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Anchorage Sailors Make Rescued Fishermen Feel At Home

By Lt. j.g. Mariacristina Gomez, USS Anchorage Public Affairs and Lt. j.g. Jereal Dorsey, Commander Amphibious Group 1 Public Affairs

June 18, 2003, aboard USS ANCHORAGE, At Sea (NNS) - According to the Commander's Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, "Customary international law has long recognized the affirmative obligation of mariners to go to the assistance of those in danger of being lost at sea."

Returning from the North Arabian Gulf June 9, in support of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, the crews of the USS Anchorage (LSD 36) and USS Comstock (LSD 45) got a chance to obey perhaps the oldest mariner's law.

A small fishing vessel was adrift, approximately 313 nautical miles east of the Philippine Islands, its five crew members frantically waving their hands and an orange shirt tied to a wooden stick as the big gray hulls approached them.

As the Anchorage neared the stranded vessel, the Officer of the Deck (OOD), Lt. j.g. Timothy J. Reiswig, directed his signalman use the high-powered binoculars to get a closer look.

"I saw this young boy waving a shirt back and forth, and as the others began to get tired, he kept at it," said Signalman 3rd Class Antoni Staley. "The first thought that came into my mind was my little brother. Without even thinking, I reported to the OOD that we had a boat in distress."

Anchorage then immediately informed Comstock, and the two ships altered their course to investigate the situation. Anchorage put a rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) with a Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) team in the water to get a closer look.

The VBSS team found Sergio Fermentera, 49; Joseph Cumos, 36; Robert Bulig, 30; Rolito Bulig, 20; and Ariel Fermentera, 14, all from Mindanao Island, Philippines, very eager to meet them.

Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Ruben V. Radoc served as a Tagalog translator, and discovered that the five had been at sea since May 3, when they left General Santos Village, Philippines for a fishing trip on their ship, Karlene Jane.

The VBSS team also discovered that the Karlene Jane's engine and electrical system had been disabled since May 15, and the fishermen had been adrift for weeks. The fishermen told Radoc that at least 10 ships had passed before Anchorage and Comstock found them. With no communications capabilities or navigation equipment aboard, the fishermen could do nothing as the vessels continued to sail away from them.

Once the VBSS team boarded the Karlene Jane, they discovered at least 10 inches of water in the bilge and several engineering equipment problems. The fishermen aboard the vessel had sustained themselves on raw fish and rainwater.

Additionally, the fishermen told Radoc that they had departed their village with eight crew members. Two of them set out May 28 in the Karlene Jane's dinghy, without food or water, to seek help. They were never seen again. Another crew member died May 20 from unknown causes. The fishermen buried him at sea before being rescued.

"We were more than happy to assist in the rescue," Gomez said. "Unfortunately, I only wish that we had discovered them days earlier, then we could have saved the lives of all eight crew members."

"We are so happy to be on board," said Sergio Fermentera. "The people of this ship are very helpful and kind. We all feel good."

Once aboard, the fishermen were examined by the Anchorage's medical staff and treated for mild dehydration. The fishermen then ate, and got to rest in the comfort of a Navy rack.

Anchorage crew members donated personal items, such as assorted toiletries, clothes, shoes, canned goods, towels and sea-bags to the fishermen. The crew also gathered various Filipino videos and magazines to keep the fishermen entertained, and played them in competitive chess matches.

"We are also collecting money to help them when they get to Guam," said Radoc.

During their three day stay aboard Anchorage, the fishermen witnessed their first replenishment-at-sea, and even attended a Sailor's reenlistment on the messdecks.

After spending almost a month lost at sea, the fishermen flew off Anchorage June 12, with a seabag full of souvenirs. The fishermen flew to Guam courtesy of the Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 5 (HC-5) Knighthawks, where the Immigration and Naturalization Service received them and arranged for their transportation back to the Philippines.

"We want to tell our families how well we were treated, and how helpful the Anchorage crew was to us in our time of need," said Cumos. "We will always remember the boat crew and our escorts that helped us."

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