On May 1, 2008, DR. David Rosen, USCG PACAREA Historian conducted an interview with AST1 Willard Milam as part of the USCG Oral History Program. With DR. Rosen’s permission, I chose to relate the interview in a narrative format.
This narrative recounts the actions of AST1 Willard Milam as an individual, but the rescue, like so many others, displays the elements inherent in all rescues; Coast Guardsmen willing to put their lives on the line to save others. It is a first person account. It manifests the teamwork necessary to accomplish the mission and reveals the often unseen and true reward which is within. There is a uniqueness and bonding amongst Coast Guard aviation crewmembers that is difficult to understand unless you have been there. It transcends.
It was February 9, 2007 – the 378-foot Coast Guard Cutter Mellon was moored in Dutch Harbor, Alaska on its Bering Sea mid patrol break. The Mellon carried an HH-65B helicopter and crew; LCDR Joseph Carrol, LT Devin Townsend, AST1 Willard Milam and AET2 John Maghupoy, deployed from Air Station Kodiak.
At 11:22 pm Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center Juneau received an unlocated first alert signal from a 406 emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) registered to the 42-foot fishing vessel ILLUSION. It was determined that the most likely position was somewhere in Makushin Bay near Unalaska Island. At 12:01 a.m., the location was verified by the receipt of a second emergency signal. With this information, the helicopter, which had been hangared during the patrol break, departed Dutch Harbor with turbulent winds of 40 to 50 mph and gusts in excess of 60, low clouds, horizontal rain and sleet with a visibility of one-quarter of a mile. For those not aware, the Bering Sea is one of the most unforgiving and dangerous places in the world.
Milam was sitting in the back of the helicopter thinking that it was the middle of the night; the weathers rough; and experience indicated that most of the time contact is made with the vessel and he is told his EPIRB is going off but there was no problem. Not so this time; the pilots spotted and headed for a steady light on the water. Then suddenly the eerie red glow of a flare lit up the clouds and mist around the helo. Immediately everyone knew this case was now a rescue. Soon after the flare, the helicopter overflew a raft and Milam heard his cue from the Aircraft Commander (AC), LCDR Joe Carrol, “rescue checklist part one for a swimmer deployment.” The process was as they had trained and despite the severity of the weather and situation, the evolution was routine.
Milam moved into position at the edge of the helicopter’s open door. Below him, through the rain and darkness, he could make out the small raft being tossed in the stormy 15-foot seas. After 14 years as a rescue swimmer, Milam had flown on more than 100 missions including Hurricane Katrina. But it would be on this rescue that things would be brought into perspective as never before. Maghupoy and Carrol put Milan within 10 feet of the raft and he disconnected from the hoist cable. Upon reaching the raft, he found four men, all in street clothes, wearing no survival suits. Two Russians and two Hispanic and they spoke broken English. Milam confirmed that was everybody. Milam’s concern was in order to get them out of the raft they would have to go back into the water, but nobody was in survival suits. He radioed the helicopter and told them. ‘I have four people all accounted for. I recommend you deliver the basket. Tell Johnny we need the basket as close the raft as possible to minimize these people’s exposure to the water because none of them are in survival suits.”
There was a pause followed by “Roger that, Wil. Stand by,” – then the LCDR Carrol came back up, “Will we’ve discussed it up here, and if you’re okay with it, we’re going to send down our personal survival suits.” This time it is Milam who paused. He knew that if the survivors went from the raft into the water to reach the basket without a survival suit there is no guarantee of survival. Milam’s answer was a simple. “Sounds like a good idea.” Carrol’s reply was “Okay. We’ll give Johnny a few minutes. He’s got to get them rigged up to send down to you.” Milam told the people in the raft that survival suits were coming down.
The rescue evolution was going well; that is until Milam reentered the water from the raft to get the guideline attached to the survival suits being lowered from the helicopter. Milam said that as he slid into the water off the raft he could feel the water flowing into his suit. It filled rapidly and was icy cold. Still cognizant of his mission he reached for the line, knowing that the suits were essential to the survival of the four men in the raft. Milam held onto the guideline with one hand, and grabbing the suits with the other, swam back to the raft using only his fins. Again Milam felt the frigid water surge into his suit, further debilitating him. He had no idea what was causing the leak. After struggling to climb back into the raft, he assisted the most hypothermic survivor don a survival suit while instructing the others to get into theirs.
The basket was lowered near the raft and Milam entered the water with the most critical survivor, Milam’s legs started going numb as hypothermia began to quickly take hold. After struggling to place the disoriented and combative survivor into the basket, Milam watched as he was hoisted into the helicopter.
