Printed on: November 10, 2013

Local veteran finds the man who saved his life

By NATE SUNDERLAND
nsunderland@postregister.com

The life of a sailor on a U.S. naval vessel can be perilous -- especially during wartime, when the threat of attack from above or below is a very real possibility.

Retired Petty Officer 1st Class Floyd Actis of Idaho Falls has vivid memories of shelling harbors along the Korean coastline while he served aboard the USS Los Angeles from 1950 to 1953. He remembers the ship being fired upon many times. Once, an enemy shell caused major damage to the heavy cruiser's main mast.

But the 83-year-old's most intense memories of the Korean War have nothing to do with an enemy attack. His most harrowing experience occurred during a routine training exercise, where he found himself alone and moments away from death.

Decades later, memories of that traumatic experience led Actis on a quest to find the sailor who saved his life.

The incident happened Dec. 18, 1953, during a damage-control exercise on the ship's forward diesel generator. Actis was an electrician's mate tasked with managing power generation and distribution.

The exercise -- a fire drill -- began when a lieutenant threw a smoke bomb into a small generator room located three levels below deck. Actis remembers the officer ordering several seamen to put on OBA (oxygen breathing apparatus) masks so they could descend into the clouded chamber.

That was when Actis stopped his commanding officer.

"I told the lieutenant, 'That is a generator room down there, and there is a live front switchboard. ... These guys are going to electrocute themselves,' " Actis said. "So he says, 'OK you go down.' "

Actis, then 23, did as he was told. He took an OBA from one of the seamen and proceeded down the ladder. What he didn't know was that the seaman hadn't properly activated the mask, preventing the regeneration and circulation of oxygen.

"I think I got to the bottom of the ladder, but I've never been able to figure out if I got there, (because) I passed out," Actis said.

Actis wasn't visible from the top of the 30-foot shaft, and it took several minutes for the lieutenant to realize the problem. All the while, Actis was lying unconscious, suffocating inside the equipment meant to sustain him.

It wasn't until last year that Actis discovered exactly what happened next.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Lee Tope, then 22, was sent down to find out why Actis wasn't responding. Tope related his side of the story in a phone interview from his in home in Grass Valley, Calif.

"I was crawling under the smoke and I saw this big blue lump and I realized it was Floyd. ... I was scared out of (my) wits as I thought he was dead," Tope said. "In the dim light, I could see he was turning blue ... and I freaked out."

Then Tope did something that, to this day, he can't explain. Acting contrary to his training and standard procedure, he yanked off the mask.

"I don't know why I pulled it off -- you don't take someone's oxygen mask off in a smoke-filled room," he said. "It was an instinctive thing we were trained not to do. Maybe it was the Lord's hand, but I can't explain it."

He hollered for medics and Actis was hauled up by a rope. Doctors later informed Actis he had been only a minute or two away from brain damage and possibly death.

Both men left the Navy soon after the incident. Over the years, Actis forgot the name of the man who saved him. He often wondered about his rescuer but didn't know how to find his identity.

"I realized I didn't know anything about the guy that saved my life," Actis said.

In 2000, he began sending letters to the U.S. Department of the Navy, requesting incident reports that could identify his rescuer. He wasn't successful, as the reports either didn't exist or couldn't be released due to privacy laws.

Undeterred, he wrote a letter to a USS Los Angeles alumni newsletter asking if any former shipmates remembered the story.

Tope saw the note and responded.

"I had totally forgot about the incident," Tope said. "But when I read that, my jaw dropped, because I have a very vivid memory and I remember that incident so clearly."

Tope emailed Actis about the story and the two veterans have been corresponding ever since. They hope to meet in person sometime in the future.

Actis' quest to find his rescuer fulfilled a personal mission of sorts.

"Finding Lee was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life after I tried for so long," he said. "I wouldn't be here without him and neither would my kids, (and we) are very grateful for that."

Reporter Nate Sunderland can be reached at 542-6763.