WASHINGTON (NNS) -- Underneath a portrait of Czar Peter the Great, the Russian Ambassador to the United States presented two U.S. officers with the Order of Friendship for their parts in rescuing submariners trapped underwater off the Kamchatka peninsula in August.
Ambassador Yuri V. Ushakov presented the awards, the highest honor to non-Russian citizens, to Air Force Maj. Patrick Poon and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steve Smith at the Russian Embassy here. Both men said it was due to the combined efforts of all on the team that seven Russian submariners survived their Priz AS-28 deep submergence submarine ordeal.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Peter Pace and Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph attended the ceremony.
Aug. 5, 2005, the 45-foot long craft became entangled in discarded fishing nets in Russian Far East waters. The disabled submarine was stuck at 600 feet, and time was a crucial factor in rescuing the crew.
"I got the call at 8 a.m. and by 1 p.m. I was on a plane heading toward Kamchatka," said Poon, commander of Detachment 1, 36th Contingency Response Group, at Yokota Air Base, Japan.
When Smith was alerted to go to the site from his naval base at North Island, Calif., there was talk that the Russian crew only had 12 to 14 hours of oxygen. "That was revised up as we went to the area, but you never know for sure," he said.
Both men and their units joined Russian Navy and Air Force, British Royal Navy and Japanese Navy personnel in the rescue effort. A Royal Navy remotely operated vehicle - the Scorpio - cut the Russian sub free. The craft rose to the surface with just six hours of oxygen left, according to published accounts.
Smith said the experience in Kamchatka was unforgettable. There was a lot of "relief and backslapping," he said, when the submarine popped to the surface and the Russian crew came out.
Poon said there was "fantastic cooperation" from the Russian service members on the ground and among the international crews.
Ushakov praised the international rescue mission. "Thanks to their courage and efficient well-coordinated work, the submarine was released from underwater captivity, and all seven crew members were brought to safety," the ambassador said.
He said that even the Cold War never interrupted the tradition of mutual assistance at sea. "Even while Russian and American submarines and battleships were playing their cat-and-mouse game, naval officers were always ready to extend a helping hand to each other," Ushakov said.
Poon and Smith are just the latest examples of this aid, and the latest in a series of people helping to forge a close partnership between the United States and the Russian Federation, the ambassador said. The award, he said, signifies Russia's desire for the two countries to live and work together as friends.
Pace said the effort to rescue the submariners was a global response. "It was Russian seamen and Japanese and Brits and Americans who came together to do the right thing for those in need," he said. "It is interesting that given different circumstances that naval forces will do their countries' duty against each other, but that naval forces - when seeing someone in need - revert to the basic instincts of saving life and reaching out to one another.
"We know that had that been a U.S. submarine asking for help, that our Russian friends would have responded to try to assist in any way that you could, because that is the human instinct to help others at sea."
Following the ceremony, a Russian children's choir serenaded the assemblage with a Russian song, "Katyushka," and American World War II song "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."
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