The minute combat rescue Airmen heard about what appeared to be the beginning of a disaster, they took action. An MV-22 Osprey made a forced landing off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, Dec. 13, while conducting an aerial refueling operation at night.
The drama that unfolded was rehearsed chaos. On Feb. 14, 2017, Lt. Gen. Larry D. Nicholson, III Marine Expeditionary Force commanding general visited Kadena Air Force Base to offer his gratitude for the Airmen who responded to the call for help. Their quick response resulted in the rescue of all five Marine crew members aboard the MV-22 Osprey.
Lt. Col. Patrick Lowe, the director of operations of the 31st Rescue Squadron, recalled the early moments of the crisis.
“I was just about to fall asleep when I received the call,” said Lowe. He recalled getting the call from the squadron commander who was in an MC-130H Combat Talon II refueling the MV-22 when the propeller cut the refueling hose. By cutting the hose, it inflicted damage onto the blade of the Osprey.
Lowe and his team rushed back to the squadron hangar to don wetsuits, grab rescue equipment, and formulate a hasty plan based on a quick estimate of the situation.
Moments after the refueling incident, the Osprey pilot began to experience mechanical problems and realized that his aircraft might not make it back to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. He had to make a decision, weighing several critical factors. Among those were the safety of his crew and the safety of the Okinawan community. The pilot made a split-second decision to land the aircraft in shallow water, right off the rocky east coast of Okinawa, away from the community.
According to Nicholson from Toronto, Canada, the pilot’s incredible decision under very difficult circumstances saved lives.
“I knew I could no longer … make a vertical landing due to the damage to the aircraft,” recalled the pilot with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265. “Because of the condition of the aircraft, only two options were available to conduct a landing: in the water or on a runway. Therefore, I made the conscious decision to remain over water until a runway could be assured so as not to endanger any personnel on the ground. We could no longer maintain altitude and airspeed and conducted the landing into the water.”
Air Force Capt. John Krzyminski, a combat rescue officer with the 31st Rescue Squadron and Cincinnati, Ohio native, was one of the Airmen who assisted in the rescue effort. When he arrived on scene, he was surprised at what he saw. Two of the Marines were on top of the fuselage, treating the most seriously injured Marine. He described the entire group as remarkably calm, given the extreme circumstances.
The rescue men immediately began triaging the injured Marine, establishing command and control, and initiating communication with the other combat rescue crew that arrived moments later. All five Marines on board were airlifted to U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa, Camp Foster, by an HH-60G helicopter from the 33rd Rescue Squadron.
Nicholson, who oversees year-round Marine Corps operations throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, recognized the magnitude of the disaster that was narrowly averted that day. As he strode through the hangar, he shook hands with each of the Airmen who contributed to the rescue, noting their specific acts of heroism.
Nicholson praised the quick thinking of the Airmen as well as the Marines.
“You don’t just jump in a rescue helicopter and go out to sea. They were successful because they trained for this mission and were prepared for this mission,” he said. “From the minute that the pilot and co-pilot decided to put that aircraft on the water, there was a series of conscious decisions made by both the Marines and the Airmen.”
Nicholson put the rescue operation in context of the operating environment of III MEF, noting that this type of rescue could aid regional allies as well as Americans.
“Each and every night around Okinawa, there are ships, there are airplanes, that are flying and operating in rough seas, and we are dependent on one another to accomplish the assigned mission,” said Nicholson. “And that includes when there is an emergency. On the night in question, when our Osprey was in distress … the ability of the Air Force, the 31st and 33rd Rescue Squadrons to put together, in short order, a mission to go rescue our downed crew provides great relief and comfort to all of us that have to operate in a very tough environment here.”
All five Marines were successfully treated, released from the hospital, and are in stable condition thanks to the help from a few dedicated Airmen and an age old Marine Corps adage: No Marine Left Behind.
Story by Sgt. Laura Gauna and Staff Sgt. Jesse Stence