This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by Cmdr. William McKinstry
Sometimes amazing stories fall in your lap. As an avid historian, I love to hear tales from long ago, especially those that relate to the Coast Guard in various ways. This is one such story.
My stepson recently came home from the Virginia DeMolay Conclave at Christopher Newport University with news that the International DeMolay was honoring one of its own, Coast Guard Seaman 2nd Class Merrill Walter Hoover. Immediately, I asked him who Merrill Hoover was. What was his historical connection to the Coast Guard? Why was he being honored? I had never heard of Hoover, so I had to learn more about him and his story.
Merrill Walter Hoover was born in Washington, D.C., Jan. 19, 1923. As a youngster, he led an active life, typical of that day and age. He was a sports star at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. He accomplished many feats on the gridiron and track and field, including an impressive 30 of 32 placekicks made during his senior year. Leveraging his athletic and scholastic achievements, he entered Clemson University. He later transferred a little closer to home to American University, in Washington, D.C., with an eye toward the future.
As with many youth of the day, when the call came to serve, he did his part. Hoover put his future on hold enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard, Sept. 4, 1942. After enlisting, he completed basic training at Curtis Bay Training Station. Upon graduation from basic training, Hoover received brief assignments at Norfolk’s 5th Coast Guard District headquarters and False Cape Lifeboat Station. The Coast Guard assigned him to the picket boat CG-72010, Nov. 16, 1942.
As a crew member aboard CG-72010, Hoover’s job was an important one – safeguarding East Coast shipping lanes from incursions by German U-Boats. Given the immensity of this task, the chief of naval operations had directed the Coast Guard to use formerly private yachts and recreational vessels, such as the CG-72010, as a force multiplier that became known as the “Corsair Fleet” or “Hooligan Navy.” Initially commanded by owners who received temporary enlisted status, these vessels provided a picket fence along the U.S. coastline keeping a lookout for enemy activity. As the war progressed, the picket boats were manned by trained Coast Guardsmen, like Hoover.
In the early morning hours of April 10, 1943, with his training and experience, Hoover answered the call. CG-72010 was patrolling normal cruising grounds at night with a darkened ship off the coast of Chincoteague, Virginia. At about 4:15 am, while standing the watch, Hoover noticed that his vessel lay directly in the path of an oncoming freighter, later identified as the Dutch steamship Colytto. With little time to react and no regard for his own safety, Hoover sounded the alarm and ran to the forepeak to alert his sleeping shipmates. While Hoover’s actions ensured their well-being, he put his own life in jeopardy. The sudden impact between the two vessels heavily damaged CG-72010 and threw Hoover into the sea. Colytto and nearby picket boats saved CG-72010 and its crew. Despite a thorough search from both air and sea, Hoover was never recovered.
Merrill Hoover was recognized by his high school, Washington and Lee, with an athletic award named in his honor. Through the years, his story of self-sacrifice and heroism faded into the vestiges of time. However, seven decades after he sacrificed his life to save others, the cause to recognize Hoover’s efforts was reinvigorated by his brethren in the Fraternal Order of the DeMolay. Since he was lost at sea, Hoover never received an official military headstone, so DeMolay member Tom Varner led efforts to ensure that Hoover received a marker at Arlington National Cemetery. Hoover’s marker was dedicated with full military honors, June 13, 2016. Following this success, Hoover received a posthumous International DeMolay Medal of Heroism. At a ceremony with surviving family members present, Hoover became the first Virginian and the first Coast Guardsman to receive this honor.
Seventy-five years ago, Seaman 2nd class Merrill Walter Hoover went in harm’s way and sacrificed his own life to save the lives of his shipmates. He served his country with distinction and his actions are in keeping with those who have served the long blue line in both war and peace.