Written by Lt. j.g. James Ellsworth, executive officer of Coast Guard Cutter Richard Etheridge.
The notion of a cutter or ship sponsor is deeply rooted in naval tradition, with a woman selected for each new ship based on its namesake or planned mission. Sponsors play an important role in the life of the cutter, maintaining a relationship with the crew and participating in ceremonies such as the ship’s commissioning and decommissioning.
Last week, Shirley Rochon joined the hallowed list of Coast Guard ship’s sponsors and was officially announced as sponsor of U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Richard Etheridge, the second Sentinel-class fast response cutter.
Cutter Richard Etheridge is named for Richard Etheridge, keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station from Jan. 24, 1880, until his death on May 8, 1900. Etheridge was born into slavery and served in the enlisted ranks of the Union Army during the Civil War prior to joining the U.S. Life-Saving Service. During a time where the Life-Saving Service was under heavy scrutiny due to a series of widely publicized failures, Etheridge was identified by Revenue Cutter Service 1st Lieutenant Charles Shoemaker as “one of the best surfmen on this part of the coast of North Carolina.” He was appointed keeper of the Pea Island station and, in doing so, became the first African-American to command a life-saving station.
With Etheridge in command, Pea Island gained a reputation for being “one of the tautest on the Carolina Coast,” with its keeper well-known as one of the most courageous and ingenious lifesavers in the service. Their most famous rescue under Etheridge’s leadership was the Oct. 11, 1896, rescue of the entire crew of the schooner E.S. Newman, driven ashore by a terrifying storm.
Rochon is a 42-year verteran of Coast Guard civilian service and wife of retired Rear Adm. Stephen P. Rochon. The Rochons are deeply connected to Etheridge’s story, spearheading the 1996 posthumous awarding of the Gold Lifesaving Medal to Etheridge and his crew for the E. S. Newman rescue, 100 years after it happened.
Cutter Richard Etheridge’s crew had the opportunity to begin building a relationship with the Rochons during the Sentinel-class fleet dedication ceremony earlier this month. The event brought in representatives of the namesakes of the first 14 fast response cutters, including the Rochons. The crew of Richard Etheridge, who arrived at the shipyard for pre-delivery training in February, was honored to be a part of the event. Crew members had the unique opportunity to meet families and shipmates of the Coast Guard heroes for whom the sentinel class will be named.