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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 10

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Men, Wind and Sea

Riley Brown

published by
Carlyle House, New York 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 12
This site is not affiliated with the US Coast Guard Academy.

 p230  Chapter Eleven

Floods and Hurricanes

The flood along the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys in January and February, 1937, has been characterized by the nation's welfare agencies as the worst peacetime disaster in the history of the country. While the loss of life was unbelievably small — slightly in excess of three hundred persons having met death as a direct result — property damage was estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.

Usually, the floods along these valleys happen during the latter part of March or the first of April, the result of a heavy thaw after a long and severe winter in the lands surrounding the head waters of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The flood of 1937, however, began soon after the middle of January, in what has been observed as an unusually mild winter, with little snow, mild temperatures, and heavy rains. Being in the form of rain, this precipitation was not held in check by freezing weather; and thus the rush of water was started down into the large river basins, with the consequent overflow of the banks. Rapidly, the waters rose, sweeping out over millions of square miles of  p231 the richest land in the world, inundating prosperous cities, paralyzing communications, striking with such devastating suddenness that thousands of persons were trapped in the flooded areas.

Swiftly, the Coast Guard swung into action. On January 19th the Commander, Chicago Division, was directed by Headquarters to send six boats to Evansville, Indiana, and there report to the Regnal Director of the Red Cross. This was merely the beginning. By the time the flood waters reached their height, the Coast Guard had in the flood area over 350 boats, 15 planes, 12 communications trucks, and nearly 2,000 men.

From January 19th to March 11th, 1937, the Coast Guard saved from immediate peril nearly 1,000 persons, evacuated 67,000 refugees, transported 16,000 relief workers, doctors and nurses, saved and removed to places of safety nearly 2,000 livestock, and recovered 6 bodies. In addition to this work, the service carried several tons of mail, towed disabled boats and floating houses to safety, helped restore and maintain telephone and telegraph communications, established patrols to aid in the prevention of looting, carried food and medicines to the destitute, removed the sick and injured, helped bury the dead, and even had the forethought, as the flood waters receded, to drain the water from the radiators of tractors and automobiles to prevent damage from freezing.

[image ALT: A flood scene: in a wooded residential area, in which any streets are completely submerged, a small wooden rowboat makes its way; in it about twenty people are seated, among them at least seven children, and a uniformed Coast Guardsman standing near the prow. It is a United States Coast Guard boat preparing to land flood refugees in the Ohio River floods of 1937 at Paducah, Kentucky.]

Besides the rare efficiency and devotion to duty  p232 exhibited by the officers and men who made up this great relief force, two additional traits emerged to elicit praise from all who came in contact with the Coast Guard relief work — initiative and zeal. At the beginning of the flood, supervision by commissioned officers was impossible, as there was no time to organize and lay down a plan of operation. Warrant officers and enlisted men were sent into the flood area in boats with no further instructions than to do what was needed.

Telephone and telegraph communications had been suspended because flood waters, often rushing along at a speed of 15 miles an hour, had swept away the lines; the men had to be relied upon to reach the local authorities, Red Cross representatives, local pilots, and others who could furnish information regarding those in distress. The Coast Guard boats proceeded under the most difficult and hazardous conditions, navigating among floating structures, telephone poles, trees, and under heavily charged electric wires, under low bridges, over railroad tracks, usually in rain, sleet, snow, fog, and often in pitch darkness. Somehow, these boats reached those in need, and the Coast Guardsmen maintained tender care over the sick, the aged, and the children; they even divested themselves of their own clothing so that their charges might be more comfortable.

The true worth of the Coast Guardsmen in this great national emergency was fully realized when,  p233 after three or four weeks in the remote areas helping those in trouble, they began to trickle back, tired, hungry, often ill, but carrying with them letters of appreciation from dozens of communities, praising the work these men had done, work that had been spontaneous and without direction, work done with the single thought to serve and to serve well. These men were cheerful and obedient at all times, faithful to traditions and ideals that have been the Coast Guard's foundation down through the years; they were ready to proceed again and again into the desolated areas so seldom visited by sailormen.

