Don and Julian Romeo were given a stern warning by their parents: Do not tamper with their father’s Sony Walkie-Talkie set. But as is common with young boys who are fascinated with electronic gadgets, they just couldn’t resist testing out the two-way portable radios.
The boys’ juvenile defiance turned out to be a good thing because they helped save the lives of three people.
In the summer of 1974, long before he dreamed of becoming Premier of Montserrat, Don Romeo was 12 years old. His brother Julian was 11. They lived in Salem Village with their parents, Donald and Elizabeth “Beth” Romeo, and sisters Sharon and Valerie. Mrs. Romeo was head teacher at Cork Hill School and Mr. Romeo ran Romeo’s Wayside Store.
Around mid-day Saturday, August 31, 1974, the Romeo boys were playing at home with their friend, 6-year-old Mike Stryder, who was spending the weekend. While their mom was in her bedroom, the boys quietly switched on the Walkie-Talkies in their room. Don and Mike each grabbed a Walkie-Talkie and began communicating with each other under the bed in whispered tones.
Suddenly a voice interrupted their chatter.
“Mayday, mayday. Our ship is sinking. Help us. If you are hearing us, send assistance.”
The reception on Walkie-Talkies is sometimes marred by static. But this transmission was loud and clear. The man on the other end also revealed that the boat was 15 miles south of Montserrat.
The Romeo boys were in a quandary. They couldn’t tell their mom about the SOS call because that would reveal that they disobeyed her orders. Not only had they been using the Walkie-Talkies against her wishes, they were doing it on their Sabbath.
So Don, the eldest of the boys, turned to Plan B.
“My father was a policeman and he trained me properly,” Don says. “So I decided I would go to the police station.”
Don sprinted a half-mile up the street to the police station, which was then located in the Salem enclave of Hope, and informed them about the distress call. He also implicitly asked that his identity not be revealed. One officer didn’t take Don’s message seriously at first, thinking it might be a prank or a misunderstanding. But another officer urged caution: “What if what he’s saying is true?”
The Salem station notified Acting Police Commissioner Paul Valdez, who then contacted the HMS Eskimo, a Royal Navy warship that was deployed in the area. The warship set off, located the drifting 54-foot fishing boat and towed it into the Plymouth harbor with three people and 80,000 pounds of fish onboard. The Miami-registered vessel, named the “Bartholomew Roberts” after the famous pirate, had encountered engine trouble.
SCARY PHONE CALL
Later that afternoon, the boys attended their Seventh Day Adventist church as usual with their mom, who still didn’t know what had transpired. Their dad was in Puerto Rico shopping for store supplies. In the evening, Mrs. Romeo received a phone call from the Acting Commissioner of Police. He asked if she had a 12-year-old son.
“When the police called me that evening I panicked,” Mrs. Romeo says. “At the time Old Towne started opening up, and some boys from Salem used to go down there and break into white people’s homes. I thought Don and Juli were in trouble.”
But she soon calmed down when she realized her sons were actually considered heroes. Neville Paul, captain of the rescued boat, insisted that he meet the boys and thank them. The 48-year-old Trinidad native visited the Romeos’ home the following day and snapped photos with the boys. He also gave them a treat: a large portion of his catch at sea.
“Those fish were sweet as ever,” Don recalls.
Added brother Julian: “I think the fish was ocean gar. For weeks after that we were eating fish. We had fish coming out of our nose.”
A few days later, the boys were still basking in their newfound hero status. They were invited to go aboard the rescued boat, which was still docked offshore for repairs. The boys hopped into a row boat, and a lad not much older than them began rowing toward the disabled vessel.
Suddenly the rowboat began to drift out to sea as the young rower struggled to gain control against the strong current. Another boat had to hurry out and rescue the three boys and the wayward vessel.
“A guy named James the Great came out on a boat and got us. So we ended up being rescued as well,” Don says, still amused by the irony 46 years later.
They eventually made it onboard the Bartholomew Roberts, where they got a personal tour from the captain.
Next up was an official honor from the governor. On Wednesday, September 4, 1974, a small ceremony was held at Police Headquarters in Plymouth. His Excellency Derek Matthews presented the boys with awards. “You are very good citizens of Montserrat,” he told them.
The boys even got a cash reward. “I think we got like $10 or $20,” Don says. “That was a lot of money in those days.”
The star treatment continued when the brothers returned to school from summer break as classmate after classmate asked them to recount the story. There was one particular perk that the boys relished.
“After that we were up and down all over the place with the Walkie-Talkies,” Don says. “We weren’t scared anymore. We were like heroes now.”
Julian says when he reflects on the whole episode he still admires how his brother chose altruism even though he could have gotten into trouble. The boys could have simply ignored the SOS call.
“It was his conscience that said to us, ‘Listen, we can’t afford to not respond to the call for help, irrespective of whether we might get a beating or in trouble for messing around with the Walkie-Talkies,’ ” Julian says.
As for their mom, “Teacher Beth” now splits her time between London and Museno, Kenya, where she runs the Donald Romeo Community School, named in honor of her late husband. At 84, she still marvels at her sons’ heroic feat.
“Imagine, neither the warship nor Cable and Wireless picked up the signal from the boat,” she says. “But two boys, in their bedroom, just two meters apart, picked it up.
“It’s a miracle.”