It was a Sunday in August 2020 and clouds partially covered an otherwise blue sky above the scattered islands of Micronesia. Meanwhile, a US Air Force KC-135 tanker powered above this peaceful scene on the look-out for some sailors who had been missing for three days. There were growing concerns the men may have perished; but then, the pilot spotted something unusual on a tiny island and decided to call for help.
The sailors had gone missing on July 30, 2020, after having set off from the small atoll of Poluwat. But when they didn’t make it to their destination – the even tinier Pulap Atoll – the three men were reported as lost.
The missing report was instigated the next day, and it was filed by officials on the United States’ Pacific Ocean territory of Guam. Perhaps they were informed of the AWOL sailors by friends or family who were expecting them to return to the Pulap Atoll where they all lived. Nevertheless, whoever first raised the alarm must have been really concerned for their wellbeing.
For their part, the lost mariners were all natives of Micronesia. That is the collective name for the over 600 islands and atolls that are scattered across the Caroline Islands archipelago in the western part of the Pacific. For reference, they are located south of Japan and to the north of Papua New Guinea.
The three Micronesian sailors had taken to the western Pacific in a small, skiff-style vessel on that fateful Thursday. But they then disappeared at some point on their journey. And the prospect of them surviving out there for numerous days was quite slim.
Of course, being stuck out on the Pacific Ocean on a small boat for days is extremely dangerous. Firstly, it could leave the three Micronesian mariners at the mercy of the fast-changing and often hazardous weather out there. Indeed, their small boat was at the mercy of storms and crashing waves that could easily sink or capsize it.
The men also had the possibility of coming face-to-face with some dangerous species lurking underneath the Pacific Ocean’s vast waters – such as the Great White Shark. One or more of the notorious hunters could attempt to take a bite out of the vessel – mistaking it for potential prey. They could even breach the water in order to grab their meal.
But the possibility of being attacked by a Great White might be the least of the sailor’s worries. The chances of that terrifying scenario may seem slim, but the threat of dehydration was much more real. If the men had not packed enough fresh water then they faced fall prey to that condition if not rescued quickly enough. Humans cannot drink salty ocean water, remember, and doing so in an attempt to quell dehydration can kill you.
Death by dehydration could occur within three to five days – or potentially less – depending on the heat. The sailors could also be in significant danger of contracting hypothermia if they were wet. This occurs when the human body emits more warmth than it creates – leading to a significant drop in temperature.
Severe hypothermia can eventually result in major organ failure. Furthermore, if any of the three missing sailors had any chronic ailments like diabetes, autoimmune deficiency, heart disease or arthritis, then they would be more susceptible to developing the condition.
Finally, the sailors could eventually perish due to starvation. Experts suggest that could happen anywhere between four to eight weeks, according to the website Professor’s House. Otherwise, they would have to try and catch fish or sea birds to survive.
Incredibly, one man actually did manage to survive purely on local wildlife at sea. An American citizen of Vietnamese origin called Richard Van Pham embarked on what was supposed to be a routine 37-kilometer trip from California’s Long Beach to Catalina Island in May 2002. But the sailor’s boat ended up being severely damaged by high winds.
The mast of Van Pham’s 26-foot-long vessel Sea Breeze was irreparably broken by powerful gales over the Pacific. Also ominously malfunctioning was the vessel’s outboard motor and two-way radio. In essence, every sailor’s worst nightmare had come true for him, and he was propelled scarily across the ocean.
Van Pham reportedly spent close to four months stranded in the Pacific Ocean with no one else in sight. Nevertheless, the then-62-year-old sailor somehow managed to stay alive largely thanks to his keen survival instincts. He maintained a steady stream of vital drinking water by gathering rainfall in a bucket. Van Pham also reportedly captured enough fish and seabirds to eat, which he cooked on a small grill present on board.
Eventually, Van Pham was spotted by a U.S. military aircraft that just happened to be conducting operations in the area he had drifted into. Incredibly, Van Pham had almost made it all the way to Costa Rica. A small rescue boat from the American warship USS McClusky then moved in to collect the long-stranded sailor.
The sailor was in relatively good shape despite the nature of his ordeal. Van Pham claimed that he had lost about 40 pounds in weight and was philosophical about his frightening fight for survival. He told the Los Angeles Times in 2002, “If you travel at sea, you take what you find. If you are scared, you will die.”
With all of this in mind, then, the three Micronesian sailors were clearly in some peril. Nonetheless, Van Pham’s incredible tale of survival meant there was still some hope of finding them alive. The rescue attempts would probably have to bear fruit pretty soon, though, as time was clearly of the essence.
A rescue operation was duly launched soon after the missing report was filed. It would be a joint operation primarily led by the U.S. and Australian militaries. The United States, of course, retains numerous strategically placed territories in the area. The most notable of these is the aforementioned island of Guam. That terrain was taken from the Spanish in 1898 and later recaptured from Japan during World War II.
Australia, meanwhile, is situated some distance below Papua New Guinea and Indonesia – surrounded by the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The southern hemisphere nation is just over 4,000 kilometers south of the Micronesia region where the three sailors went missing. And the Australian military kindly provided one of its helicopters to help find the men.
The chopper which was used to search for the missing men was on its way to Hawaii when the alarm about their disappearance was raised. It was being transported to the 50th U.S. state via the HMAS Canberra. That imposing ship – often referred to as a landing helicopter dock – weighs in at an astonishing 27,000 tons, according to the Australian military.
