It was the day after Thanksgiving, and 1st Lt. John Dixon and his wife had been walking on a seawall on the western side of Okinawa, Japan, when they were flagged down by Japanese police trying to determine if some swimmers were in danger.
When they heard a woman in the surf scream for help, it was game time, said Dixon, a network operations officer with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.
“That’s when I knew something needed to happen,” he said. “I just jumped in the water and started going out to them as deep as I could without losing my own footing.”
As the police radioed for backup, Dixon asked for a life preserver so he could pull the swimmers from the surf. He knew that the four people were in very real danger of becoming exhausted from fighting the riptide and drowning.
Dixon had no prior training as a lifeguard or emergency medical technician. It was the first time he had attempted a water rescue, but he relied on his Marine Corps training to avoid becoming a victim himself.
He went as deep as he could, knowing that the water drops suddenly from about 5 feet to 80 feet deep. He also was careful to keep his footing so that he wasn’t knocked over by a wave or pulled out by the riptide.
Dixon managed to throw the life preserver to one of the men in trouble. The man grabbed it and Dixon pulled him to safety.
The rescues happened as high tide was turning into low tide, so the rip currents were especially strong. Dixon had to fight the current as he pulled the first two simmers from the surf.
“Every once in awhile, you would kind of slip, but I would just lean back toward shore as far as I could and just keep reeling them in as hard as I could,” Dixon said. “There were times where I could feel myself being pulled in the opposite direction out to open water. That’s when I would just readjust my feet and keep trying to do backward stepping as hard as I could until I got them in.”
Ultimately, Dixon was able to reach the swimmers and a Japanese police officer, who had lost his footing or been knocked over by a wave and became caught in the riptide. One of the swimmers had become so exhausted that he was doing a “dead man’s float,” when Dixon grabbed him.
He learned afterward that the swimmers were three U.S. college students studying in Korea and a South Korean woman on vacation with them.
Had Dixon and the police not reached the swimmers, they may not have made it.
“When I pulled the first two individuals in, they were white and purple in the face from total exhaustion,” Dixon said. “The second person, he had no idea what was going on. When I asked him to take his fins off, he started unzipping his wet suit. He was disoriented.
“The very last man, who did the dead man’s float, when I talked to him, he said he shed all of his fins, his boots, everything and just started floating because he was so tired he had no other choice.”