The Mirlo rescue 100 years ago, Aug. 16: Into the flaming sea

By on August 13, 2018

Mirlo rescue by Austin Dwyer.

Here was the choice: plunge the lifeboat for the fourth time into the seething surf, a desperate mission to reach the flaming seas beyond the beach. Or, inform your superiors that the required attempts were made to no avail and leave the stranded victims to their fiery fate.

In what surely must be one of the most gripping rescues in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, the six-member lifesaving crew at Chicamacomico Coast Guard Station chose to push on, toward the inferno.

On Aug. 16, the 100th anniversary of the rescue of 42 sailors set adrift from their torpedoed British steam tanker Mirlo will be commemorated at the historic Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe.

“No rescue that I know of can compare to the Mirlo rescue in terms of the danger the Chicamacomico crew faced in the burning ocean,” says Kevin Duffus, author of Into the Burning Sea: The 1918 Mirlo Rescue.

It is a story that defines heroism and defies belief. It is a story that makes us proud as Outer Bankers and proud as Americans. It’s a story that has been told often, but needed to be told again.

Led by keeper John Allen Midgett, known fondly as “Captain Johnny,” the lifesavers steered a 25-foot motor surfboat miles from shore, through tunnels of smoke and flames, between undulating sheets of fire and around jagged debris, rained upon by hot embers, choking on toxic fumes of ignited benzol, their eyes burned by raging heat, to track down three barely discernable and scattered lifeboats filled with ravaged victims.

Hour after horrific hour, the six men worked into the night until all 42 survivors were safely on the beach.

“No amount of training could have prepared them for the challenge they faced,” Duffus wrote. “The white, wooden hull of surfboat No. 1046 was scorched as it weaved in and out of the flames.”

Even though Duffus, who also wrote Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks in 2007 and War Zone: World War II off the North Carolina Coast in 2012, was well-acquainted with the Mirlo story, he was hesitant when Chicamacomico Historical Association asked him to tackle writing yet another account of the event.

Originally, Duffus says, he agreed to write 30 pages, although he had doubts that he could add enough to the story to make it fresh. The just-published book, though still compact, ended up being twice as long.

Kevin Duffus

During his research, Duffus learned that letters from Victor Wild, a survivor on the Mirlo, had been discovered recently in National Park Service archives on Roanoke Island, adding never-seen perspective on the attack, the rescue and the aftermath.

Duffus says he was also able to definitely determine, in his review of numerous U.S. and German military records, that the Mirlo was struck by a torpedo launched from the U-117, and not one of the mines the submarine had laid at Wimble Shoals.

In reading the letters from Wild, a third officer on the tanker, Duffus found that he had written to “the Midgetts, Rodanthe, North Carolina” in 1970, shortly before his 76th birthday. After the postmaster opened the letter to determine which of the many Rodanthe Midgetts it was intended for, it was quickly forwarded to then 61-year-old Bethany Midgett Gray, Captain Johnny’s daughter, Duffus recounts in his book. The two wrote back and forth, a correspondence that ended with Wild’s death later that year.

“You must realize that had it not been for your father,” Wild wrote to Gray, “that I would not have been alive today.”

The letters also revealed that Wild had named his first-born daughter “Mirlo,” and that his granddaughter also had the same name. His wife was believed to have been pregnant when he had departed England on July 2.

“The fact is he thought it was important that he named his daughter Mirlo,” Duffus says. “That to me is the epitome of the lifesavers’ legacy.”

As Duffus sees it, the courageous actions of and choices made by Midgett and his crew (four of whom were also named Midgett) rippled on through generations of families and the Coast Guard itself. The crew and the keeper were awarded the highest honors by the U.S. Navy, the Coast Guard and the King of England, and Captain Johnny was featured as a fearless man of high character in Nell Wise Wechter’s book The Mighty Midgetts of Chicamacomico, published in 1974.

Unlike the U-boat campaign during World War II, which was a military strategy, Duffus says, the German U-boats during World War I that mined the U.S. coast with explosives and torpedoed ships were acts of terrorism, meant to undermine the spirit of the nation. Chicamacomico stands as an example of the nation’s resilience, and the valor and dedication of its people.

What’s truly remarkable, Duffus adds, is that people today can not only visit the very same station where the Mirlo survivors were taken by the singed Coast Guardsmen, they can see the recently restored original surfboat that rescued them from an ocean in flames.

“The public can look at it and appreciate how small this boat was,” he says. “It’s one of those rare treasures of the Outer Banks.”

See the schedule of Mirlo Rescue Centennial Week activities »

Duffus will be signing books at Island Bookstore in Duck on Monday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; at Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station on Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon; and on Wednesday at Lee Robinson General Store in Hatteras from 4 p.m to 6 p.m.

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