Heroes who prove the Coast Guard kicks ass!

Happy 229th Birthday Shipmates

Phil Briggs
August 02, 2019 - 4:06 pm
Coast Guard Station Humboldt Bay 47-foot Motor Lifeboat crews conduct surf training near the Humboldt Bay Channel, California

Coast Guard photo by Aux. William Greer


Since 1790 when the oceans swell and storms rage, the service members that risk their lives to save those in danger, are the Coast Guardsman of the United States Coast Guard (USCG).

On August 4th the USCG turns 229 years old, and over the years our maritime brothers and sisters have made America proud with fearless rescue missions, dangerous drug takedowns and operations that ensure our shores are defended against enemies, come hell or high water.

So here are a few legendary people and moments that demonstrate just how badass our Coasties really are:

The man who saved a thousand souls

The most decorated life saver in American history- US Life Saving Service Keeper Joshua James

When it comes to heroes few stories rival that of Joshua James.  A coastal Massachusetts resident born in 1826, he sadly witnessed the death of his mother who was returning from Boston in 1837. As described in the Coast Guard Compass, the official Coast Guard blog, “Ten-year-old Joshua watched from shore as the vessel approached the anchorage through treacherous Hull Gut. Only one-half mile from the harbor, a sudden squall threw the vessel on its side filling it with water. To Joshua’s horror, the boat sank and took his mother and sister to their deaths. Unable to rescue them, young James resolved to prevent the same fate from befalling others, and to do all he could to save those at the mercy of the sea.”

He would learn every aspect of being a waterman and in 1847 James became a volunteer with the Massachusetts Humane Society (MHS), an organization that would later become the U.S. Life Saving Service, and eventually the Coast Guard.  Over the years James would launch surfboat recovery missions, saving hundreds of lives near the busy port of Boston. According to Coast Guard historian Dr. William Thiesen  “It occurred many times throughout his life, as many ships headed for Boston passed by his life-saving station in Hull, Mass … Also happening more and more in that era, was that many immigrants were coming to America in ships in less than seaworthy condition.  As a result lifesavers, like James, had a lot of business.”

Joshua James and crewmembers of the US Life Saving Service

In fact, Thiesen explained that European immigrants dying off our coasts became a huge problem, “Eventually Congress had to step in because too many lives were being lost. The newspapers were showing on their front pages all of the carnage that was taking place, so as a result people like James and members of the newly founded U.S. Life Saving Service became great heroes, receiving many Gold Life Saving Medals.”

During the Great Storm of 1888, James led his crew in rescuing people on multiple shipwrecks over 24 straight hours. “He manned the tiller of a surfboat that responded to multiple shipwrecks all night and into the daylight hours.  He must have been running on pure adrenaline,” said Thiesen.  An unprecedented feat of physical strength, for a sixty-two-year-old man.  For this rescue, James received the MHS Gold Medal as well as the United States Gold Lifesaving Medal. James is the only man to receive both gold medals for one rescue.

US Coast Guard Keeper Award

He continued on into his seventies explained Thiesen. “He would eventually die after a training mission where after stepping off a surfboat, he collapsed onto the beach and uttered his famous last words, ‘The tide is ebbing’. (A term which means the tide is going out) His whole life was dedicated to saving the lives of others up until his final breathe.”

Like the tide cycle that ended that day and returned to the ocean, so did the heroic life of Joshua James. But the 500-1000 lives he saved in the late 1800s went on to create an untold number of future American generations.

The day the Coast Guard Saved the Marines

According to the Coast Guard Compass “It may surprise some that the Coast Guard had a major combat role in World War II and that a Coast Guardsman was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Coast Guard actions – and those of Douglas Munro were crucial to evacuating hundreds of Marines to safety that day.”

Douglas Munro received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Guadalcanal

The Battle of Guadalcanal started in 1942 and was the first battle in the Pacific. Coast Guardsmen at Guadalcanal manned many of the Higgins boats which were used to transport Marines between ships and beaches.

Signalman Douglas Munro led the boats that delivered Marines (including a young Chesty Puller, a Marine who would later become a General and one of the most respected Marines in the history of the Corps) to undertake a mission behind enemy lines. After Marines called in that they were being ambushed by Japanese forces and sustaining heavy casualties, Munro volunteered to lead the flotilla back to extract them. “He successfully removed all the Marines including the wounded off the beaches,” explained Thiesen. “Then in a final rearguard action Munro covered the last of the boats as they were leaving with suppressive machine-gun fire from his landing craft, and he was killed by an enemy sniper.”

Thiesen described his legacy as, “the embodiment of the Coast Guard’s core values which are Honor, Respect and Devotion to Duty.”

