Rear Ad­mi­ral Vil­iame Naupoto con­tin­ues sus­pense­ful tale - The Day I Will Never For­get

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Rear Ad­mi­ral Vil­iame Naupoto is the Com­man­der Repub­lic of the Fiji Mil­i­tary Forces. The events he re­counts here oc­curred when he was the Com­mand­ing Of­fi­cer of the RFNS Kula.

This is the con­tin­u­a­tion of the search and res­cue op­er­a­tion

Ire­pro­duce below a search and res­cue story that I penned many years back that did not make it to the dailies then. I retell this story in the hope that some­one will know the two girls and let me know how they are, bet­ter still per­haps a chance to meet them again. I re­pro­duce it ex­actly the way I wrote it then. Here is Part Two...

Sus­pense­ful events

The si­lence on the ra­dio was to me al­most un­bear­able... and then my heart jumped as the ra­dio came alive..”Kula this is Guardian over” and all of a sud­den ev­ery­one on the fly­ing bridge hushed as we all tuned in to the French ac­cent that was com­ing over the ra­dio. My rather cold ears were so tuned in to the noise com­ing out of the speaker that I could even pick up the breath­ing of the per­son who was on the other end of the ra­dio. I im­me­di­ately looked up to where the Guardian was, look­ing for a sign, and the sign was for the plane to cir­cle where it was, be­cause that would in­di­cate that they had sighted some­thing.

I re­mem­bered look­ing at the plane and silently say­ing to my­self...”please turn, please turn!” And then the over­whelm­ing re­lief and hope as I watched it banked and started to cir­cle! Yes they have found some­thing, and now the fears that kept me awake all night was back..”oh no we’ve hit them...Lord please save them”

My worst fear was for a sight­ing of a body in the wa­ter be­cause I knew that if they were in­deed dead in the wa­ter, I will never know if it was the huge waves that swamped their punt or it was us that had caused their death. If that was the case, I would blame my­self for­ever for their death.

Then fi­nally...

But it was good news that was com­ing over the ra­dio via that won­der­ful French ac­cent…they had found a punt with two per­sons on board! But the

Guardian can only con­firm that one was alive but can­not con­firm if the sec­ond per­son was.

The good news from the Guardian was greeted with cheers and clap­ping on the fly­ing bridge. I could al­most touch the ex­u­ber­ance that just sort of oozed out of the bright and smil­ing faces of my crew - a sight that any ship cap­tain would savour for a long time. The Guardian then started a ma­noeu­vre to guide us to the punt, and the way it did, was to fly low over us and you would hear the pi­lot say­ing over the ra­dio as it was ap­proach­ing us “Kula this is Guardian, over you, and now” as it was di­rectly above us ..” your new course is ___” which was a three-fig­ure com­pass di­rec­tion like “two-three eight”.

We would re­spond by im­me­di­ately turn­ing and steer­ing that course. The weather was get­ting worse and it was re­ally frus­trat­ing as it was slow­ing us down. Kula was re­ally tested on that day, as it ploughed into and through these huge waves at top speed. It must have been a sight to see from the

Guardian crew above.

The plane would fly on ahead, and as it reached the po­si­tion of the punt, it would cir­cle to in­di­cate to us the ap­prox­i­mate po­si­tion.

We re­peated this ma­noeu­vre a few more times be­fore they re­ported to us that the punt was just one hun­dred me­ters ahead.

Be­cause of the very rough seas and the con­se­quent high waves, we could not see the punt, and this we re­ported to the Guardian. The pi­lot then in­formed us that they will fly low over us and drop a dye marker near the punt. This they did, they flew re­ally low and I could clearly see the ap­prox­i­mately three feet can­is­ter as it jet­ti­soned from the belly of the aircraft into the rolling waves ahead. This was the first time for me to see a dye marker used in such a way and I had no idea what to ex­pect.

Sight­ing the tar­get

But as Kula reached the crest of a big wave I could, for a few sec­onds, see flu­o­res­cent green colour on the sea sur­face ahead, and Kula would then drop to the bot­tom of the wave and we would lose sight of the flu­o­res­cent green, and then up again, see it, and down, lose it. But it was enough to guide us to the punt. Even­tu­ally, we had the first glimpse of our tar­get.

The sight of these two girls on a tiny wooden punt, half-filled with wa­ter, sur­rounded by flu­o­res­cent green, against the back­drop of huge waves threat­en­ing to swamp them, is a sight that I will never for­get.

One of the girls was ly­ing flat on her back, half-sub­merged in the wa­ter-filled punt and the other one was kneel­ing over her and shak­ing her and point­ing to us.

The one kneel­ing had a white jacket and the hood was over her head. I can only guess and hope that her sis­ter was alive and that she was en­cour­ag­ing her sis­ter to be strong as help has ar­rived. I re­mem­bered that as we ap­proached them, the chat­ter­ing and cheer­ing that flavoured the at­mos­phere on the fly­ing bridge, all of a sud­den dis­ap­peared, re­placed by just si­lence.. and for most, if not all of us, tears to our eyes.

You could not help but feel the or­deal that these two young girls were go­ing through.

The mes­sage from the Guardian ear­lier that they were not sure if the other one was alive now made sense to me, as they must have seen the same pic­ture of the sis­ter ly­ing on her back from the air. Now the first part of a Search and Res­cue mis­sion was done - the Search. Now we had to at­tempt the sec­ond part - the Res­cue, but the weather was not on our side.

The res­cue

I could not po­si­tion Kula close enough to the punt to ex­e­cute the res­cue, as there was a high risk of the punt get­ting smashed against the side of the ship. The only way we could res­cue the two girls was to launch our own seaboat, trans­fer the girls into the seaboat and then hoist them on­board Kula.

The prob­lem though was that the sea state was way be­yond the safe work­ing con­di­tions of launch­ing the seaboat. As I was con­tem­plat­ing this risky and dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion, my eyes were on this tiny wa­ter-filled punt with the two girls, one still on her back and the other kneel­ing over her, as if she was try­ing to wake her up and con­stantly point­ing to­wards us.

As I watched, a big wave would pick them up and as it pushed them for­ward the punt will be­gin to tilt to a point of al­most just flip­ping over and cap­siz­ing and for some rea­son, that is be­yond me, (and thank you Lord for that rea­son!) the punt, at the very last sec­ond, would then slide down to the bot­tom of the wave and sit up­right again. And that scene would hap­pen over and over again as we at­tempted the res­cue. I knew that the girls had no en­ergy to swim and should the punt cap­size, the two girls would not sur­vive. To lose them now was just un­think­able, to say the least.

We’ve found them and they were alive de­spite the atro­cious weather con­di­tions…we must res­cue them and fast be­fore ei­ther the punt cap­sized or the sis­ter that was ly­ing down dy­ing on us. Af­ter dis­cus­sions with the Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer (Sub-Lieu­tenant Kean) and the Chief Bo­sun (Petty Of­fi­cer Vodo who now re­sides in the US and work­ing as a Re­servist with the US Navy), I called all hands on deck and briefed them em­pha­siz­ing safety and al­lo­cated tasks. Adrenaline was pump­ing, no doubt, and I could see in the re­ac­tion of the crew sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion. This was what we had sworn an oath to do, to serve oth­ers re­gard­less, only this time it was to save two lives in the most dif­fi­cult of cir­cum­stances.


RFNS Kula.


Rear Ad­mi­ral Vil­iame Naupoto

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