It was a fun family activity that two Marines in Okinawa, Japan, were seeking when they went on a jungle hike in September 2020.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Ronald Thomas and Master Sgt. Sara Thomas had taken their family on nature walk in the dense jungle at Ta-Taki Falls.
But instead of enjoying the rope climbs and views alongside the Henan River, the trek turned deadly when a sudden storm caused the clear blue water to turn into a brown rushing torrent, endangering the lives of all on the trail that day.
“The first thing that came to my mind was that we need to make sure we get everybody out of there safely,” Ronald Thomas, the distribution management chief with III Marine Expeditionary Force, said in a press release.
Ultimately the actions of Ronald and Sara Thomas saved the lives of those on the trail that day and earned them both Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals.
The Thomas’ quickly organized the group and started to make their own path to safety by cutting through the steep riverbank, the press release said.
Once they reached a shallow spot, they used rope to aid more than a dozen people cross the flooding river.
“[Local nationals] called the Japanese rescue and were saying we had to stay there and wait,” another military family said in the press release. “Still, my family and other military members decided not to stay because it was getting dark and more dangerous. But we weren’t just going to leave them behind, so we asked them to come with us.”
“We found a small section where the current was still really bad but not impossible,” said Cpl. Celest Stanwood, an aviation intelligence specialist with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, who was trapped on the river.
“So we crossed with the rope. Once across, other adults staggered themselves around the rope to make it easier for people to cross,” she added.
The group repeated the step multiple times as they moved along the river, picking up groups of stragglers on the way, Stanwood said.
Eventually the group of stranded hikers came across a tour guide who helped lead them out of the jungle.
“The most impactful thing the Marine Corps has ever taught me is to work as a team and to take care of each other,” Sara Thomas, the G-2 plans chief with III MEF, said in the press release.
“When you are in combat or deployed, you have to rely on your brothers and sisters to get through not just your mission, but the emotional and physical strain it takes on you. When faced with this challenge we didn’t know the other service members on the hike, but by the end we had a better understanding of each other,” she added.