Air Force honors Okinawa airman for rescuing Japanese family in danger of drowning

Airman 1st Class Leonard Cantrell Jr., 28, seen here at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Nov. 5, 2020, was recently awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal for rescuing a Japanese family in distress at an Okinawa waterfall.


By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 6, 2020

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Airman 1st Class Leonard Cantrell Jr., 28, knew something wasn’t right as he watched a Japanese mother struggle to keep her young daughter’s head above water.

The computer technician with 18th Communications Squadron at Kadena Air Base kept a close eye on the situation as he gingerly walked around the lip of the pool at Okinawa’s Tataki waterfall taking photographs on a day back in April.

The woman had attempted to swim across the deep, picturesque pool carrying the small child on her shoulders. The signs of distress were immediate.

“She realized it was too far and she tried to turn back,” Cantrell told Stars and Stripes in an interview Thursday. “I started noticing their heads were bobbing up in the water and I’m like, ‘That’s not good at all.’ I’m like, ‘I think I need to act now.’”

Cantrell dove into the icy water and pulled the woman and her daughter to safety. He told no one about what he had done, but his airmen friends reported his actions to leadership.

Cantrell, who had been in the service for approximately one year at the time of the rescue, was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal at the beginning of September. The medal is awarded for outstanding achievement or meritorious service on behalf of the Air Force, but “may also be awarded for acts of courage,” according to the Air Force Personnel Center website.

“We’re neighbors here on this island,” Cantrell said. “I was just glad to be in the right place at the right time.”

The day started for Cantrell and a small group of friends with a hike to Tataki waterfall to relax and swim and enjoy the natural environment. He said the water was too cold for a swim. Instead, he planned to shoot photographs to show his family back home in Chicago. His friends marveled at how deep the water was when they first arrived. He estimates it was over 30 feet.

Cantrell walked around the edge of the pool to the falls, he said. A friend snapped a photograph of him. That’s when he saw the mother entering the water with her two small children. Her young boy touched the cold water and turned back.

The mother and daughter began to swim across the pool.

“There’s not anything close; there’s no footing; there’s no anything,” Cantrell said. “That’s how I knew something was going to go wrong.”

After Cantrell pulled the mother and daughter to safety onto a rock, his military training kicked in, he said. He stayed with them to make sure they weren’t going into shock.

Once he realized they were OK, he went back to his friends. Before leaving, the woman thanked him one more time. His friends ribbed him, calling him “hero.”

“I don’t think I was a hero,” he said. “Anybody else could have done it.”

The family being safe was the most important thing, he said.

Twitter: @MatthewMBurke1