The waters off the Mihama area of Chatan town in Okinawa on March 29, 2021, two days after an Air Force civilian employee drowned in the area while swimming with a friend.

The waters off the Mihama area of Chatan town in Okinawa on March 29, 2021, two days after an Air Force civilian employee drowned in the area while swimming with a friend. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa – A civilian contractor for the Air Force drowned Saturday off Chatan town while snorkeling with a friend, according to local police and the Air Force.

The 18th Wing identified the man Monday as Thang “Tu” Phung, 24, of Dumfries, Va., who worked with the 18th Medical Support Squadron at Kadena Air Base.

Phung was swimming in the Mihama area at approximately 3:30 p.m. Saturday when his friend turned back and spotted him in distress, an Okinawa police spokesman told Stars and Stripes by phone Monday.

The friend called base officials from shore, the spokesman said. Chatan Fire Station also received a call from a witness, a station spokesman added.

First responders from local fire departments found Phung at 4:49 p.m. about 225 feet offshore, the police spokesman said. He was unresponsive.

Phung was pronounced dead at 5:18 p.m. at Naval Hospital Okinawa at Camp Foster, the police spokesman said.

Japanese government spokespeople traditionally speak to the media on condition of anonymity.

Phung, a biomedical equipment technician, previously served in the Army Reserves and arrived in Okinawa in July, according to an email from the wing to Stars and Stripes.

Squadron commander Lt. Col. Sean Marshall said that Phung and his colleagues were a tight-knit team.

“Tu showed up every day ready to work; his team couldn’t get enough of his laughter and great attitude,” Marshall said, according to the statement. “I was reminded numerous times that Tu was fun-loving and full of adventure, he worked hard and enjoyed off-time with friends. We will miss him and we send our deepest condolences to his family and friends as they work through their grief.”

At least three other water-related mishaps in the past six months have claimed the lives of individuals with the U.S. military on Okinawa.

Marine Cpl. Rene PonceAvalos, 22, an engineer equipment operator from Beaverton, Ore., drowned Feb. 28 while surfing with friends near Okinawa’s Ikei Island.

Air Force Senior Airman Jeremieh Soroten, 21, of Wahiawa, Hawaii, drowned Nov. 22 while surfing near Cape Hedo in northern Okinawa.

A Navy civilian employee went missing while fishing at Cape Zanpa in December, Japanese police said at the time. The man, an American in his 30s, is believed to have fallen from a cliff and drowned in the sea. Twitter: @MatthewMBurke1 Twitter: @HanaKusumoto

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Grafenwoehr, Germany, for Stars and Stripes since 2024. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Okinawa, Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the news organization. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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