As scouting areas could not be reached immediately by boat, Coast Guard aviation rendered invaluable service in transporting doctors, nurses, and serum. Landings and takeoffs were made under the most hazardous conditions, with the ever-present possibility of colliding with submerged objects. Information relative to the safety of those persons residing in areas where levees were reported to be weak was gathered by the planes; and as the center of the disaster moved down the great river valleys, personnel was transported from one point to another.

The full efficiency of the Coast Guard communication system was strikingly brought to light when the communications trucks, fully equipped with the most modern radio installations, were sent into the stricken areas, travelling far and wide, but reaching their designated posts, through swamps, over flooded  p234 roads, and reporting in to the central communication headquarters. Besides providing listening posts for the relief agencies, these trucks afforded a rapid and efficient means of communication with those cities and communities long since cut off from the outside world by the flood waters. Working night and day, the operators kept relief headquarters advised of conditions and needs of those persons in their immediate radius.

Instances of unusual devotion to duty, personal heroism in carrying on the relief work, came from all sides; everyday reports told how some Coast Guardsman, acting on his own initiative, had risked his life in order that others might be served. Such were the actions of Willis P. Wills, boatswain's mate first class — regularly assigned to Cape Hatteras Coast Guard station on the east coast, but now serving with the relief forces — in performing courageous and unselfish work at the risk of his own life at Huntington, West Virginia, on the morning of January 30, when the flood was at its height.

Information had been received by the city authorities at Huntington that a large gasoline tank in the center of the city was leaking, its inflammable contents spreading over the water for a considerable distance. Here was a dangerous situation. A carelessly thrown match, a spark from an electric wire, would result in a conflagration with which the crippled city would be unable to cope. Something had to be done.

 p235  It was Coast Guardsman Wills who volunteered to take fire fighting equipment to the tank. Local authorities impressed upon him the dangers: A flare from the exhaust of the surfboat might cause an instant explosion, and if that happened no one could help him.

But Wills' mind was made up. The gasoline was spreading downstream to other buildings; sooner or later it would meet an open flame. Then —

Loading surfboat with fire-fighting equipment, Wills started slowly through the dangerous waters, maneuvering carefully so as not to strike submerged wires and metal. The men on the buildings nearby watched him breathlessly, for they realized that if an explosion occurred through the contact of the craft's exhaust with the gasoline, all of them would be trapped.

Wills reached that tank safely, and soon he had taken all the precautions necessary to prevent a fire.

On the same day, January 30, another Coast Guardsman, Surfman E. M. Gray, of the False Cape Station, at False Cape, Virginia, was singled out by high army officials as another outstanding hero of Huntington's flood crisis. With his crew of a Coast Guard surfboat, Surfman Gray rescued eighty-nine persons from immediate peril in one afternoon.

The army command in charge of operations in the vicinity of Huntington was lavish in its praise of Gray's work:

"Other men have, no doubt, done valiant  p236 service, but this man's work is about the best that has been reported up to this time. The interesting fact about the record was the efficiency with which he went to work on his own with only general instructions. He was instructed to go to the eastern part of the city and start rescue work, and his showing of eighty-nine persons saved in an afternoon seems to indicate that he organized his work with exemplary efficiency. We think that it is an outstanding example of fine discipline and level-headed action."

At Mound City, Illinois, Coast Guardsmen evacuated the town's total population, which numbered nearly 2,000, and then learned that about 50 of the community's citizens had returned and were holding on for dear life in face of the still climbing waters. Cruising among the partially submerged homes, the Coast Guardsmen found several women and children living in attics, hoping desperately that they would not be compelled to give up their homes. The Coast Guardsmen removed these people, however, after stressing the danger of the houses collapsing from the onslaught of the water.

In one house, they found an old negro mammy standing guard over three white children whose parents had disappeared. The old negress had been afraid to leave for fear that the children's parents would not be able to find them. The house was beginning to fall apart, and after cajoling failed, the Coast Guardsmen forcibly removed her and the three  p237 children and took them to a packet steamer standing by to transport refugees.

