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Hamptons Life

Nov 7, 2017 12:25 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Lost Artwork Is Returned, And Memories Are Rekindled

Bill Hughes and Debbie Giuffre in front of the
Nov 7, 2017 12:37 PM

Debbie Giuffre doesn’t remember all the details from the cold January day 40 years ago when she unexpectedly found her life in peril.

She had taken a ride out on Shinnecock Bay in a small boat with a friend who wanted to check on his duck blind. As the temperature on the already bitterly cold day continued to drop, quickly forming ice made it impossible to get the boat back to shore. Cellphones didn’t exist, and they did not have a radio. Someone had emerged from one of the many houses in the nearby Shinnecock Shores neighborhood in the East Quogue area, giving Ms. Giuffre—20 years old at the time—and her friend hope that help was on the way. She didn’t know who would rescue them, or how, but what she saw after a while was not what she expected.

A large camouflage military helicopter flew into their vicinity, the noise of the blades increasing in volume as it hovered above the boat. Feelings of relief mixed with fear and intimidation for Ms. Giuffre. And out came pararescueman Bill Hughes.

“It was scary but at the same time, I was freezing,” Ms. Giuffre, a Quogue resident, recalled in an interview last month. “Bill came down and the helicopter was hovering over us. I don’t remember what he said, but I felt more at ease at that point. He made me feel very comfortable.”

Lifting a pair of cold civilians from a partially frozen bay would have been an almost forgettable task for Mr. Hughes, a Vietnam veteran and pararescueman with training and experience in military search and rescue operations. But it was significant because it was the first official rescue for the 106th Rescue Wing, part of the Air National Guard, located at Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton. Mr. Hughes, a Hampton Bays resident, and other pararescuemen from the unit would go on to perform far more daring missions, such as aiding in a rescue during “The Perfect Storm” of 1991, off the coast of New England.

After the rescue, an Air Force-commissioned artist did a painting of the scene, depicting the large helicopter hovering over the tiny boat, with Mr. Hughes standing in the boat and gently guiding Ms. Giuffre, secured in the harness, as she begins her ascent into the helicopter. But years ago, a lithograph of the painting, which had for many years hung on the walls at the air base, disappeared. In a strange twist of events last month—fittingly, during the year that marks the 40th anniversary of the rescue—the lithograph was returned to Mr. Hughes. It was discovered by his longtime friend Mike McManus, a retired chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force who served in Vietnam with Mr. Hughes. Mr. McManus was in the home of a friend in Westhampton Beach—who Mr. Hughes declined to name—doing work in his basement and noticed the lithograph hanging on the wall.

“I asked if he would mind if I returned it to Billy, and he said, ‘Not at all,’” Mr. McManus said. “He had been trying to get it back to him, but there had been some miscommunication.”

Mr. McManus dropped the painting off at the Dayton-Soehlke-Ohlhorst Post #5350 VFW Post in Westhampton Beach for his friend, who he said was happy to have it back.

“That’s where it belongs,” Mr. McManus said. “So it worked out good.”

In another twist of fate, Mr. Hughes and Ms. Giuffre were reunited last month for the first time since the rescue. Ms. Giuffre was attending a fundraiser for Southampton Town Trustee candidate Scott Horowitz at the VFW Post. Before the start of the fundraiser, Mr. Hughes showed the recently returned lithograph to Mr. Horowitz and told him about the rescue. Later in the evening, Mr. Horowitz, who is friendly with Ms. Giuffre, reintroduced her to Mr. Hughes.

In an interview last week, it was clear that Mr. Hughes was excited about the return of the lithograph, reconnecting with Ms. Giuffre, and reliving the historic rescue. He is less concerned with personal glory and more eager to speak about the rescue unit’s history, the vital missions it has been part of, and the importance of pararescue efforts in general. His enthusiasm and fervor for the military and for men and women who have devoted their life to service of their country is evident in his encyclopedic knowledge of the unit, and his devotion to the local VFW post, where he serves as commander. He speaks with energy, passion and enthusiasm for anything related to the rescue unit and the field of pararescue, and is equally devoted to his job as the commander of the VFW post.

Once the lithograph was returned to him, Mr. Hughes made some changes to bring context to the painting and, of course, ensure that there’s no confusion about where it belongs. He slid old black and white photos of the rescue into the frame, and also made a notation on the picture that it was the first save, signing his name to it as well.

Mr. McManus understands Mr. Hughes’s devotion to the rescue wing as well as anyone—the two worked together in the unit since its creation in 1974. Mr. Hughes worked in the unit for 22 years, and also worked for 30 years in the Southampton Town Police Department before retiring in 2010. He retired from the New York Air National Guard in 1991.

“He was my right-hand man in hiring people and building the unit and setting up the standards,” Mr. McManus said. “He was the cornerstone of the whole business there. He’s the heartbeat of rescue and one of those guys that pararescue legends are made of.”

Ms. Giuffre is one of many people who have benefited from Mr. Hughes’s devotion to his job, and it was clear by their interactions that he still has her gratitude.

“It wasn’t an extremely dangerous rescue, but I have a greater appreciation for people who put their life on the line for other people,” she said. “That kind of job isn’t easy to do.”

Ms. Giuffre is reminded of the rescue every time she drives down Route 31 past the rescue wing and sees the old helicopter, which is long retired and now enjoys a place of prominence, easily visible from the road. Forty years later, reconnecting with the man who delivered her to safety from the frozen bay at the same time that the long lost painting commemorating the rescue was returned to him she admits is a strange confluence of events.

“It does seem like some kind of fate,” she said.

For Mr. Hughes, the return of the lithograph is a chance to reflect on what the unit has done in more than 40 years of existence.

“It’s just a good memory of our first rescue,” he said. “We’re at almost 3,000 rescues now. The entire unit does a fantastic job, but little still seems to be known about what goes on at the base. The primary role is in combat rescue, but their secondary role in a humanitarian way is big. When we look at the terrible series of storms we’ve had in the U.S. recently, and outside the U.S. in the islands, these men and women did amazing work and on such quick turnaround. They responded to [Hurricane Harvey] and then, bingo, they were going at it again. It’s a foundation that was set a long time ago, and the fruits keep coming, so it’s a good thing.”

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I just thought Bill Hughes was a cop that wanted to run for political office for personal gains. I might be wrong. A guy who's proven himself as a role model in the community...
By lirider (243), Hampton Bays on Nov 7, 17 7:23 PM
There is no better than Bill Hughes. He's an absolutely wonderful guy.
By Mark Hissey (170), East Quogue on Nov 7, 17 8:43 PM
Bill is a Great Guy!
By LovinLife (57), East Quogue on Nov 7, 17 8:54 PM
Great Guy and a Great Story.
By 007 (45), East Quogue on Nov 8, 17 6:24 AM