On February 9th, 2007, the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon was tied to the dock in Dutch Harbor with its helicopter, an H-65 Dolphin, parked in a PenAir hanger near the airport. During a school group tour of the helicopter that morning, a student asked about the strobe light on the rescue swimmer’s dry suit.
|Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Willard Milam|
The rescue swimmer giving the tour, Petty Officer Willard Milam, 41, told the kids the light was for the rescue swimmer himself, in case he ever had to let the helicopter crew know he needed help. The kids asked him if he’d ever used it, and he said no, in the 14 years he’d been jumping out of helicopters into the water, he’d never had to light that strobe.
Eighteen hours later, just before midnight, Milam and some of the other helo crew were uptown shooting pool when the aircraft commander on the Mellon called to tell him that a 406 EPIRB signal from the 42 foot fishing vessel Illusion was going off in Makushin Bay, 50 miles away on the other side of Unalaska Island.
|H-65 Dolphin helicopter|
After some discussion about the frequency of accidental EPIRB alerts, the helo took off into 40 to 50 mph winds with gusts over 60 and quarter mile visibility. They flew in heavy turbulence at 150 feet to keep below the ceiling, expecting to tell the captain of a seaworthy boat in Makushin Bay to turn his EPIRB off.
But there were no deck lights in Makushin Bay, and nothing on the radar screen. Instead the pilots saw two strobes faintly blinking, and flying closer, a tiny steady white light- the kind that sits on the top of a life raft. And then off the right side of the helo a red aerial flare glowed in the mist. Milam put his fins on and got ready to be lowered into the night and a15 foot sea.
The summer before, Milam had been set to retire, but when the Coast Guard offered him another Alaska tour he re-enlisted. He loved Alaska, and was easily talked into re-upping. But as he looked down at the black water he thought, “I pulled my retirement letter for this?”
Once in the water, he swam where the helo’s searchlight pointed and saw the raft’s light blinking between the waves. When he climbed in he found four men in street clothes huddled inside- “two Russians and two Spanish speaking gentlemen.” Somehow they had lost their survival suits, and one of the men was hypothermic and not fully conscious. Milam knew he had a problem- the men would have to get into the water to swim to the basket, and the water was 40 degrees. Getting them into the water would be issue number one, but in a few minutes they might not be responsive enough to swim or climb into a basket anyway, regardless of their opinion of getting wet.
Milam told the helo crew about the situation, and advised they bring they basket right up to the door of the raft. But after a conversation in the helo, the crew chief radioed that they’d lower their own survival suits down, giving up any chance of survival for themselves if anything happened to the helicopter.
The tether line came down, but as Milam slid off the door sill of the raft to retrieve it, he felt water flooding into his suit. Somehow the suit had been compromised between the time he’d swum to the raft and now. He grabbed the tether line, but with the weight of the water around his legs he needed the fishermen to help him back in.
And already his thinking was becoming muddled from the cold. Straddling the doorway as the survival suit bags came down on the tether, he unhooked them all at once, thinking they were tied together, but they fell off the hook separately. Two immediately blew away from the raft. Milam told the men to get their hypothermic friend into a suit first while he retrieved the two floating suits. When he returned with the suits he was shivering.
Milam pulled the hypothermic man, now in a survival suit, into the water and headed for the basket. Milam would tell an interviewer later that “The last place a guy that was on a boat that just sank wants to be is back in the water after he’s been in a raft,” and the man panicked and fought Milam until he pushed him into the basket, signaled to the crew chief, and up he went.
But when Milam turned back to the raft it was now some distance away and only the dome light was visible between the waves. He realized that with his suit full of water and the cold working on him there was no way he could catch it as it drifted away in the wind.
For the first time in his career, he hit his emergency strobe. They hoisted him up and tipped him into the helicopter, his suit so full of water he could barely move. They considered lowering the basket and letting the fishermen get themselves in unassisted, but they were down to 15 minutes of fuel before they had to leave. Milam told them there was no way they’d get all three of them in 15 minutes without his help. And they all knew that if they didn’t have enough fuel to get all three men now, and had to leave someone in the raft while they flew back to Dutch Harbor to refuel, the raft would be God knows where by the time they got back.
Milam told them he had fifteen minutes of mojo left- he’d go down and get the men into the basket. At the door of the helicopter he puked into the rotor wash, and then they lowered him into the sea.
The three remaining men were in their survival suits, but the next man to be hoisted tried to climb on the outside of the basket. Milam fought to make to sit down, and finally simply threw him in. He told the two remaining men to calm down, they were good, just go with it. The third man went up with no problems.
But the last fisherman, the skipper, jumped feet first into the basket when it arrived for him. He went through the webbing, the basket tipped upside down, and he came up on his belly with the basket on his back, struggling to keep his face out of the water. The cable was wrapped around the basket and at one point it became wrapped around the fisherman’s neck too, but the crew chief paid out enough slack to keep it from going taut. “Had that cable gone tight we wouldn’t have had to worry about rescuing that guy,” said Milam later.
He struggled to get the skipper untangled but the man tried repeatedly to climb on top of him, until Milam executed a “front head hold release,” a full palm in the face, which got the man into the basket. Milam watched it go up. All the fishermen were now in the helicopter.
Then the cold really set in. When the basket went down again the crew chief could see that Milam’s arms weren’t coming out of the water as he tried to swim for it. He was done, but the pilot somehow maneuvered the basket around and dragged it under Milam, pulling him out of the water like scooping a piece of cheese with a Triscuit.
When they landed in Dutch Harbor Milam remembers walking two of the fishermen to the ambulance, but he learned afterwards he didn’t walk any survivors to the ambulance, it was the aircraft commander and a paramedic who walked him to the ambulance. He was pretty out of it for awhile, but they warmed him up and he walked out the clinic four hours later.
"They flat out told me for the rest of my life that I would get colder easier. And I do notice -- I spend a lot of times outdoors-- that I do wear one extra layer here, you know. I can see now, (the doctor) was right…I do feel a little colder, but it's not like life or death.”
For their actions that night, Milam and the rest of the crew- Lieutenant Commander Joseph Carroll, Lieutenant Devin Townsend, AST1 Willard Milam and AET2 John Maghupoy- received numerous awards, among them the Captain Frank A. Erickson Rotary Wing Rescue Award, “for extraordinary skill and courage in carrying out a rescue on February 9, 2007.”
A lot of fishermen have been pulled out of the water by the Coast Guard, and a lot of fishermen have not survived to see a helicopter or a C-130. Knowing that, it’s sometimes easy to see the dangers of a fisherman’s life in high contrast to the imagined comforts and safety of a 378 foot cutter, or the supposed ease of flying around in a helicopter or a big airplane and being home for dinner every night. But it’s worth remembering, and this story is proof of that, that the Coast Guard too has its own stories of risk and heroism and survival, often accomplished at the far edge of human abilities and technology for small glory and modest pay.
Sources for this article include a 2008 Coast Guard Oral History interview of Willard Milam, and a Coast Guard News article from January 16, 2008.