USS Whitehurst Logo by: Pat Stephens, Webmaster, DESA

Signal SAR... Search and Rescue

Eight were lost in that storm-smashed sea, and our ship was their only hope

Written in 1955 by Ensign Louis Strazis USNR and Published in REAL Magazine

Ens. L.C. Strazis, 1955

Louis Strazis, 2002

The call for help came into the Guam Naval Base at 1420 last January 14. A tiny, 48 foot civilian motor boat was long over due on a voyage from the nearby island of Rota.  A raging storm was whipping across the South Pacific Ocean. The small craft hadn't been heard from for hours. Somewhere between the two Islands she was lost, possibly sunk.  The Navy went into action. Orders were out in minutes. At 1430 our ship, the destroyer escort USS Whitehurst, lying in Guam's Apra Harbor, got her signal, fired her boilers and prepared to head to sea. Our job: Find the survivors, if any. By 1506, the last man of the crew had scrambled aboard the Whitehurst and, 29 minutes later, our skipper, Lt. Cmdr.W. R. Easton of San Diego, took her past the sheltered harbor's last buoy and we churned into the turbulent open sea.  Search and rescue (SAR) missions were nothing new to us aboard the Whitehurst. We'd been on plenty of them before. But we didn't think of an SAR as just another of the dirty little jobs that usually fall to the destroyer escort. To us, it was a job we were extra proud to do.  The wind whipped furiously across the DE's decks as the storm picked up tempo. Heavy seas crashed relentlessly against her bow, flooding the weather decks with foaming white ocean water. Misty sheets of salt spray engulfed the soaked lookouts on the bridge, as the vessel knifed her way through the roaring waves.  In the Combat Information Center (CIC)-search headquarters of the ship-the men braced themselves and clung to the radar equipment, the fathometer, dead reckoning tracer, or whatever else was handy. There was an almost constant stream of men stopping in CIC to check the search plot. Heads would stick in thru the hatch, "Got anything yet?" "Not Yet".
Our nervous radar man saw a dozen contacts on the sea return and then watched in dismay as they faded on the third sweep of the beam.
The clinometer in the pilot house danced a merry arc-35, 40, 45 degrees at times-as the ship rolled and pitched with a violence that left our stomachs hanging in mid-air.  It was like a maddening carnival ride that threw men out of their bunks, popped open drawers, and sent equipment skittering across the deck.  The Whitehurst's wardrooms and mess decks were a shambles of smashed china as meals were flung in all directions. Trying to eat or sleep just resulted in bruises and bumps.  Up on the bridge, we took turns wiping salt from our binoculars and squinting out over the dismal gray expanse. Horizon blended with water and fog. All around, it was the same. A driving rain peppered our faces, trickled down our slickers, and streamed off onto the slippery plating.  We peered through the binoculars until our eyes burned like red hot marbles. Our bones ached from being buffeted unmercifully by the rolling of the ship. Our cracked lips stung from the salt that became encrusted on them.  But not once did we take our eyes from the stormy sea. Somewhere out there people were in trouble. We were their only hope for safety.
The vigil continued. It was the same all day and all night.

As darkness came, the planes that had been helping in the SAR mission, returned to Agana Naval Air Station. There was little more that they could do until daybreak. We were left searching alone. The radio was our one and only tie to the outside. We used it only to receive the terse instructions from the search headquarters at Guam.  Facts were sketchy at first. The lost vessel was the M/B Rota with eight persons and a load of produce aboard. She had been bound for Guam from Rota.  The planes returned at dawn. The storm had died down a little, but the white capping waves and swells kept their pace. The seas were a deep blue under a blistering hot sun.  Faces became reddened in the glare. Tempers were getting short. We started to speculate on how long the survivors, if any, could last.  "Is there still a chance?" we asked each other.
"There's always a chance" was the usual answer.  There wasn't even a comforting cup of coffee in the wardroom. All the cups lay on the deck, smashed to bits. But it didn't matter too much. The coffee urn had gone adrift and joined them. 

On the bridge Sonar man Second Class Raymond Kuester of Sioux City, Iowa, watched wave after thundering wave roll by. Suddenly he stiffened. Something was bobbing on the choppy surface. Quickly he brought the glasses back a few inches and peered hard. There it was! It looked like a piece of wreckage. Then he spotted more. Pieces of wood, sacks of green peppers, and empty life jackets.  "Wreckage ahead!" he shouted waving toward the spot.
We scrambled to the rails. A boat hook went over the side, and in seconds, an empty life jacket was on deck. The heavy white stenciled letters across it stood out clearly. M/B ROTA.

