Not everyone can say they got the chance to perform a daring rescue because they won a game of rock, paper, scissors. However, Petty Officer 3rd Class John “Branch” Walton, a Greensville, South Carolina, native, and an aviation survival technician from Sector North Bend, can.
Coast Guard Sector Columbia River Command Center received a “Mayday” call from a vessel in distress near the mouth of the Columbia River, Feb. 2. Several 47-foot Motor Lifeboats from Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment and the National Motor Lifeboat School responded to the call for help.
Students sitting in a classroom attending the final day of the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School also heard the call. The students leapt at the chance to assist in the rescue. Any one of the swimmers could have gone, but ultimately it was a game of rock, paper, scissors that allowed Branch to join the senior instructors in the rescue.
Once the aircrew arrived on scene, they witnessed 20-foot seas and extremely high windspeeds. The Motor Life Boats passed survival equipment, including a personal flotation device (PFD) to the distressed mariner, but ultimately the sea state was too severe for them to safely execute a rescue. Branch was lowered into the water and swam to the vessel. Once he arrived near the boat, the man in distress pointed to a breaking wave. Video footage form the incident caught Branch diving underneath the water just as the massive wave rolled the vessel and ejected the man in distress into the water.
Even in such extreme conditions, Branch was able to successfully harness the man into the rescue sling and return to the helicopter safely.
“I have only been a rescue swimmer for about a year and fully qualified for about three months,” Branch said. “I got lucky with this rescue, but I was just doing my job!”
Branch reflects on his experience with the Coast Guard and how it led to this high visibility rescue.
What was your inspiration to join the Coast Guard and become an aviation survival technician?
From what I remember as a child, there was a gentleman who went to my church who was in the Coast Guard. I can’t remember but I think he was a rescue swimmer. I always admired him and his job. It’s funny because I remember hearing news about the Coast Guard come on the television and I would always tell my family to be quiet so I could listen. My interest really started from there and I’m glad I was able to join.
How has your journey to becoming a rescue swimmer been?
It was extremely challenging – I actually didn’t know how to swim before I joined the Coast Guard! I had a lot of people come along in my life and teach me how to swim. I am grateful for it because it helped me out for bootcamp. I was stationed at Training Center Petaluma for two years in the Annex X rescue swimmer program. It really helped me learn the basics and taught me what I needed to work out so I could pass A-school. I was miraculously able to pass the first time – I was expecting to go through two or three times.
What was your favorite part about the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School (AHRS)?
I enjoyed the whole program and the surf training. It was cold. I mean really cold. It was just cool to learn how to hook someone up and rescue them in insane weather while being extremely aware of your surroundings. I also really enjoyed the cliff training. That was probably my favorite part because it was super cool hanging off the cliff. They implemented new things that I haven’t done before and it was super interesting and valuable to learn. Honestly, urban search and rescue is sick too! Hanging out the window and putting a quick chop on the Oscar dummy was like no other experience I have ever had before.
How did it feel diving into the water and how did AHRS prepare you for this rescue?
So, going into the water we had a very clear plan what we wanted to do. The pilots and the flight mechs were the brunt of the crew and we figured out to every detail of what we wanted to do. It was very logical and it made sense. So, I got down, I started swimming. Once I got to the boat, I started yelling at him to get in the water because we planned to get him into the rescue sling. He pointed to the wave and that’s when it hit us pretty good. I was scared during the rescue if I am being honest. I did get raddled up when the wave hit since it was kind of unexpected.
I think the rescue went smooth though. What we learn doing AHRS is standardized and honestly, I think going through the training well prepared me for the rescue. The aircrew was mostly instructors, so I was with seasoned professionals, and it gave me peace of mind.
How did it feel post rescue once you got back into the helicopter?
I was ecstatic. I was so happy. The flight mech gave me a big cheesy smile and put both his hands up and the first thing I said was, ‘Man, I got rocked!’ I am honored to work with people who are so dedicated. It is an honor and a dream come true to work with such dedicated rescuers. In my eyes, I did not do anything special. I just got hit by a big wave and it got caught on camera. I did my job. I think our teamwork is the coolest part. It is the whole team that makes this work.
Why do you think teamwork is the most important part of any rescue and in your job?
It starts with the watchstander. They receive the call and mark the location. Then there are the three [47-foot Motor Lifeboats] that were on scene and monitoring the situation before we got there. The MLBs had constant communication with the air crew. Within the aircrew itself, it is constant communication. From when I’m on the hook to where I want to go is relayed to the flight mech, which is relayed to the pilot. No one does anything alone it’s a constant circle of communication.”
What makes this rescue so memorable for you?
It is the teamwork and leadership. When we got that call there were seven other rescue swimmers who were more experienced than I am. They trusted me and gave me the opportunity to go out there when any of them could have gone out. They took that initiative to make sure the newer person got the experience. It’s a great group of people and I could not be happier to be a part of this selfless community.
Branch and other students graduated AHRS just three hours after completing the rescue. His dedication to completing the mission was selfless and displays how teamwork in the Coast Guard is necessary. Although the rescue garnered him national attention, Branch only considers himself one moving part in the machine of Coast Guard rescuers. No job goes unnoticed in a group effort to save a life.