By Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn
Search and Rescue is perhaps the most well known of all the Coast Guard missions.
The idea of the rescue itself — the direct, firsthand lifesaving opportunity — is the reason many Coast Guardsmen sign up. These individuals crave a chance to rise to the occasion, to be in a position to save a life.
While this desire is the driving force behind many successful Coast Guard rescues, it is something that exists independent of our service, within our men and women.
Nothing demonstrates this driving force better than the recent off-duty actions of Petty Officer 2nd Class Leon Doniphan, a food service specialist aboard Cutter Alert, homeported in Astoria, Ore. Doniphan bravely, and without hesitation, swam to the aid of a young girl in immediate danger of drowning in the Columbia River. His actions most likely saved her life.
On the evening of Sept. 10, 2011, Doniphan finished his work on the cutter, changed and crossed the brow to the pier.
“I noticed a group of individuals on the shore fixated on the river’s edge,” said Doniphan. “I was unable to tell what had their attention at the moment.”
According to Rod Hallock, a California resident visiting Astoria, what had their attention was a young girl in a dire situation.
“My wife Shirley and I were discussing how fast the current of the Columbia was moving when we noticed a young girl, about 11 or 12 years old, swimming around the pilings under the dock,” Hallock said.
“The girl swam to a large round structure. She tried unsuccessfully to swim against the current and quickly became panicked. She yelled that the current was taking her under the structure. The situation became grim quickly.”
The structure was a large navigation buoy, 40 feet in diameter, chained to shore. The girl was nearly swept under the buoy, but managed to grab hold of small piece of metal on the buoy’s edge. The piece of metal was the only available handhold and she quickly began to lose her grip.
Washington resident Lewis Nevel, another witness to the event, suddenly realized how much trouble the girl was facing. “She was struggling against the current, fighting to keep her head and shoulders above the water. She was yelling that she couldn’t hold on,” he said.
Doniphan reached the group of onlookers, saw what was happening and sprang into action.
“The young sailor wasted no time,” Nevel said of Doniphan. “He dropped his backpack, pulled off his sweatshirt and called to the girl, ‘Hold on, keep your head up!’ He called out to another nearby sailor to go get a life preserver.
“He quickly skirted down some very slippery rocks on the jetty. It looked at one point that he slipped and fell against one of the rocks before entering the water. He kept talking to the girl, ‘You’ll be okay, hold on!’
Doniphan’s words of reassurance were backed by his actions as he lunged into the water and swam the approximate 40 feet to her aid. He was able to grab and hang on to the same small piece of metal the girl clung to.
“The current was very strong and was trying to pull me under the buoy also,” said Doniphan. “I had to exert a great deal of effort to keep myself right and face-to-face with the girl in the water. The water was very cold and I had jumped in wearing sweatpants, which caused drag.
“I told her that I was going to get her off the buoy, but I told her first that she couldn’t panic. I explained to her how if she panicked she could drown us both. As I calmed her I told her to trust me and to get onto my back.”
Doniphan was able to twist his body around despite the current. The girl clung to his shoulders. The crowd on shore held their breath as the next moments would determine the fate of both the young girl and her would-be rescuer. Doniphan let go of the buoy and swam with all his might, clearing both he and the girl of the looming metal structure.
“I kicked as hard as humanly possible to get us away from that buoy,” Doniphan said. “Once we were away from the buoy I realized we were still being swept downriver. I managed to swim just far enough to be able to grab a hold of the chain that helps secure the buoy to shore. With the girl still on my back, using the chain I was able to pull us, hand-over-hand, back to the rocks on shore.”
Seaman Hugh Dailey, one of Doniphan’s shipmates aboard Cutter Alert, met the two at the water’s edge and helped the exhausted girl up the rocks. The girl’s friends joined the small crowd that had gathered. The girl gave Doniphan a big hug and thanked him. Some of the onlookers, including Hallock and Nevel, extended handshakes.
Doniphan’s actions inspired Hallock and Nevel to write letters to Cmdr. Daniel Pickles, Doniphan’s commanding officer. The detailed letters included photos of the rescue and commended Doniphan for his actions that day.
Doniphan remains modest, despite the recognition. Like many lifesavers before him, he maintains that his rescue efforts were circumstantial.
“I have courage, but I don’t feel like a hero. I’m a regular guy, a cook. I was in the right place at the right time. I could never stand by and watch someone die if I thought there was something I could do.” “Besides,” he joked, “I wasn’t about to let someone drown next to a Coast Guard cutter! The media would have a field day with that!”
Doniphan, who is married with two children, enjoys working as an food service specialist in the Coast Guard.
“My son Javon, daughter Nia, and wife Vanessa are why I stay motivated to achieve great things. My family is a big part of why I am who I am. I like the job because by working hard to feed everyone, you earn the admiration of the crew.”
Though Doniphan’s job in the Coast Guard does not routinely put him in life-or-death situations, his desire to step up and put himself on the line is why he joined, and a big part of who he is. He remains adamant that it was his obligation to enter the water that September day.
“As Coast Guardsman, we may be called to serve, to fight, to die anytime, anyplace. I keep myself in good physical condition and was glad that I could respond adequately.”
Doniphan’s rescue did not involve an emergency call to a Coast Guard command center. Nobody ordered Doniphan to act. Though a Coast Guardsman, he performed the rescue as a civilian. People like Doniphan, however, are the reason the Coast Guard exists.