A bearded old man refused to leave until his cow, old Betsy, was first placed aboard a rescue craft. Under one arm he carried a cage with two canaries, under the other a small white dog. "Yessir, hit's a big flood," he told Coast Guardsmen. "Reckon hit's the biggest flood I ever did see. I'd been away from here two days ago if it hadn't been for old Betsy. I couldn't go without her. Thar she is, over there, moored to that lumber pile. Ain't she a beaut?"

Early in the morning of January 25, an Ocean City motor surfboat, in charge of Boatswain's Mate First Class (Life-saving), William F. Burton, was cruising up Vine Street in Cincinnati, Ohio, cutting electric wires, when he heard screams in the darkness. Investigation showed three men in the river, two of them clinging to a capsized rowboat, while the other was clinging to a bridge, which was already tottering with the water's sweeping force.

The two men were rescued promptly from the rowboat, but the surfboat could not approach close enough to the bridge to remove the third man. Surfman Samuel C. Mitchell promptly secured a line around his waist, and, crawling hand over hand along the girders of the bridge, managed to reach the unfortunate man. By this time, the bridge was sinking lower and lower into the water, and was tilting slowly over on one side. Mitchell worked rapidly. Securing  p238 the line around the man's waist, he signalled for the men on the surfboat to haul away. Then he started back the way he had come, being forced to crawl through icy water that now swept over the girders.

At last, he reached the surfboat, but the work of this tireless Coast Guard crew was not done. They continued their rescue work for four days without sleep. Keeping to their feet in the rain and sleet and snow that was whipping around Cincinnati, they added to the glorious record that the entire Coast Guard was making in this, the greatest of peace-time disasters.

On September 18, 1938, ships in the South Atlantic flashed warnings to the United States Weather Bureau that a hurricane was brewing in the south. Subsequent reports plotted the path of the disturbance northward toward the Florida Keys at 17 miles an hour; but it abruptly shifted its course, glanced off the Florida coast and proceeded past the Carolinas. Experts predicted that it would curve out to sea and expend its force there without damage. By Wednesday, September 21, it had passed Cape Hatteras, and storm warnings were hoisted along the coast line all the way to Eastport, Maine. No further news was received until wind of terrific force began to beat the coast near Atlantic City, New Jersey.

[image ALT: A tranquil seascape, in which a small two-sailed boat and a dory or canoe with it appear to be anchored while a two-engine seaplane flying directly over it at about 50 m altitude, has just dropped a package or buoy: it still hasn't hit the water. It is a United States Coast Guard plane dropping a hurricane warning.]

Meteorologists along the northeast seaboard observed an alarming fact. The hurricane had covered  p239 a distance of 600 miles in 12 hours, one of the fastest movements ever reported. Somewhere along the coast, it had suddenly burst with tremendous velocity and was now sweeping toward the New England states.

Like lightning, disaster struck the entire coast line. Whole settlements were blasted out of existence, swept away by tidal waves brought in by the hurricane. Coast Guardsmen worked desperately, almost helplessly, to save those who were trapped by the raging wind and sea. At New London, Conn., the full force of the storm struck at 3:30 P.M. on the 21st, and when the windcups of the naval anemometer blew away, the hurricane was blowing at a speed of 98 miles an hour. Its actual force has been estimated at from 125 miles to 175 miles an hour. Within four hours after the hurricane struck, the winds began to slacken; but already whole sections of New London lay in ruins, and one quarter of the business section was in flames.

Early in the morning of September 21, Church Boatswain's Mate Ulric F. Engman, U. S. Coast Guard, attached to Base Four in New London, was departing on leave when he noticed the increasing winds and lowering darkness hovering over the city. Returning to New London, he resolved to report back to the Base, in order to be available for duty in case he should be needed. By this time, the fore-running winds of the hurricane, together with heavy rain, made it impossible for Engman to reach the Base. Instead he  p240 reported to the New London Police Station and offered his services to that department. Within a short time, the full force of the hurricane was roaring upon the city.

Shortly after Engman's already at the police station, a report was received that a man was drowning in Winthrop Cove. Police Sergeant Courtney, who was on duty at that time, directed Engman to proceed to the Cove and attempt to rescue the drowning man. Upon Engman's arrival there, he found about 200 persons watching an old man struggling for life aboard a small boat, and it appeared that the small craft was in imminent danger of going to pieces. The water, filled with floating debris, was about 7 feet above normal tide level.

