Post Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., United States Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
“The rescue of the crew of the water-logged schooner Cape Horn on September 16, 1919, by the crew of Coast Guard Station No. 222 (coast of Texas) affords an instance of wreck service in which superb surfmanship, added to dogged grit, overcame well-nigh insuperable difficulties and brought success to hazardous effort.” – Treasury Department Annual Report, 1920
Hispanic American personnel have served in search and rescue operations since the nineteenth century. For example, in 1899, James Lopez of the Provincetown (Massachusetts) Life-Saving Station became the first Hispanic American service member to receive the Silver Lifesaving Medal. But the greatest number of Hispanic American personnel served not in stations along the East Coast, but in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.
In Texas, the Brazos Life-Saving Station, now known as the South Padre Island Station, employed several distinguished Hispanic lifesavers. Over the years, the Brazos crew endured numerous storms and hurricanes, including the deadly Galveston Hurricane of 1900; however, none of them proved as memorable as the killer storm of 1919.
Early in September 1919 Hispanic American personnel BM1 Pablo Valent and surfmen Mariano Holland and Indalecio Lopez were serving out of the Brazos Station when, unbeknownst to them, a tropical disturbance in the Lesser Antilles had spawned a hurricane, which grew rapidly into a category four storm. The hurricane grazed the Florida Keys and headed into the Gulf of Mexico. This “Florida Keys Hurricane” had in its path numerous unsuspecting vessels, several of which would be lost with all hands.
One of these vessels, the 77 ton schooner Cape Horn, had been fishing far out in the Gulf. The storm descended on the schooner and its crew of eight on the night of September 13, capsizing the vessel and flooding the hold. The crew managed to cut away the sails and rigging allowing the mastless vessel to right itself and, for the next two days and nights, the men clung to the flooded hulk as the strong hurricane pushed it to toward the Texas coast.
On the morning of September 16th, the Brazos Station lookout spotted the Cape Horn lying low in the water with stumps for masts. It was obvious that the schooner was about to sink and immediate action was necessary. Along with keeper Wallace Reed, Valent, Lopez, Holland and the rest of the boat crew launched the surfboat in some of the worst sea conditions ever experienced in the area. Several times the surfboat jumped clear of the water only to come crashing down into the troughs below.
After battling the elements for two hours, Valent, Lopez, Holland and the rest of the crew managed to reach the foundering schooner. Cape Horn’s dispirited crew clung to the hulk even with heavy seas surging over her decks. To avoid wrecking the surfboat against the submerged vessel, the Brazos crew rowed their boat towards the ship in the lull between each breaker, snatching off the schooner’s survivors one at a time. The eight survivors crowded in with the seven Brazos Station crewmembers for the ride back to shore.
Unfortunately, the trip to shore appeared more perilous than the struggle to reach the ship as heavy seas formed into huge waves cascading toward the beach. There was no turning back, because the Cape Horn had slipped below the waves shortly after the survivors were taken off. As the surfboat neared the shore, Keeper Reed found the surf pummeling the beach furiously and had to choose a landing point two miles from the original embarkation point. Though men like Valent, Lopez and Holland were skilled surfmen, the boat shipped seas constantly as waves boarded the vessel from the stern.
With his crew soaked and exhausted, Keeper Reed deployed the surfboat’s drogue, a service-issued canvas bucket device designed to work like a sea anchor to help stabilize the boat. But, disaster struck within 100 yards of land when heavy seas burst the drogue. Valent, Lopez, Holland, Keeper Reed and the rest of the crew struggled to hold the boat steady using their oars, and with the aid of the boat’s engine they powered the boat onto a towering wave headed for shore. Riding on the crest of the roller, the surfboat accelerated toward the beach and, without any final effort by the crew, safely landed with all fifteen occupants.
The Cape Horn rescue proved a success. For their death defying feat, the Brazos men, including Valent, Lopez, Holland and the rest of the crew received the Silver Life-Saving Medal. The men also received the Grand Cross Medal from the American Cross of Honor Society for their act of “unusual heroism.”
BM1 Pablo Valent went on to have a successful career in the Coast Guard, taking command of the Brazos Station (a.k.a. Port Isabel Coast Guard Station) in 1935, becoming the first Hispanic American in the service to do so. Valent retired in 1940, after twenty-eight years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Florida Keys Hurricane of September 1919 was one of the worst in Texas history. It heavily damaged the Brazos Station and leveled the Coast Guard Station at nearby Aransas. But, thanks to the valiant efforts by the Coast Guard rescuers, eight mariners lived to sail another day.