Skip Navigation


Security Levels


U.S. Coast Guard Awards

W.W. Griesser

Awarded 23 February 1901

Perhaps the most remarkable rescue performed during the 1900 was that accomplished by Keeper W. W. Griesser of the Buffalo (NY) Life-Saving Station on 21 November 1900. For his efforts, he was rewarded with the bestowal of a Gold Lifesaving Medal. The circumstances of this rescue were graphically set forth in the following extract from the letter of the Secretary of the Treasury dated 4 June 1901, transmitting the medal:

"About 2:20 o’clock pm of the day above named, while a gale of great velocity, said to have been at times as high as 80 miles an hour, was sweeping across the harbor of Buffalo, two large scows having several men on board broke from their moorings some 3 miles southwest of the life-saving station and drifted swiftly toward the breakers. Surfmen discovered the disaster from the lookout tower, whereupon you promptly launched and manned the lifeboat, which was taken in tow by the tug Mason and by your direction dropped at a point three-fourths of a mile to the windward of the scows. You then allowed her to drive before the wind to a position just outside the outer line of the surf, where you rounded to and let go an anchor, in tending by slacking away the hawser to get sufficiently near the scows to make sure whether the men had escaped or might still need assistance.

The terrible sweep of the wind, from which you were wholly unprotected, and the fact that the bottom of the lake at this point is mostly hardpan caused the anchor to drag so much that in a few moments the lifeboat was in the midst of the heaviest surf, which at times completely buried her. Two great combers broke on board, while a third one caught the bow and threw it high into the air, snapping asunder the hawser and pitching the heavy boat end over end. You and all but one of the crew were thrown out, and only after a hard swim reached the land more than a quarter of a mile away, where you learned that a man who had been on one of the scows was in a very perilous position among some old piles standing nearly a third of a mile from where you then were. A locomotive of the Lehigh Valley Railroad was passing at the time, and the engineer offered to take you and your crew to the place indicated, where you shortly arrived and beheld the half-drowned man clinging for his life to the slippery piles 400 or 500 feet from the shore, the seas constantly breaking over him, so deeply at times that he was entirely lost from sight.

The use of a boat was impracticable, and the situation of the unfortunate man was plainly such that he must perish unless aid should reach him. There was not time for much deliberation, and you quickly resolved to try to swim out with a line, calling upon Surfman Greenland to accompany you. As you two were about to start upon this hazardous enter p rise you were warned by experienced men that you could not live to accomplish it, but, nothing daunted, you simply replied: ‘‘Wait until we try; he can not come to us; we will try to go to him."

Making one end of the line fast about your arm, you dashed into the lake, accompanied by Greenland, but had not proceeded far when you were both thrown back upon the beach. Again both set out, but when about 50 yards on the way a very heavy sea hurled Greenland against an old pile, doing him considerable injury, then swept him to the land.

You were still uninjured and bravely persisted in your purpose, being repeatedly driven shoreward but gradually gaining ground until, in the course of some fifteen minutes, you reached a pile standing some 60 or 70 yards from the beach, where you held on for a few moments of rest. This was the only pause you made during the entire operation of rescue, which consumed three-fourths of an hour. After somewhat recovering your breath you renewed the battle, and although severely buffeted and many times beaten back from 100 to 200 feet, you still kept a stout heart. Sometimes when an ugly comber would have lifted you up and carried you rearward on its crest you dived beneath it and taking advantage of the undertow running in your favor maintained your progress. Physically weaker men could not have endured the strain, while men less brave although of equal strength would long before have given up.

At length getting sufficiently near you threw to the man the end of the line, instructing him to make it fast about his body and then to let go his hold of the piling and drop into the water. He had only sufficient strength, however, to secure the line about his wrist, and before he could leap the waves caught and fouled the bight of the line among the piling. At the same time you were thrown nearly 100 feet away and for once a fear entered your mind that you might fail after all. The imperiled man was begging piteously for you to save him and crying out that he could hold on but a few moments longer. To the people on the shore it seemed as though both of you must certainly perish. Baffled, but neither vanquished nor dismayed, you still persisted, regaining your lost ground, and at the end of fifteen minutes of very dangerous work cleared the snarl. Then upon your signal the man let go of the piles, while scores of persons at the other end of the line pulled him with a rush to the beach, where he was picked up unconscious.

When you were satisfied that no further mishap was likely to befall him you struck out for the land, which you reached without aid but so exhausted that you could not stand. Eager hands lifted your prostrate body from the edge of the water, while long-continued cheers attested the estimation accorded your gallant deed by the hundreds of persons who witnessed it.

It appears that while engaged in effecting this extraordinary rescue, involving very great courage, physical exertion, and mental anxiety, you were considerably injured by coming in contact with a floating telegraph pole, that passed over you two or three times, inflicting heavy blows upon your back. In view of this fact and all the other extremely adverse circumstances, it would seem incredible but for indisputable evidence that you performed the marvelous feat, which was, indeed, effected only at the extreme peril of your life."

Last Modified 1/12/2016