Mineman 3rd Class Travis Kirckof was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroic actions while serving aboard the mine countermeasures ship Guardian, where he helped 46 of his shipmates swim to safety after the ship ran aground. (The Associated Press)
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Adm. John Richardson, director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion, presents Mineman 3rd Class Travis Kirckof with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal on April 11. (Senior Airman Dennis Sloan / Air Force)
Mineman Third Class (SW) Travis Kirckof was fast asleep in his bunk at 2:20 a.m. on Jan. 17, 2013, when the hull shuddered and the collision alarm sounded, jolting him and 78 shipmates out of bed.
The mine countermeasures ship Guardian had slammed into a reef off the Philippines, triggering a nearly two-day ordeal that pushed Kirckof past his breaking point.
Kirckof — who’d never thought he’d be put in a situation where he had to save a life when he earned his search and rescue swimmer qualification — swam for five hours in shark-infested waters to ferry shipmates into lifeboats against the current, saving two lives and aiding dozens more struggling sailors.
For his efforts, Kirckof earned one of the Navy’s highest medals in April: The Navy and Marine Corps Medal, often called the non-combat Medal of Honor.
“It was like a dream,” Kirckof said in an April 17 interview with Navy Times. “And not like a dream come true, it was just surreal.”
When Kirckoff felt the ship run aground, he grabbed a battle lantern and ran to the weather deck to see what had happened.
“I got to the fantail and looked over the side,” he recalled in the phone interview. “I swear the first thing I saw was the silhouette of a shark gliding through the water.”
Shining his battle lantern, all he could see was the waves crashing over the side of the ship. He couldn’t tell how bad it was.
It was bad.
The propellers were still in open water so the crew tried to back off the reef — anything they could do to get the wooden-hulled ship free. But Guardian had run hard aground and was sinking onto coral mounts.
The crew fought the inflowing seas for 32 hours, as waves battered the ship against the reef and worsened flooding.
By the morning of Jan. 18, the sea was winning. The flooding had increased dramatically, and Guardian was beginning to list heavily on its starboard side as 4-to-6-foot waves crashed against the port side.
The ship’s commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice, gave the order to abandon ship and take to the lifeboats. At that point, the rigid hull inflatable boats from the Military Sealift Command support vessel C-Champion were on station to aid in the rescue.
The Guardian crew mustered on the fantail, where they’d jump into the water and swim to the life rafts, which were atop the reef about 70 yards away and being held in place by sailors.
That’s when things started going from bad to worse.
“People were scared because the waves and surf was so bad,” Kirckof said. “So we had a senior chief who decided he was going to be ‘Billy Badass’ and jump in first to show everybody how easy it was going to be to get to the lifeboats.”
The senior chief jumped in the water and was immediately slammed by the surf and grabbed by the rip current.
“He was getting pounded, and by the time he got to the rafts he was thrown up against the rocks and came up all bloody,” Kirckof said. “It made everyone more scared.”
'I was amped'
Kirckof and another SAR swimmer jumped in the water. The ship’s damage control assistant and Command Master Chief Christopher Stone directed sailors to jump in one at a time, timing the jumps with the swells to have the waves push them toward the lifeboats.
Many in the Guardian’s crew, all wearing inflatable life preservers known as rubber duckies, were not strong swimmers but were told they could bring their gear with them.
“One guy had his seabag slung over his front and when he jumped in he couldn’t pull the release for the rubber duckie,” Kirckof said. “He panicked and sunk straight down like a rock.”
Kirckof dove and saved his shipmate, freeing him from his load and getting back to surface.
Another shipmate jumped in and began to drift out to sea. Kirckof swam desperately after the panicking sailor and pulled him back to safety.
The rescue was proceeding slowly. After an hour, Kirckof had only managed to get four shipmates to the lifeboats because of the swells.
So Kirckof directed that lines be run from the ship to the life rafts so that he could haul them from the ship to the rafts more easily.
For five hours, Kirckof swam the 70 yards to the rafts and back, helping 46 shipmates to safety.
Kirckof was burning thousands of calories fighting the waves and swimming his shipmates to safety.
“People were throwing Cokes and cans of tuna down to me when I had a second to rest,” he said. “Pretty much anything they could find to get food in me.”
During this intense period, Kirckof said he was barely aware of the toll it was taking on his body.
“I was amped,” he said. “I never thought I would get the opportunity to rescue anyone, so this was a chance to do my job.”
'We were lucky'
After all his shipmates had abandoned ship, minus a skeleton crew on the Guardian that included Rice and the DCA, Kirckof remained in the water, freeing up lines.
It was at that point that the toll caught up with him.
“I locked up. I couldn’t swim anymore,” he said. “One of my friends saw I was in trouble, reached down and basically hauled me up into the boat.”
The rescue was over and the entire crew was safe. Rice was the last man off the ship, and when it was all over the crew was transferred from the lifeboats to the C-Champion and the MSC survey ship Bowditch, also on scene.
Remarkably, crew members suffered only minor cuts from the reef, and sunburn from sitting for hours in lifeboats in the open.
“We were lucky,” Kirckof said.
The damage to the Guardian proved beyond repair. It was sawed into pieces and removed from the reef over three months. Rice, whose crew performed so superbly in the crisis, was fired along with his executive officer for navigation errors that led up to the accident.
For his actions, Kirckof was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal on April 11, putting him in elite company: James E. Williams, the most decorated enlisted sailor in Navy history, and a former president.
“When my mom found out I was getting the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, she did a bunch of research,” Kirckof said. “She called saying, ‘[John F. Kennedy] got the Navy and Marine Corps Medal! You’re going to be the next president!’
“It’s really cool,” Kirckof said. “It’s a great honor.”