Okinawa, Japan -- OKINAWA, Japan – Strong. Narrow. Fast. Rip Current!
In a matter of moments an average beach day can turn dangerous, sometimes tragic. According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, rip currents claim more than 100 lives annually. Many people don’t know how to spot a rip current and consequentially get swept out to sea before they realize it is happening. Far from shore, even the best swimmers get fatigued and are at risk of drowning.
Midday July 14, 2019, U.S. Marines Cpl. Jeffrey Werner, Cpl. Tim Brownduag and Lance Cpl. Dakota Jackson from Communications Company, Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, noticed something out of the ordinary in the distance at Mermaid’s Grotto, a local beach in Okinawa, Japan.
The three Marines were longboarding and diving in caves around Mermaid’s Grotto when they saw something that didn’t seem right. “Waves were between three to six feet and as one of the waves crashed, we saw two heads bobbing in the water,” said Werner, a native of Clementon, N.J. It was two Airmen, who started yelling in distress.
Without thinking of the risks that could ensue, the Marines rushed into the water to assist them. After swimming the distance of a football field, the Marines came upon the two distressed swimmers and assisted them to stay above water. The two Airmen had been caught in a rip current for an unknown amount of time.
“I [then] realized what happened - we were stuck in a rip current. It was the strongest thing I’ve ever felt in my life,” said Werner. The Marines quickly remembered their annual training about water safety and made a plan. They knew the rip current was too strong to swim against and they would only get fatigued. At speeds of up to eight feet per second, even strong swimmers cannot swim against rip currents. The last thing a distressed swimmer should do is panic. The best thing to do in a rip current is to conserve energy and swim sideways.
Werner was the first to safely swim back to shore after roughly 40 minutes in the current. “Truth be told, my wife popped in my head and nothing was going to stop me from getting back to her.” said Werner.
Filled with adrenaline, Werner rushed for his phone to call for local emergency assistance. Because of a language barrier, Werner sought assistance from a Japanese man on the beach who confirmed help was on the way.
Shortly after the call was made, Werner saw Jackson return to shore. “I ran across the beach after [Jackson] and gave him a hug.” Werner said, elated his fellow Marine made it out safely.
With the two Airman and Brownduag still caught in the rip current, Werner decided he needed to take action and swim back out, this time knowing what he was up against. When Werner arrived to the individuals, he saw that the Japanese man who had assisted him in making the phone call was now stuck in the rip current after trying to assist in the rescue.
Werner noticed that the Japanese man was also struggling to stay alive and made the decision to save him and get him back to shore.
Shortly after Werner and the Japanese man returned to shore, Brownduag successfully made his way back and was informed the Coast Guard was on their way to rescue the two Airmen.
After swimming for more than an hour, Brownduag experienced extreme muscle fatigue and was medically evacuated via ambulance to the U.S. Naval Hospital to seek medical treatment. He has made a full recovery and has returned to his unit.
Thanks to the quick response and actions of the Japanese Coast Guard, the two Airmen were safely rescued by Coast Guard air support and were taken to a Coast Guard base station in Naha.
When the unit Sergeant Major heard about the incident, he was proud. “These Marines were presented with a choice: stand on the beach and hope; or take action,” said Sgt. Maj. Spencer Scott, Headquarters Battalion sergeant major. “They did what Marines do - they took action. Using teamwork and communication, these Marines quickly developed and performed a selfless act resulting in the best possible outcome. They perfectly exemplify 3rd Marine Division's values and proved that Marines are always faithful.”
If you see someone in distress far from shore, alert the nearest lifeguard or contact emergency services at 098-911-1911.