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U.S. Coast Guard Awards

Elmer F. Mayo

Seth L. Ellis

Awarded 28 March 1902

One of the most distressing calamities in the history of the Life-Saving Service occurred on 17 March 1902 near the eastern end of Shovelful Shoal on the Massachusetts coast.  It resulted in the drowning of 12 persons, 5 from the stranded coal barge Wadena and 7 from the crew of the Monomoy Life-Saving Station. The circumstances of this lamentable ship wreck and sacrifice of the life-saving men appears to have been as follows:

During a northeast gale on the night of 11 March, the barges Wadena and John C. Fitzpatrick, bound from Newport News, VA to Boston, MA in tow of the tug, Sweepstakes, struck on Shovelful Shoal, off the southern end of Monomoy Island, Cape Cod while seeking an anchorage. They remained there for several days. A few hours after stranding, the crew of the Monomoy Life-Saving Station boarded the barges and tried to float them. Finding the undertaking impracticable, due to the weather, they took both crews of five men each to the life-saving station, where they arrived at 3 PM.

The Sweepstakes remained by the barges for a couple of days, but she was compelled to make a port for repairs. Wreckers were engaged to lighter the cargoes and float the barges. As conditions permitted, the wreckers continued their labors off and on until the night of March 16. At this time the weather became so threatening that the tug Peter Smith, which had replaced the Sweepstakes, took all the men off the Wadena, except five, and put into the harbor of Hyannis. Those who remained on the barge were the owner, W. S. Mack, of Cleveland, OH, Captain C.D. Olsen of Boston, and three Portuguese wreckers, Manoel Ignacio, Vasco Izevedo, and another whose name could not be ascertained.

About 8:00 on the 17th, the south patrol of the Monomoy Life-Saving Station reported the barges as being in no immediate danger as far as he could make out. In a few minutes, however, Keeper Eldridge received a telephone inquiry from the captain of the tug Peter Smith, then at Hyannis, asking whether everything was all right with the men on board the Wadena. This was the first time the keeper had any idea that anybody had remained on the barge over night. The suggestive message caused him so much uneasiness that he started for the end of the Point, about 3 miles to the southwest, in order to determine the situation for himself. Rain was falling and the weather was thick. Meanwhile, a fresh southeast wind was blowing and across the direction of it, the ebbing tide was setting strongly, making a very ugly sea.

The Wadena lay about half a mile south of the point. Although Keeper Eldridge saw no signs of especial danger, a signal of distress was flying on board and he could not disregard it. He, therefore, telephoned from the south watchhouse to No. 1 Surfman Seth L. Ellis. He informed him of the facts and directed him to launch the surfboat and come down in it with the crew by the inside route. Promptly obeying, the men put on their storm clothes and after a hard pull reached a point on the beach some 2.5 miles from the station. Here they took in the keeper, who had walked up to meet them.

The keeper now assumed control and advising the crew of his intent. He took his course around the point straight for the Wadena. In many places on the shoals, the sea was very heavy, a peculiarly difficult and treacherous sea in which to handle a boat, and perhaps a barrel of water was shipped. It was nearly noon when the boat rounded-to under the lee of the barge, just abaft the forerigging. With her head pointed toward the stern, this was the only place where the waves permitted going alongside with any safety. A line was instantly thrown to the surfmen from the barge. Afterwards, the boat’s painter was also passed on board and used to make fast.

Having ascertained the number of persons on board, the keeper directed them to get into the boat. The main rail of the vessel was 12 or 13 feet above the water, and the men lowered themselves one by one over the side by means of a rope. Most unfortunately, Captain Olsen, a heavy man, lost his grasp on the way down and dropped with such force on the second thwart that he broke it. This put the rowers on that seat to great disadvantage.

In order to get quickly away from his dangerous proximity to the barge, Keeper Eldridge commanded Surfman Chase to cut the painter. The boat then shoved off. There was little safety room to maneuver and a swift attempt was made to clear the line of breakers. While the surfmen holding the port oars were backing hard and those on the starboard side were pulling, a sea struck the boat and poured a great deal of water into it. The men from the barge instantly flew into a panic that could not be quelled. They stood up, clung to the surfmen, crowded them out of their places on the thwarts, obstructed the use of the oars, and made any effective work impossible. The keeper and his crew were cool and resolute. They strained every muscle to turn the boat.

Doing their utmost to restore reason and order, a heavier wave rose up, fell broadside upon them, and the boat went over. Everyone who could clung to it as it drifted fast into the heaviest of the breakers. Twice the lifesavers righted it, but each time the seas upset it again. There was no longer any opportunity for concerted action. The water was bitter cold and the foam of the breakers nearly suffocating. Only the strongest could survive. As the boat tumbled and rolled about, the waves completely submerged it every few moments. One by one the men lost their hold and disappeared. With seven of them all was soon over.

