Written by David M. Santos, U.S. Coast Guard Academy External Affairs
NEW LONDON, Conn. --- Graduates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy frequently find themselves in harm’s way serving the public and saving lives. It’s an accepted part of the job that comes with the service’s humanitarian mission.
The Academy community celebrates the accomplishments of past graduates who have distinguished themselves and their alma mater during its annual Hall of Heroes ceremony. The Hall of Heroes is a memorial that was established in April 2005 to honor Academy graduates who performed heroic service to the Coast Guard and the nation.
In the accounts of the heroic acts of this year’s inductees, whether it’s at the site of a plane ditching into the ocean at night, a devastating highway accident, or a massive hurricane response, you will find them demonstrating courage in the face of danger.
When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in late August 2017 it arrived as a devastating Category 4 hurricane that caused catastrophic flooding and more than 100 deaths.
One of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history, Harvey caused a staggering $125 billion in damage throughout Southeast Texas and the Houston metro area.
On August 26, as part of the initial Coast Guard response to the hurricane Lieutenant Gregory Bukata ‘11, an MH-65D Aircraft Commander, and his crew conducted some of the first rescues that night, in 80-knot winds and torrential rain.
As the response continued, during one notable mission Bukata worked to place a Coast Guard rescue swimmer between tall trees and high voltage power lines to reach a critically-ill pregnant woman who was trapped by rising waters in the attic of her home.
An award citation describing the arduous mission reads, “Due to massive amounts of water intrusion, the crew endured multiple aircraft emergencies during the rescue of additional family members. The loss of critical avionics, internal communication, and aircraft stabilization systems coupled with the violent motion of the aircraft from 60-knot gusts made just hovering an arduous act and hoisting a true aeronautical feat. Following a hoist failure on the subsequent rescue, the crew was forced to leave the swimmer on scene. As the only available resource at this early stage of the response, the crew returned with a new aircraft to complete the rescue.”
During the seven days Bukata was part of the response, he and his crew were instrumental in the rescue of 108 people and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement in aerial flight.
As Ryan Crose ‘06 drove to work on Sept. 26, 2017, his routine morning commute in Northern Illinois quickly turned into a horrifying ordeal.
Crose, a Coast Guard Reserve Lieutenant Commander, was the first person on scene after a tractor trailer struck two other tractor trailers on the side of the road before catching on fire. Crose rushed to the driver who was writhing on the ground, engulfed in flames.
Trying to extinguish the fire that surrounded the man with his shirt, Crose reached for another shirt from a passing motorist and fell into a pool of diesel fuel.
Now soaked in diesel, Crose disregarded the danger to himself and continued to fight the fire that was tormenting the man. He finally succeeded in putting the fire out with a welding blanket provided by another bystander.
Moments later, the truck’s fuel tank exploded shooting a fireball overhead that knocked bystanders to the ground and sending a flaming tire airborne that landed just a few feet from Crose and the victim. After moving him further away to safety, Crose stayed with the severely injured driver until emergency responders arrived.
In recognition of his selfless efforts, Crose was awarded the Coast Guard Medal, which is presented to members who distinguish themselves by voluntary acts of heroism in the face of great danger during non-combat situations.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Vislay ‘94, an HH-60J Aircraft Commander, played a significant role in the massive Coast Guard response to the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Vislay and his crew flew through high winds to deliver Coast Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency leaders to ground zero to provide a real-time assessment of the unfolding disaster from the highest levels of the federal government.
An award citation recounting the details of Vislay’s actions reads, “While sustaining a motionless hover, Lt. Cmdr. Vislay directed a litter hoist to rescue a comatose, handicapped survivor in the attic; the hoist involved threading the litter through a four foot jagged hole and any movement would have caused certain injury to the swimmer and survivor.”
The citation goes on to say, “On 1 September 2005, Lieutenant Commander Vislay displayed incredible physical endurance, saving 96 lives from a hotel roof, while operating his aircraft at its maximum performance capability. On 3 September 2005, he located a family of six trapped in their backyard. From 100 feet, he lowered the basket through an intricate web of wires hidden in the shadows of night, barely avoiding entanglement on each hoist.”
As a result of his actions from August 29 to September 6, 2005, Vislay and his crew saved 167 storm victims and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement in aerial flight.
More than sixty years ago, LT William Russell ‘53 distinguished himself during the rescue of survivors from a Northwest Airlines flight from Okinawa to Manila that ditched in the Philippine Sea on July 14, 1960.
Russell served as an UF-2G Albatross co-pilot assigned to the Coast Guard Air Attachment at Sangley Point in the Republic of the Philippines. The UF-2G was an amphibious aircraft developed for the military by the Grumman Corporation.
The Albatross was ideal for the Coast Guard since it could operate from both land and water. They were located at air stations throughout the U.S., as well as Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
The citation that accompanies Russell’s award reads, “Assisting in the search for survivors from a ditched Northwest Airlines DC-7C plane, approximately seventy miles northeast of Sangley Point, Lieutenant Russell skillfully piloted the plane, and despite adverse weather and flying conditions, his vigilance resulted in spotting a flare which led to the rescue of the fifty-seven survivors, who were located in four life rafts.”
Russell’s skillful evaluation of the sea conditions and successful open sea landing enabled him to maneuver the aircraft and work with his crew to pick up 23 of the 57 passengers who survived the ordeal. The remaining survivors were later rescued by a U.S. Navy aircraft that had been directed to the scene.
LT Russell was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts to save the passengers of the ill-fated flight.