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2 Airmen From Pa.'s 171st Air Refueling Wing Help Spot SOS Sign On Beach, Locate 3 Missing Men Stranded On Tiny Island

(KDKA/CNN) -- Members of the 171st Air Refueling Wing are being hailed as heroes after helping to rescue three missing mariners from a tiny, uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean.

A large "SOS" message written in the sand on the beach of the island caught the attention of the rescuers, United States and Australian authorities said.

The three lost men had set out in a 23-foot boat last Thursday to make a 26-mile journey from Pulawat to Pulap atolls in the Federated States of Micronesia.

(Photo Credit: Australia Department of Defence)

They went off course and ran out of fuel, landing on tiny, uninhabited Pikelot Island, 118 miles from their intended destination, according to U.S. and Australian authorities.

The islands are about 500 miles south of Guam, and when the men didn't arrive in Pulap, a search was requested through the U.S. Coast Guard's Joint Rescue Sub Center in Guam, which enlisted help from units in the region.

A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker, operating out of Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, was dispatched to try and locate the missing men. Pennsylvania Air National Guardsmen Tech. Sgt. Rodney Joseph and Senior Airman Jeremy Williams, based out of the 171st Air Refueling Wing here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, were on board the flight.

After searching for three hours, Tech. Sgt. Joseph and Senior Airman Williams along with three Air National Guardsmen from Hawaii, spotted the three Micronesian men thanks to the SOS sign in the sand, according to a posting on the base's Facebook page.

"We were toward the end of our search pattern," the KC-135 pilot, Lt. Col. Jason Palmeira-Yen, said in the post. "We turned to avoid some rain showers and that's when we looked down and saw an island, so we decide to check it out and that's when we saw SOS and a boat right next to it on the beach. From there we called in the Australian Navy because they had two helicopters nearby that could assist and land on the island."

A helicopter from the Australian amphibious assault ship HMAS Canberra landed on the beach dropping off food and water for the stranded trio while Australian troops confirmed the men's identities and checked they had no major injuries.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 from Hawaii dropped a radio to the stranded men so they could communicate with a Micronesian patrol vessel dispatched from Yap.

A U.S. Coast Guard statement said rescuers and the mariners kept their distance because of the coronavirus.

"After discussions between the responding partners it was decided the safest course of action for both the response agencies' crews and the mariners was to limit exposure to one another due to the COVID-19 Pandemic," a Coast Guard statement said.

The patrol vessel reached the men around 8 p.m. local time Monday evening, according to the Andersen AFB Facebook post.

"Partnerships," U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Christopher Chase, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Guam, said the post. "This is what made this search and rescue case successful. Through coordination with multiple response organizations, we were able to save three members of our community and bring them back home to their families."

Capt. Terry Morrison, commander of the Canberra, praised his crew.

"I am proud of the response and professionalism of all on board as we fulfill our obligation to contribute to the safety of life at sea wherever we are in the world," he said.

(TM and © Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. CNN contributed to this report.)

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