25th year anniversary of the Kodiak rescue swimmer

A photo 25 years in the making. Coast Guard aviation survival technicians from Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, pose for a photo Nov. 21, 2014, to observe the Air Station’s 25th anniversary of the installation of the helicopter rescue swimmer program. (Right) 2014 U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Auxiliarist Tracey Mertens (Left) 1989 photo by Mario Marini.

A photo 25 years in the making. Coast Guard aviation survival technicians from Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, pose for a photo Nov. 21, 2014, to observe the Air Station’s 25th anniversary of the installation of the helicopter rescue swimmer program. (Right) 2014 U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Auxiliarist Tracey Mertens (Left) 1989 photo by Mario Marini.

By Auxiliarist Tracey Mertens and Senior Chief Petty Officer Charles Fowler, Air Station Kodiak

The tragic sinking and subsequent drowning of 31 crewmembers from the motor vessel Marine Electric in February 1984 led to one of the most significant innovations in Coast Guard history.

Congressional hearings began following the tragedy, culminating in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1984, “The Commandant of the Coast Guard shall use such sums as are necessary, from amounts appropriated for the operational maintenance of the Coast Guard, to establish a helicopter rescue swimmer program for the purpose of training selected Coast Guard personnel in rescue swimming skills.”

The training and qualifications for an aircrew member to achieve and maintain the rescue swimmer skills were, and still are to this day, extremely challenging. Coast Guard leadership envisioned this and decided a specific rescue swimmer rating was required. In February 1985 a Coast Guard wide message was disseminated announcing the requirement for all aviation survivalman rated members below the pay-grade of E-7 to become rescue swimmer qualified or change to a new rating.

Air Station Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews perform a search-and-rescue demonstration off the back of the Coast Guard Cutter Munro April 15, 2013, in Womens Bay, Kodiak, Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

Air Station Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews perform a search-and-rescue demonstration off the back of the Coast Guard Cutter Munro April 15, 2013, in Womens Bay, Kodiak, Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

Air Station Kodiak reported ready for rescue swimmer operations in November of 1989. The first operational deployment of a rescue swimmer from Air Station Kodiak was performed on Dec. 7, 1989, in Shelikof Strait. On that day Petty Officer 3rd Class Bill DeCamp was lowered from an H-3 helicopter to an overturned vessel to ensure no survivors were in the immediate area.

The first lives saved on the high seas for an Air Station Kodiak rescue swimmer was credited to Petty Officer 3rd Class Gary Strebe on May 8, 1991. That night four crewmembers from the fishing vessel Dora H boarded a life raft as their boat sank in 35-foot seas and 45 knot winds. Petty Officer Strebe was deployed to the water from an H-3 helicopter and assisted in getting the four crewmembers, one at a time, from the life raft to the rescue basket for hoisting.

The rescue swimmer program has evolved considerably over the years. The original vision of conducting open water rescues has expanded to operating in numerous demanding environments. Air Station Kodiak rescue swimmers are now called upon to conduct rescues from cliff sides, mountainous terrain, and breaking surf.

Early in the program’s history candidates attended the Navy’s rescue swimmer school. Today the Coast Guard has its own state-of-the-art training facility located in Elizabeth City, N.C. New candidates will also find that the mindset has changed, with an increased focus on safety at all levels of training and operations.

“The old saying ‘you have to go out, but you don’t have to return,’ has gone by the wayside to favor more prudent risk management practices,” noted Senior Chief Petty Officer Charles Fowler, an aviation survival technician at Air Station Kodiak, in a discussion about the history of the program. “Through all of the changes, the basic evolutions and ideologies have remained constant. Today’s Coast Guard rescue swimmers are still taught to remain humble in their profession, embrace the brotherhood of the fin, and exemplify the motto ‘So Others May Live.’”

For more history on the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program please visit the U.S. Coast Guard’s Historian Office website.

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