Another vessel has joined the ranks and earned the title “Coast Guard cutter.” However this isn’t just any cutter, it’s a fast response cutter. At 154-feet long, the ship has an impressive array of capabilities, including sustained speeds of more than 28 knots and an armament of a stabilized 25mm machine-gun mount and four, crew-served .50-caliber machine guns. But more impressive than its technology, more impressive than its features, is the cutter’s namesake – Richard Etheridge.
Born into slavery, Etheridge rose through the enlisted ranks of the Union Army during the Civil War and went on to serve in the U.S. Life-Saving Service. He was appointed keeper of the Pea Island station and, in doing so, became the first African-American to command a life-saving station.
While under his command, Pea Island – the only all-black crew in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard – was known as “one of the tautest on the Carolina Coast.” But his story, and that of the station’s, was largely lost to history. Thanks to a group of dedicated researchers and supporters, Etheridge’s story, steeping in heroics and leadership, would soon be shared with thousands.
One of these researchers was David Wright , co-author of “Fire on the Beach.” Together with David Zoby, Wright started a monumental project of uncovering the history behind Etheridge and his crew. The hunt for the truth started with a simple photograph of the Pea Island crew but soon turned into piles of documents and stories that were either lost or misplaced.
While Wright started his search for the truth with little knowledge of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, or even the Outer Banks where Etheridge performed dramatic rescues, he was soon spellbound by the men of Pea Island. In what he calls a lot of “detective work” Wright and Zoby dug up story after story.
One of the stories they unearthed inspired the cutter’s motto. During the Civil War, Etheridge was part of the 36th United States Colored Troop, a Union force that played a role in taking the Confederate capital at Richmond, Va. Etheridge was promoted two days after the battle but while he fought on the front to end slavery, he was dismayed when he heard about the mistreatment of Blacks on Roanoke Island. He wrote a letter to Gen. Oliver O. Howard, commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, protesting the mistreatment. Etheridge signed the letter “In behalf of humanity,” the ship’s chosen motto.
“This was really moving because we just stumbled upon this history, and to know that we played some role in that cutter’s existence was really flattering and I was touched,” said Wright.
Championing Etheridge’s story, was retired Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon, who had stumbled upon the story a few years earlier. Rochon and his wife, Shirley – the cutter’s sponsor and 42-year veteran of Coast Guard civilian service – are deeply connected to Etheridge’s legacy, 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.
Since his retirement from the Coast Guard in 2007, Rochon continued working on behalf of the Coast Guard, sharing these previously untold stories and serving as advisor to the documentary film “Rescue Men,” and “Fire on the Beach.”“The commissioning of the Coast Guard Cutter Richard Etheridge has made my past 22 years of researching, writing and speaking about this Coast Guard enlisted hero worth every minute,” said Rochon. “Our common goal to recognize the bravery of our enlisted hero, Keeper Richard Etheridge, by bringing this cutter to life transcends any of our cultural differences. This demonstrates the profound effect Keeper Etheridge continues to have on Coast Guard men and women and all Americans, even 112 years after his death.”
“It was an incredible honor for me, beyond what mere words can express, to have witnessed the commissioning of the Coast Guard Cutter Richard Etheridge. And, it was particularly special to see my wonderful wife, Shirley Rochon, as the proud sponsor of the Coast Guard’s newest fast response cutter, to bring this impressive cutter to life,” added Rochon.
Wright, Zorby, Rochon and others all helped in sharing Etheridge’s history; thanks to them our nations knows more about a lifesaver and a legend. As Wright sailed aboard Etheridge, soaking in the sights and sounds, he realized just how tangible and concrete Etheridge’s legacy had finally become.
“There were these young, interesting, dynamic, vibrant people aboard. The way they were describing the missions…” Wright trailed off. “I’m an Army guy – my old man was in the Army – and I never imagined I could play such an active role to the Coast Guard. And now I feel that, in this visceral way.”
Richard Etheridge’s story is no longer lost to history and his memory will inspire Coast Guard men and women as they execute Coast Guard missions for decades to come.
“As Keeper of a Life Saving Station for 20 years, Richard Etheridge heroically led his crew in rescuing hundreds of lives from the notorious waters off North Carolina’s Outer Banks,” said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp at the commissioning ceremony for Coast Guard Cutter Richard Etheridge. “There is no better tribute to his legacy than this multi-mission cutter, and his spirit will live on in each member of the crew.”