I will always have very fond memories of my unplanned visit to Funafuti, Tuvalu on 23 November 1983. At the time, I was a young search & rescue pilot in the United States Coast Guard, based at Oahu, Hawaii. I had already flown many rescue, logistic, and law enforcement missions in the Pacific, had landed on many of the small coral atolls, and had visited many places I never dreamed of. But the trip which brought my flight crew and me to Funafuti was one of the more interesting and challenging flights, and one that I will always remember.
My crew and I had just completed about a week of flying our long-range HC-130 aircraft on maritime patrols in the vicinity of Guam. We had begun our flight several days earlier on 16 November, departing Oahu and arriving at Midway Island for fuel, logging 5.7 hours flight time. On the 17th, we crossed the International Date Line on our way to Guam, logging another 9.2 hours. On the 19th, we flew a short 3.2 hour maritime patrol. Then on the 20th, we left Guam, flew to Babelthaup, Palau, and then back to Guam, logging another 8 hours of flight time.
Prior to returning to Guam, we were informed of a serious motorcycle accident on Yap, and since we just happened to be directly over Yap at that very instant, we dropped in, picked up several injured people with broken bones and head injuries, and continued on to Guam. The people on Yap were surprised that a rescue plane had arrived so quickly after the accident, but as the saying goes, “timing is everything.” It was late at night, and we were quite tired, but delivered our patients safely to the hospital in Guam. On the 22nd, we flew one final mission off the coast of Guam, logging another 5.5 hours. Now that our assignment was done, it was time to take the crew and airplane back to Hawaii. On the 23rd, we flew our first leg to Kwajalein for fuel and lodging.
Our flight to Kwajalein was only 5.8 hours, but the week was beginning to wear on us; we had already put in a long day, we were tired and hungry, the sun was setting, and all we could think about was getting to the dining facility for the prime rib special. Little did I know that we would have no opportunity to rest for at least 30 more hours. As we sat down for dinner, we were informed of a serious fishing boat accident off the coast of Funafuti. The information we received was that a boat, which had been crewed by 6 or 7 Samoan fishermen, exploded and burned when one of the fishermen attempted to start their stalled engine by injecting oxygen into the engine.
Unfortunately, all of the fishermen received third degree burns over ninety percent of their bodies, and one fisherman had already died from his burns. Somehow, these fishermen had been rescued from the waters and brought to the small hospital in Funafuti. The doctor at Funafuti was doing all that could be done to keep the remaining victims alive, but knew that if they were not quickly transferred to a burn trauma center, others might die, and several might loose their limbs.
My aircraft was the closest rescue resource to Funafuti, but we had already put in a full day’s work, and needed a good night’s rest. Initially, the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) in Honolulu told me that another military service would be sending a rescue plane from Oahu, and that my services were not needed. In addition, we had already used up our crew mission day, and were in a mandatory crew rest status. When we thought about how much time it would take to fly a round trip mission from Oahu to Funafuti and back, we became concerned that the burn victims might not survive. At that point, I told my faithful crew to get as much rest as possible, just in case the other rescue plane from Oahu was unable to do the mission, or in case the situation with the burn victims became more urgent than it already was.
At the same time, I went to the hospital on Kwajalein and requested the services of a nurse or doctor who could accompany us and provide in-flight medical assistance, should we be called to do the mission. We wanted to be prepared, and Kwajalein granted the request. Anticipation about the possibility that we might be called to do this mission prevented us from getting rest. Over the next several hours, I called RCC for updates, and each time they told me the rescue mission would be taken care of by another plane. Then, at 1 o’clock in the morning, we got the call from RCC to launch on the mission as soon as we could, and was given authorization to wave our mandatory crew rest requirements. For our flight crews, that authorization is rarely given unless the mission or situation is extremely urgent, or the likelihood of saving a life is very high. We used our best judgment under the circumstances, and did what we had to do.
We rounded up the Kwajalein medical team, loaded bags of IV fluids on the plane, and got off the ground at approximately 3 o’clock in the morning, enroute Funafuti. Only hours prior, none of us had ever heard of Funafuti. If anything, Funafuti was just a tiny dot on the flight chart, one that was almost too little to even notice. But now we were climbing to altitude, headed toward Tuvalu, drinking coffee and waiting for the sun to rise. After being airborne for an hour or so, we made contact with Funafuti’s short-wave radio operator. To my knowledge, the short-wave radio was the only rapid method of communication from Funafuti at that time. There was much we needed to know before we arrived, and therefore this communication link with our aircraft was vital.
