U.S. Coast Guard Awards
John E. Johnson
Awarded 21 March 1892
Despite one fatality, one of the most notable rescues of 1892 was that conducted by the crew of the Hog Island (VA) Station (Fifth District) in landing twenty-six persons from the Spanish steamship San Albano on 24 February 1892. Out of Bilboa, Spain she had gone ashore on the outer shoals of Hog Island on the evening of the 22nd and subsequently, became a total wreck. Around 4:30 AM on 23 February, the morning beach patrol discovered a steamer’s light too near the shore and he lit his Coston signal. When the light disappeared shortly afterwards, the surfman concluded that the warning had been effective. He later reported what happened to the keeper at sunrise. The keeper then ascended to the lookout and swept the horizon with the glass. To the north he discerned the masts and smokestack of a vessel which appeared to be close to the land.
The weather was misty and a northeast gale prevailed. This carried the tide over the marshes of the island. The surf, beat heavily upon the shore and swift currents swept along the beach to the southward. The life-saving crew set out at once with the beach apparatus and worked their way up the coast to the ship about five miles distant. After two hours of exertion, they arrived abreast the ship at 9:00. It appeared that the vessel of twelve hundred and ninety-one tons register, bound from New Orleans to Hamburg, Germany. She was to obtain coal in Norfolk. In the thick weather the ship passed the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. In retracing the distance along the coast, the master steered too far to the westward and grounded on the outer shoals of Hog Island. He later worked over the bar and floated in one of the numerous channels. Here the master came to an anchor, but the increasing force of adverse elements proved irresistible and the vessel drifted before the wind. Striking upon the shoals at intervals, she filled with water and finally grounded five hundred yards from the beach.
When the lifesavers arrived, the ship lay broadside and the waves broke over her decks. The ship’s company could be seen gathered around the houses on deck and while the Spanish flag floated from halfway up the main rigging. It appeared impossible to reach the wreck with the gun. The forty-mile gale ensured that the life-car would be needed should communication be established with the beach apparatus. It was also deemed advisable to bring the surfboat to the scene. This necessitated a return to the station for this equipment. The round trip required ten miles’ travel over the flooded country. The station horse was taken back to bring up the surfboat and a team of horses was kindly loaned by Mr. J. L. Ferrell to haul the life-car, a spare shot-line, and shot. The lifesaving crew could not re-assemble opposite the wreck until 2:00 PM.
The gun was placed and a failed shot was fired. The second shot, with a No. 4 line, passed over the ship and the line fell on deck. In their eagerness to haul it aboard, however, the steamer’s crew carelessly permitted it to chafe against the main rigging where the action of the sea caused it to part. The rising tide drove the lifesavers farther back upon the beach, increasing the distance to the wreck. The gale raged with greater fury and caused the five succeeding shots to fall short. Without any additional lines, the keeper decided to resort to the surfboat. He did this, despite the assertions of experienced men that no boat could survive in such surf.
The boat was dragged well up to the window and launched, but the wind, the sea, and the current, were too powerful for the crew. They were carried below the wreck, where they reached the shore with difficulty. They made a second launch from a point much farther to the north, but the heroic struggle to reach the wreck proved futile. Although they approached somewhat nearer the stranded steamer, it was impossible to reach her. The boat was again swept beyond the vessel and nearly overturned. After a desperate struggle, a safe landing was effected about a mile below the wreck.
Though both attempts with the boat had jeopardized the lives of the entire, it had also demonstrated their dauntless courage.
Meanwhile some of the ship’s company, in defiance of the captain, lowered the steamer’s only remaining boat, and seven of them made a successful trip to the shore. This was a circumstance so exceptional under such conditions, that it may be noted to be little less than miraculous. Shortly thereafter, it sunset arrived and it grew dark. The lifesaving crew was prevented from further operations by the night. With his crew exhausted by their efforts and going without food all day, the keeper decided to return to the station for needed food and a brief rest. He made this decision after he learned, from the men who came ashore, that the ship was yet solid and dry in her deckhouses.
