The Rescue of the BILLY H


Keli McVean, age 5, eating eggs on the Hermitage

Marlene McVean and her husband, the late Omer "Mac" McVain owned the Billy H.  Marlene lives in Puyallup, Washington, on the Puget Sound between Tacoma and Seattle.  She recalls:

The yacht "Billy H" was homeported in Tacoma, Washington.  She bought the boat from the Navy around 1964.  It was a converted Navy diving tender.

In April 1965, the Billy H left Tacoma traveled down the Pacific Coast, stopping in every country along the way and, then stopped at the Balboa Yacht Club in Panama (Pacific Side).  The Billy H then went through the Panama canal.  In 1967 the Billy H stayed at Cartagena, Colombia.  In 1967, Marlene and her family embarked on the Billy H with the intention to returning to Panama.  However, the seas were very stormy, and the waves were very high.  The engine started acting up.  Her husband Mac went down below to check the engine.   The boat boy did something and as a result of which the generator was accidentally turned off by a crew man.  The Billy H was floating without power,  We radioed for help. It was our last chance.

Initially, the Navy said they would fly over and drop a parachute with a light and other rescue supplies.  The parachute would be used as a drag line, which drags behind the yacht to stabilize things.  The yacht was 55 feet long, and weighed 31 tons.

On the board were  Marlene, daughter  Keli age 5, son Danny age 12, and daughter Kim Marie age 8, her husband "Mac."  Also on board were two passengers who were friends of an American colonel in Panama,  The two passengers wanted to ride with us from Cartegena to Panama.  

The Navy plane radioed us and said it was  are sorry but it  missed the yacht.  The plane was short of fuel and would have to go back to Panama.  The plane assured us that help would be coming.

We had a hair raising experience getting the rescue equipment which had been dropped by parachute.   We had a dinghy and the boatman said he would go and get the equipment.  My son, age 12, went with him.  I was three hours up on the mast trying to see them.  After three hours, I saw them on top of a wave and just about fell apart.  They had three more waves to come to us.  The dinghy came to the boat.  Husband and I were scared that they would hit the yacht.  But the boatman, Franco, knew what to do, tied a knot and threw the line to us and we got to get them on board.

Then we pulled all the equipment in.  I took the light they gave us and put it on the roof.  The Navy plane had also sent us a radio. We received a radio message that the USS HERMITAGE was going to rescue us.  

When we got the message, Marlene stayed in the wheel house. Marlene went up on the roof and held the light.  Finally, Hermitage spotted the light, but Hermitage radar could not register the yacht, possibly because the high seas were blocking the radar waves.

Hermitage pulled up along side of us. Marlene and the three children were lifted onto the Hermitage by a chair.  Two Hermitage sailors came on board the yacht with two bilge pumps and other equipment. 
A Division Officer Bill Grubb was responsible for sending the men and equipment to the Billy H.

Jack Pusel believes the two men from R Division who went over to the sinking Billy H were SFM2 D. J. Schatz and SFP2 J. L. Wellard.  Jack is not certain of their identity.
Marlene said that she slept in the captan's quarters.  Her husband remained on the boat with Franco (the boat mate) and the two Hermitage sailors.  The children went to the Hermitage galley and ate, and then watched movies.  Captain Matthews told me to just rest.  

Hermitage had considered getting the passengers on board and then sink the boat.  It was regular protocol to sink empty boats so they would not pose a hazard to any other craft.  However, Captain Herbert Spencer Matthews said he could not sink it because it was a Navy boat, so the Hermitage towed the yacht to Cristobal, Panama.

I was so relieved, I thought I had met God.  I had prayed and prayed and prayed.  Every prayer that a mother could have answered.  

When the Hermitage came back from Vietnam, I was sitting in the BalboaYacht Club, and the Hermitage crew shouted "Billy H, Billy H" meet us at the pier.  We drove by car to the pier, where we were greeted by a the crew.  A crew member hugged us.  Captain Matthews asked us if we could host for Christmas a crew member who was in Gorgas hospital with a broken leg.  The crew member would not be going on the Hermitage back to Norfolk.  So Captain Matthews asked us if we could pick up the sailor from the hospital and take him to our home for Christmas dinner, which we did.  We took him back to the hospital.  

Captain Matthews sent us an invitation to his change of command ceremony on the aircraft carrier Independence which was in Europe at the time.  I was so thrilled.  

We put a new 671 GMC motor in the yacht.  It really did a good job.  

When we got the yacht fixed, we went to Balboa and Marlene ended up managing the Balboa Yacht Club.  My yacht was used for rescues for Panama, and I would get calls if there were a stalled vessels.  I remember  rescuing a sail boat which broke in the middle.  We rescued all the rescue boats.  I ended up having getting my license to take sailing boats through the canal.  If my husband went through, he had to be the lineman.

We sold the yacht about four years later to a person in Colombia.

Marlene is looking for the names of the people who were involved with the bilge pumps.  She also needs the name of the sailor which she hosted for Christmas and what happened to him.


John Oertel wrote to Marlene McVean:

I was an Ensign assigned to the Operations Department in charge of the CIC team.  CIC operates in the dark radar room where the radarman on duty was operating and visually looking at the surface radar screen looking for the Billy H.  This was all new to me having been transferred as an emergency replacement Officer.  Just the day before I was on the USS Rankin as part of the Deck Department. 
We were notified of a distress call on our way to the Panama Canal for a service tour in Vietnam.  It was after dark.  We were in the middle of nowhere.  We did not have an accurate location.  We had been underway for hours, and were requested to see if we could find any boat in a wide area of open sea far from land and well beyond the distance capability of our radar.  We have an old SPS 10 surface radar system, with a limited range and not much ability for sensitivity and controls to screen out background noise if you are trying to maximize the search.  Think of an early black and white TV screen with a lot of white dots or “snow” on the screen when you did not have a clear signal.   
I happened to be in the radar room when a young radarman called me over, “Mr. Oertel.  I think a found the boat in distress."  I asked “where” as I looked on the screen and did not see anything but small white dots. As reported, the sea was wild as a result of the storm with wind and high waves.  Some of the radar signal was picking up the top of the waves filling the screen with small white dots.  The radarman told me to look at the multitude of white dots of the wave returns, that are constantly changing and moving.  He said, "Look, see there one dot repeating in the same place.”  Based on a speck of information and a hunch, we told the bridge to head in the direction of our faint indication on the radar.   As we got closer, the radar indication became clear and we continued on course and eventually saw the light from the Billy H.
As the USS Hermitage approached the Billy H, we put our officers gig into the water and rescued the passengers.  The crew stabilized the boat and towed it to Panama.  I cannot recall the name of the radarman, who had such an attention to the detail. 

Perhaps someone reading this can help.  Thank you for writing, this is a warm and great memory. 



Cruisebook pages submitted by Jack Pusel (in photo at lower right).