OKINAWA, Japan --
U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Ronald Thomas and Master Sgt. Sara Thomas received Navy Marine Corps Commendation Medals on June 15, for their heroic actions in rescuing over a dozen people, including Okinawa residents, during heavy flooding near Ta-Taki Falls.
The trek up to Ta-Taki Falls is a scenic trail taking participants alongside the Henan River with rope climbs and paths going in and around the running water. On September 13, 2020, a fun family outing turned dangerous when sudden rainfall caused the streams to quickly rise.
Caught near the deluge, were the families of Ronald and Sara, U.S. Navy veteran Stephen Thomas and Shinobu Nakasone-Thomas. Within ten minutes, the clear blue water turned to gushing brown water. The rushing water carried enough force to cause a life-threatening hazard for everyone on site. With conditions worsening, the group looked for a way back to safety down river.
“The first thing that came to my mind was that we need to make sure we get everybody out of there safely," said Ronald, a Union, South Carolina native and distribution management chief with III Marine Expeditionary Force.
The group made a path through the riverbank’s steep hillside. After getting to a safe spot, the group assisted over a dozen people trapped on the other side. They utilized rope from a nearby fence to bring everybody across the river in a shallow area, according to Cpl. Celest Stanwood, who was stranded on the other side of the river.
“The most impactful thing the Marine Corps has ever taught me is to work as a team and to take care of each other.” Master Sgt. Sara Thomas, III MEF G-2 plans chief
“We found a small section where the current was still really bad but not impossible," said Celest, an aviation intelligence specialist with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. “So we crossed with the rope. Once across, other adults staggered themselves around the rope to make it easier for people to cross. We continued this method a few times down the path and picked up people stranded on the river banks as we went. If we hadn‘t worked together we would not have been as successful as we were."
The group guided local nationals and military families through the improvised path, ensuring each person did not slip on the muddy terrain and into the dangerous water below.
"[Local nationals] called the Japanese rescue and were saying we had to stay there and wait," stated Shinobu. "Still, my family and other military members decided not to stay because it was getting dark and more dangerous. But we weren’t just going to leave them behind, so we asked them to come with us.”
Upon noticing the path was quickly deteriorating, they were forced to cross the river once more. After entering the water they were quickly noticed by a local tour guide, who tied a rope to secure himself and then assisted in bringing them to safety.
After hours of trekking through the harsh river, they were finally safe. Looking back on this incident, many of the individuals credit their success to the camaraderie that was shown and the military training received throughout their careers. The Marines worked as a team with Okinawa locals providing assistance and were able to help those in need.
“The most impactful thing the Marine Corps has ever taught me is to work as a team and to take care of each other,” explained Sara, a Sandy, Oregon native and G-2 plans chief with III MEF. “When you are in combat or deployed, you have to rely on your brothers and sisters to get through not just your mission, but the emotional and physical strain it takes on you. When faced with this challenge we didn’t know the other service members on the hike, but by the end we had a better understanding of each other. The camaraderie of our service played a large role in our success that day.”