From The Independent, Elizabeth City, N.C., Feb. 13, 1920. Images from https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/2018/08/tlbl-mirlo-rescue/, “The Long Blue Line: Mirlo Rescue—the Coast Guard’s baptism of fire!"
Sea In Flames Didn’t Stop ‘Em. . . Heroism of North Carolina Surfmen Told in Thrilling Episode of the World War
The following account of the saving of the crew of the British steamer Mirlo by Keeper John A. Midgett and his surfmen of the U.S. Coast Guard Station No. 179 is taken from the December number of Our Navy, the standard publication of the United States Navy. It is a tale of heroism unexcelled in the annals of the world war, and it shows unforgettably the courage and disregard for their own safety which characterizes the surfmen in their work of saving lives. The Mirlo was a big British tanker which was torpedoed by a Hun U-boat off the North Carolina coast in August 1918. Here is the story:
Down on the coast of North Carolina, where a narrow chain of “shoe-string” islands throws its protecting cordon far out to sea, one may, after careful search on any complete map of the Carolinas, find a little place named Rodanthe. Rodanthe is situated on the Northern end of one of the ”shoe-string” islands, where the waters of Pamlico Sound go out through Loggerhead Inlet and join forces with the mighty Atlantic.
Rodanthe is inhabited by Midgetts. But these Midgetts are not midgets. They are real he-men, red-blooded and steel nerved, for they form the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Station Number 179.
It will be recalled that in the month of August 1918, a more or less powerful fleet of Teuton submarines operated along the coast of North Carolina, causing great excitement and unrest among the inhabitants of that State in general and Hatteras Banks in particular. Heavy gunfire was often heard far out at sea and many times defenseless passenger ships were pursued into the very coast ports. On several occasions ships were shelled and sunk by the twentieth century pirates.
While the Navy was out trying to run down the deep-sea Huns, the Coast Guard, a part of the war-time Navy, was standing silently, vigilantly at its post. Through the long watches of the night Coast Guard Station 179 kept its trained eyes out upon the Atlantic, hoping that their work would not be found necessary. For the work of the Coast Guard is to SAVE life; not to take it.
On the morning of August 16th, the lookout reported a large steamer heading to the Northward. A few minutes later he added that a large sheet of water had shot up high into the air, completely enveloping the stern of the ship. Immediately the vessel, the British steamer Mirlo, swung about and headed straight for the beach. The deep-sea Hun had found another victim. The Mirlo, had, without warning been struck by two torpedoes. The Teuton aim was good that morning in August, both torpedoes doing heavy damage. Bulkheads and cofferdams were carried away. The entire ship was enveloped in a mass of flames and heavy explosions could be heard at Rodanthe 10 miles away.
The submarine dropped back out of possible range of such guns as might perchance be brought to bear. In characteristic Hun style the U-boat laid to, gloating over what appeared to be an appalling loss of life, for the Mirlo had been carrying a cargo of gasoline and refined oil and she was not a mass of flames. The explosions threw the burning oil far out upon the angry waters and the sea around the Mirlo was a seething mass of flaming oil and burning wreckage. The chances for escape form the Mirlo were small indeed for in addition to the danger from fire and flame, a heavy sea was running. It looked as though there would be fine gloating for the hirelings of Von Tirpitz. But “Gott” was not “mit” the Kaiser that morning. They had reckoned without the U.S. Coast Guard and its crew of “Midgetts” at Station No. 179. Keeper John A. Midgett called his crew, including the liberty men, to their stations, and they started out into the turbulent waters by power surfboat. A heavy Northeaster was blowing and the sea was breaking heavily. Again and again the boat was tossed back upon the beach. She was like a cockle-shell in the mighty hands of King Neptune. Time and again the drew was washed away from the oars but again and yet again, with the bull dog determination, they returned to what ordinary men would have abandoned as a hopeless task. But the Coast Guard is the Coast Guard and, like Kipling’s Crew of the Bolivar “They euchred God Almighty’s Storm and bluffed the Eternal Sea.” Oblivious of their own danger, obsessed by the Coast Guard’s motto to “save the lives of the men who go down to the sea in ships” the boar, with the Stars and Stripes defiantly whipping in the storm, finally managed to clear the beach and with engines thrumming and propellers racing at full speed, headed for the burning mass that had once been the good ship Mirlo.
