‘Help’ written in palm fronds assists U.S. forces in rescuing Micronesians stranded on tiny island

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Oliver Henry makes contact with three mariners stranded on Pikelot Atoll, Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia, on April 9, 2024. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard found and rescued three men Tuesday from a tiny atoll south of Guam, where they spent more than a week after they were left stranded.

The men, all in their 40s, set sail from Polowat Atoll, Micronesia, on 31 March in a small, open 20-foot skiff powered by an outboard motor, according to a news release from Coast Guard Forces Micronesia, Sector Guam.

The men had experience navigating in those seas.

The skiff was damaged, though the release did not specify how or when, and the motor rendered inoperative.

A week later, on 06 April, a relative “reported her three uncles had not returned from Pikelot Atoll,” approximately 115 miles northwest of Polowat Atoll, a part of Chuuk State in the Federated States of Micronesia.

Pikelot, a low coral island covered with palm trees and shrubs, is a speck just 2½ miles long and 1¾ miles wide in a search area the Coast Guard described as 78,800 square miles of the South Pacific.

Joint Rescue Sub-Centre Guam mobilised a search that drew a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, and the Guam-based Coast Guard cutter Oliver Henry.

The Poseidon crew found the three Sunday thanks to a message they left on the Pikelot beach.

“In a remarkable testament to their will to be found, the mariners spelled out ‘HELP’ on the beach using palm leaves, a crucial factor in their discovery,” Coast Guard Lt. Chelsea Garcia, the search and rescue mission coordinator, said.  “This act of ingenuity was pivotal in guiding rescue efforts directly to their location.”

The Poseidon crew left the men survival packages, and the Oliver Henry was rerouted to Pikelot, the release said.

Coast Guard Guam spokeswoman Chief Warrant Officer Sara Muir acknowledged a request for further information Wednesday.

On Monday, a Coast Guard HC-130J Super Hercules — a search-and-rescue aircraft engineered for long-range flights — from Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii, flew over the island and dropped a radio to the men.

They reported being in good health, with access to food and water, according to the Coast Guard, though their skiff, they said, was damaged.

“They expressed a desire for assistance in returning to Polowat,” the statement states.

The Oliver Henry arrived Tuesday morning, took the men and their equipment, including their skiff, aboard and returned them to Polowat, according to the Coast Guard.

“Whether we’re out there protecting valuable resources or saving lives, we’re not just visitors — we’re members of this vibrant maritime community that connects all these islands,” Lt. Ray Cerrato, the Oliver Henry’s commander, said in the release. “This recent operation near Pikelot Atoll hits home the kind of difference we can make. It’s about more than just performing a duty; it’s about the real human connections we forge and the lives we touch.”

Tuesday was not the first time three lost mariners signaled military aviators from Pikelot.

In August 2020, an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueler, looking for another missing skiff, spotted the Morse code signal SOS laid out in palm fronds and a boat alongside it on the beach. The Stratotanker, with a crew of Hawaii and Pennsylvania Air National Guard members aboard, was searching for three Micronesian sailors who wound up stranded on Pikelot, 120 miles from their departure point. An Australian navy Tiger attack helicopter landed to give food and medical assistance to the three and a Micronesian patrol boat, the FSS Independence, arrived later to carry them home.