“Rescue Men – The story of the Pea Island Surfmen” is a 90-minute documentary about to be released recognizing the extraordinary historical significance of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station.
“Station 17” was manned by an all African American crew including Benjamin Bowser, Louis Wescott, William Irving, George Pruden, Maxie Berry and Herbert Collins. Under the leadership of Captain Richard Etheridge, these brave men rescued stranded sailors in the perilous and turbulent waters along the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Captain Etheridge was the first African-American to command a Life-Saving station when he was appointed on January 24, 1880 and continued to serve for more than 20 years until his death on May 8, 1900. The station was decommissioned in 1947 after nearly 70 years under an all African American crew and is credited as one of the early drivers of diversity across the naval services.
Although the Pea Island surfmen rescued many sailors who may have otherwise succumbed to the sea, one rescue in particular illustrates the dedication to duty of these rescuers and earned them the Gold Lifesaving Medal. On October 11, 1896 during a violent storm, Etheridge and his crew saved the entire crew onboard the grounded schooner, E.S. Newman. Despite the severity of the storm, the rescuers launched the surfboat and battled the rough seas and strong winds to reach the crew of the stranded schooner. Once on scene and without dry land to implement standard rescue techniques used during that time, they had to improvise to execute the rescue. Etheridge tied two of his strongest surfmen together and connected them to shore by a long line. These men then swan through the breaking waves ten times in order to rescue all of the schooner’s crewmembers. The artwork on the left by Roy la Grone illustrates the historical rescue.
In the coming weeks, screenings of the documentary are planned at Coast Guard units around the nation including Training Center Petaluma, Training Center Cape May, the Academy, Sector Corpus Christi and Coast Guard Headquarters. Other venues will also host a screening including the College of Staten Island, Norfolk State University, National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and Hickam Air Force base in Hawaii.
These screenings are just one of the many ways the Coast Guard is celebrating Black History Month and remembering the achievements of our fellow Guardians.
To read more about the men and missions of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station, click here. For more information on Captain Richard Etheridge, click here. For additional history on the contributions of African Americans to Coast Guard history, click here.