By Catherine Kozak | Outer Banks Voice on August 19, 2018
Dark storm clouds started rolling in shortly before 4:30 p.m on Aug. 16, the same time 100 years ago that a distress call was issued after the British tanker Mirlo exploded off the beach behind what was then Chicamacomico Coast Guard Station.
The Mirlo Centennial ceremony on Thursday capped a four-day series of events marking one of the most spectacular rescues in the history of the Coast Guard, conducted by a team of lifesavers who had rarely left Hatteras Island.
“We’re getting close to that hour,” Danny Couch, who represents Hatteras Island on the Dare County Board of Commissioners, said in remarks prior to the centennial commemoration. “Fittingly so, the weather has picked up a little bit.”
As rain pounded onto the tent covering the audience at the U.S. Life-Saving Station Chicamacomico Historic Site, with a live trumpeter playing solemnly in the background, each name of the nine victims, all Mirlo sailors, was read aloud by British Naval Commander Dickie Underwood, representing the British ambassador and the Naval attaché, followed by a bell tone.
The skies cleared just when a large wreath of flowers at the podium was carried out to the station cart, where it was then transported to the beach.
Picked up by jet skis and transferred to a Coast Guard rescue boat, the wreath would be placed on the spot where the German U-117 struck the Mirlo with a torpedo, splitting the tanker in two.
Underwood expressed “envy and awe for the sense of community” of the islanders, and said their generous spirit extended beyond nationality.
“That is truly something to celebrate,” he said. In honor of the lost men, he asked the audience to repeat “We will remember them” after the name, a tradition in the United Kingdom.
Led by keeper John Allen Midgett, the Chicamacomico crew had launched their surfboat on the fourth try beyond huge ocean breakers off the beach. On the horizon, the Mirlo was engulfed in flames, the burning fuel turning the sea into a vicious conflagration.
Seven hours later, the six-man team had succeeded in rescuing 42 of the 51 Mirlo crew, afloat on flaming seas, clinging to life in three dispersed lifeboats, all of whom defied death by explosion, bleeding, burning, drowning or sharks. And perhaps equally miraculously, all of the Chicamacomico lifesavers survived unscathed, save for non-life-threatening burns and minor injuries.
It stands as one of the most highly awarded rescues in American history, including highest honors from the Coast Guard, the Navy and the King of England.
Retired Air Force Director of Military Intelligence at the Director of National Intelligence Laura Foglesong, granddaughter of Bethany Midgett, John Allen’s youngest daughter, said that Captain Johnny, as Midgett was known, would have been “flabbergasted” by all accolades and recognition for the Mirlo rescue a century later.
“Those very lessons that you do your duty is something they taught their kids and their grandchildren,” Foglesong said. “The character of the core of those actions — that’s what they want us to remember. Working together. Being together.”
Other speakers included Coast Guard Rear Admiral Todd Sokalzuk, Atlantic Area Deputy Commander; and Trevor Williams, the great-grandson of Christopher Embley, a father of 3 from Liverpool who was manning the Mirlo engine room when he was killed at age 33.
Sokalzuk said that the Midgetts — five of the six Mirlo rescuers were named Midgett — and O’Neals and Etheridges are part of the long line of lifesavers who have braved violent seas to help others.
“So how do you build that courage?” he asked. “You learn the lessons from people who have gone before you. And you never give up.”
Video courtesy of Wilton Wescott
It could be said that the quality of persistence is also the story of the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station.
Abandoned by the Coast Guard in 1954, the 1911 station and the 1874 boathouse that later rejoined it at a location one-half mile south of its original spot were neglected and deteriorating before wealthy developer Walter Davis and Carolista Baum, most famous for saving Jockey’s Ridge from developers, swooped in.
“They were going to burn it down,” said Warren Wrenn, a recent past member of the Chicamacomico Historical Association board. “That was one of the recommendations before Carolista got involved.”
Wrenn remembered Baum as a flamboyant dresser with a powerful personality.
“Carolista would drive you crazy until you gave into what she wanted,” Wrenn said. “I just remember how dynamic she was and how driven she was.”
Wrenn, who retired in 2014 from the National Park Service, first got involved with Chicamacomico in the late 1970s, when he became a member of the drill team that replicated the breeches buoy drill that surfmen were required to practice once a week, no matter the weather. Eventually, he learned about the station’s history and the Mirlo rescue.
“The story is so incredible,” he said in a recent interview from his Louisburg, N.C. home. “I also realized that that place is going to fall apart unless somebody turns it around.”
Over the years, the station was roiled by disagreements in the community, and among conservationists, government agencies and board members. Its ownership and stewardship was transferred from public to private. Its preservation efforts were spotty and underfunded. Lightning and tropical storms created expensive damages.
But things have turned around in recent years for Chicamacomico, and much has been done to restore the historic buildings and add site improvements such as restrooms.
At a time when visitors are looking for authenticity, Wrenn said there’s no better example of a complete lifesaving station in the U.S than Chicamacomico. And, he added, there’s no better example of the way the Outer Banks used to be.
“That’s one of the few things that are left — and people just drive by,” Wrenn said. “You’re looking at a piece of history that is critical to understanding where this country was in the late 1800s.”