Capt. Jim Wall and the rest of his C-130 crew were set to return home to Yokota Air Base, Japan, last week after hauling cargo to Guam.

But a mission that started as routine ended with saving six lives on a 20-foot wood canoe stranded in the vast Pacific Ocean.

On the morning of May 18, the C-130 was tasked with assisting the Guam Coast Guard in a search-and-rescue that didn’t seem very promising: A small boat from Woleai Atoll in Micronesia had been missing for seven days after a storm blew it off course.

“Looking for a needle in a haystack doesn’t even begin to compare to looking for a 20-foot boat in the Pacific Ocean,” said Staff Sgt. David Harwood, a flight engineer with the 36th Airlift Squadron.

With a flight crew of seven, including two crew chiefs from Yokota’s 374th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, the C-130 logged six hours about 500 feet over the water on May 18 and another nine hours the following day, combing more than 150 miles each time.

On day three, search coordinates took the plane to what appeared to be “the middle of nowhere,” Wall said. “We couldn’t see any land.”

But about 30 minutes into the search, Wall spotted something orange about 10-15 miles off the plane’s left nose. It was the tiniest of specks that appeared at first to be a buoy.

“We decided to go check it out,” said the aircraft commander and the plane’s pilot. “Sure enough, it happened to be the boat.”

On board were five men and a boy, alive but hungry, thirsty and tired. They were down to their last provision — a coconut.

The party was reported missing May 11, said Lt. Dale Shepardson, operations officer with the Guam Coast Guard. They were with a group of three boats headed to another atoll for a funeral when “they got hit by a squall,” he said. The others made it back safely.

“We don’t have a lot of resources out here so we have to ask our brothers in [the Defense Department] to help out,” Shepardson said. “We quite frequently ask planes from Yokota to help us out with searches.”

The Coast Guard had been searching since May 11 in a C-130 aircraft. Also assisting was a Navy P-3 from Naval Air Facility Misawa and a patrol boat from the Federated States of Micronesia.

The lost canoe was found about 260 miles north of where it disembarked and about 240 miles south of Guam, Shepardson said.

“They were absolutely outstanding,” Shepardson said of Yokota’s flight crew.

After the C-130 made several passes over the boat to check out its markings and verify the number of passengers, the crew radioed the Coast Guard, called in the coordinates and stayed in the area until the Coast Guard C-130 arrived. That plane dropped a package of water, candy bars and a radio, Wall said.

“We heard them on the radio,” he said, referring to the canoe passengers. “They were all saying, ‘thank you.’”

The Channel Alliance, a merchant vessel, which was about 68 miles away, volunteered to pick up the islanders and return them home, Shepardson said.

The Yokota C-130 is assigned to the 36th Airlift Squadron. Other crew members who assisted with the search-and-rescue were: Capt. Rod Keller, co-pilot; Capt. Eric Dopslaf, navigator; Senior Airman Aron Lee, a load master; Staff Sgt. Jason Rice, the flying crew chief; and Airman 1st Class Jason Karr, the assistant crew chief.

“For me personally, this was the most satisfying mission I’ve ever been on,” Rice said. “We did save their lives. There’s no doubt about that.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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