Okinawa-based Special Operations airmen involved in Thai cave rescue
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Dozens of U.S. military personnel, including pararescue airmen based in Okinawa, were part of a multinational effort that saved 12 young soccer players and their coach from a flooded cave in Thailand. The final boy and his coach were rescued Tuesday.
State Department spokesman Steve Castonguay in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand, where the operation unfolded, said in an email Tuesday that Thai authorities had the lead with about 40 American servicemembers in support.
“The U.S. team here consists of a survival specialist and pararescue specialists trained in personnel recovery techniques and procedures, as well as their support personnel,” he said. The group also included Army personnel from a civil military support element, he said.
U.S. Special Operations Command tweeted photographs Tuesday of American servicemembers working on the rescue operations. They show an American servicemember looking at a map with his Thai counterparts, and other U.S. troops hiking into the jungle.
“The men and women of the 353rd Special Operations Group have been directly supporting this international mission for almost two weeks,” the command said in its tweet.
The 353rd includes more than 800 airmen stationed at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, and is the only Air Force Special Operations unit in the Pacific.
The rescue Tuesday of the last of the trapped boys and their coach from Tham Luang Cave was announced by the Thai Navy SEALs on their Facebook page.
“Twelve Wild Boars and coach out of the cave,” the SEALs posted, referring to the name of the youngsters’ soccer team.
The boys, 11 to 17, and their 25-year-old coach were exploring the cave after soccer practice June 23 and became stranded when monsoon rains filled passageways with water.
Their plight has riveted Thailand and much of the world — from the heart-sinking news that they were missing to the first flickering video of the huddle of anxious yet smiling boys when they were found 10 days later by a pair of British divers.
The risk involved in extracting them from the darkness hit home July 6 when a former Thai Navy SEAL died in the cave after running out of air.
However, with oxygen levels dropping inside the chamber where the team was trapped and a forecast of heavy rain, planners decided by Sunday to attempt the daring rescue, which involved equipping the team with breathing masks and having divers shepherd them through the perilous water to safety.
Reporter Matthew M. Burke contributed to this story.