U.S. Coast Guard Awards
William S. Eldridge
John E. Treworgy
William A. Eckersley
Charles Wright, Jr.
Earl S. Woolson
John K. Mathis
Ridgeway G. Cobb
On the morning of 30 December 1912, the seagoing tug Margaret, enroute from New York to Norfolk with three heavily-laden barges, struck an obstruction off the coast of New Jersey. She was so severely injured that she had to cast off her tow and run for the shore. She grounded in the breakers some 300 yards off the beach and was promptly discovered by the lookout of the Avalon Life-Saving Station.
As a rescue party from the station would have had to put to sea in the teeth of the gale, news of the disaster was telephoned to the Tathams Life-Saving Station, several miles to the south. From that location a boat going to the assistance of the tug would have the wind dead astern. After sending the message, the keeper of the Avalon Station set out on foot with his crew to assist the life-savers at Tathams.
The Tathams crew, under the command of Keeper Harry McGinley, hauled their power surfboat down to the beach upon receiving the information of the stranding. The waters inshore, however, had become a cauldron of raging seas. To launch off an unprotected beach at such a time the boat had to be held squarely head to the seas. With even a slight swerve to either side, a breaking wave could swing the craft around broadside and roll her back onto the beach, possibly with the loss of some of her crew.
As the boat glided from her carriage and struck the water, the engine was set going to give her steerage way. So fierce was the surf, however, that the power of her two propellers had to be augmented by the muscle of seven oarsmen before she finally her nose beyond the first line of breakers. As it was, she filled before reaching the less turbulent area outside the inshore breakers. Fortunately, the boat was a self-bailer and practically non-submergible.
The wind and sea were rapidly increasing, but once beyond the surf, the rescuers had both in their favor and soon arrived in the tug’s vicinity. They found her lying bow to the shore, with only the upper part of her pilothouse and 3 or 4 feet of her bow exposed. Her afterhouse had disappeared and her boats had washed clear of their tackle. What still remained above water was being bombarded by the seas. After a hasty survey of the situation, Keeper McGinley decided to run in under the starboard bow, this being the least exposed place alongside the wreck. He gave each man a few quick-spoken instructions and identified the moment when the actual rescue work should begin.
Awaiting the approach of a favoring sea, the boat was held in check as much as possible. When one came along, the full power of the engine was turned on. A gathering wave swiftly sped the boat toward the vessel. Fifty yards from the goal, however, the sea fell away. At this critical moment, two towering seas raced down upon the boat from over the bow. The propellers were reversed to give the craft sternway and enable her to meet the oncoming waves with as little shock as possible. She, however, failed to take the first one at the right moment and it broke over the heads of the occupants, hiding men and boat entirely from the view of the tug’s anxious crew. The boat freed herself of the deluge of water, only to take a second plunge under when the following sea struck her; but she again came up buoyantly with every crewman in his place.
While the lifesavers were battling, the seas, wind, and tide carried them 250 yards away from the wreck. Efforts to regain the ground lost were continued with renewed vigor. The surfmen now took to their oars and added their strength to the gasoline power. For more than half an hour the unequal fight went on, the boat gaining, then losing, then gaining again. The oarsmen frequently had to stop rowing and hold onto their seats to keep from being washed overboard. Finally the boat got within 25 yards of the tug, almost near enough for a line to be thrown into the hands of her crew.
Keeper McGinley, who held the steering oar, stated in his report that the surf around the wreck was the worst he had ever encountered in 29 years of service on the beach. The master of the tug added that on two occasions, as he watched the efforts of the lifesavers to get alongside, their boat was flung so high above the surface of the water that he could see light underneath her entire length. Weather conditions grew worse, the gale having now attained almost the velocity of a hurricane and the seas became miniature mountains. Moreover, the wave-buffeted surfboat, having gotten near the wreck, found itself in an irresistible current, against which the combined power of men and machinery availed nothing.
The life-saving crew had reached the end of their resources. As they struggled futilely to make headway their boat was caught up without warning on the crest of a suddenly risen comber and they were quickly flung aloft and turned over. Following the boat’s capsize, five of the crew, including the keeper, succeeded in regaining the boat, which now floated bottom up. Three came to the surface so far away from the craft that they could not reach it at all. After struggling vainly against the current two of them gave up and swam for the shore.
While the keeper clung to the propeller blades, the four oarsmen who had managed to get back to the boat, supported themselves by holding on to the bilge strips. Several attempts were made to right the boat, but its weight and bulk blunted the efforts of the four oarsmen. As the five helpless men clung to the craft, they shouted words of encouragement to their comrades, fighting to get a place beside them. Moreover, the men alongside the boat were not unmindful of each other. After each sea had smashed down on their heads and passed on, the first question asked one of the other was: "Is every one safe?"
