Story and photos by NAVFAC Far East Public Affairs
MMC (SW/AW) Robby F. McKinney recounts rescue at Kamakura Beach.
When MMC (SW/AW) Robby F. McKinney and BU1 (SCW/EXW) Mark A. Wells headed to a Japanese beach for some surfing July 5, they expected to catch some waves – but they never expected that the day would end with them saving two lives.
Spartanburg, S.C., native McKinney, 36, is Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Far East’s PWD Yokosuka Leading Chief Petty Officer. Wells, 29, hails from Virginia Beach, Va., and is PWD Yokosuka’s Leading Petty Officer. Both Seabees had decided to head to the beach when high winds canceled Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka’s scheduled open base event that day.
“Since me and Chief (McKinney) both surf, we knew that high winds equal good waves, so we headed down to Kamakura Beach,” Wells, who has served in the U.S. Navy for eight years, explained. Located about 20 minutes’ drive from FLEACT Yokosuka, the popular swimming, surfing and windsurfing beach has ideal conditions and plenty of waves during the summer – but can be unforgiving for anyone who’s not a good swimmer, Wells added.
“We got done surfing after about three hours, and [Wells] was waiting on the beach for me because I came out a little bit later,” McKinney, a 16-year Navy veteran, said. “I got back to him and we were sitting on the beach for a few minutes, talking about the waves and stuff.
“There was hardly anyone else on the beach,” Wells continued. “We were looking around and we noticed four female students in the water. We knew they were students because they had their Japanese school uniforms on. They looked to be between 12 and 14 years old, and were drifting further and further out from the beach. They didn’t realize they were getting pushed by the wind and the current. They were jumping over small waves, and then they were in the danger zone.”
It didn’t take long for Wells and McKinney to realize two of the students needed help.
“The next thing we knew, one of them started waving and trying to get our attention,” Wells said. “We realized they were in trouble, and were struggling with the waves and the water. They were taking in a lot of water. So we rushed to them.”
Wells ran into the surf to the nearest student, who was struggling and disoriented.
“In reality, (the time in which everything happened) was probably less than ten seconds – but it felt so surreal,” Wells said. “We were rushing, the waves were hitting me in the face, and I saw these girls flailing around in the water.”
“I got to her and when she realized she was okay, she was pointing down further and there was another [girl],” Wells said. “She was actually the smallest of the group. I know Chief McKinney was behind me, because I heard him calling my name. He also realized that the farther girl was in deep trouble, so he got on his board and rushed to her.”
McKinney recalled, “I thought that it was over once BU1 [Wells] had grabbed the first girl. But when I saw the second girl, what was going through my head was, ‘How am I going to get to her fast enough? By walking through the surf, or by jumping on my board and paddling to her?’ It turned out that jumping on my board and paddling to her was a lot faster than trying to wade out through 3 to 6-foot waves.”
According to McKinney, the second student was approximately 30 – 40 yards further out from the beach than the first student Wells had helped. McKinney estimates that he covered the distance on his surfboard in about 45 seconds.
“I jumped on my board and started paddling to her as fast as I could,” McKinney said. “She was just getting worked by the surf…it was probably three to six feet that day. Right before I grabbed her, she had gone under water and the only thing I saw was her hands sticking up out of the water.
“I grabbed her, pulled her up and put my arm around her. As soon as I did that, she kinda…she vomited salt water…into my face, but she was breathing. So that was good. I tried to hold her up as high as I could, her head up out of the water. She was still getting hit by waves. I made it into a little bit shallower water, and she was okay. I put her down on the beach and she went and hugged her friends – so it was a pretty good day.”
McKinney has been surfing for more than ten years, Wells for only one year. Both Seabees are very physically active and credit their fitness and military training with giving them the awareness, stamina and presence of mind to rescue the two students.
“For me the biggest factor is just being physically and mentally ready, and both of those are benefits of being in the Seabees and the U.S. Navy,” said Wells. “I also gain confidence in the water from surfing and swimming. As far as formal training, I am CPR certified and been through courses like basic combat life saver and basic rescue. I think that the overall unselfish attitude of US. service members, always putting others’ well-being before themselves, is also a factor.”
McKinney added, “I have no lifeguard/ swim training. I’ve been around the ocean and waves pretty much my whole life, I’ve been surfing for 10 years, so I guess just
being comfortable with the ocean contributed to our quick response.”
Still, Wells acknowledges that they could not have accomplished the rescue without teamwork – that he could not have done it without McKinney backing him up.
“I was so exhausted from running to the first girl, and carrying those two wouldn’t be realistic, Wells explained. “It was just so hard. The waves were just…they were taller than me (Wells is five feet, eight inches tall; McKinney stands six feet even) and the wind was strong. It’s no breaks [on Kamakura Beach], it’s just wave after wave after wave. Running in water and then swimming in it is pretty hard.”
MMC (SW/AW) Robby F. McKinney (left) and BU1 (SCW/EXW) Mark A. Wells
Wells and McKinney estimate the total time of the rescue at about four minutes, from start to finish – but say that the realization of what had just happened, probably took longer than it took them to rescue the girls.
“I don’t think we really realized that in the beginning,” McKinney said. “I was hyperventilating myself, so…I think once we got back to the car, it kind of dawned on us what had happened. But during the event, we really didn’t think about it too much.”
Both Wells and McKinney say they now think about that day, and about if things had turned out differently. What if the base event hadn’t been canceled? What if they had decided to surf at a different spot on the beach? What if the girls had been their daughters?
“We both have daughters around the same age of the students, so we had a strong personal connection to this event,” Wells emphasized. “What if that was our kid out there? It affected me; I still think about it almost every day. I remember a tiny little girl, just fighting those waves. What would have happened if we weren’t there, at the right time and the right spot? Can you imagine the devastation their family would have had, know that their little girl drowned that day?”
“I try not to think about it,” McKinney said. “Any time (Wells) brings it up, that’s when I remember it.”
In typical Seabee style, Wells and McKinney got the job done, and then moved on to the next mission. Once they had made sure the girls were okay, they left them with their friends there on the beach and walked away. Their leadership didn’t even find out about the rescue until two weeks later, and only because they happened to be passing by when McKinney and Wells happened to be talking about it. But the courage that McKinney and Wells displayed on the beach that day will live on in the form of two young girls who received the greatest gift possible from two Seabees they had never even met, and probably will never meet again – the gift of life.