Keeper Eldridge and Surfmen Ellis, Kendrick, Foye, and Rogers still held on. Kendrick had sufficient strength to climb to the bottom of the boat, but the next sea swept him away and Foye soon followed. The keeper was fast losing his vitality and now asked Ellis, who had succeeded in getting back onto the boat, to help him. Soon a strong wave washed off both of them and Eldridge, after regaining and losing his grasp several times, gave out and was seen no more. Only Rogers and Ellis remained. The former despairingly threw his arms around the latter’s neck. Unless Ellis could release himself, both would drown together. It was a terrible emergency. With the strength of desperation, Ellis broke away and hauled himself once more onto the boat while Rogers was still able to clutch the submerged rail. Ellis could scarcely breathe and was so worn out that all he could do was to keep his place and extend to his comrade a few feeble words of encouragement. Rogers was soon exhausted and after faintly moaning, "I have got to go," he fell away out of sight.

The awful tragedy was almost complete and poor Ellis nearly hopeless, but the boat eventually drifted into less turbulent water. The centerboard slipped part way out of the trunk so that he could clutch it and hold his place far more securely. Nevertheless, he might soon have perished had not assistance soon reached him.

The barge Fitzpatrick, which had stranded at the same time as the Wadena, was still intact on the shoal. On board were Captain Andrew Welsh, master, Captain Benjamin Mallows, marine underwriter, and Captain Elmer F. Mayo of Chatham, in charge of wrecking operations. The Fitzpatrick lay some considerable distance from the Wadena and it would seem that those on board did not see the life-saving boat when it went out. They were busy battening down hatches and had just started their steam pump when Captain Mayo glanced over the port rail and saw a capsized boat with four men clinging to it. At first he thought it was one of his own wrecking boats. He remembered, however, that he had observed a signal of distress flying on the Wadena. He then realized that the capsized boat belonged to the life-saving station. It was drifting toward the Fitzpatrick and Mayo quickly threw a large wooden fender overboard, thinking that it might find its way to the shipwrecked men. It did not do so and in the meantime three of them had dropped off the boat.

 Mayo now astonished his shipmates by declaring that he would go to the rescue with the barge’s dory, a vessel totally unfit for so perilous an enterprise. It lay on deck without thole pins or oars. Two pieces of pine, a serving stick, and an old rasp were quickly driven in for thole pins. Two old sawed-off oars were got together. In such crippled condition as this the little dory was thrust over the rail and fortunately took the water right side up. Mayo threw off his boots and oil jacket, strapped a life preserver about him and leapt into the dory, oars in hand. He then shoved away. Watching his chance with consummate skill and judgment, he swept across the heaviest line of breakers and then located his man and pulled ahead with all his might. Ellis stated that he waved his hand toward the barge after Rogers drowned and saw a dory thrown over the side, but after that, he saw nothing "until all at once the dory hove in sight" near him. Captain Mayo ran close alongside the capsized boat, and as he did so Ellis reached out and dragged himself into the dory.

Mayo’s work was so far well and bravely done, but the most dangerous part of it was still to be accomplished. He could not pull back to the barge, nor to the shore on the inside of the point. Instead, he had to make his landing on the outside where the surf was most dangerous. He knew that the attempt would jeopardize his own life and he carefully picked out his way. He held back a few moments until a person whom he saw coming down the beach could reach the edge of the water and render aid in case of need. This man proved to be Francisco Bloomer, a skillful surfman. As soon as he was abreast of the boat, Mayo drove it forward with great power while Bloomer ran into the surf and assisted both men safely to land.

When Captain Mayo left the Fitzpatrick on this self-imposed perilous mission of humanity he was warned that he would never live to accomplish it. When it was done, however, news of it spread quickly and it was proclaimed a most noble and brilliant achievement. In recognition of his extraordinary merits, the Secretary of the Treasury bestowed upon him the Gold Lifesaving Medal, awarded only to those who display the most extreme and heroic daring in saving life from the perils of the sea. Surfman Ellis, for his devotion to duty, his faultless courage, and his self-sacrificing fidelity to his comrades, was likewise honored. He was also promoted to keeper of his station.

The loss of the 7 life-saving men who perished created a sense of profound sorrow. There was no more skillful or fearless crew on the whole coast. As the Wadena remained safe for days after the disaster, there was a general conviction that the men were a tragic and unnecessary sacrifice. On the one hand, they responded to the needless apprehensions and senseless panic of the men from the barge. On the other hand they fell victim to their own high sense of duty which would not permit them to turn their backs upon a signal of distress. Perhaps the keeper’s order best sums up their ironic legacy. He said, "We must go, there is a distress flag in the rigging."

Last Modified 1/12/2016