When writer Kevin Duffus was asked to create a pamphlet or booklet on the 2018 rescue of the Mirlo to coincide with the upcoming centennial celebration, he didn’t initially know that his research would lead to a book.
But the award-winning filmmaker, researcher, and investigative journalist found that the story of one of the U.S. Coast Guard’s most famous and heroic rescues deserved to be more than just a few pages long.
“As a writer, I never start a book knowing how long it’s going to be, what it will contain, or how it will end,” he says. “I let the story dictate itself. I let the story dictate itself. The original idea was for this to be a 30-page booklet, but I knew all along that it would probably be insufficient to condense this story to 30 pages.”
Beginning his research in the fall of 2017, Duffus turned to previous publications and books on the event, but he also dived into first-hand accounts as well, searching for new avenues of information that may not have been already covered. The 1918 rescue of the British tanker Mirlo , which was torpedoed by a German U-Boat during the height of WWI warfare along the Atlantic Coast, was an often-told story, and is a moment in local history that has bred fascination and multiple publications on the topic for decades.
As it turned out, a chance discovery in the archives at NPS Cape Hatteras Headquarters by CHA president John Griffin and NPS Cultural Resources Manager Jami Lanier, Duffus’s narrative took an unexpected turn, thanks to the voice of a survivor who had likely never been heard from before.
Meet Victor Albert Wild. Victor was a Third Officer on the Mirlo , and was one of 42 out of the 51 crew members who were rescued by the heroic six crew members of the Chicamacomico Station.
As the events of August 16, 1918, unfolded, Victor – along with his crew members – was trapped in the middle of the action, and made a desperate escape off the flaming ship before encountering the Chicamacomico rescuers.
The scenes he encountered on that harrowing evening clearly stayed with Victor long after his ordeal was over. 24-years-old at the time, Victor eventually wrote a roughly 12 page letter in 1970 recounting his experiences, which were still vividly clear at the age of 76. He passed away shortly afterwards, but the letter was mailed from his home in England to the U.S. Coast Guard, and subsequently stored at the National Park Service headquarters in Manteo.
It stayed there over the next few decades, until it was encountered by Duffus while conducting research for his book.
“It was not until I received [the letter], and started reading it, that I realized ‘Oh my goodness – this is the story that can tie the entire Mirlo rescue together.’ How remarkable that this man could never forget what occurred, and sill remembered the courage, strength, and fortitude of those six men from Chicamacomico,” says Duffus.
“I think it’s remarkable that Victor Wild’s memory of that one event in 1918 was so clear in his mind. But such a traumatic experience undeniably makes an impression on the mind, and the memory,” he says. “We’re extremely fortunate to have this one eyewitness testimony that I do believe gives an extremely accurate rendition of what he experienced.”
It’s a haunting account, that begins with an optimistic departure of the British tanker from the docks of Tilbury in the U.K., and which inevitably lands Victor and his fellow officers as guests of John Allen Midgett, the Captain of the Chicamacomico crew that saved the British sailors’ lives. Along the way, Victor recounts with vivid detail the scenes of the burning tanker surrounded by waves of flames, or a colleague perishing in the wreckage while calling for his mother. Clearly, it was an unforgettable event for Victor and the other British sailors aboard the Mirlo – an understatement that is further bolstered by the fact that Victor’s daughter and granddaughter were both named “Mirlo .”
In addition to Victor’s story, which connects the narrative of the Mirlo from start to finish, Duffus also uncovers a number of surprising and new aspects of the story that have never been told before.
For example, the Mirlo took advantage of a questionably-successful camouflage technique known as “dazzling,” where her hull were painted an abstract pattern of black and white. It was hoped that this dizzying array of patterns would confuse enemy submarines, making them unsure of how many vessels were approaching, their size, and / or their general course.
“In all previous published versions of this story, it was never said that Mirlo was painted in the ‘dazzle’ patterns,” says Duffus. “That must have been quite a sight for men in the lookout tower at Chicamacomico, and throughout North Carolina, to see a ship coming up the coast that had such an avant-guard painting scheme.”
Duffus also lays to rest a lingering rumor about the Mirlo’s demise – namely that it was a mine, and not a torpedo, that sunk the British tanker. It was a theory that was generated by the U.S. Navy soon after the event, and which lingered for decades after the Mirlo ’s demise.
“That has been a misrepresentation over the years,” says Duffus. “Part of the historian’s responsibility is to take a [false] statement like that and find out how and why it was made.”
“I found it remarkable that the Navy would say Capt. Williams [of the Mirlo ] said the ship was torpedoed, but that they think he was wrong, and it was a mine… I suspect that in 1918, the Navy might have thought it was better from a public relations perspective that the American public thought ships were sinking because of mines versus torpedoes… Mines could be removed easily through the technology available at the time, but it was hard to combat U-Boats.”
There’s other unique and surprising tidbits of information that surface for the first time in Duffus’ new book, but a reader will be focused and fascinated by the remarkable series of events as they quietly enfold. With perspectives from the British sailors, the Chicamacomico crew, and even the German submarine commanders themselves, the story effortlessly weaves together an event that still lingers in people’s memories – especially those who lived through it.
The new book, which will be available in early July, has already received accolades from folks who have devoured the roughly 68-page story.
“All too often, history is reduced to a simple chronological ordering of events, usually with a strong political or socio-economic focus,” writes Joseph Schwarzer, Director of the North Carolina Maritime Museum System in the book’s first page.
“Admittedly, such studies are important and frequently provide dynamic insights and perspectives on our shared human past. However, Into the Burning Sea is something more than a record of events. Kevin Duffus has a remarkable gift for injecting a genuine humanity into the story he tells…
“The crew of Mirlo , Keeper John Allen Midgett, the surfmen of Chicamacomico, the respective families, all come into focus and remind the reader these are real people with names and faces, hopes and fears. Consequently, the chronicle of the amazing events of that long-ago day in August become even more engaging and inspirational. It is an extraordinary tale well told.”
And perhaps best of all, the sheer heroism of the six men who traveled through crashing waves and a sea of fire to rescue 42 people comes across crystal clear, and will inspire folks who are both familiar and unfamiliar with the Mirlo’s legacy.
“The lifesavers of the Outer Banks are certainly a very unique breed of people, especially in today’s world where society seems to honor and revere sports figures, movie stars, and reality TV personalities,” says Duffus. “Sometimes when sports figures do something remarkable, they are said to have performed a heroic act. But they are in no way heroes – not in the way that the Life-Saving Service or U.S. Coast Guard was, and not in the way that all of today’s first responders, EMTs, and law enforcement personnel are now. Those people perform heroic deeds every day.”
“Those six men had no reason to believe they would ever come back to the beach, nor did their families who stood on the beach watching them,” he adds. “What these guys went through was probably unmatched in history of lifesaving, and the public needs to be reminded that these are the true heroes.”
More Information on Into the Burning Sea and Author Kevin Duffus:
Into the Burning Sea – The 1918 Mirlo Rescue and the Spirit of Dauntless Devotion to Duty will be available for sale in early July at Buxton Village Books in Buxton, and at the Chicamacomico Historic Site in Rodanthe.
Author Kevin P. Duffus is an award-winning filmmaker, researcher, and investigative journalist of historical events. In 2002, he solved the 140-year-old Civil War mystery of the lost Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Fresnel lens.
He is also the author of War Zone—World War II Off the North Carolina Coast; The Lost Light—A Civil War Mystery; The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate; Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks—An Illustrated Guide; and The Story of Cape Fear and Bald Head Island. He was named the 2014 Historian of the Year by the NC Society of Historians.