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
A series of unfortunate storms swept across the Pacific Northwest on Fourth of July weekend 1980 and could have ended in disaster, but instead showed the limitless potential of human intrepidness.
First Class Boatswain’s Mate Richard Dixon had just started his watch at Station Tillamook Bay when a report came in of the Fantasy Isle, a 58-foot trawler-yacht, seeking shelter from the dangerous storm conditions in the region.
The Fantasy Isle, with five people aboard, would have to pass between two stone jetties about 400 yards apart to enter the bay and find relief from the storms. This was no easy task, as the storms produced breaking seas that covered the entire bar for miles.
Dixon served as coxswain for one of the motor lifeboats sent out to escort the Fantasy Isle across the bar and ordered his three crewmen to strap in as he throttled forward into the heavy seas. When the crews arrived at the bar, they realized it would not be safe for the yacht to pass but, after continual beatings by the howling winds outside the bay, the captain of the Fantasy Isle saw no other choice but to make the crossing.
Conditions along the Tillamook bar were worsening with 30-foot seas and 70-knot winds as Dixon placed his 44-foot motor lifeboat on the left side, behind the yacht, while the coxswain of the other motor lifeboat situated himself on the right. Together, they would position themselves to provide a “window” for the yacht to get through the bar by their two motor lifeboats absorbing the energy of the waves.
This was an extremely dangerous maneuver for both lifeboats, as the full force of each breaking wave would smash itself into the crews. Together, Dixon and the coxswain of the other vessel repeatedly used their lifeboats to shield the yacht, taking breaker after breaker for forty minutes, until the yacht had safely passed through the bar and found shelter in the bay.
The Fantasy Isle rescue was noteworthy on its own but Dixon was not done performing heroic acts that weekend. Just a day later, on July 4, a report of two people in the water came in.
A recreational boat was speeding around the North Jetty of the bay when they turned directly into 18-foot breaking seas. There were four people aboard the boat, and two went crashing through the boat’s windshield as the vessel started to capsize.
Dixon and his crew were out patrolling the bay, and changed course to recover the four boaters. Dixon, again as coxswain, had to rely on his boat driving skills to maneuver within 50 feet of the jetty rocks in order to pull the persons in the water aboard.
As the seas broke over them and the blue waves turned to white foam, Dixon and his crew rescued all four persons from the jetty’s rocks and violent waters.
A special place in the Coast Guard’s history
Al Shepherd was a shipmate of Dixon’s while they were both stationed as First Class Petty Officers aboard CGC Cape Wash. They became close friends immediately, and Shepherd recalls how Dixon’s commitment to serve others was always present.
“Rick exhibited natural leadership characteristics coupled with superior ability and genuine warmth,” said Shepherd. “Rick was a man of great outward courage and inner strength who lived idealistically in such a natural way that people were drawn to him. They wanted to be like him and to share in what he was doing.”
Throughout the Coast Guard’s history, coxswains and their crews have performed heroic acts centered on Dixon’s same commitment. Dixon’s bravery, which was second nature, earned him two Coast Guard Medals. Coast Guard award rules dictate that only those who, “performed a rescue or attempted rescue at the risk of his or her own life, and demonstrates extreme and heroic daring” should receive this honor – something Dixon did twice in one weekend.
“The Coast Guard and Rick Dixon share a common history which is rich in service to mankind, free from self interest or self preservation,” said Shepherd. “It is very fitting, and makes me swell with pride that Rick’s heroic deeds and valiant spirit will live on in time.”