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Operation Rescue

Recovering Richard Etheridge and his Pea Island "surfmen."


If you were traveling by ship along the Eastern seaboard in 19th- century America, you would be traveling America's busiest commercial and passenger sea lane. And if you were off North Carolina's Outer Banks, you would be traveling America's most dreaded sea lane -- one that mariners had come to call "the Graveyard of the Atlantic," site to some 650 lost ships driven by winds, stranded on shoals, and broadsided by waves until splintered to bits. Lost too: captains, their crews, and their passengers, who could neither swim (thought at the time to prolong drowning) nor survive the currents and cold water whose depths could go from 125 fathoms to just two in only a few yards.

If you were traveling between 1881 and 1900 close to North Carolina's Pea Island coast, however, you were also being watched -- by a team of six "surfmen" under the direction of their "keeper," Richard Etheridge. Etheridge and crew, members of the U.S. Life-Saving Service (or LSS, a precursor of the Coast Guard), would have been patrolling their lonely, narrow, six-mile stretch of beach 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on foot over wet sands in every type of weather on the lookout for ships at sea and in distress. When they sited such a ship, Etheridge and his men sprang into action.

From Station 17, their home away from home nine months out of the year, away from wives and families, they hauled, in addition to a "surfboat," a "beach apparatus" drawn by mules and weighing half a ton. Once the cart was within proper range of the stranded ship, the crew, with military precision, unloaded the Lyle gun (itself weighing 250 pounds), loaded its barrel, prepared the shot (a 20-pound projectile with a whip line attached), removed hundreds of yards of rope from its "faking" box, erected a wooden support for the rope, and dug a two-and-a-half-foot pit in which to plant an anchor. Elapsed time: five minutes or under, according to the countless drills the keeper conducted on a constant basis. When all was ready, Etheridge commanded "Fire!" and the projectile was launched on a trajectory quickly calculated to meet the wreckage site. His men then sent a pulley device along the line, then a hawser with a "breeches buoy" attached. One crew member climbed into the buoy, and the remaining crew, rope to shoulder, worked relay-style, front to rear, to pull the buoy to and from victims of the wreck.

Those saved and brought to shore on this stretch of Pea Island were lucky. Their lives had been in the hands of the most disciplined crew in the LSS. The keeper of that crew, Richard Etheridge, a former slave, a former Union soldier in the Civil War, had trained them, all of them African Americans, to be nothing less. Their story is told, and told fully for the first time, in a fascinating book called Fire on the Beach (Scribner).

"We were first-year grad students in Virginia," author David Wright says when asked how he and his college buddy and coauthor, David Zoby, first learned of Richard Etheridge, "a tremendously competent military leader," Wright adds, "and tremendously competent surfman," Wright enthusiastically adds. (Documents back Wright on both counts.)

A decade ago, Zoby was going for his MFA in poetry. He'd grown up in Virginia and spent summers with his family on the Outer Banks. He thought he knew the history of the Outer Banks. Wright was getting his MFA in fiction, with a side interest in cultural studies, African-American studies in particular.

"David came across a photograph in the North Carolina Aquarium with a caption that read 'Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Surfmen,'" Wright explains. "He had no idea this crew existed and he didn't know much about the Life-Saving Service. He came back to school and asked me if I knew anything about it. I'm from West Texas. I didn't even know where the Outer Banks were! But we started poking around and found that almost nothing on Etheridge had been done. And what little was out there was wrong.

"We were told there were no documents on Etheridge, that they didn't exist. We'd have to do an oral history if we did anything. We knew Etheridge had to be the central figure, but even the Coast Guard magazine, which had carried an article about Pea Island in the '30s, talked about Etheridge as being 'free,' as being part Native-American, not a former slave. But his whole involvement in the Civil War ... it opened up for us the whole story, including Reconstruction. I was expecting to tell a sea tale. It turned out to be a social history. It was ideal. A black unit with a black leader saying, in effect, we are in charge of our own destiny."

