Stop the fleet to pickup one man?
September 2, 2007 9:17 AM   Subscribe

Would the Navy stop to pickup a sailor who fell overboard?

In the beginning of Flags of our Fathers, there is a scene in which a Marine falls overboard and is left to die as the fleet of American ships continues to steam toward Iwo Jima and won't stop to rescue him. According to IMDB this actually happened: 'According to Coast Guardsman Chet Hack of LST 763: "We got the man-overboard signal from the ship ahead of us. We turned to port to avoid hitting him and threw him a life preserver, but had orders not to stop. We could not hold up twenty-four ships for one man. Looking back, we could see him waving his arms, and it broke our hearts that we couldn't help him. We hoped that one of our destroyers or other small men-of-war that were cruising around to protect us would pick him up, but we never heard that they did."

Question: Would this happen today if something similar occurred?
posted by dyslexictraveler to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can only guess, but ... In time of war, it's questionable, but chances are that a helicopter would be launched (a capability that exists on many ships today, but did not in the days of WW2) to pick him up.
posted by SpecialK at 9:22 AM on September 2, 2007

My guess is that today, he'd be rescued by helicoptor (which wouldn't hold up a convoy of ships) - something that wasn't an option in WWII.
posted by blaneyphoto at 9:23 AM on September 2, 2007

I remembered a recent story about a sailor falling overboard during a game of football. I believe this is it. Unfortunately, despite throwing him a float, launching a boat within 5 minutes and a helicopter 10 minutes later, they never found him.
posted by sharkfu at 10:10 AM on September 2, 2007

If there was a circumstance where a rescue would prevent a ship from accomplishing a mission (like having to be at a specific invasion site at a specific time), they'd make the same decision. In ordinary operations, they would always try to rescue the sailor. As blaneyphoto said, if a helicopter rescue was possible without slowing up the mission, they would do that. See this helicopter rescue, for example. Sometimes they search for days when someone doesn't turn up missing until the next muster.
posted by Lame_username at 10:14 AM on September 2, 2007

Googlefu fail me,
but I recall an article about a sailor or marine on a carrier who went outside for a smoke and due to where he was standing or something got knocked overboard when someone opened a door behind him (cant recall specifics sorry), in the middle of the night.

He ended up floating around in the Indian Ocean for a day or two until he was rescued when they noticed him missing, he had used his trousers tied at the ends and filled with air to provide some buoyancy...

Again as SpecialK and Lame_username said; if turning around or stopping to pick him up would endanger the lives of others (if travelling in convoy, stopping would open the risk for a surprise attack or submarine attack) then probably not.

I suppose with improved communications networks though they would be able to be picked up by another vessel in the area or at least the message be relayed to more mobile vessels in the fleet.
posted by chrisbucks at 10:50 AM on September 2, 2007

Makes me wonder how small and cheap GPS locators could be.
posted by jamjam at 11:07 AM on September 2, 2007

GPS is best when you want to know where you are. A simple beacon is best when you want others to know where you are.

Triangulation always works. GPS needs lots of power and several satellites and still needs to broadcast that information in a way that can be understood. With all the wattage you would be spending on GPS machinery, you could instead broadcast "beeps" farther and more often.
posted by cmiller at 11:24 AM on September 2, 2007

Best answer: They would absolutely attempt to rescue the unfortunate sailor. Man Overboard is considered a ship's casualty, like a fire or flooding.

There are automatic immediate actions that happen in the first several minutes that would be extremely difficult to squash. The CO would pretty much have to be on the 1MC screaming no, no, no, we're continuing on, stop what you're doing, etc.

The good news is, as long as those actions are taken, it doesn't really cost that much distance down track. Nobody steams at max speed to where they're going*, and spending an hour to pick someone up just means you have to make up that time by going faster. Or even, not. If you've thought ahead, you're in the front of your "box" in the ocean anyway, so losing a bit of time just slides you more toward the back, but still on schedule.