Engman knew he must act at once, for the old man was having a desperate time trying to keep the craft's bow headed into the threatening seas. Finding a line, the Coast Guardsman fastened it around his waist. Then, after ordering the spectators to pay the line out carefully and to try to keep it free of the debris, he jumped into the water.

Engman found the going very hard; he had to be constantly alert to keep floating logs and wreckage from crushing him. He fought on through heavy seas, now making a yard, now falling back a foot or so. Body bruised, muscles aching, half-strangled by the  p241 high, buffeting waves, Engman stuck at it while the hundreds on shore watched in breathless amazement. They were seeing a man at his best, fighting a fight that could have only one ending if he lost — death. This was a splendid exhibition of nerve and physical ability, one man's struggle in the course of duty to save another's life.

Engman was suddenly confronted with a new danger. He was compelled to swim around a warehouse building, already tottering, that had been swept out into the Cove. Fighting desperately, his strength waning, the Coast Guardsman made his way around this floating menace and came at last to the boat. Grasping the sides to craft, he rested for a moment, while the waves beat at him unmercifully.

At this point, a civilian later identified as a Mr. Stinka, jumped in and came to Engman's assistance. Together, the two men managed to fasten Engman's line to the bow of the boat. Then the tremendous job of unshipping the anchor chain from the anchor, to allow the boat to float free was begun. It was heart-breaking work. The seas broke over them, pummelling them mercilessly, threatening every moment to sweep them away to death. Finally, however, the anchor line was cut, and the spectators on shore pulled the boat closer to land.

With Stinka's assistance, the old man — Carl Petersen — was lowered to Engman's back, and the Coast Guardsman started the return to the shore. Sixty-four  p242 years old and a cripple, Petersen's dead weight gravely taxed Engman's already depleted strength; but somehow the Coast Guardsman won through to safety, where willing hands helped him and the old man. Suffering from shock and exposure, Petersen was taken to the police station for first aid, and later sent home.

As the force of the hurricane swept further north, other Coast Guardsmen swung into the rescue and relief work. At Penzance Point, Woods Hole, Mass., the Coast Guard cutter General Greene dispatched a rescue party to aid distressed families along the shore. Among this party were Radioman Third Class, John A. Steadman, and Seaman First Class, Charles G. Starling. The Coast Guardsmen proceeded to Penzance Point, where, it had been learned, two men were trapped on a telephone pole.

Arriving at the scene, Starling fastened a line around his waist, and attempted to wade through the surging waters to the aid of the men on the pole. Fighting desperately, he made three attempts to get to them, but each time he was swept off his feet by the force of the roaring water. Exhausted, sore in every muscle, the gallant Coast Guard seaman was about to make a fourth attempt, when one of the men lost his hold on the pole and tumbled into the water, to be swept instantly to death.

Starling tried to reach the remaining man from another angle, working with the water instead of  p243 against it. Wading up to his armpits, falling and stumbling but managing in some manner to keep going, he finally reached the man's side. Then, securing the rope around himself and the man, he gave the signal to be pulled into high land. Starling was exhausted when at last he returned to the General Greene. The rest of the rescue party, however, were able to keep on with their work.

Meanwhile, Radioman Steadman joined a woman in a search for her twelve-yearold son. After a considerable time, the youth was found on a small island, over which breakers were roaring in rapid succession. Fighting his way to the boy's side, Steadman carried him to high land, where he watched with a pleased smile as the mother happily embraced her son. But there was more work to be done. Retracing his steps through the swirling water, he next gave aid to a stranded couple who wished to go to the Breakers Hotel, because their home was not habitable.

The tremendous struggle Steadman had made in rescuing the boy began to tell on him. A towering wall of dirty water pounded down upon him, knocking him from his feet, washing him against a submerged hedge. Here, he held on, desperately trying to marshal his failing strength, while the wind roared around him as if in mockery.

