William H. Thiesen, Historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area
Coast Guard men and women have come from every corner of the State of North Carolina, while others have moved to the state to serve in places like Wilmington, Oak Island, Wrightsville Beach, Elizabeth City, Fort Macon, Hatteras and other bases and stations along the Outer Banks. Not only do these personnel serve today in the modern Coast Guard, but they did so for generations in legacy agencies like the Lifesaving Service, Lighthouse Service and Revenue Cutter Service. Many North Carolina families have been associated with these predecessor services. Their names include Etheridge, Midgett, Burrus, Balance, Gray, O’Neal, Daniels and many others. So many have served that the Coast Guard is sometimes called the “North Carolina Navy.”
Coast Guard men, women and assets associated with North Carolina began playing a vital role in Coast Guard history starting in the 1790s. One of the first 10 revenue cutters, Diligence, was stationed first in New Bern then in Wilmington, North Carolina. It is not known for certain when the first North Carolina cutterman lost his life in the line of duty; however, in 1796, the first captain of the Diligence, William Cooke, disappeared without a trace after apprehending French pirates burying treasure near the Cape Fear River.
Built in 1797, the cutter’s replacement, Diligence II, was one of the first United States warships to engage a foreign enemy, fighting in the Quasi-War with France in 1798. This cutter saw combat action against French privateers in the Caribbean and was one of six cutters to bear this honored cutter name. Today, a full-size replica of it is on display in Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum and within a few years, a new Offshore Patrol Cutter will become the seventh cutter to bear the name and carry-on the Diligence tradition.
The Coast Guard in North Carolina has had to defend the state against two foes: wartime enemies and Mother Nature. In 1806, North Carolina cuttermen lost their lives in the line of duty when revenue cutters Diligence IIIand Governor Williamswere destroyed by a super-hurricane at Ocracoke. One hundred and forty years later, during World War II, Coast Guard cutters Jacksonand Bedloewere caught in the open when the Great Atlantic Hurricane swept the North Carolina coast. Both cutters were capsized by rogue waves near the eye of the storm killing over half of their intrepid crewmembers. In 2018, Hurricane Florence devastated Eastern North Carolina serving as a reminder like hurricanes Fran, Floyd, Matthew and many others, that Coast Guard men and women often protect the same communities in which they live.
Coast Guard personnel and assets have defended the North Carolina coast against attack since the War of 1812, when Cutter Mercury escaped Royal Navy forces and forewarned the City of New Bern about an impending attack. Mercury’s warning allowed regular and militia forces to assemble for the city’s defense and helped prevent a landing of British troops and the city’s destruction. In World War I, Coast Guard bases, installations and assets kept the watch day and night losing the Diamond Shoals Lightshipto U-boat attack. In World War II, cutters battled Nazi submarines in an area off the North Carolina Coast termed “Torpedo Junction.” Cutter Icaruswas one of the first to draw blood, sinking U-35 off Cape Lookout and capturing the war’s first POWs by U.S. forces.
Coast Guard aviation got its start in North Carolina at Morehead City. Established in 1921, this air station survived a little over a year, but it served as a starting point for the Service’s aviation branch. Shortly before World War II, the Navy built an air station at Elizabeth City supporting Coast Guard aircraft that defended against U-boats and rescued mariners and victims of attacks. The facility has hosted Coast Guard aviators and aircraft ever since. Today, Air Station Elizabeth City hosts a fleet of C-130 aircraft, HH-60 helicopters, the Rescue Swimmer School, Aviation Technical Training Center and Aviation Logistics Center.
The Coast Guard’s history is closely tied to the State of North Carolina. This connection dates back to 1790 and the men and women who have served at the many stations and bases along the coast and eastern side of North Carolina. The names of many of these heroes are emblazoned on the sterns of Coast Guard vessels, such as the Fast Response Cutters Richard Etheridgeand Benjamin Dailey, Buoy Tender William Tate, and the new National Security Cutter Midgett. In addition, we await the commissioning of new Fast Response Cutters bearing the names of North Carolina’s World War II heroes Glen Harris, who fought at Guadalcanal, and Oliver Henry, an African American cutterman who served in the Greenland Patrol. It is no wonder that many refer to the Coast Guard as the North Carolina Navy.