Milam, now alone in the water, realized that the raft had drifted too far for him to reach in his current condition. For the first time in his career, he signaled for an emergency pickup. Once inside the helo, the crew became aware of Milam’s situation. Lying on the floor, he could feel the frigid water slosh in his suit up to his neck. Maghupoy assisted in securing his equipment, emptying the suit and checked Milam’s seals and pulled on the zipper handles. Milam’s motor skills were so badly deteriorated he was unable to do it himself.
Milam hooked up to the ICS to talk to the pilots. Milam said he thought he was talking normal but the first thing the Carrol said was “Hey Will, what’s the matter.” Milam answered that his suit had filled with water and he was freezing. He was chattering and shivering but said he thought everything would work out.
Fuel was nearing a critical level and the helicopter had only 15 minutes to recover the three survivors still in the raft before they had to leave for Dutch Harbor. Considering Milam’s condition they discussed the possibility of lowering the basket to the survivors unassisted. Milam knew that based on the condition of the survivors; there was no way all three would make it unless he went back down. Milam then said “If we only need 15 minutes I’ll get out there and get it done. I can do 15 more minutes.” The crew reluctantly agreed that the best chance of rescuing everyone and returning to shore safely lay with Milam entering the water again.
Milam was lowered to the raft and assisted the second survivor into the basket. As with the first survivor, he became combative and Milam with no time for patience was forced to subdue him with a good solid punch before positioning him in the basket for the hoist. Now feeling the exhaustive effects of hypothermia Milam turned to the raft and explained to the remaining two men to remain calm and follow his instructions exactly. The basket came back down. Milan later said. “I cannot stress how awesome of a job the crew did up there. Turbulence made it difficult to hold a steady hover and they were delivering that basket to me on these hoists within arm’s reach almost. On the third person we pulled out I literally had a hold of the raft in my left hand, and I grabbed the basket in my right hand, and I never let go of the raft.”
At this point, Milam was hanging on to the outside of the raft because he knew he couldn’t climb into it because he was again taking on water. The basket came down for the final survivor and he jumped feet first trough the basket. This flipped the basket upside down; the survivor was on his belly and the basket is on his back. With the survivor in a state of panic, Milam yanked on him and finally got him out but the basket had rolled a couple of times and the cable was looped around it. With one hand he tried to uncoil the hoist cable from the top of the basket while holding the survivor with the other. A wave broke over the two men, Milam lost his grip and the cable was no longer tangled around the basket but rather the neck of the panicking man. From above Maghupoy witnessed what was happening, told the pilot, and let out cable to prevent the man from being strangled. As Milam tried to grab the basket again the survivor jumped on him, pushing him under water. Milam struggled with him, subduing him several times before successfully placing him in the basket and watching him ascend to the helicopter.
Milam said “I never really dwelled on getting cold until those four guys were gone and safely in the helicopter. Once the last guy went up in the helicopter, that’s when I really started feeling cold and really knew that I was now in trouble.”
The basket was lowered to Milam. But his hypothermia and combative encounters with the survivors had left him exhausted, delusional and unable to move effectively. His crewmembers above could only watch as he clumsily maneuvered away from the basket. “In my mind, I thought I was doing everything fine,” Milam said. “I thought I was swimming, I thought I was stroking, I thought I was doing everything because I was so hypothermic I didn’t know.” But Milam was not fine and was now drifting in and out of consciousness. Maghupoy saw this; directed the pilot and skillfully maneuvered the basket close to Milam basically scooping him out of the water into the basket and up he went. Milam said he didn’t remember getting in the basket but did remember getting into the helicopter and getting dumped out of the basket onto the floor.
Milam awoke in the clinic in Dutch Harbor, wrapped in electric blankets and surrounded by heat lamps. After several hours of recovery, he was released. He was told he would always be susceptible to the cold in the future and he said he found that to be true.
Milam was honored at the Coast Guard Foundation Dinner in New York City where, in front of nearly 900 guests, they were able to hear exactly what he did and does when duty calls. Milam humbly took the stage as his harrowing tale was recounted and he was presented the Coast Guard Foundation Individual Award for Heroism from the Commandant of the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard Aviation Associations Capt. Frank A. Erickson Aviation Rescue Award for 2007 was presented to the entire aircrew at their annual Banquet and he was the guest of Barbara Bush at the President’s 2008 State of the Union Address.
At the end of the oral interview, Milam was visibly affected. He mentioned several things — then said “Our crew saved four people that night” there was a significant pause, “and then my crew saved me – I get a little choked up when I think about it.”