Now we'd found the spot where the vessel had gone down. Survivors, if any, would be close by. Activity increased aboard ship. On the bridge, the skipper shouted orders.  "All ahead two thirds!'  And minutes later, "All engines ahead full!"  In the depths of the ship, the engine room gang worked feverishly to answer the bells of the ships telegraph ordering more speed. Up above the helmsman spun the wheel sharply to port. Plates vibrated.  On deck we all crowded the rails, peering for some sign of life. Suddenly one of the men shouted. It looked like bodies in the water.  The piercing shrill of a boatswain's pipe echoed over the speaker system.  "Away the rescue detail! Lay up to the port quarter deck to pick up two bodies on the double!" It was exactly 1100 on the morning of January 15.  At 1101, one of the "bodies" waved. "They're alive!"

We worked fast while the ship slowed to quarter speed. This would be a tough operation. It would require the utmost in seamanship from our skipper. One error-a wrong turn, improper speed- and the two struggling survivors could be dragged beneath the surface and sucked into the ships screws, or they might be dashed to death against the sides.  At 1107 the ship edged alongside the two struggling figures in the floating life jackets.  "Survivors, ahoy!" a grizzled chief petty officer bellowed through a bull horn. "Prepare to come aboard!"
A net was thrown over the side but the islanders didn't have the strength to climb it. Quickly, two sailors scrambled down the net to help them up. Half-lifting, half-carrying, the crew got them aboard.  "Holy smokes, one of them's a girl!"  The astonished sailors quickly laid their nearly-lifeless burdens down on the deck. We gathered around closer. One of them was a young girl, dressed in blue jeans and a shirt. She was wearing golden earrings and a bracelet. In her hand she clutched a rosary firmly.  Hospital Corpsman Louis F. Rigney of Stratford, Oklahoma, pushed forward and checked the two islanders quickly. Their tortured faces showed the ravages of fear and exposure. Their eyes were red and raw, burned by the sun, wind, and spray. Long immersion in brine had shriveled their hands.  But they were alive.  Swiftly, half a dozen sailors wrapped them in blankets and carried them below to the ship's sickbay.
After some hot soup, they were able to talk a little. The man told us that his name was Fidel Mendiola. He'd been the Rota's Master. The girl was Maria Hocog, 18 years old, a passenger who had been on her way to school in Guam.
From snatches of what they told, we learned that there were still six more men somewhere out there in the water-two on a raft, and four in life jackets. Mendiola said that he had been able to send an SOS before the ROTA capsized, but didn't think it had been heard.

Topside the search continued with new urgency. Every available man strained his eyes on the water. The Captain urged us on.  "This is pay dirt! Let's cash in!"  Thirty minutes went by, then 45. Still no sign of the others.  Suddenly excitement broke loose in the radio shack. Rescue aircraft had spotted two castaways in a white raft, about ten miles from the ship.  Quickly our ship turned and headed full speed on the course given by the circling aircraft. The planes radioed that they were dropping smoke pots and dye markers to help us spot the location.  At 1244 one of our straining lookouts sighted the raft. He sighted something else too. A school of sharks was stalking the raft, quietly circling around it-just waiting. An order was shouted.  Rifles were brought out quickly. A dozen of our best marksmen lined the rails and leveled their weapons in readiness at the gray, foraging, creatures. Bolts clicked restlessly.
The ship glided slowly alongside the bobbing raft. The two men waved feebly. One caught the line that was thrown them and they paddled to the ship. They climbed aboard, tired and frightened, but able to grin weakly in appreciation. They told us their names were Francisco Manglona and Jose M. San Nicholas.
By now the ship's master had regained enough strength to give us more details. He related how his boat had suddenly capsized, how he had asked the men in life jackets to stay together with him. They had refused, deciding, instead to swim the 30 miles to Guam.  "I called to them but they paid no attention," he told us sadly.  He went on to say how he and the 18-year old girl clung to a piece of debris, and how their other companion, a 17 year old boy, was separated from them during the 36 hour ordeal. "he just drifted off and we couldn't stop him." At 1626 we spotted another survivor. He was riding the waves on a bundle of three life jackets.  We had him aboard at 1643.
He was Santiago Linfoifoi, an old seaman who was in bad shape. He was semi-conscious and suffering from shock. Corpsman Rigley thought the old man needed a doctor.  The Whitehurst's radio crackled with urgency. Rescue headquarters at Guam told us a Navy helicopter would leave immediately with a doctor aboard.

