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Kevin Latham looked forward to a vacation with an old friend, Elaine Chen, on the Southern Pacific island of Saipan.

It was the first time the two former classmates — Latham, a librarian from Chicago, and Chen, a Taiwanese woman living in Taipei — had been together in more than 16 years.

But if two Marine officers hadn’t been intent on squeezing in a day of scuba diving, that reunion likely would have turned into a tragedy.

Latham flew to Saipan on Nov. 20; Chen, a bit later. They relished the hot sun and ocean breezes that whipped across the island.

A few days into their vacation, they decided to hop on their mopeds and run down to a swimming hole called the Grotto.

The same day, Marine Lt. Col. David M. Kluegel, commanding officer for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Service Support Group, and his executive officer, Maj. Walter F. Fischer Jr., also headed to the Grotto area for a day of snorkeling.

“We were just looking for a fun time at the water hole,” Kluegel said in a phone interview from Camp Pendleton, Calif. “We were looking for something that had nothing to do with the military.”

Both are experienced scuba divers who’d brought their diving gear on the deployment. Saipan offered their first real opportunity to use it.

The Grotto is “essentially an underwater cave,” Kluegel explained. Sheer rock walls funnel down sharply to an ocean-fed hole. The descent into the cave is tricky. Almost 120 steps carved into the rock face lead to the bottom, a hole about 150 feet wide with a small rock outcropping on one side. A thick rope offers the only handhold.

“We just followed a typhoon into the island,” Fischer said. “There were some pretty good-size rollers that surged water into the cave.”

Latham and Chen arrived shortly after Kluegel and Fischer. Gingerly, they descended the steps and made the short jump across the water onto the rock outcropping.

Chen is an avid swimmer, but she felt nervous at the Grotto. Yet she made the plunge with Latham — and within moments, saw the pleasant day turn deadly.

“The tides became very strong just when I was in the water,” Chen said. “I decided to climb the steps out of the water. I told Kevin and he tried to help me walk back to the rock. But the tides became stronger and stronger and took us immediately far away from the rock.”

Latham swam to help her. They reached the thick rope and grabbed it. But then, Latham said, “Huge waves came without warning and shook us so violently that she could not hang on. I grabbed her but more waves ripped her from my arm.

“She was carried a few yards from me, and I swam to her. We were immediately overwhelmed by more waves” and sucked helplessly into a fierce current, he said. “We shouted for help.”

The Marines heard, turned, and saw two people fighting for their lives.

“I looked up and saw sets of arms and legs in the whitewater,” Fischer said. “I saw the look in their eyes and they were not having fun.”

Kluegel added, “She was quite petrified. She was about on top of Mr. Latham’s head. He was bravely trying to hold her up.”

But the waves continued to pound in, swelling and ebbing the water in the Grotto — and each time they did, they smashed Latham and Chen against the sharp coral rocks.

The pair fought against the current to stay in the shallows, desperately trying to grab the rope.

“When I was pulled into the current, I felt I was going to die and I became not scared, but prepared to go to the heaven,” Chen explained. “That moment I became very calm.”

Chen, a Buddhist, said she prayed to Grand Master Sheng-Yen Lu and her goddess of protection.

The answer: two Marines, already battling the current to reach her.

“I screamed to Kluegel when I knew I could not see her or stay with her any longer,” Latham said. “I remember nearly losing consciousness and having to push her away to get free. When I could finally breathe and see, my friend was gone.

“Kluegel must have swam to get her at that moment,” Latham said. “Somehow Kluegel hauled her to the steps and pulled her out.”

“I got close to Ms. Chen,” Kluegel said, “and I reached out to grab her arm and she climbed up. With my fins, I was able to skull away from the wall.”

Fischer headed for Latham, who was fatigued from fighting the current and holding Chen above the waves.

Kluegel finally pulled Chen from the rocks and used the time between surges to escape into open, deeper water. Fischer worked his way back to Latham, who had regained his bearings; they both swam for the rock outcropping.

Fischer helped Latham, battered and bleeding from smashing against the rock wall, climb out.

Moments later, Kluegel and Chen emerged from the churning water.

“That he managed to find her, secure her and get her out without being sucked in himself seems impossible to me,” Latham said.

All four made their way back up the rock steps to the safety of the Grotto’s top, where Fischer and Kluegel tended to Latham’s and Chen’s wounds.

It was only then that Latham and Chen realized their rescuers were Marines. Latham asked them for their commanding officer’s name so he could write a letter.

Kluegel responded that he was the commanding officer.

Reassured that Latham and Chen were all right, the Marines left them with a unit coin and a business card.

“We offered to take them back to their hotel but they said they’d be fine,” Kluegel said. “So I gave them my business card and asked them to e-mail me to let me know they got home OK.”

But the message never came. The ship’s Internet connection was disrupted and they sailed the next day.

The two Marines didn’t think much more about the rescue, they said. They never mentioned the incident to anyone on the ship.

But Latham and Chen couldn’t forget. It was Chen’s first contact with a U.S. Marine since her childhood, when she recalled Marines giving candy to Taiwanese children.

Then, she said, Marines had protected Taiwan. Now, they’d saved her life.

Said Latham: “I was overwhelmed by Kluegel’s compassion and the care he showed us immediately after doing what I believe was physically impossible.

“Elaine and I were truly impressed with the character and good will of both men.”

Latham called Kluegel and Fischer heroes.

“I don’t know how true that is,” Fischer said. “We take care of each other. It’s what we do.”

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