This Compass series chronicles the first 14 heroes the Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutters have been named for. These men and women, who stood the watch before us, lived extraordinary lives as they lit the way for sailors in times past, braved gunfire in times of war and rescued those in peril at sea. As Coast Guard heroes, their stories are a constant reminder of our service’s legacy. As the namesake of the Coast Guard’s newest patrol boats, they will inspire the next generation of Coast Guard heroes.
With contributions from LTJG Ryan White
Captain Richard Etheridge was the first African-American to command a Life-Saving station when he was appointed as keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station on January 24, 1880. First Lieutenant Charles Shoemaker, a Revenue Cutter Service officer who recommended his appointment as keeper, noted Etheridge was “one of the best surfmen on this part of the coast of North Carolina,” and on October 11, 1896, Etheridge led his crew on a daring rescue that serves as a testament to his exemplary skills as a leader and a surfman.
The three-masted schooner, E.S. Newman, was caught in a powerful storm off the eastern coast of the United States. The storm, so severe that Etheridge had suspended beach patrols that day, blew E.S. Newman 100 miles off course and grounded the schooner two miles south of the Pea Island station.
After a distress flare was sighted, Etheridge launched a surfboat into the forceful waves and currents. The crew struggled to make their way to the schooner, and when they finally arrived they found they could not reach the vessel because it was not on dry land. Etheridge, seeing no room for failure, tied two of his strongest surfmen together and connected them to shore by a long line. The surfmen fought their way through the breaking waves as they went from the schooner to dry land ten times and rescued the entire crew of the E.S. Newman.
For the rescue of all souls aboard E.S. Newman the Coast Guard awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal to the Pea Island crew. Countless other heroic acts were performed by Etheridge and his men and his dedication to being a lifesaver was unyielding as he served for more than 20 years until his death on May 8, 1900.
A special place in the Coast Guard’s history
The Pea Island Lifesaving Station, or “Station 17,” was the site of many dramatic rescues. Together, the African American crew at Station 17, including Benjamin Bowser, Louis Wescott, William Irving, George Pruden, Maxie Berry and Herbert Collins, under the leadership of Etheridge, rescued sailors in the tumultuous waters along the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Allan Smith, producer of “Rescue Men: The Story of the Pea Island Surfmen” described the work ethic of these men: “In researching for the film, the one thing that stood out is that no matter what, you have a job to do. The job you have is probably important or it wouldn’t exist. And they did, what they did, to the best of their ability and this is something that we can all learn from.”
The station was “disestablished” on March 18, 1947 after nearly 70 years under an all African American crew and is credited as one of the earliest drivers of diversity across the naval services.
“Etheridge was the ideal of what we mean when we use the word, ‘American.’ He had honor and a sense of right,” said Smith.