased some of the most frequently requested items so we can fly them directly to those in need,” Marsh said from Tokyo recently. “One Marine purchased 1,000 pounds of rice off the shelf, so each site visited would get at least one bag of rice. We think of Japan as our home away from home.”

He has taken some photos while there, but said, “the loss is on such an epic scale there is no camera lens that can capture it.”

Marsh — whose parents, John and Judy Marsh, still live in West Gardiner — lives with his wife and two children on Okinawa. He said tsunami alerts went off on Okinawa during the disaster, but no waves reached that far south.

Marsh said what he’s learned about the Japanese people leaves little doubt in his mind that they will be able to rebuild their disaster-torn country.

“It has been amazing seeing these small villages come together and take care of each other,” he said. “Knowing Japan, they most certainly will rebuild.”