A painting of Douglas Munro and his heroic actions that saved Marines at Guadalcanal

The "Finest Hour"

In the winter of 1952 a ferocious Nor’easter pounded New England with howling winds and seventy-foot seas. Two oil tankers were caught in the violent storm off Cape Cod, its fury splitting the massive ships in two. Back on shore, four young Coast Guardsmen accepted the mission to save the lives of the seamen left stranded by the killer storm, but they had to do it in a lifeboat.

Coast Guard legend Bernard Webber

The crew was led by Bernie Webber, who had to rely on prayer and the courage of his three crew members to pull off the impossible. As Webber and his crew sailed into the teeth of the storm, each man came to the realization that he may not come back alive. They lost all navigation and had no idea where the stranded seamen were.  Whether by sheer luck or divine intervention, the crew stumbled upon the wounded ship in the darkness. More than thirty men appeared at the railings of the SS Pendleton, all hoping to be saved. Webber and his crew maneuvered the 36-foot lifeboat under Pendleton's stern with expert skill as the tanker's crew, trapped in the stern section, abandoned the wreck of their ship on a Jacobs ladder into the Coast Guard motor lifeboat.

The story was eventually made into the movie "The Finest Hours" starring Chris Pine, Eric Bana, and Casey Affleck.

Pioneer of the Coast Guard and Civil Rights

When asked to describe Dr. Olivia Hooker, Thiesen said, “She a trailblazer.  Not only was she the first African American woman to don the Coast Guard uniform,  but she continued to break color barriers in her field after the service.”

Dr Olivia Hooker, Coast Guard pioneer

Above: Olivia Hooker (front) with Aileen Anita Cooks (behind) on the USS Commodore during basic training in New York. 

After basic training, Hooker proved to be an outstanding administrative professional known as a Yeoman in the Coast Guard.  She headed to Boston where she performed administrative duties, assisting the soldiers returning from WWII and eventually advanced to the rank of Yeoman Second Class in the Coast Guard Women's Reserve. By June 1946, the SPAR program was disbanded, but Hooker by then had earned the rank of petty officer 2nd class in the Coast Guard and was awarded a Good Conduct medal.

She would continue to blaze a trail in education earning a Masters degree from the Teachers College of Columbia University and eventually joined Fordham University as a senior clinical lecturer and an APA Honors psychology professor.  She ascended even higher into the medical community when in 1961 she received her PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Rochester with the ending of her dissertation on the learning abilities of children with Down syndrome.

“She didn’t retire until she was 87 years old,” explained Thiesen. “She not only served her country, but she served her community. Again she lived up to the core values of the Coast Guard, Honor, Commitment and Devotion to Duty, in such a great way.”

Maritime Intercept Hero

Petty Officer 3rd Class Bruckenthal, a damage controlman, and two U. S. Navy sailors were killed in the line of duty while conducting maritime intercept operations

On April 24, 2004, while serving as part of Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia aboard USS Firebolt, Petty Officer 3rd Class Bruckenthal, a Damage Controlman, and two U. S. Navy sailors were killed in the line of duty while conducting maritime intercept operations in the North Arabian Gulf. Bruckenthal and six other coalition sailors attempted to board a small boat near the Iraqi Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal. As they boarded the boat, it exploded. Bruckenthal later died from the wounds he sustained in the explosion.

Bruckenthal was the first Coast Guard member killed in action since the Vietnam War.

For his actions, Bruckenthal was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V”.

Badass of the Year Award

We don't even have words to describe just how much respect we have for this Coastie. The viral video released by the U.S. Coast Guard, shows a crewman of the Cutter Munro (WMSL 755)  jumping onto a self-propelled semi-submersible suspected drug smuggling vessel (SPSS) and pounding on the hatch. Eventually, the crew recovered 17,000 pounds of cocaine. 

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Munro offloads more than 39,000 pounds of cocaine and 933 pounds of marijuana
USCG Matthew Hillborn

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Munro offloads more than 39,000 pounds of cocaine and 933 pounds of marijuana worth a combined estimated $569 million at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, July 11, 2019.

The Long Blue Line

"I wouldn’t say anyone joins the Coast Guard to be heroes,” said Petty Officer Lauren Laughlin, United States Coast Guard Academy Public Affairs Officer. “I think the fact we join proves there is a long blue line.  We have a history of being self-sacrificing. If you ask most ‘Coasties’ why they joined they’ll say the humanitarian mission. They’ll say things like ‘I want to save lives, I want to help others’. So after all of our training and all the work, maybe sometimes a little hero does come out.  But I don’t think anybody actually calls themselves one.”

An MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew from Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay conducts search and rescue training in the surf off the coast of Somoa Dunes Beach, Calif
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Aux. William Greer

To our shipmates who sail into the storm, charge at danger and are there for us during and after every disaster, we salute you, United States Coast Guard.

Happy 229th Birthday … Semper Paratus!

Want to get more connected to the stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Follow Phil Briggs @philbriggsVet or contact phil@connectingvets.com