Two of those who clinging to the boat, Surfmen John Mathis and Adelbert Robbins, were boyhood friends. Mathis was married. When it seemed that all must inevitably perish, Robbins, with as fine a spirit of resignation and self sacrifice as was ever exhibited, remarked: "If one of us has to die, I would rather it would be me instead of John. He has a wife and children."
Shortly after the keeper regained the boat, he tried to push the steering oar within reach of one of the three men carried away some distance. While his attention was engaged by the oar, a sea tore him from the wheel and swept him away. Finding himself unable to get back to the boat and feeling the chill of the water beginning to numb his senses, he too struck out for land. The others who were still by the boat soon followed his example.
All hands miraculously reached shallow water. From here their comrades from Avalon hauled them in, assisted by residents of the neighborhood. They were so chilled and exhausted that they had to be carried bodily to a fire awaiting them in an abandoned barn nearby.
By 2 p. m. the wind had moderated. It had shifted to the westward and cut down the surf considerably. Keeper Frank Nichols of the Avalon Station, in anticipation of the improved conditions, had already dispatched his crew for his surfboat. The boat arrived at 3:30 pm.
While preparations for leaving shore were under way, a new difficulty arose--that of picking a crew. Eight men were needed, but each man in the two crews insisted on being given a place in the boat. The Avalon crewmen were fresh and impatient for the work ahead, but the men from Tathams protested did not want to be left behind. Finally, it was agreed that the rescue would consist of the two keepers and three surfmen from each station. The disappointment of being left behind was so keenly felt by one surfman, that he broke down and wept. This man, however, had passed through the harrowing events of the earlier venture and was in no condition to go to sea again.
Successfully launched, the surfboat made fair headway toward the wreck. The boat being without power, however, the strength of the oarsmen alone was insufficient to offset the combined force of the current. Consequently, the rescuers were swept helplessly past the wreck. There was nothing to do but beat back to windward again for another attempt. This they did. They, in fact, went far enough to give them a 300-yard run to the vessel. They found the tug intact, but with the seas breaking over the pilothouse. The windows framed the haggard faces of 10 despairing men. The wreck afforded practically no lee and there was a considerable the danger of running alongside the wreck. The tug was also in danger of breaking up. There was no time to wait for a lull in the gale or for a chance to maneuver for an advantageous position. The run in alongside had to be made with the utmost expedition.
Once the crew sent it forward, the boat held true. As it shot in under the tug’s bow, a line thrown toward the pilothouse was eagerly seized by the sailors and made fast. When the line tautened, however, the boat swung around to the current and was struck broadside by a succession of seas, which filled her with water and carried away five oars. Fortunately the two keepers, whose united strength was employed at the steering oar, managed to work the craft quickly around again to her former position. While she was held thus, the 10 shipwrecked men left their precarious refuge and tumbled on board.
Just as the last man was taken off, a giant comber lifted the boat high in the air and sent her smashing against the side of the tug, staving in three of her planks. Despite this damage, the surfmen backed away for the shore with with the boat’s three remaining oars. Superb surfmanship had won the day. The battered and disabled boat, weighted down nearly to the gunwales by its load of 18 men, reached the beach without further accident.
It was later learned from the shipwrecked crew that the fireman had perished after the tug had stranded. He had jumped into a boat and started to lower it. A sea came along while he was working at the fall and upended the craft, pitching him into the water. Keeper McGinley’s description of the Margaret’s polyglot crew, and of the manner in which the feelings of some of them found vent after the surfboat reached shore, gives a brightening touch to his somber recital of the thrilling events that preceded and attended the rescue. He said:
It was a motley crew. Only 4 of them were Americans. There were the captain, 2 negroes, 1 Irishman, 1 Scotchman, 2 Scandinavians, 2 Turks, and 1 from North Carolina. Talk about the confusion of tongues! I can imagine why the Tower was not finished. Most of them were hatless and shoeless and clad only in trousers and undershirt. All were overjoyed when we landed. The cook, a huge negro, dropped to his knees on the sand and with arms upraised offered thanks to the Lord for his deliverance. The little mess boy, also colored, was no less demonstrative and sincere than the cook in his manifestations of gratitude. His actions took a livelier turn, however. He did a barefoot shuffle on the ice-cold beach.
McGinley and Nichols, the two station keepers, each received letters from the Secretary of the Treasury praising the conduct of all participants in the day’s hazardous work. The department further recognized the services of the two crews by awarding each man who shared the perils of one or both trips, the Gold Lifesaving Medal.