In a service whose mission includes rescuing lives in peril, it’s hard to pick and choose legends among so many heroes. The Coast Guard’s history is filled with ordinary men who rose to the challenges presented by extraordinary circumstances. Here is a list of 13 folks who embodied the Coast Guard ethos:
1. Douglas Munro
The ultimate hero of the Coast Guard is arguably Douglas Munro. As he commanded a group of Higgins boats at the Battle of Guadalcanal, Munro coordinated the evacuation of more than 500 Marines who came under heavy fire, using his boat as a shield to draw fire. During the evacuation, he was fatally wounded, but his last words were, “Did they get off?”
2. Thomas “Jimmy” Crotty
Lt. Thomas “Jimmy” Crotty was the first Coast Guard prisoner of war since the War of 1812 and served at the front lines of the Battle of Corregidor as the Japanese took the Philippines. A 1934 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy where he was an accomplished athlete, Crotty served as an skilled cutterman before being attached to a Navy mine warfare unit. After several different positions in the Pacific Theater, Crotty found himself attached the Marine Corps Fourth Regiment, First Battalion, as the Japanese forces attacked the last American stronghold. One eyewitness report says that Crotty supervised army personnel manning a howitzer dug-in until the American surrender on May 6, 1942. Crotty was captured by the Japanese and taken to Cabanatuan Prison, where he died of diphtheria.
3. William Flores
On January 28, 1980, the USCGC Blackthorn collided with a tanker in Tampa Bay, Florida. Seaman Apprentice William Flores, just eighteen years old and a year out of boot camp, stayed on board as the cutter sank, strapping the life jacket locker open with his belt, giving his own life jacket to those struggling in the water, and giving aid to those wounded on board. He was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard’s highest non-combat award, the Coast Guard Medal.
4. Ida Lewis
After her father had a stroke, Ida Lewis took over as the keeper of Lime Rock Lighthouse, Rhode Island. Over her 39 year career, Lewis saved 18 lives. She was one of the earliest women in the Lighthouse Service, which later was combined with four other services to become the Coast Guard. Lime Rock Light has since been renamed Ida Lewis Light, and a coastal buoy tender was named in her honor.
5-8. Bernie Webber, Andy Fitzgerald, Ervin Maske, and Richard Livesey
The rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton in the icy waters offshore of Chatham, Cape Cod, Mass. had been a legend told by generations of Coasties. Bernie Webber, Andy Fitzgerald, Ervin Maske, and Richard Livesey climbed aboard a 36-foot-long motor lifeboat and saved the lives of 32 sailors after their tanker split in half during a storm in February 1952. For their heroism, the crew received the Gold Lifesaving Medal and their heroic efforts were immortalized in the Disney movie, The Finest Hours.
9. Nathan Bruckenthal
Petty Officer Nathan Bruckenthal is one of the modern Coast Guard heroes. In April 2004, Bruckenthal and a team including Navy and Coast Guard personnel intercepted a small dhow in the North Arabian Gulf. As they attempted to board, one of the terrorists aboard detonated a bomb that was powerful enough to overturn the American vessel alongside, wounding several of the men. Bruckenthal later died from his injuries, the first Coast Guard war casualty since the Vietnam War. He is interred in Arlington National Cemetery.
10-12. David Jarvis, Ellsworth Bertholf, and Samuel Call
David Jarvis, Ellsworth Bertholf, and Samuel Call snowshoed more than 1,500 miles to Point Barrow, Alaska to rescue hundreds of fishermen who were trapped in ice after winter came early in 1897. During the three months it took them to reach their destination they engaged with native communities along their route, healing illnesses, teaching more effective hunting techniques, and arbitrating legal disputes. For their heroism, the trio received Congressional Gold Medals. All three have Coast Guard cutters named in their honor.
13. Miles Imlay
Captain Miles Imlay commanded a group of Coast Guard landing craft at the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, as well as during all other major amphibious landings across the shores of Europe in World War II. Imlay was the second in command of one of the groups that landed at Omaha Beach and under constant, heavy fire, commanded a vessel off the beaches during the entire invasion to make sure that the landing craft went to the correct location. He received a Silver Star for his actions on D-Day, and the Legion of Merit for invasions in Italy.