Former Search and Rescue members reunite

On Sunday, Sept. 10, around 90 brothers gathered to tell “sea stories,” joke about not fitting into old wetsuits and remember lost colleagues. These men were all members of the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Search and Rescue brotherhood.

They reunited at the second-ever SAR reunion, after the first one occurred four years ago. Decades worth of former crew members and their families attended the three-day event.

There were even members from the original SAR crew on Whidbey island, such as Bill Cochran who served from 1960-1964.

“That makes me an old man,” he said with a laugh.

Jim Joyce and Bruce Holler also were members of that original crew. Joyce and Holler talked about the severe limitations of the helicopters they used at the time. They couldn’t do high altitude or nighttime over-water rescues, and there were serious weight limits. Joyce said there really wasn’t much search and rescue they were able to do, although the crew completed many medical evacuations.

“All they had was a helicopter and an idea,” said David Rathbun of the first SAR Crew.

Rathbun served from 1974-1977, and his wife Karen helped organize the event. David got a call six years ago from a friend and former crew member about putting together a reunion. When both David and the friend were too busy with work to put it together, David volunteered his wife.

“Karen ran with it,” he said, and the first reunion was held two years later.

Karen, from Indiana, and fellow SAR spouse Esther Estes, from Hawaii, put together the next two reunions. They plan to keep holding one every four years.

They recruited Dan Arnes, another former SAR member, to help find people.

“I’m the locator and the people coordinator,” said Arnes.

He used over 50 websites to find as many members as he could. He said he has around 680 people in his database, which includes both former SAR members and some of their family members.

“If we can find them, we invite them,” said Karen.

Ray Romero spent three days driving from Pahrump, Nev. to attend, visiting old friends along the way. Others came from Illinois, Maryland, Wyoming and other states across the country.

The event included a mixer at Oak Harbor Tavern, dinner the next night at the Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost and a picnic on the last day at VFW.

Some atteedes were locals. Robert Davison, Island County deputy sheriff, and local paramedic Richard King both attended. The two, who were roommates while serving in the Navy, told stories of being left overnight in the mountains during rescues. Davison said he spent a day and a half with a goat hunter who had broken his legs on Mount Shuksan. The goat hunter lived.

“With the job we did, you didn’t know if you were going to still be there the next day,” said Bud Day, who served with Davison and King. “So we played hard and worked hard.”

While most men referred to each other as brother, Davison said his crew used to call Day “Dad,” because he was older than the others. Davison was 19 years old when he first joined Whidbey SAR.

Throughout the picnic on the last day, many of the attendees said they would continue to come to as many reunions as they could.

“As long as I’m on the right side of the dirt, I’ll come,” said Day.

From the left, Bud Day, Robert Davison and Richard King reminiscence during a recent Whidbey Island Search and Rescue reunion. More than 90 former SAR members attended the three-day event. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

Former Whidbey Island Search and Rescue members gathered at the Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost in Oak Harbor recently. The picnic was the last event of a three-day reunion for SAR members spanning decades. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

The team of Whidbey Island Search and Rescue members in 1986 gather around their Sikorsky H3 Sea King helicopter. Photo provided by Robert Davison