Pastor: 2 airmen who drowned off Okinawa were trying to rescue another

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Pastor: 2 airmen who drowned off Okinawa were trying to rescue another

by: Wayne Crenshaw | .
The Macon Telegraph | .
published: October 13, 2014

WARNER ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. — A few days before Staff Sgt. Joshua Schoenhoff deployed to Japan, he helped a fellow airman in need.

Speaking at a memorial service for Schoenhoff on Saturday at Shirley Hills Baptist Church, Staff Sgt. Shawn Phillips said he was recovering from back surgery when his dryer broke. Schoenhoff drove to Macon to get the part, then came back and fixed it.

Two days later Phillips mentioned to Schoenhoff that the dryer was squeaking, but told him not to worry about it and to spend time with his family before he deploys.

"Just an hour later, there he was knocking on my door," said Phillips, his voice quavering. "Josh was always willing put others before himself."

That's also what he did on the morning of Oct. 5 in Okinawa, Japan, according to Schoenhoff's pastor, Andy Cook. Schoenhoff and five other airmen on temporary duty from Robins Air Force Base went to the coastline on a day off and where large waves were coming in from a typhoon hundreds of miles off shore.

Cook, who said his information came from a commander at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, gave some details that the Air Force hasn't publicly released.

He said two other airmen who had walked ahead of the group were struck by a wave that swept them away. One of the airmen made it out of the water, but the other disappeared. Schoenhoff and another airman, Cook said, ran ahead to try to find the missing airman and they were swept away.

The other airman who tried to help was likely Senior Master Sgt. James Swartz. Swartz's family has also said they were told he died trying to save someone else from the waves.

The bodies of Schoenhoff, 27, Swartz, 51, and Master Sgt. Daniel Paschal, 34, were all recovered over a two-day period following the incident.

"Joshua Schoenoff laid down his life for his friends," Cook told about 200 people gathered for the service. "There was no hesitation. There is nothing more Christ-like we could do than to risk our lives to save another."

Cook knew him as more than just a member of his church. They were in a small-group Bible study together, and Cook said he came to know Schoenhoff and his wife better than any military family that had been in his church.

Cook said Schoenhoff was just five years old when his father was killed in a car wreck. His mother later remarried and Schoenhoff was the oldest of seven boys in the family, including step brothers. His step father became severely abusive, Cook said, and in those times Schoenhoff would gather his brothers in "a safe place" and talk to them about how they were going to get out the situation.

"Josh was always one who took care of his brothers," Cook said.

All of those in the group that day were part of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or J-STARS, at Robins, which is operated by the 461st Air Control Wing and the 116th Air Control Wing.

Schoenhoff worked in the 461st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. The unit's commander, Lt. Col. Ralph Watson, said Schoenhoff was so mature and good at what he did that Watson had to be reminded at one point that Schoenhoff didn't have the rank for responsibilities that Watson wanted to give him.

Schoenhoff was an avionics technician who had been in the Air Force only four years, but reached the rank of staff sergeant and had deployed five times, Watson said.

"Joshua's integrity, his skill and his will to do what was right was beyond reproach," Watson said. "He was the kind of airman that all commanders want."

Funeral services for the three airmen have not been announced. The bodies were flown to South Korea for autopsy before being returned to the U.S. and turned over to the families.

(c)2014 The Macon Telegraph. Distributed by MCT Information Services