Marine Sgt. John Carrillo’s had looked forward to his first-ever snorkeling trip when he hit the water with five other friends at Oku Beach, Okinawa, Japan, on a sunny Saturday in April.
But the day-off diversion near Camp Foster turned into panic-stricken moments that could have ended in tragedy.
Luckily, one of his buddies, Cpl. James G. Cates, a Marine with Combat Logistics Regiment 3, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, and a seasoned free diver, was also in the water when powerful currents pulled the two leathernecks away from land.
“I thought everyone was on the shore when I got swept by a riptide,” Cates said in a Marine press story. “I knew I was in one because I’ve dealt with some before. I knew I was getting dragged out so I swam to my left to get out of the tide.
After I had composed myself I heard someone yelling for, ‘Help!’ I looked behind me and I saw Carrillo flailing and screaming. I knew no one else could hear him. I had to help.”
Cates plunged back into the surf. He had lost his goggles and a flipper getting himself to safety but powered through toward his friend.
Reaching him, the corporal gave the sergeant some instruction.
“You’re going to swim exactly as I swim, do exactly as I say, and if you do not deviate from that, you will get out of this alive, okay?” Cates said.
Cates helped Carillo detach his weight belt in the churn of the water and they swam to shore together.
“I was just as scared as the other guy, but you have to maintain calmness or you’re going to go internal and lose yourself,” said Cates. “You’re only going to tire yourself out. You will not beat the water, especially if you’re a non-experienced swimmer,” said Cates.
The corporal’s calmness in the moment helped him know exactly what to do: swim parallel to the shore to get out of the rip tide’s pull after a 40-minute battle with the water.
It also helped his sergeant and friend.
“I had fought the current for a good five minutes until I was absolutely tired,” Carrillo said. “By the time Cates got to me I was so exhausted and burnt out. I felt bad that the poor dude had to drag me through the current. He remained so cool under pressure and kept making sure to calm me when I would begin to hyperventilate.”
That day was in the final week that Carrillo was on Okinawa, Japan. He was headed to another unit.
But if it wasn’t for Cates’ help, the sergeant doesn’t know if he would have made it.
“I prayed to God to save me while I was pulled out by the force,” Carrillo said in the Marine Corps story. “I prayed I would get out of the situation. Somehow Cates heard my yells for help. That man was my Guardian Angel that day.”
“I could never be more grateful to that man. I owe him my life.”
Tales of near-drownings and worse are part of beach life, especially in waters off Okinawa, Japan.
In December 2018, then-Marine Maj. William Easter was prepping for a run along the Sunabe Seawall on the East China Sea when he heard calls for help, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
The major had found a local man who had swam back to shore, looking for someone to help rescue his pregnant wife, stranded in the ocean amid breaking waves.
Easter and two other military members called for help and got a flotation device.
He rushed into the water by about 300 meters trying to bring the woman to shore, fighting 35 mph winds and 10-foot-high swells for close to an hour before rescue boats could arrive.
“I didn’t know what the victim’s state was, but I felt like I had a moral obligation to do something,” Easter said in a 2020 email to Marine Corps Times. “The water was dangerous, but I was confident in my skills and training.”
The rescue craft arrived, but rough seas capsized it after Easter and the woman had boarded, sending them both back into the deadly waves.
A larger boat arrived and rescued all of those tossed overboard.
In 2017, then-Capt. Justin Griffis, a Marine with Marine Air Control Group 18, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, was snorkeling on a beach near Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, when he heard a woman’s desperate cries and saw her 7-year-old son’s limp body on the beach.
Griffis, another Marine and an emergency room nurse from the nearby Naval hospital went to work performing resuscitation and moving the boy off the beach to surf medics with a defibrillator and then onto a hospital for life-saving treatment.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.