No enemy here: USS Gary's daring pre-war rescue of Iraqi fishing boat
April 9, 2003
ABOARD THE USS GARY — Half-blinded by sea spray, the U.S. sailors yelled and gestured for the Iraqi fishermen to jump off their sinking ship.
Fifteen-foot waves tossed the sailors around and sucked their inflatable boat toward the listing, spinning trawler.
“I didn’t think at any time we’d get all eight of them or that we’d all make it back ourselves,” said Ensign Ryan Easterday, officer of the rigid-hulled inflatable boat launched from the USS Gary.
The drama at sea began with an initial distress call at 6:30 p.m. on March 13.
The Gary, a guided missile frigate based in Yokosuka, Japan, was 20 miles from the troubled, 90-foot trawler Kaptain Mohamad in the southern Persian Gulf.
A helicopter was launched to investigate. Cmdr. Tito P. Dua, Gary’s commanding officer, realized the eight men would die without help.
Rain, driven by a 30-knot howling wind with even higher gusts, made it too dangerous for the helicopter to hover and hoist up the Iraqis. Dua decided to launch a 21-foot-long inflatable boat, also known as an RHIB.
On his mind?
“The realization I was telling six sailors to risk their lives,” he said. The scene reminded him of a Coast Guard commercial.
Dua chose Petty Officer 2nd Class Marvin Blue to drive the inflatable boat.
“I don’t consider it dangerous,” said Blue, 31, a boatswain’s mate from Fayetteville, N.C. “It’s more exciting, an adrenaline rush.”
As the boat was being lowered, a wave rose up and drenched the sailors.
After one failed attempt, the engine started, and the sailors reached the trawler in 30 minutes.
“There was this one pretty big wave that dropped from under us,” Blue said with a smile. “We had three to five seconds’ hang time. … It was a rush, but at the same time it was serious.”
The helicopter and the Gary trained spotlights on the trawler and the eight fishermen, who were clad in dark-green life vests with no reflective tape.
Blue could hold the inflatable boat in position about 15 feet away from the Iraqis for only 20 seconds before the trawler sucked them in. When they pulled away to make another pass — they eventually made about 20 — the trawler’s captain pleaded over the radio: “Coalition warship! Don’t leave! Please save my crew!”
“It was frustrating after the first three passes,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Alan Harmon, 22, a sonar technician and rescue swimmer from Palmetto, Fla.
The sailors tossed a life ring to the Iraqis, but the wind blew it back. The sailors gestured and shouted for the fishermen to jump, but the fishermen simply stared back.
“[Jumping] was not at all a sane thing to do,” said boat officer Easterday, 24, an anti-submarine warfare officer from Davis, Calif.
One fisherman climbed out on a crane over the boat’s edge, clinging to it like he was sliding down a ladder. The inflatable boat slipped 200 feet from the ship a few times.
“I just knew he was going to pop off [the crane] when we were far away,” Easterday said.
After five minutes’ hesitation, the man threw himself off the crane, twisting in midair. He landed a few feet from the life ring, grabbed it and the rescue swimmers reeled him in.
Four more made the leap within 20 minutes before a large wave capsized the Iraqis’ boat, with three fishermen still on board.
“I thought they were gone,” Easterday said. “I remember looking back and seeing the bow bobbing up out of the water and [electrical] fires.”
The wave had actually washed the fishermen away from the trawler. After about 10 more minutes, all were in the inflatable boat and there was a brief period of jubilation. One of the Iraqis fell on Stern.
“He started kissing me. He put his whole mouth inside my mouth,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris Stern, 20, a turbine mechanic and rescue swimmer from Ukiah, Calif.
Now crewmembers and fishermen had to get back to the Gary.
Blue eventually brought the boat up alongside the frigate as 15-foot waves slammed over the deck.
“If we’d timed it right, we could’ve driven the RHIB onto the helo deck,” Easterday said with a chuckle.
As the boat reached the top of a swell, a fisherman grabbed onto a rope ladder attached to the frigate. Then the boat dropped, leaving the man dangling 10 feet above it.
Seconds later, the ladder slats piled up into the boat as a wave raised it, and another man grabbed hold of the ladder. Seven of the eight fishermen climbed up the ladder. The oldest fisherman stayed in the boat.
The sailors attached an 80-pound metal hook to the boat and were raised to the Gary. Once they were all on deck, everyone started hugging and cheering. They were all safe, and no one was injured.
“It’s certainly the closest I’ve come to getting killed,” Easterday said.
The Iraqis stayed on the ship for four days. They eventually boarded another vessel that was to return them to Iraq.
In addition to Easterday, Blue, Stern and Harmon, the rescuers included Petty Officer 1st Class Kenneth Hogue, an engineman from Chicago; and Petty Officer 1st Class David Sudler, a signalman from Centreville, Md.
“It’s a testament to the skill of the driver that we didn’t swamp the RHIB,” Easterday said.
But Blue was shy in talking about his role. He didn’t even tell his mother what he did. He just told her to watch the news: The Gary crew had saved some fishermen.
Kendra Helmer is embedded with the USS Kitty Hawk battle group.