USS RUSHMORE, At Sea -- Marines and sailors with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Essex Amphibious Ready Group aboard the USS Rushmore (LSD 47) saved 65 distressed Indonesian mariners from a sinking craft in the Makassar Strait, June 10, 2015.
The survivors were saved after four days of clinging to floating debris drifting with the current.
Sailors on lookout first noticed scattered debris, and after scouring the waters they noticed what appeared to be people massed together clinging to a makeshift raft.
“The call first came roughly after 1 p.m.,” said Capt. Tanner Cobb, communications officer, Combat Logistics Battalion 15, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. “The Rushmore crew then sent a water craft to assess the situation. They determined the [Indonesian] craft was un-sea worthy and that the people were pretty much standing in the water.”
After the decision was made, Marines and sailors burst into action and within 30 minutes of receiving the order they had set up an evacuee collection point, and had water, blankets, footwear and medical staff ready to receive them.
“The Marines and Sailors did a fantastic job of integrating between the ‘blue and green’ team to get ready without warning and pulling it off,” said Lt. Col. Wilfred Rivera, the commanding officer for the CLB-15, 15th MEU. “We bring a unique capability that can only be found between the Navy and Marine landing force, and that’s being able to execute a mission like this on a moment’s notice. That’s what the MEU is all about, and these Marines and sailors proved that in their actions.”
Once evacuees were pulled from the water, they were transported by sailors in small craft to the USS Rushmore where they were received by Marines who were waiting with warm blankets and ready to rush them to medical care.
“They were all exhausted and dehydrated, with many of them too weak to walk on their own,” said Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Christopher Rovelli, corpsman, Company K, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 15th MEU. “It’s heart wrenching to see it, and at that moment you know that timing is everything. We knew we had to make sure we gave everyone the help they needed, and fast. Luckily everything we do prepares us for moments like these.”
Within hours, the Navy and Marine Corps personnel safely brought the evacuees on broad the USS Rushmore to provide shelter and medical attention.
“They were frail and weak, and when we saw them, all we wanted to do was make that pain go away,” said Sgt. Leclair Harris, combat engineer, CLB-15, 15th MEU. “We took care of them and made them feel safe.”
It was these feelings that gave Marines and sailors the energy to push through the night to ensure everyone was cared for.
“It was extraordinary seeing everyone come together to help out,” said Cobb. “With so many moving parts things can get hectic and [friction] can occur, but we didn’t have that problem. Everyone had a job to do and they did it. We had Navy personnel saving [evacuees] and bringing them aboard and we had Marines and Sailors getting them processed, nourished, and attending to any injuries they had.”
Even with a language barrier, it had no effect on the Marines and sailors ability to accomplish their mission of caring for evacuees.
“When we saw them in the situation they were in it didn’t matter,” said Cobb. “Any human can understand and empathize. Our Marines and Sailors provided the care these people needed and they understood we were there to help.”
Marines and sailors were able to get by mostly on basic hand signals, until a Marine who spoke Illocano, a Filipino dialect, was able to communicate with evacuees.
Fresh from a liberty port in Manado, Indonesia, Lance Cpl. Arven Bunao, an amphibious assault crewman assigned to Co. K, BLT 3rd Bn., 1st Marines, 15th MEU, had learned that the Indonesian language was similar to Illocano.
“I was asked by my staff sergeant to see if I could communicate with them, so I gave it a shot,” said Bunao. “After speaking with a few of them I became comfortable communicating with them and was quickly able to pick up what they were saying.”
Bunao was able to translate their needs, where they came from, and how they had become stranded.
“I was just glad I was able to help out any way I could,” said Bunao.
There was no shortage of helping hands, even Marines and sailors who weren’t directly involved in assisting evacuees did their part by donating their personal clean dry clothes.
“I think that was the greatest part of all of this,” said Rivera. “This was a ‘blue and green’ team effort. For some of these Marines it was their first time experiencing a situation like this, and everyone was touched by it.”
While evacuees were being tended to by the ship’s crew, Essex ARG officials made contact with Indonesian government representatives and organized a transfer of the evacuees for the following morning.
After a night of much needed rest, the mariners were transported to an Indonesian Coast Guard ship and on their way home.
The actions of the Marines and sailors reinforced the necessity of a U.S. presence on a global stage.
“Marines and sailors demonstrated a true example of our Nation’s capabilities,” said Rivera. “Whether it’s humanitarian assistance or some other mission, we showed that we’ll be ready at a moment’s notice.”