Despite the years, Wright knows that that "ideal" story is still news to most Americans. He draws this comparison:

"Ask any schoolchild about the Pony Express and they can tell you everything about it. But the Pony Express existed for only 13 months. The LSS, which 100 years ago was tremendously important and a famous bit of our culture -- you could open up Scribner's Monthly or Harper's Weekly and there would be stories on surfmen -- now no one knows anything about them. But the Pony Express really fit into the American mythology of the West, the cowboy. Whereas these guys in the LSS were out on isolated stretches of coast, walking the beach, and if they were doing their job well, they weren't doing much. Plus, from 1915 until the stations were decommissioned after World War II, there were few famous rescues. Ships were metal-hulled, motorized. You had radar, radio. The rescue crews just faded from the public eye."

Not from the eye of Alex Haley, a former Coast Guardsman himself and a speaker at the christening in 1992 of a cutter named Pea Island. Wright and Zoby have since been instrumental in petitioning the Coast Guard for formal recognition of Etheridge and his crew, who outdid themselves in bravery when, on October 11, 1896, they succeeded in rescuing every member from the wreck of the downed ship the E.S. Newman.

On March 25, 1996, the Coast Guard did finally recognize the Pea Islanders of Station 17 and awarded them posthumously a Gold Life-Saving Medal. That medal went to them collectively, however, not individually, as citations of merit normally do. Was this a means for the Guard not to dredge up "bad history," a history that Fire on the Beach reveals to have been as rife with racial and political conflict as anywhere in this country at the time and as it continued to be into the next century? Maybe so, but the ceremony was "a wrong made right" in the eyes of a descendant of one of Etheridge's men and a surfman himself from 1935 to 1938: William C. Bowser III.

Wright and Zoby already intend a sequel to Fire on the Beach, one that carries the history of the Life-Saving Service on past Etheridge's death in 1900 and into the 20th century. And for that, the coauthors know they've been fortunate to have Bowser still to talk to.

"The Virginia Pilot had done an article on Mr. Bowser, who lives in Norfolk," Wright says. "In 1993, we called him from Richmond and introduced ourselves as young men who were interested in Pea Island and maybe interested in doing a book. Mr. Bowser said, 'I've been waitin' for ya. I'm an old man. Hurry.'

"It sent chills down our spines. We borrowed a car and drove down to Norfolk that weekend with a tape recorder. We found his house and knocked on his door. No answer. We were thinking, This is not possible. So we go around to the back. There was a ladder, and we didn't dare walk under it. We knocked on the back door. No answer. Then we heard a voice from the roof: 'Hey! You must be the Davids.' It was Mr. Bowser. A gale had come through and blown the shingles off his roof. He was 77 years old, and he was up there reshingling it himself. He had great stories to tell. He introduced us to other folks. Since then they've all passed except for Mr. Bowser, the last of the black Outer Bankers to be raised a Pea Island surfman. It's his legacy. But, as Mr. Bowser said, by the 1930s, 'We had the equipment and we knew how to use it. But we and the equipment were like museum pieces.' Horrible to say, but he said he'd had a desire to 'have' a shipwreck. The chance to go out there and serve. Technology, though, had passed him by."

You say you're from West Tennessee but you've heard of the Outer Banks, you're interested in its beaches, its storms, life there as lived? You're interested in 19th-century sea traffic up and down the Eastern seaboard? Sea disasters and the mechanics of dying, the mechanics of saving a life? Coast Guard history? African-American history? The Civil War? Reconstruction? The "progressive" view of segregation, shared by whites and blacks alike, before the advent of Jim Crow? Just plain heroics? Read Fire on the Beach, social history at its readable best. Meet coauthor David Wright when he's in town on October 12th. You'll be remembering the 105th anniversary, almost to the day, of the saving of the E.S. Newman crew by the crew of Life-Saving Service Station 17, Pea Island, North Carolina. You'll be honoring a keeper, a man by name of Richard Etheridge.

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