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
Many of the Coast Guard’s heroes fought in wars abroad or found themselves under enemy fire in foreign countries. But, Charles W. Sexton found himself faced with danger in the course of his everyday duties at Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment. Sexton, a machinery technician, was rescuing four fishermen in peril when the seas tragically took him.
On January 11, 1991, Sexton and his crew launched motor lifeboat 44381 after they received report that the fishing vessel Sea King, a 75-foot stern trawler, was taking on water four miles northwest of the Columbia River Bar. The Sea King had four men on board and was in danger of sinking with her decks awash and the engine room steadily filling up with water.
Sexton went aboard the foundering fishing vessel with other crewmembers to treat the injuries of a Sea King crewmember who had fallen to the deck.
Once the victim was stabilized, Sexton focused his attention on dewatering the vessel. Because the Sea King was so flooded, it required several dewatering pumps to remove the initial quantity of seawater from the engine room along with hourly dewatering the vessel to ensure the boat did not submerge.
After more than six exhaustive hours of dewatering and maintaining the vessel, with the worst of the treacherous bar crossing behind them, the Sea King rolled over without warning and threw its passengers into the agitated seas. The power of the water trapped Sexton in the enclosed pilothouse and he, along with two fishermen, went down with the vessel.
Retired Chief Quartermaster Bill Segelken was on scene as a crewmember aboard Coast Guard Cutter Iris when Sexton was lost to the sea. He was a First Class Quartermaster at the time and remembers vividly the sight of Sea King overturning.
“The Sea King took a long roll to port. While the vessel appeared to be recovering from the roll the port quarter went under and the ship began to roll,” said Segelken. “While in our minds, as we observed this, it seemed to take forever, the reality is that once the ship started to roll she was capsized in seconds.”
A special place in the Coast Guard’s history
There is a certainty of danger that Coast Guardsmen encounter in the line of their every day duties, whether it is the shifting water’s of a river bar or towing an unstable vessel, and it is an unvarying reminder of how fragile life is.
“The Columbia River Bar is always a treacherous place to navigate,” said Segelken. “Even on a nice day the swells could be running at six to eight feet and as quick as the current changes directions they could build to 10-12.”
Despite the perilous complexities in the Sea King’s rescue, Sexton exhibited courage and devotion to save others in the most humbling of ways. Sexton’s courage was recognized as he was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal for extraordinary heroism.
“It has long been understood that the Coast Guard faces danger every day, but that could not be more true than a day on the Columbia River Bar,” said Segelken. “In my career after this incident I have spent nearly 15 years in command centers. I have launched countless aircrews and small boats into harm’s way. This case provides me a firsthand reminder of the potential impact of those dangers.”
At a ceremony on May 17, 1991 Rear Admiral Joseph Vorbach, commander of the 13th District commented on Sexton’s heroism: “Keep bright his memory so that next time someone asks who are your heroes, you wont hesitate to answer Petty Officer Sexton.”