A second wall of water crashed down upon the Coast Guardsman, submerging him, sweeping him away from the hedge. Reaching out in a despairing  p244 gesture, his hand grasped a guy wire, and he tried to hold on against the terrific force of the current.

People on the high land saw him raise his head in a last, brave gesture. Then, suddenly, he vanished.

Steadman's body was recovered a few days later, and the Coast Guard mourned the death of a man who had brought undying glory to the service he had loved. Steadman was awarded, posthumously the Gold Life-Saving Medal for his work in rescuing the twelve year old boy. Starling received the same tribute for saving the man on the telephone pole.

In every major national disaster individual cases of heroism are brought to light within the service. Often, all too often, names like Steadman and others are added to that long list of men who have died to keep traditions alive.

During the peak of the hurricane, Chief Boatswain's Mate (L) Alfred Volton, Officer-in‑Charge of Cuttyhunk Coast Guard Station, Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, assisted by Surfmen Norman P. Cuppels, James A. Yates, and Allan L. Potter, rendered aid to 24 distressed people.

At 2 P.M., word was received at the Coast Guard Station that two men stranded on Copicut Neck were in desperate need of assistance. Manning a motor lifeboat with a dory in tow, Cuppels and Yates set out immediately from the station. Reaching Copicut Neck, they rescued the two men, and started the long fight back to the mainland, landing the men  p245 aboard their yacht Pelorus, which was anchored in Cuttyhunk Pond.

After reaching the yacht, the two men, in company with another man, decided to return to Copicut Neck and attempt to salvage a dory and an outboard motor that they had previously beached there. Reaching the place safely, the three managed to get the dory away from the beach, and were heading for the yacht, when the heavy wind filled their craft, and they were thrown into the sea.

These operations had been watched by the Coast Guardsmen, and by using the Station dory, Volton, Cuppels and Yates pulled the men from the sea and landed them on Copicut Neck. After landing, the Coast Guardsmen abandoned the dory, and walking over to the beach, boarded the lifeboat at the city dock.

About the middle of the afternoon, ten men who had been working on the construction of the Cuttyhunk Station and who had taken refuge aboard a pile driver out in the harbor, signalled that the pile driver was in danger of capsizing and that they wished to be taken off. These men were removed in successive trips by Volton, Cuppels, Yates and Potter, to a place of safety. Scarcely had these operations been completed, when word was received that five fishermen on the town dock were in immediate danger of being swept away by the increasing seas.

The work of rescuing the five men called for  p246 seaman­ship unparalleled in small boat handling. Heavy seas were sweeping over the dock, with the ever-present possibility of crashing the lifeboat against the heavy timbers. Volton made several attempts to reach the men, each time being forced by the waves to sheer off.

Finally, the Coast Guardsman maneuvered his boat up to the side of the dock, and while the rest of the crew fended it off, the five fishermen leaped across into the lifeboat. They were landed on safe ground, and the lifeboat started on another trip across the harbor, where several boats were lying at anchor with distress flags whipping the hurricane.

Removing two men from these boats, the lifeboat scouted around in the harbor, searching for other persons in need of assistance. Sure enough, at about 5:30 P.M., two men in a skiff were seen trying to run a line to a fishing boat. The skiff capsized, throwing the two men into the sea. The Coast Guard boat went immediately to their assistance, picked them up and landed them safely.

During the entire operations in the harbor, the Coast Guard boat was menaced in its rescue work by such debris as fish nets, lobster pots, buoys and other objects which might easily have meant disaster.

During the hurricane which raged unchecked for a number of hours over the northeast states, untold cases of heroism were performed by the men who make up the United States Coast Guard. It is impossible  p247 to capture in one single chapter the unselfishness, the self-sacrificing courage these men exhibited in the hours of unparalleled terror during which the hurricane roared over them. Some of the Coast Guardsmen saw their own homes swept away, knew not what had happened to their own families, yet they kept at their tasks, saving other people, working with ready hands at the jobs they knew must be done. The Coast Guardsmen along the northeast coast showed the world what it means to be a Coast Guardsman in a time of national stress; they proved conclusively that the Coast Guard lives up to its motto, Semper paratusAlways ready!

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Page updated: 6 Nov 13