The Royal Australian Navy website notes that the HMAS Canberra provides it “with one of the most capable and sophisticated air-land-sea amphibious deployment systems in the world.” Furthermore, it contributes “to the defense of Australia and its national interests, and also allows the [Australian Defence Force] to provide large-scale humanitarian assistance, at home or in our region.”
The Australian Defence Force was now badly needed for its stated aim of humanitarian assistance. It duly exempted one of its helicopters from the naval drills that it was en-route to Hawaii for. Instead, the chopper and its men would search high and low for the missing Micronesian sailors.
The United States, meanwhile, would offer up both operatives and transportation from its Coast Guard and Air Force for the search. Specifically, the former branch offering its services was the District 14 Hawaii Pacific. The Australians and Americans would also be assisted in the efforts by responders from the Federated States of Micronesia.
The formidable joint forces were assembled after a call for help was made by the Rescue and Coordination Centre in Guam. That occurred after it emerged on August 1 that three sailors had gone missing en-route to their destination. After some coordination between the teams, the search for the missing Micronesian mariners was officially on.
The search for the disappeared trio was worryingly fruitless for the first few days. Despite the ample resources available, the would-be rescuers could not locate the sailors, who had vanished sometime during their roughly 40-kilometer trip between the Pulawat and Pulap atolls. In truth, the hunt for the men was like searching for a needle in a haystack.
You see, the Pacific Ocean covers an astonishing 165.2 million kilometers², which is close to 60 million kilometers² more than the Atlantic. That humungous area means it is the biggest of Earth’s oceans. It is also the deepest; the Pacific covers an area so large that 46 percent of all the planet’s surface water comes under its jurisdiction, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
In addition to that, the Pacific Ocean – which spans from the Arctic to the Southern Antarctic – covers approximately 32 percent of Earth’s total surface area. This means it is larger than all of our planet’s continents put together – making a search for missing individuals particularly difficult.
Another problem the prospective rescuers faced was the fact that the Micronesia region spans approximately 2,700 kilometers. Plus, it boasts a mind-boggling 2,100 islands. So, the team will likely have had to decide on a realistic search zone to boost their chances of finding the men.
The searchers were very much up against it then – given the size of the Pacific Ocean and the scattered sprawl of Micronesia. Add to that all the ways in which the three Micronesian men could perish we discussed earlier, and you get a sense of the task at hand. But on the third day of looking, the international rescue team spotted a potential lead on a remote island.
Yes, an American pilot flying a KC-135 tanker could see something curious far below on a beach on the island. That passing flier alerted his Australian counterparts in the helicopter, and the latter soon descended to take a closer look. Apparently, it appeared as if there was something etched in the sand.
When the helicopter got close enough, the pilot could see clearly what was scrawled into the shore, according to the BBC. It was the letters SOS. As many of us know, that combination of letters is an internationally recognized distress signal.
The joint rescue operation appeared to have made a major breakthrough in the search for the three missing Micronesians. Or, at the very least, they had stumbled upon others in need of urgent help. The distress signal was clearly written in the hope that a passing plane or helicopter would take note of it.
Tellingly though, there was also a boat used by the sailors to the right of the SOS message. Surely, then, this was the three men they’d been looking for all along. There was only one thing left to do, and that was for the Australian military helicopter to land and find out.
The chopper lowered itself on to the sandy shore, and there they were: the three Micronesian sailors who had been missing for three days. The men had been found on the isolated landmass known as Pikelot Island in the Federated States of Micronesia. Incredibly, they were 190 kilometers from their planned destination.
The Micronesian sailors’ 23 foot-long boat had depleted all of its available fuel, according to the U.S. and Australian authorities. As a result, this saw it stray badly off route and eventually wash up on the unoccupied Pikelot Island. The Australian Defence Force remarked that the three men were in “good condition” when they approached them and confirmed their identities. Furthermore, it added that they had no significant injuries or ailments.
The Aussie chopper brought with it supplies of drinking water and food for the sailors, which naturally would have been well-received. A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 also reportedly threw down a radio so that the sailors could correspond with a Micronesian patrol boat coming from the island of Yap.
The fortunate sailors were later transported to their home island of Pulap by the Micronesian patrol vessel. However, this heartwarming rescue story very nearly didn’t take place, as KC-135 pilot Lt. Col. Jason Palmeira-Yen revealed in a Facebook post. He wrote, “We were toward the end of our search pattern. We turned to avoid some rain showers and that’s when we looked down and saw an island…”
Palmeria-Yen continued, “… So we [decided] to check it out and that’s when we saw [the] SOS and a boat right next to it on the beach. From there, we called in the [Australians] because they had two helicopters nearby that could assist and land on the island.”
Australian Navy captain Terry Morrison also revealed his pride in the rescue operation. According to the BBC, he said, “I am proud of the response and professionalism of all on board as we fulfil our obligation to contribute to the safety of life at sea wherever we are.” They – plus their American and Micronesian counterparts – certainly did that, as U.S. Coast Guard captain Christopher Chase alluded to in a written statement.
The commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Guam wrote, “Partnerships. This is what made this search-and-rescue case successful. Through coordination with multiple response organizations, we were able to save three members of our community and bring them back home to their families.” Undeniably, the operation was a major success. And you get the impression those three stranded sailors and their next of kin will forever be grateful to the international partnership for their heroic rescue.