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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The crew of the Guam-based USNS John Ericsson rescued five people Wednesday amid rain squalls in open waters near the Solomon Islands archipelago, sailors told Stars and Stripes during a phone interview Friday.

The Navy-owned, civilian-crewed oil tanker was heading to Guam after replenishing U.S. Navy ships when it received word of a boat in urgent distress at 11 p.m. Tuesday.

At 8 a.m. on a stormy Wednesday, Ordinary Seaman Tyrone Mouzon spotted a small craft headed toward them from behind, about 35 miles from land. Mouzon notified Third Mate Timothy Gervais, a junior officer.

“We were aware of the urgent message,” said Gervais, 23, of Camden, Conn. “They were also coming at us fast, and it was kind of unclear if they were coming for help, or if they had bad intentions.”

Given the possibility of piracy, the crew prepared cautiously to intercept. Rain squalls made it difficult to see the vessel, a 20-foot longboat with a 40-horsepower outboard motor.

As the battered longboat came closer, one of the occupants waved a yellow rag while the others crossed their arms over their heads, Gervais said.

The longboat came alongside the 678-foot Ericsson, where crewmembers tied up the boat and brought the occupants on board.

It soon became apparent just how dire the situation had been.

The boat's five occupants included a village elder and others who had set sail from Bougainville Island, in Papua New Guinea’s North Solomons province, on a voyage to tiny Nissan Island, about 40 miles away.

The small boat got battered by rain squalls and the men aboard became disoriented when the ocean swells shifted, said the Ericsson’s master, Capt. Richard Kirk.

The boat had spent two nights and three days adrift at sea. They had run out of food.

“The only water they actually had was what rained on them,” said Kirk, of Mountlake Terrace, Wash.

They used the last gallon of gas they had left to get to Ericsson, Kirk added.

The Ericsson crew salvaged the longboat by placing a net underneath, hauling it out of the water with a crane and securing it to the side.

Those rescued took showers and ate a few cheeseburgers before being returned home around 1 p.m. on Wednesday.

“They were extremely excited and very friendly,” Gervais said. “They couldn’t thank us enough.”

slavine@pstripes.osd.mil

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