Written by Lt. Cmdr. Clint Prindle, surface operations officer, Group North Bend, Ore.
A week ago today, all of America was glued to television sets and hanging on weather radio reports as a tsunami hurtled towards our Pacific Coast. As civilians were evacuated and communities braced for impact, Coast Guard men and women sprung into action to protect lives and property. It is who we are and it is what we do.
As the wall of water came ashore, Master Chief Petty Officer Jim Clemens, officer-in-charge of Station Chetco River, led his unit’s heroic response as tsunami waves ravaged the port of Brookings, Ore. His actions in the hours leading up to landfall and the decisions he made during the response are the stuff that leadership lessons are made of and are directly responsible for saving the lives of dozens.
Early on the night of Thursday, March 10th, Clemens, a master chief boatswain’s mate with 26 years of service, ordered Station Chetco River to make preparations and safeguard the crew, boats and Coast Guard property, as the imminent tsunami wave traveled from Japan across the Pacific. With adequate early warning, the crew of Station Chetco River deployed its motor lifeboats out to sea and prepared itself for the worst.
The tsunami wrought havoc long before it reached land. As night turned to day, surging tides in the port began to increase to as much as 10 knots of current ebbing and flooding every 20 minutes. Just before 10 a.m., Station Chetco River crewmembers observed an encroaching surge wave that threatened the entire port. The call was made to evacuate the station, seek higher ground, and be ready to respond in the wave’s aftermath.
At the same time, Clemens noticed dozens of boat owners futilely trying to secure their boats directly in the path of the giant wave. Springing into action with five other members of his team, they remained in the path of the wave to forcibly evacuate dozens of mariners to higher ground. With floating docks breaking free and sinking out from underneath these endangered people, Clemens made certain that everyone was safely removed from the path of the wave. He personally removed several people from harm’s way mere moments before a 200-ton fishing vessel crashed into the dock they were standing on.
The response of Station Chetco River continues at this time. Working with the Port of Brookings, county, state and federal agencies to pick up the pieces left in the wake of the devastating wave, everyone is striving to get this small town’s single largest source of revenue back to operations. With the sinking of eight vessels in the harbor and another four that were swept out to sea, the fact that no one in Brookings lost their life is in a large part a testament to Master Chief Clemens’ quick action.
To some extent, we expect amazing things from master chiefs in our service. However that shouldn’t deaden what Master Chief Clemens did for his shipmates, his community and the Coast Guard. He’ll kill me for calling him a hero, but that’s what he is.