Story and photos by Petty Officer 1st Class Seth Johnson
Ask anyone who has stood by the ocean during a winter or spring nor’easter, and they can tell you how harsh the winds and how violent the waves can be. Gales can whip a mix of rain, snow or hail into a foaming salt spray, reducing visibility, while waves roar and crash in a display of raw power that can be both fear and awe-inspiring.
The fishing boat Anna was reported missing by radio in a nor’easter very similar to this situation on March 6, 1932, off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey, during a time when weather could surprise mariners and communications were archaic by modern standard. In response, three members of Coast Guard Lifeboat Station Atlantic City donned their foul weather gear, lifesaving equipment, boarded their picket boat and set out into uncertainty to save lives.
The weather was harsh when Lt. Jim Turner, the station’s commanding officer, launched the station’s 30-foot picket boat with two surfmen aboard to make their way to the fishing grounds. It is estimated the winds gusted in excess of 60 miles per hour and the waves were in excess of 18 feet with breaking surf across the mouth of the inlet. As the crew fought the weather in the patrol boat, something triggered a mechanical failure and the single engine of PB2301 stalled, which caused the boat to quickly capsize and send the crew into the hypothermic storm waters near Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
Above the endangered crew, employees of Steel Pier in Atlantic City watched the scene unfold beneath them. The three crew members entered the water and clung to the hull of the capsized vessel and slowly drifted toward the pier. One of the onlookers made their way to a telephone and called Lifeboat Station Atlantic City to report the incident, as employees and onlookers tried to assist by throwing life preservers to the hypothermic men.
Upon receiving the notification their shipmates were in danger at the station house, Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Marvin Rhodes gathered two fellow Coast Guardsmen and launched a 28-foot powered surfboat in an attempt to save the lives of their friends and colleagues. They left from the station and were never seen or heard from again.
At Steel Pier, Turner broke away from the overturned picket boat and swam through the surf to shore and landed on the beach in a state of exhaustion. The crew members accompanying Turner unfortunately died at the base of Steel Pier. Turner spent days in a regional hospital recovering, but survived.
Out of the five Coast Guardsmen who died, only the bodies of 19-year-old Surfman William Garton and 24-year-old Surfman Hal Livingston were recovered. Rhodes, Surfman Charles Graham and Surfman John Barnett were never found.
The ripples from the tragedy spread through the region and hundreds of Coast Guard members attended the ceremony for Garton and the other members lost at sea, and indeed these ripples are still felt today as members of Coast Guard Station Atlantic City hold an annual memorial and wreath laying.
On March 6, 2019, members of Station Atlantic City gathered before the Absecon Lighthouse in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to memorialize the events that transpired, hold a benediction and lay wreaths in memory of the five Coast Guardsmen who lost their lives.
“We hold this memorial annually to remember and honor those who gave their lives in service, and who are part of our proud heritage as lifesavers and as Coast Guard men and women,” said Lt. Taylor Smith, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station Atlantic City. “This is a good time for reflection on the evolution of our service to today’s ready, relevant and responsive Coast Guard, which still to this day serves the public, the maritime community and continues to safeguard our maritime environment.”