It was April 2, 1925, and Chief Petty Officer Karl Gustafson was patrolling the waters of Block Island Sound for illicit cargo; he was in search of rum runners. Suddenly, a shadow appeared in the distance and a pursuit began. Shots were fired. Gustafson, steering the patrol boat, was hit and tragically died at the age of 33.
An untold story
Fast forward almost nine decades later and the story of Gustafson and his death at the hands of rum runners was largely unknown. That was until Chris Cosgriff stepped in.
Cosgriff is both the founder and executive director of the Officer Down Memorial Page. His mission, and that of his organization, is dedicated to honoring America’s fallen law enforcement heroes by preserving their memories and stories.
Sometimes the stories come to him. Other times, he has to go out and find them. Such was the case with Gustafson. While researching another law enforcement officer killed, Cosgriff heard of Gustafson and started to research the case.
“It is important to me that officers from all types of law enforcement agencies are honored for their sacrifice, so when I ran across Gustafson’s name and the mention of his death I immediately began obtaining the records necessary for having him honored,” said Cosgriff.
Once Cosgriff had enough information on Gustafson he reached out to another friend in the law enforcement community who might know a thing or two about the Coast Guard – Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Rofidal.
Rofidal, a police officer and Coast Guard reservist, met Cosgriff while in Washington, D.C., honoring another fallen officer.
Rofidal set out with the information Cosgriff collected and worked with the Coast Guard historian’s office and the National Personnel Records Center to obtain the official documents required to submit Gustafson’s name to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
Sometimes, after looking deeper into records, cases do not meet the strict criteria for the memorial or it may not be clear if a death was in the line of duty. In Gustafson’s case, Rofidal said it was very clear.
Extending from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, the prohibition period – commonly referred to as “The Rum War” – found the Coast Guard as one of the law enforcement agencies charged with the suppression of illegal liquor traffic.
Gustafson and his crew were aboard patrol boat CG-237, with their lights out, searching the waters of the sound for suspicious activity when they noticed a shadow some distance ahead. As the crew neared they could see the shadow take shape in the form of a vessel and they knew their suspicions were correct – rum runners.
As chief boastwain’s mate, Gustafson was at the wheel of the patrol boat and he started out in pursuit of the shadowy vessel. They were three miles south of Race Rock Light in the sound when the rum runners began to fire back at the Coast Guardsmen.
Without warning, Gustafson was hit by machine gun fire and fell at the wheel. Abandoning the chase to care for their wounded crewmember, the patrol boat’s crew made it to the pier. Tragically, the gunshot wound was to the abdomen and Gustafson passed away four hours later.
Recognition long overdue
Thanks to Cosgriff’s dedication to unearth stories and Rofidal’s determination in ensuring a fellow officer would be forever remembered, Chief Petty Officer Karl Gustafson’ name was finally etched into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial 87 years after his death.
Carved on the memorial’s blue-grey marble walls are the names of more than 19,000 officers who have been killed in the line of duty throughout U.S. history, dating back to the first known death in 1791. The memorial is ever changing and new names are added to the monument each spring in conjunction with National Police Week. This year, Gustafson’s and 361 other officer’s names were added.
This means a lot to Rofidal who, after 17 years as a police officer, has attended too many funerals and knows far too many names on the wall. For Rofidal, recognizing Gustafson and other fallen officers is all about living up to a promise.
“When a service member, fire fighter or police officer is killed in the line of duty we always hear that ‘you will not be forgotten’ but I think it is important to follow through on that promise,” said Rofidal.
“For every name on the wall there is a story. A story of heartbreak but also one of triumph; triumph in the face of evil,” added Rofidal. “Fellow officers and survivors have picked up and pushed on, no matter how tough. Not because they want to but because they have too.”