Pacific Castaways’ “HELP” Sign Sparks U.S. Rescue Mission

A U.S. Navy and Coast Guard operation recently rescued three mariners stranded on a tiny Pacific Ocean islet for more than a week after the trio spelled out “HELP” using palm fronts laid on a white-sand beach. The mission also unexpectedly turned into a family reunion. The three men had been planning to fish the waters around Pikelot Atol, part of Micronesia, when their 20-foot open skiff was caught by swells and its outboard motor was damaged. They scrambled ashore on the uninhabited island, but their radio ran out of battery power before they could call for help. So, the castaways gathered palm fronds from the 31-acre island, arranged them to spell out “HELP” on the beach, and waited. The names of the stranded men have not been released by the Coast Guard. For a week, the men lived off coconut meat, but they did have fresh water from a small well on the island, which is sometimes visited by fishers in the region. The search for the men began when one of their relatives called rescue officials on Guam, saying they had not returned to Polowat Atoll, an island more than 100 miles away, where the three began their voyage. The Coast Guard said a U.S. Navy reconnaissance jet dispatched from Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan, spotted the sign on the beach and initiated the rescue. The sign was crucial to finding the men in a search area that covered more than 103,000 square miles. The Navy jet dropped survival packs to the three men and relayed their location to the rescue station. A day later, a Coast Guard HC-130 flying from Air Station Barbers Point in Hawaii dropped a radio to the men, who were able to tell the crew they were in good shape and eager for help to get back to Polowat. It turns out that one of the stranded men was a cousin of one of the Coast Guard officers who finally rescued them, so a family reunion was an unexpected bonus.