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Air Guardsmen spot ‘SOS’ written on Pacific island beach, leads to rescue of 3 missing mariners

Air National Guardsmen located three missing mariners on Pikelot Island during a search-and-rescue mission in the Federated States of Micronesia southwest of Guam, Aug. 2, 2020.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Three men have been rescued from a tiny Pacific island after writing a giant SOS sign in the sand that was spotted from above, authorities say.

The men had been missing in the Micronesia archipelago for nearly three days when their distress signal was spotted Sunday on uninhabited Pikelot Island by searchers on Australian and U.S. aircraft, the Australian defense department said Monday.

The men had apparently set out from Pulawat atoll in a 7-meter (23-foot) boat on July 30 and had intended to travel about 43 kilometers (27 miles) to Pulap atoll when they sailed off course and ran out of fuel, the department said.

Searchers in Guam asked for Australian help. The military ship, Canberra, which was returning to Australia from exercises in Hawaii, diverted to the area and joined forces with U.S. searchers from Guam.

The men were found about 190 kilometers (118 miles) from where they had set out.

In this photo provided by the Australian Defence Force, an Australian Army helicopter lands on Pikelot Island in the Federated States of Micronesia, where three men were found, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, safe and healthy after missing for three days. (Australian Defence Force via AP)
In this photo provided by the Australian Defence Force, an Australian Army helicopter lands on Pikelot Island in the Federated States of Micronesia, where three men were found, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, safe and healthy after missing for three days. (Australian Defence Force via AP)

“I am proud of the response and professionalism of all on board as we fulfill our obligation to contribute to the safety of life at sea wherever we are in the world,” said the Canberra’s commanding officer, Capt. Terry Morrison, in a statement.

The men were found in good condition, and an Australian military helicopter was able to land on the beach and give them food and water. A Micronesian patrol vessel was due to pick them up.

SOS is an internationally recognized distress signal that originates from Morse code.

Guardsmen from the 203rd Air Refueling Squadron, Hawaii Air National Guard and the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Pennsylvania ANG deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, were the first to locate the three missing mariners during the search-and-rescue mission in the Federated States of Micronesia southwest of Guam, according to an Air Force press release.

The helicopter crew from the Canberra delivered supplies to the stranded mariners while a U.S. Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules from Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii, airdropped a radio and message block informing them the FSS Independence was en-route to rescue and return them home.

“Partnerships” said U.S Coast Guard Capt. Christopher Chase, Coast Guard Sector Guam, commander. “This is what made this search-and-rescue case successful. Through coordination with multiple response organizations, we were able to save three members of our community and bring them back home to their families.”

At 12 a.m., Aug. 3, the Independence arrived on scene, launched a small boat crew and rescued the mariners.

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