Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.
No Small Feat of the Midgett Lifesavers
It came without warning. Despite his crew’s vigilance on the waters surrounding the tanker, there had been no sighting of the hunter. At approximately three-thirty in the afternoon the S.S. Mirlo shuddered violently. A huge plume of water soared into the sky. A torpedo, Captain William R. Williams realized had struck his tanker’s aft starboard quarter. Immediately issuing orders to his First Mate F.J. Campbell, he needed to know how bad the damage was to his vessel and how his crew of fifty-one men were amidst the strike. Seconds later a second torpedo ripped into the stern section of the tanker. His helmsman tried to keep the tanker on course. Captain Williams ordered a distress message to be sent. The wireless operator reported that the equipment had been damaged in the attack. Reports from the crew were grim. The first torpedo had blown up several compartments. The second torpedo, which had struck further aft than the first, had set fire to the stokehold and engine room. It was only a matter of time before he would lose control of the tanker and mere moments before the flammable cargo of oil and gasoline would become a treacherous and deadly time bomb.
Despite his initial efforts to try and beach the stricken tanker, Captain Williams knew that his ship was mortally wounded and she had begun to sink. With fires raging throughout the ship and in the waters surrounding them, he knew saving the tanker was impossible. The safety of his men was his top priority and Captain Williams stoically ordered his men to abandon the tanker. The crewmen raced to their lifeboat stations and three boats were sent down the falls into the oily and fire swept waves. Captain Williams, aboard the forward port lifeboat, was successfully launched with six of his men. The second lifeboat however did not have such an easy launch.
As the second lifeboat was being lowered, the falls fouled in the tiller. The boat upended and the sixteen men aboard tumbled into the fiery water below. The boat crashed into the water and capsized. The men, under the direction of Second Mate J. Burns clung to the lifeboat as flames licked at their faces and hands. As the men scrambled to try and right the boat, the starboard lifeboat, under the command of First Mate F.J. Campbell, with eighteen other men, was lowered into the fire and flame filled waters. Consumed by the conflagration, Captain Williams and his men tried in vain to track the progress of the two other lifeboats. The thick black smoke and flames though had darkened their prospects. As fire continued to fan out across the waves, Captain Williams ordered his men to row harder so that they could escape near certain death from the flames and fumes. Suddenly, there was a horrific explosion. The S.S. Mirlo had broken into two sections. Fire continued to race across the oil-slicked waters. As the men in the first lifeboat offered prayers for their salvation and for their brethren shipmates, little did they know that the salvation they needed was already on its way.
As Captain Williams and his men fought for their lives amidst the wreckage and fire, their plight had been spotted by the Coastguardsmen ashore at the Chicamacomico Station. Coastguardsman Leroy Midgett was on watch and had noted the tanker’s northward course. As he peered through his binoculars, he suddenly saw a huge plume of water rocketing skyward. Seconds later an explosion emanated from the stern of the tanker. Black smoke and flames began to ravage the stern of the tanker. Midgett sounded the alarm and notified the keeper of the station, John Allen Midgett.
Keeper John Allen Midgett, the son of John Allen Midgett, Sr., the keeper of the New Inlet Life Saving Station on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, enlisted in 1898, at the age of 22, in the sandy footsteps of his father and others of the Midgett clan. Quickly rising through the ranks, he served as the keeper or Officer-in-Charge of both the Little Kinnakeet and Gull Shoal stations before taking command of the Chicamacomico Station. On August 16, 1918, he and his men would be severely tested.
Within moments, the Coastguardsmen sprang into action. Orders were methodically and urgently issued. In short order the horses had been harnessed to the McLellen Boat Wagon and the lifesavers headed to the beach to launch their self-bailing surfboat No. 1046. Time, all of the Coastguardsmen knew, was of the essence. Keeper Midgett and his fellow surfmen, Zion S. Midgett, Arthur V. Midgett, Clarence E. Midgett, Leroy S. Midgett and Prochorus L. O’Neal, watched the walls of waves, towering between eighteen and twenty feet in height, crashing onto the barren swath of sand. Despite the conditions, Keeper Midgett and his surfmen were going to the aid of the tanker and its men.
Three times, Keeper Midgett and his surfmen were rebuffed in their efforts to successfully clear the breakers. With the assistance of some of the townspeople, on their fourth attempt to brave the breakers, the surfmen successfully cleared the waves. Keeper Midgett told his men to secure their oars. The surfboat engaged its engine. The surfboat trudged toward the fire-engulfed tanker. Meanwhile, Captain Williams had ordered his men to row harder and further away from the tanker. A massive explosion rocked the tanker and within moments it was clear to Captain Williams and his men that the tanker had split into two sections. The waters surrounding the tanker were filled with flames and acrid smoke. Consumed by the conflagration, Captain Williams and his men were unable to find the other two lifeboats. The men rowed clear of the wreckage and fire.
