August 18, 2018

Mirlo Rescue Celebrates 100th Anniversary



Sometimes it takes an event like the 100th anniversary of the Mirlo rescue to appreciate just how steely and true-hearted the Rodanthe Midgetts’ were who served at the Chicamacomico Coast Guard Station.

During the all-day commemoration held on Thursday, numerous speakers  -historians, World War I experts and Coast Guard  representatives – lauded the extraordinary skill, dedication and courage of keeper John Allen Midgett and his five-member crew, four of whom were also Midgetts, in rescuing 42 men from burning seas after a German submarine torpedoed the British tanker Mirlo in the late afternoon on Aug. 16, 1918. Their efforts led to numerous medals from the Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, and even the King of England.

For Hatteras Islanders who routinely drive past the site, known today as the U.S. Life-saving Station Chicamacomico Historic Site, their accounts were a reminder that one of the most spectacular rescues in Coast Guard history happened in the little village of Rodanthe, conducted by modest men who rarely left the island. 

The crew had to first launch the surfboat in heavy seas beyond the breakers – a feat that took four tries – and then prime the gas-powered engine after it was in the roiling surf, all while heading toward potentially explosive conditions created by the Mirlo exploding and igniting vast amounts of the fuel it had been transporting. 

“That had to be going through his mind, as well as his surfmen’s,” Timothy Dring, who served as a consultant on the recent rehabilitation of the Chicamacomico rescue boat, told the packed audience at the morning symposium held at the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Center.  

In other words, he said, Midgett, known locally as “Captain Johnny,” had to be thinking ahead about how the crew would get out about five miles to the exploded vessel, while keeping the gas-powered surfboat from blowing up. And still, the Chicamacomico lifesavers didn’t hesitate for a moment.

Dring, the president of the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association, said that No. 1046 Bebe –McLellan Self-Bailing Motor Surfboat used that afternoon could move faster than the older motor-less vessels, but the batteries lost charge quickly. Also, the gas line was a gravity-feed, making the engine vulnerable to stalling when hit by surf.

One of the numerous miracles of the Mirlo rescue is that the 25-foot wooden surfboat remained intact despite navigating for hours through the flaming ocean, towing lifeboats and going out past the breakers five times to retrieve 42 survivors.  After being de-commissioned in 1932, Motor Surfboat No. 1046 has over the years been restored, displayed, and put in storage. Eventually, the National Park Service, the vessel’s owner, loaned it to the Chicamacomico Historical Association to display in the 1874 boathouse at the station site. The vessel was recently rehabilitated to its pre-Mirlo 1918 appearance by National Park Service conservationists at Harpers Ferry. The engine, however, is long gone, but construction of a 3D model is under consideration.

“She’s very pretty-looking,” said Dring, adding that No. 1046 is one of only two of the Coast Guard’s former 500-boat fleet of the Bebe-McLellon boats that survived. And discussions are being held about nominating the vessel for the National Register of Historic Places. 

“I think it’s very fitting for this boat to have a special place, and not just because of the Mirlo rescue,” Dring said.

Other speakers at the symposium were Michael Lowrey, an expert on World War I U-boats; Kevin Duffus, a research historian and author of the just-published Into the Burning Sea- The 1918 Mirlo Rescue; and William H. Thiesen, Atlantic area historian for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Later in the day, other speakers at a tent set up at the station included Coast Guard Rear Admiral Todd Sokalzuk, Atlantic Area Deputy Commander, British Naval Commander Dickie Underwood, representing the British ambassador and the Naval attaché; Trevor Williams, the great-grandson of Christopher Embley, a father of three from Liverpool who was manning the Mirlo engine room when he was killed at age 33; and retired Air Force Director of Military Intelligence at the Director of National Intelligence Laura Foglesong,  granddaughter of Bethany Midgett, John Allen’s youngest daughter.

Sokalzuk spoke in admiration of the “amazing, amazing rescue,” the courage and determination of the crew, and how John Allen Midgett tackled the task that confronted him that day 100 years ago.

“Think of his presence of mind,” he said. “It’s the best of Coast Guard execution that we see today.  He’s looking out there [thinking]: how to deal with the fire? How to keep his crew safe? I’m sure that was going through his mind. But he kept going.” 

As if on cue, storm clouds rolled in shortly before 4:30 p.m., the exact time of the distress call. Accompanied by solemn live trumpet music, each name of the nine victims was then read out loud, followed by a bell tone. The rain deluge ended in time for the large wreath on the stage to be carried to the station cart, where it was then transported to the beach. A Coast Guard rescue boat then carried the wreath to place on the spot where the Mirlo was struck by the torpedo shot by the German U-117.

With the conclusion of the ceremony, many spectators mingled on the wide beach, the crystal green ocean and low clouds merged over a now-peaceful scene, belying the horror it was a century before.

Ultimately, the honorable Midgett heritage was the star of the day. Part of the events leading up to the anniversary commemoration on Thursday included descendants of the crew: Zion Midgett, Surfman No. 1; Leroy Midgett, Surfman No. 8; Clarence Midgett, Surfman No. 6; Arthur Midgett, (who was in charge of the engine); and Lee O’Neal, Surfman No. 5, (who married a Midgett ), and John Allen Midgett, keeper.

Jonna Midgette, whose grandmother was Nora, a daughter of Captain Johnny, said that of the total of about 250 descendants of the Chicamacomico crew, about 50 still live on the island. 

Midgette – her married name – recalled her grandfather John Herbert, who was the cook at the station, telling numerous stories about that day and about the keeper.

“His affection for Captain Johnny was evident,” Midgette recalled while chatting on the beach after the event. “I never heard anybody who didn’t admire him. My Aunt Olive, my dad’s sister, used to say ‘When he walked into a room, you had the feeling he was someone important.’ He was kind to people. The children respected him.”

But Midgette said she never thought about his legacy until her son Elijah – a history lover -  made a comment a few years ago that struck her.

“He said, ‘The biggest celebrity in his family was John Allen Midgett.’ And he was,” she said.

To Foglesong, who grew up in Florida but stayed every summer on the Outer Banks, Captain Johnny’s legacy was that of service. Her father Norman Gray, in addition to herself and her brother, served in the military. Foglesong attributes the sense of duty to her Midgett heritage; a way to honor the blessing of living in the land of freedom and choices

“My father always said, ‘Don’t quit,’” she said. “His quote is ‘If you’re lucky enough to be born an American, you’re born with a debt.’”

In that light, it makes sense that even facing the extreme danger of the Mirlo rescue, the Chicamacomico crew never shirked what they saw as their responsibility. They did their job, and to the great credit, they did it well. 


comments powered by Disqus