Four generations of the descendants of Captain John Allen Midgett Jr., Keeper of the Chicamacomico Station during the famed Mirlo rescue, visited the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras on Friday to get a sneak peek at a new exhibit honoring this local legend.
Capt. Midgett led one of the most dramatic rescues in maritime history when his six-member crew successfully rescued 42 out of 51 sailors aboard the British Tanker Mirlo , after it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on August 16, 1918.
The unprecedented rescue in a literal ocean of fire earned the crew accolades from all over the country, as well as the world. Across the pond, King George V of the United Kingdom struck six special medals for the crew members – the only six medals of its kind in existence – and the British Board of Trade gave a singular Silver Loving Cup to Capt. Midgett for his heroism.
This cup, which is wholly one-of-a-kind, was temporarily donated to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum by the Midgett descendants for the exhibit, despite having a special role for generations in their own family.
“This cup was used to christen all the members of our family,” says oldest living great-granddaughter Anita Dunn, who personally delivered the cup to the museum. “It’s very special to us.”
The four generations who watched as the cup was placed in its display case included Anita, as well as great-great-granddaughter Tiffany Drake, great-great-great-granddaughter Hailey Drake who is 2.5 years old, and Capt. Midgett’s oldest living granddaughter, Nora Elizabeth Roadcap.
Nora, along with her younger brother, lived with her grandfather and family in Chicamacomico, and remembers him fondly as a typical grandpa – and not necessarily the hero that everyone else in the world envisions.
“The station was within walking distance of our house,” she says, “and my grandfather would tell me ‘whenever you need a nickel, just go into my office and look in the Washington Capital [statue] and there’s plenty in there for you.’”
Nora made at least one trip to his office at the station to reach into the small replica of the Capitol Building to take a nickel, while showing great restraint by leaving the other coins behind.
Nora also recalls that Capt. Midgett was very generous when it came to presents.
“Whenever he went to Washington D.C., which was often, he would always give us hugs and say ‘I’ll be back with something for you!’” she says. “My brother and I were the only grandchildren in the home, and we ate it up.”
It was on a trip back from Washington D.C., and after Capt. Midgett had stopped in Norfolk to get Christmas presents for his family, that he was struck by a vehicle in Currituck County. He was sent to a hospital in Norfolk where he passed away on February 9, 1938.
But his legacy certainly carried on, while family stories still linger in Nora’s memory, and have been passed along through the generations.
On the night of the Mirlo rescue, a number of the British tanker’s officers stayed with Capt. Midgett and his family, where they were treated to a big dinner of beef hash and homemade biscuits.
“To this day, we still eat beef hash and biscuits – it’s become a tradition,” says great-granddaughter Anita.
“When he was at the office, he would tell me to come in and sit in a chair, and would say ‘you can watch me work,’” says Nora. “He was just a good grandfather… He was more on the quiet side, and he never made a special point about what he was doing-”
“- He just did it,” adds Anita.
The Midgett family has deep roots in the Life-Saving Service and later Coast Guard, and family folklore adds surprising layers to the familiar stories of the life-saving station crews. Anita remembers how her uncle once told Nora about rowing out to surfacing German U-Boats, and chatting with German soldiers who would pop up out of the hatch.
“The [surfmen] in the boat would just talk with them for a little while,” she says. “My uncle said they were actually very friendly.”
When granddaughter Nora was young, she would catch glimpses of the German U-Boats through a lighted window in her home – despite being advised, (along with the rest of the community), to turn off all the lights and close the shades, for fear the passing enemy vessels would identify the coastal town on the edge of Hatteras Island.
“We just wanted to take a quick look,” she says.
Because stories like these were simply a part of their family fabric, John Allen Midgett Jr. just seemed like a normal grandfather or great-grandfather while the descendants were young – not the hero that is more commonly portrayed in modern stories and history books.
Still, there were some perks to being a Midgett, like when Anita got to ride on the Dare County float at the age of 12 at the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for the first Bonner Bridge in 1962.
“My grandmother put me in a white sailor’s suit, because it fit, and she helped cut the ribbon for the Bonner Bridge,” she says, noting that her position on the float gave her a great view of the proceedings. “After the ribbon was cut, there were a few floats [on the edge of the bridge], and I got to wave to the crowd.”
On Friday, the museum had a relatively light wave of visitors, and the four generations of women admired the display and took advantage of the opportunity to hold their family’s christening cup again. Two-year-old Hailey seemed especially interested in the silver cup, and a little hesitant to let the still-glittering chalice go so that it could be placed back in its custom-built stand.
The very photogenic Hailey may have recognized the cup, as her family has posed for pictures with it before. In one family photo, her mother Tiffany held the cup, while her husband, a Senior Chief in the Navy, stood behind them in full uniform. “He looked a lot like John Allen in his uniform,” said great-great-granddaughter Tiffany, “so it was very appropriate to have the cup in the picture.”
The Midgett descendants are planning to make additional trips to Hatteras Island in the near future, as the community readies for the big centennial celebration of the Mirlo rescue.
And while Hailey might not know why her great-great-great-grandfather is so important just yet, like the rest of the family, it’s something she’ll certainly figure out as time goes on.
“When we were young, we knew that he had done some good things, or we may have seen his name on a plaque, but it wasn’t until we were older that we knew who he was [to the community],” says Anita. “To us, he was just a grandfather or great-grandfather, and he was a good one.”