The bad news is, if you don't do those actions right and lose contact with the guy, he's probably lost and at some point, someone has to call off the search.

*Even on a boat I was on where we had a mission that required us to make "best speed" to somewhere (i.e. get there yesterday), a ship's casualty is in the "shit happens" category. The CO would have to explicitly write in his night orders a "no man overboard" direction to make it not happen automatically.

Now, CO's are not big fans of creating a risk (cancelling man overboard procedures) without also setting mitigating conditions. So if he were going to disallow rescues, he would probably also restrict everyone to the inside of the ship so it couldn't happen in the first place. Or require a harness tied to the dog track for anyone outside, or something.

The movie scenario is possible, I guess, just damn unlikely. Sorry that was so long.
posted by ctmf at 12:07 PM on September 2, 2007 [4 favorites]

There are automatic immediate actions that happen in the first several minutes that would be extremely difficult to squash. The CO would pretty much have to be on the 1MC screaming no, no, no, we're continuing on, stop what you're doing, etc.

Your answer sounds authoritative. But do you have actual experience or where are you getting this info from...?
posted by vacapinta at 12:16 PM on September 2, 2007

I can back ctmf up, at least as far as Navy procedures in the 80's go, when I was a sailor. There would have to be actual combat going on for a ship to leave a sailor in the water. Man Overboard is an "all hands" process - when "man overboard" is sounded on the 1MC (paging system), anyone not directly assigned to a rescue party is expected to muster at quarters for a head count. It's a big deal.
posted by disclaimer at 12:52 PM on September 2, 2007

I've been in the U.S. Navy for 18 years. (almost done!)
posted by ctmf at 1:19 PM on September 2, 2007

By way of aside - I just finished reading "Two Years Before The Mast", an account of two years sailing on a tall ship in the early 19th century. The author recounts the loss of a man overboard, fallen from the rigging. The ship turns around and puts out a boat, and they search for two hours, and then the captain calls all hands on deck to see if any could say of something more they could do, before they sail on.

I mention this because in the main the book describes the most inhumane, unjust, harsh environment imaginable, and the captain is portrayed as a cruel tyrant even by the standards of the time, yet there is never any doubt but that the captain had to try to rescue the man. It's not an answer to your question but it shows you how deep and how old the imperative to rescue a man overboard is.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:31 PM on September 2, 2007

I have a friend who is a rescue swimmer in the Navy. This is exactly the kind of thing he's trained to do, jumping in the ocean out of a chopper to fetch people. (When he left for the Navy, he was a little shrimp of a kid. After weeks and weeks of swim training, that kid was freakin' ripped.) He did say that he's met fellow swimmers who have never actually had to retrieve someone in 20 years.
posted by azpenguin at 3:38 PM on September 2, 2007

In modern times, no -- man overboard drill is well established, and in a fleet setting, you're not sailing anywhere near as fast as you could.

If you're under attack, that's one thing, but otherwise, as long as you realize you've lost someone -- there have been cases where someone's fallen overboard and nobody noticed -- the ship will heave to and boats will be launched. Period.
posted by eriko at 8:03 PM on September 2, 2007

In response to chrisbucks pants-as-life-vest statement...The navy must train better than the boy scouts, because I had to do this at scout camp and it was some weird kind of torture to be half naked and using all my 12-yr old strength to repeatedly flop wet pants over my head in the middle of a lake :)
posted by doppleradar at 7:38 AM on September 3, 2007

I can second ctmf's answer. I've been in the Navy for seven years, and not a week goes by while underway that there isn't a man overboard drill.

About the pants saving the overboard Sailor, we're taught in boot camp how to stay afloat using our trousers, uniform shirt, and sea bag. Take off your pants, tie the end of the legs together and put the knot behind your neck. Slam the waist opening into the water and it creates a pocket of air that can float for a good amount of time.
posted by jimdanger at 10:20 PM on September 23, 2007

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