Soon after, the surfboat was spotted on the horizon. Keeper Midgett and his surfmen came alongside the lifeboat. Captain Williams reported that they had been torpedoed twice and that two of the tanker’s lifeboats were not accounted for. Keeper Midgett ordered Captain Williams to head toward the safety of the strands but not to attempt to land. Conditions, Midgett explained, were treacherous. Once the surfmen had located the other two boats, he would return and get them safely ashore. As Captain Williams and his men began to row toward the coastline, Keeper Midgett and his surfmen raced onward into the oil-thick and fire-swept waters and wreckage to try and find the missing lifeboats and their sailors.
The surfboat was several hundred yards from the tanker when Keeper Midgett and his surfmen realized that the tanker had split into two sections. Amidst the intermittent explosions of gasoline barrels sending plumes of smoke and flames one hundred feet skyward, Keeper Midgett navigated closer and closer to the bow section of the tanker. He needed to find a break in the walls of flickering flames so that he could get closer to where he believed the lifeboats and the sailors might be trapped. On the lee side of the bow section of the wreckage Keeper Midgett spotted a small opening. He immediately steered closer to the ship. Suddenly, one of the surfmen spotted the overturned hull of one of the lifeboats. As they neared, a sailor was spotted on the hull and five others clinging to the gunwale. As the heat began to peel the paint off the hull of the surfboat, the Coastguardsmen maneuvered so that they could pull the oil-soaked sailors into the surfboat. Once the sailors were aboard, they reported to Keeper Midgett that nine others aboard the lifeboat had succumbed to the ravages of the fire and seas. Realizing that his window of opportunity was closing, Keeper Midgett piloted clear of the wreckage and encroaching flames on the wind-swept waters. His priority now was to locate the last lifeboat.
Despite the horrific conditions, Keeper Midgett was finally able to locate the last lifeboat. With nineteen souls aboard, the men had been unable to successfully navigate shoreward due to being completely overloaded. Keeper Midgett ordered a line sent aboard and the last lifeboat, under the command of 1st Mate F.J. Campbell, was taken in tow. The surfboat, heavy six souls from the overturned lifeboat, trudged through the oil-slick waters toward the first lifeboat. In short order, Keeper Midgett and his men rendezvoused with Captain Williams and the other survivors. Conditions along the shore were still treacherous. Though lights had been set up by fellow Coastguardsmen from the nearby Gull Shoal Station, the waves would make for a very dangerous landing operation. Keeper Midgett had a plan.
Transferring survivors into the surfboat in groups of ten or eleven men, Midgett would utilize the surfboat to land the forty-two survivors on the strand. Several trips were completed despite the walls of water crashing onto the beachhead. The operation took several hours but with several of the surfmen transferred to the lifeboats, all of the boats were landed successfully on the beachhead by nine o’clock that evening. Captain Williams and his men were provided fresh clothes, food, and succor at the Chicamacomico Station while the lifesavers, though exhausted by their rescue efforts, secured the horses and gear. The following morning, Captain Williams was picked up by a seaplane while his remaining crewmen were taken aboard the U.S.S. Legonia II for transfer to Norfolk, Virginia.
The heroic rescue of forty-two of the S.S. Mirlo’s officers and crew had added another legendary tale to the men of the Midgett surname and to the Coastguardsmen of the Chicamacomico and Gull Shoal Stations. Captain William R. Williams, in his official statement of the attack noted, “I could attach no blame to anyone for this disaster, and had it not been for the heroic manner in which the Coast Guard went in and out of the fire to rescue, the loss of life would have been much greater; and I take this opportunity to congratulate and thank them for their heroic work of rescue, and their kindness and attention to all after the rescue.” All of the members of surfboat #1046 would be awarded the service’s highest award, the Gold Lifesaving Medal, in addition to laurels bestowed upon them by the British Government. Sadly, less than one year short of retirement and during the Christmas holidays of 1937, Keeper John Allen Midgett was involved in an automobile accident. Despite his brave and fighting spirit, the injuries sustained in the accident led to his passing on February 9, 1938. Midgett had served for nearly forty-two years in both the United States Life Saving Service and in the United States Coast Guard.
The Midgett name is as synonymous with the rich history of the United States Coast Guard and its various predecessor services as Alexander Hamilton. From 1876 to 1972, seven of the Midgett family have been bestowed the nation’s Gold Life-Saving Medal for their heroism and bravery. On March 17, 1972, the United States Coast Guard Cutter John Midgett was commissioned. As the Hamilton-class cutters have been slowly retired, the legacy of the Midgett name continued to bedeck a cutter when the WMSL-757, Legend-class or National Security Cutter, was commissioned on August 24, 2019. The Midgett family like their brethren that serve our nation today in the United States Coast Guard, exemplified the true spirit of the service. As the United States Coast Guard marches forward, the present day contingent of Coast Guard members have only to look upon the rich legacy of the life savers of yesteryear to remain determined and emboldened to stand at the ready to launch into the din to ensure that others are saved by our nation’s sentinels and saviors of the seas.
Midgette, Don (LCDR, USCGR). “Captain John Midgett & The Mirlo Rescue.” www.ncgenweb.us/dare/photobios/mirlorescue.html.
“Otto Droscher” biography.
United States Navy. Naval History and Heritage Command. “U-117.” Washington, D.C.
United States Navy Department. Publication 1 – German Submarine Activities on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and Canada. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1920.