Once again feverish activity broke loose on the Whitehurst. An area on the fantail was hastily roped off. The Flag staff on the stern was quickly cut down. Only a half hour for us to get ready for the 'copter, and there was a lot to do. Heavy Gear and installations were removed for a makeshift landing platform, and the area cleared of cable.It was nearly dark when the 'copter came into sight over the stern of the DE. The pilot came in low over the fantail and radioed us that he didn't think he'd risk a landing. The doctor could be lowered by rescue harness. All of our eyes were glued on the twin bladed 'copter as Dr. Henry Meadows of Lowndesboro, Alabama, slipped out of the craft's side. Firmly strapped in the rescue harness, he was slowly lowered to the Whitehurst's deck.  Within seconds after his feet hit the fantail, the crew had the doctor out of the harness and we rushed him to the side of Linfoifoi. The 'copter circled the ship once and headed back for Guam.  The next minutes were tense ones aboard the Whitehurst. Dr. Meadows worked quickly over Linfoifoi, giving him intravenous injections. Slowly the islander regained his senses, and it wasn't long before he could talk clearly.  The story he told wasn't pretty.

He related how soon after he and two others had left Mendiola and the girl, he decided he wouldn't be able to make the swim to Guam. The two other men, however, had more confidence. They took off their life jackets and gave them to him, and struck out together.  They hadn't gotten very far when he'd heard a terrifying scream.  "My foot! My foot!"  Then there had been a terrific splashing in the water, he said. More screams and then quiet. He hadn't seen them again.
The old man broke down in sobs, and then drifted into deep slumber. The doctor left his side.  "He'll be all right, fellows", he said softly to the circle of men that by then had gathered around the old man's cot.

Despite Linfoifoi's story, we kept searching all night for the missing men. There wasn't much doubt in our minds that they had met a horrible death in the shark infested waters, but we still wanted to be sure. Finally, late in the afternoon of January 16, the search was called off. The Whitehurst circled and headed for port.

In a sheltered area on the main deck stood three of the rescued islanders. The gaunt skipper of the Rota and the two haggard passengers of the raft. (The other two survivors were too sick to leave their bunks.) They had been fed and had a good night's sleep. Now they quietly huddled together, softly speaking, praising the U.S. Navy and the men of a fine ship like the Whitehurst.
And on the bridge, on deck, and in the compartments below, the crew of the Whitehurst talked about the rescue mission. It had been rugged and exciting. A lot of us had lost a lot of sleep; not many had eaten much during the two days, and our tiny ship had been battered pretty hard during the height of the storm.
But one crew member who had just come from chatting with the survivors, summed up our feelings pretty well as he took off his shoes and got ready to hit the sack for some much needed sleep.  "Hell," he murmured quietly, "it was worth it."

Rescue photos by Ens. Louis Strazis

Seaman 1/c Donald Ferguson Helps
Maria Hocog, 18, over the lifelines.

Maria Hocog, 18 years of age
He gently Places her on a blanket
after she literally collapsed in his arms.

Francisco Manglona and Jose M. San Nicolas toss a line to sailors on the Whitehurst.
Jose M. San Nicolas, a Rota crewman, is helped aboard after 38 hours on the raft.
He seems to be asking for water.

Santiago Linfoifoi, an aging seaman, is let down gently by Seaman Delbert "Hoss" Blair.

Ray Kuester Sonar man 2/c, who first sighted the survivors. Ray preserved the article from Real Magazine and provided it for use on this web site.

The Following Color photos were taken and contributed by Dave Schaefer YN3

Dave Schaefer YN3


This story was well covered in the
Agana, Guam Daily News. 
Captain Eastman received praise for it in his
March, 1955, fitness report.  mc


On 2 November 2000, I received the following e-mail from Mr. Efrain Hocog.
He is the son of the young lady who was rescued.  mc

My name is Efrain Hocog and I'm the son of the island woman that was rescued from a shipwreck in 1955. I just want to give my thanks to the whole crew at the time and if not for them, our existence will not be possible. Thank you.

His second e-mail is in reply to my query about his mother.   mc

Yes sir my mother is Maria, and she is alive and well. She has four sons and I am the oldest. She is still in Rota and I know in her heart she'll be eternally grateful. I specifically like to thank Ens. Strazis for publishing it. As usual since this is a military effort there are too numerous people to mention and again, from the son of a survivor, many thanks to the crew of the USS Whitehurst, then and now. From one warrior to another, "I SALUTE YOU".  I've just recently retired from the U.S. Army as a Paratrooper, Airborne....     Efrain Hocog 


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