A company composed of the Rev. J.R. Sturgis, his son, and Mr. Albert Barrett, with others whose names were unfortunately unknown, volunteered to maintain a watch, keep a fire on the beach, and to notify Keeper Johnson should anything serious occur. The crew reached the station at 9 o’clock, and after a few hours’ rest set out again for the wreck at 4 in the morning. They took the last dry shot line with them.
The wind was due northeast and the surf had not diminished. The ship, however, did not appear to have worked any nearer the shore, and although it was low water, the keeper saw that she was still probably beyond the range of the gun. As such, the crew was forced to resort to an ingenious expedient that proved to be the turning point for a successful operation. The gun was lashed upon the apparatus cart while the shot-line box was secured on the forward axle of the boat carriage. The men waded waist deep into the surf and the cart was pushed into the water as far as possible. Heavily loaded for this final trial, the gun was discharged at the right moment. After a moment of breathless suspense, the shot landed just over the rail, falling on the ship's deck. Remebering the accident of the previous day, the crew of the steamer kept the line clear and hauled it off with care. Aided by the islanders on the beach, the connection with the wreck was finally made and the life car was sent aboard.
Eight trips sufficed to bring the nineteen officers and crew ashore. They landed almost destitute of clothing, but with grateful expressions for their safe deliverance. It was at this juncture that the keeper learned that one man, the chief engineer, had been lost. He had attempted, against the remonstrances of his shipmates, to reach the shore by swimming with the aid of a plank. This rash act cost him his life. Rev. J. R. Sturgis had heard an outcry at about 2 o’clock in the morning but no one was seen. The entire crew of twenty-six persons were properly cared for at the station and their destitution was relieved by supplying them with clothing from the articles furnished by the Women’s National Relief Association. The district inspector, who investigated all the circumstances connected with this remarkable case closed his report in the following words
Great credit is due the keeper and crew of the Hog Island Station for their brave and persistent efforts, and every man did his whole duty. The people of the island were prompt and ready to assist the life-saving crew in every way possible, and especial praise should be given the Rev. J.R. Sturgis for his hearty cooperation and valuable services. This is the first time in the history of this station that the beach apparatus has been used, and demonstrates the great value of the life car as a means of lauding men when the distance is great and the surf heavy.
It should be noted that the superintendent of the district, Captain B.S. Rich, a man of great experience and with an enviable record as a lifesaver, was on site early and rendered valuable aid by his sound judgment and excellent advice. The crew remained at the station seven days, when they were transferred to the mainland. Before their departure the captain addressed a letter to the district superintendent:
HOG ISLAND STATION
February 25, 1892.
I am much obliged to Keeper J.E. Johnson and his crew for the promptness with which they came to the aid of the steamer San Albano and for saving twenty-six men and the cat. One sailor was drowned. He jumped overboard in spite of the warning of all hands. I would, therefore, express great praise to Keeper Johnson and his crew for saving our lives under the most trying circumstances, since there was a heavy surf breaking on the beach, accompanied by a high wind and strong current. The superintendent also proved himself very efficient in giving directions on shore and in pushing forward the task of rescue. I do not know how to express our gratitude for the good which resulted.
Jose A. DE SAGARRAGA.
The district inspector, Lieutenant F.G.F. Wadsworth, also received a note from the Spanish Vice-Consul at Norfolk
March 5, 1892
Please accept my thanks on behalf of the Spanish Government for the rescuing of the crew of the steamer San Albano. I would be glad, if convenient, for you to so advise the officers and crew of the station referred to.
ARTHUR C. HUMPHREY,
The generalship displayed by Keeper Johnson, supplemented by the gallant work of his brave crew, was of a high order of merit. Their extraordinary exertions to reach the stranded ship with the surfboat are especially laudable and exceeded the just measure of their duties. In recognition of their heroism in the face of such discouragements, the Department awarded the gold medal to the keeper and raised his pay to the maximum amount allowed by law. The Department also gave a silver medal to each of the eight members of the crew who served in the boat on both occasions. At a later date the Spanish Government transmitted to the Department, through her consul at Baltimore. a medal of honor and a diploma for each of the nine members of the life-saving crew in acknowledgement of their valor.