When within a few miles of the wreck, the coast Guard boat met one of the ship’s boats emerging from the ring of flame about the Mirlo. This boat contained the Captain and 16 members of the crew. The skipper reported to Keeper Midgett that two more boats were inside the burning cordon and that one of the boats had capsized. The men of the Coast Guard, accustomed to fighting the heaviest of storms, were about to be introduced to the task of fighting a combination of sea, wind, smoke and fire. They did not hesitate. Into the seething volcano they sped. They saw the Mirlo go down to her doom like some gigantic Fourth of July skyrocket. A roaring hiss, a sheet of spurting flame and the Huns boasted another addition to their already long list of allied tonnage. But the Coast Guard’s duty was to prevent them from increasing their list of martyrs of the sea. From the center of a roaring mass of flame the Coast Guard men heard, mingled with the roar of the sea, faint cries for help. Burning wreckage floated about the boat. The heat was terrific. Huge clouds of choking black smoke hung low over the water. Everything seemed to be against the Coast Guard crew. But they made straight for the mass of flame. Said one of the men afterwards, “It seemed to me as though we were steering straight into the mouth of Hell.” The flames seared and singed them but they kept on. Finally they came upon a capsized boat. Six exhausted men were clinging to the keel of the tiny craft. Heavy seas washed over them. Flames lashed about them. They were about to give up the unequal fight. With no little difficulty the six survivors were hauled into the surfboat. They reported that there must be others from the Mirlo but that they were very likely dead, as it had been necessary many times to dive under the water in order to avoid the burning oil and wreckage. The Coast Guard boat kept up its search and, after cruising about in the inferno for some time, the third boat, containing 19 men, was sighted. The boat was overcrowded to the extent that the men could not row. She was shipping water and rapidly filling. The boat was drifting with the wind and sea and was fully nine miles south of Rodanthe when signed by the surf-boat. The surf-boat took the over-loaded ship’s boat in tow and started for the beach. They soon overhauled the first boat, containing the Mirlo’s Captain. The Midgett’s crew now had 42 men in tow, in addition to their own Coast Guard crew. Night was rapidly falling, the last glaring flares of the burning oil standing out like gigantic candles in the enveloping darkness. The wind was increasing form the northeast and the sea was breaking upon the beach. The 42 men were saved but the problem now as to land them through the boiling surf. Once again the Coast Guard was found on the job. Keeper Midgett anchored the two ship’s boats about 600 yards off shore and proceeded to land the shipwrecked crew in the station’s surf-boat. Four round trips were made, in this work the crew of Station 180 assisting the original rescuers. Back again and again they went, into the darkness of the sea, returning with their precious cargoes of human life, until the last of the Mirlo’s survivors had been safely placed upon the beach, where each was given medical attention for burns and bruises. America’s sterling benevolent associations came to the rescue with warm clothing, supper and a place to sleep. The next day they were sent to Norfolk on the U.S.S. Legonia, while the Captain of the Mirlo left via seaplane A-765. Great Britain can enter in its great ledger, to the credit of the U.S. Coast Guard, “42 lives of British sailormen.” The Hun submarines can enter the same as a loss on the wrong side of profit and loss sheet.
Keeper John A. Midgett, Number One Surfman, Zion S. Midgett, Number Three Surfman, Arthur V. Midgett, Number Five Surfman, Prochorus L. O’Neal, Number Six Surfman, Clarence E. Midgett, and Number Eight Surfman Leroy S. Midgett received the following commendation: “You are commended for the rescue of the crew of the British steamer Mirlo, blown up August 16, 1918. The vessel’s cargo of gasoline and refined oil ignited and spread over the surface in the vicinity of the vessel with a mass of fire and smoke. The sea was very heavy and quantities of wreckage contributed to the difficulties of the rescue. The spirit of dauntless devotion to duty displayed by you and the members of the crew on this occasion is in keeping with the highest tradition of the Coast Guard and it is desired to express to you unqualified commendation of your gallant efforts in the interest of humanity.”
What do you think of the “Midgetts” inhabiting the strip of islands on the Carolina Coast? Midgets in name, giants in point of service and value to humanity. Such are the men of the Coast Guard.