Coast Guardsmen awarded for saving family, displaying courage
January 20, 2011
HUNTER ARMY AIRFIELD, Ga. - A fall fishing trip might have ended tragically if not for the efforts of the Air Station Savannah Coast Guard.
On the morning Sept. 4, the Gouge Family - seven men ranging in age from 5 to 60 - took off in their 38-foot Fountain Cabin Cruiser for a bonding fishing trip. Roger Gouge took off with his sons Rodney, 41, and Jody, 32; his grandsons Tyler, 15, Kaleb, 14, and Xander, 5; and his son-in-law, Rex Willimon, 39, for a day at sea that none of them will ever forget.
But at 10 a.m., things went horribly wrong 21 miles off the coast of Charleston, S.C.
"We got out to where we were going to fish and we were cutting bait, then the buzzer went off for the bilge pumps, but it didn't go off for five minutes," said Rodney, the father of Kaleb. "We decided we'd move to another spot to fish, but my dad fired the engine up, the starboard side engine fired and cranked, but the RPMs wouldn't pick up. The port side engine would not crank ... Rex raised up the compartment to the engine, and when he did that, there was water shooting out the intake breather of the port side engine. We immediately closed it, we knew the water was coming through the exhaust ... we did everything we could, but we knew the boat was going down."
Willimon immediately began making mayday calls, but their calls were not heard.
"Come to find out, somebody had walked on us with a stronger signal," Rodney said.
Within ten minutes the boat was under water, and all the Family could do was wait for help in 65 feet of ocean.
At 10 p.m., Willimon's wife called the Coast Guard when the men hadn't returned home. An eight-hour search finally ended at 6:02 a.m., Sept. 5, when Avionic Electrical Technician Second Class Ben Rosen spotted the Family in shark-infested water.
"We were flying for about six hours, and after going back and forth that much looking down and not seeing anything, your hopes definitely start to go down," said Rosen.
"But you just know that they could be anywhere, so you just want to make sure you keep focused and keep your mind on the mission at hand.
"When we finally spotted them, we saw something but - it had happened a few times already on the search - you see something and you go back and it's a bird or something, so we marked the position and came back around that that time we got lucky."
For the Family in the water, they watched helicopters fly over them all night.
"They flew close to us several times," Roger said. "Every time they were coming, we could hear the thump of the rotor as it beat the air; and the excitement would build, and then they'd pass... but then they'd come by again.
"There was no light, just a sliver on moon, and God put Ben (Rosen's) eyes right on us. They passed - they flew directly over us, a hundred feet off the surface - they passed and went out several hundred yards, and when they banked that chopper it was just 'Thank you Lord!'"
The Family, after spending 20 hours in the ocean, was flown to land and taken by ambulance to the hospital, where they were treated for hypothermia and released.
On December 18, the eight men who saved the Gouge Family were honored. Four were awarded the Coast Guard Achievement Medal - Rosen, Lt. Commander Grade Jeff Graham, Lt. Junior Grade Joe Forgeng and Aviation Survival Technician Jason Booher; four were awarded the Coast Guard Meritorious Team Commendation - Lt. Russ Mathis, Lt. Junior Grade Mike Johnson, Aviation Survival Technician Donnie Walker and Aviation Maintenance Technician Shane White.
Roger tearfully thanked the Coast Guardsmen.
"By not turning your head for 15 seconds, you saved us," he said.
It was the first time since the rescue that the survivors were able to thanks the Coast Guarsmen in person.
"I can't thank these guys enough," Rodney said. "I've forever indebted to the Coast Guard for their diligence and what did to bring us in."