The first thing I wanted to know about was the condition of the runway. Of course, Funafuti’s radio operator was quick to tell me “they are mowing the runway right now, and should be finished before you get here”. After hearing that, everyone on the plane was silent for the next few minutes as we tried to visualize the runway and compute our ability to stop on a relatively short grass strip. We had departed Kwajalein without full fuel tanks, because we knew Funafuti’s runway was short for the size of our aircraft, and wanted to keep the airplane light for landing. Now, we were wondering if we would have enough fuel to return to Kwajalein, or another field, if the runway was unsuitable for our plane. But we make the commitment to go.
After a 4.9 hour flight, we were on final approach, and I was pleased with the freshly mowed path. Funafuti’s radio operator had done a great job providing weather and wind information, and informing us about the condition of the burned fishermen. Our next surprise, which we had not anticipated, was the Funafuti welcoming committee. It appeared that everybody on the island was lined up along the side of the runway to watch our big white and red airplane land, and they welcomed us with open arms.
The first thing we did was to go to the hospital to check on the condition of the burn victims. While our Kwajalein hospital staff worked with the doctor on Funafuti to get the patients ready for our flight to Honolulu, we began to refuel the plane. Due to forecast severe weather on our flight route to Honolulu, we needed as much fuel as we could get, about 40,000 pounds, to allow for deviations around the storms. Funafuti’s refueling bowser, which was towed behind a vehicle, was quite small. The refueling hose was not much bigger than a large garden hose, and we needed something 5 times larger. In addition, the pressure supplied by the bowser’s small engine-driven pump was barely sufficient to force the fuel into our plane. Since there was no aircraft electrical power cart at Funafuti, we were required to run our noisy gas turbine generator to control the aircraft’s electrical fuel valves and fuel transfer pumps during the refueling process. In doing so, we were using fuel almost as quickly as it was being pumped into the wings. The airport ground crew needed to refuel the bowser 5 or 6 times, and the fuel reserve at Funafuti was nearing depletion.
From the moment we had landed, and all throughout the noisy refueling operation, curious onlookers constantly surrounded us. The young children especially were taking great interest in our plane. We had some hard candy that we passed out to them, which made them even happier. They were literally jumping with joy, and we delighted in watching their reaction. Many of the people had a chance to tour our plane, both adults and children, and we were very pleased and proud to show it. A pretty young lady who worked for the Funafuti newspaper asked me some questions about our flight, where we were from, and where we were going to take the burned fishermen. She took careful notes on a small notepad, and was very interested in what I had to say.
While the plane was being refueled, several of us walked down the streets to see the sights in Funafuti. I was interested in finding a souvenir to take home, and bought a small, hand-woven fan. It was simple, but nice, just like Funafuti. All of those whom I had the opportunity to meet appeared to be genuine, peaceful people. It sure would have been great to stay longer, but we needed to transport the fishermen to a specialized medical facility. Several of us went over to the hospital to help bring the burn victims to our airplane. Funafuti’s doctor was relieved that his patients would soon be in good hands. He had sustained the lives of these fishermen throughout the night, and had done all he could do within the confines of his small hospital.
It took almost 6 hours to refuel the airplane, but it took every bit of that time for the Kwajalein medical staff, working with Funafuti’s doctor, to stabilize and prepare the patients for flight. Now it was time to go. We were extremely tired, as we had been awake and working for two days now, but we started engines and waved good-bye. Our departure was just like our arrival, in that the runway was lined with onlookers. After take-off, we talked to Funafuti’s radio operator for a short while, then we wished each other well and signed off. Our flight to Honolulu was a very long and exhausting 9.2 hours, and staying awake in the airplane was next to impossible. While enroute, some of the flight crewmembers worked with the Kwajalein medical team to keep IV fluids running into our patients and to keep their burned skin covered with salve and blankets.
It was very difficult to find veins in their arms and legs that were in good enough condition to insert the IV feeding tubes. My copilot and I did our best to avoid most of the thunderstorms, but due to our fuel situation, needed to take a more direct route home. That required us to penetrate several of the storms, making the flight somewhat turbulent for our patients. Finally we arrived in Honolulu, and delivered our patients to waiting ambulances. We trust the Samoan fishermen were well-cared for, treated, and then returned to their homeland when they recovered.
Twenty years have elapsed since we flew that rescue out of Funafuti. Possibly there have been other rescues since then. Now, looking at some recent Tuvalu photos, I see a paved runway at Funafuti, hotel, guesthouses, motorcycles to rent, and other attractions. Communications no longer rely solely on a trusty short-wave radio operator. I envision the hospital larger and better equipped. The beaches and lagoon still look very inviting……if only there had been time years ago for us to take a cool dip and relax. Some of the changes give it a more modern look, but at the same time, the scenes still appear to be peaceful and serene. The islanders are undoubtedly the same wonderful people I met years ago.
Funafuti is just a tiny dot on the flight chart, but I find it interesting how such a tiny dot can hold so many fond, vivid memories. JHS November 2003
John H. Siemens
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