As Americans, we can proudly say that our country has a very rich history. We can go even further to also state that our country’s military has an equally lucrative past. From the current war in Afghanistan time traveling as far back as the Civil War between the Confederacy and the Union, the
United States military has a very decorated and detailed story. With the more well known facets defending our country today such as the Marines, the Army, the Air Force and the Navy all leaving their imprint in U.S. history, many Americans are unaware that their military actually has a fifth branch. With its official creation coming during the year 1790 with Alexander Hamilton founding the Revenue Cutter Service, the United States Coast Guard has many stories that have taken place since then. One very important but hardly told story is that of the surfmen that manned the Pea Island rescue station off the coast of North Carolina.
The Allan Smith documentary, Rescue Men, tells this tale about Pea Island, which was the first lifesaving station that was run completely by African-Americans. The keeper of the station, Richard Etheridge, was also the first black commanding officer in the Life-Saving Service. A former slave as well as a former Buffalo soldier in the Union during the civil war, Etheridge was taught by his master to read and write despite it being illegal for a slave to possess these skills. During his stint as keeper of the Pea Island station, Etheridge put his crew through vigorous training and drills to keep them ready and able to do their job. The crew, which consisted of Benjamin Bowser, Louis Wescott, William Irving, George Pruden, Maxie Berry and Herbert Collins was handpicked by Etheridge and completed countless rescues from 1880 to 1947, despite the dislike for the fact they were all black from other stations all along the coast. The most memorable and miraculous rescue took place in the year 1896 during the night of October 11th.
A schooner, the E.S. Newman, was caught in a hurricane and needed assistance getting its crew ashore. The storm proved so bad that the Pea
Island crew were incapable of launching a surfboat to assist them. Therefore, two of the surfmen swam out to the distressed vessel and one by one brought back every member of the ships crew safely. For their unparalleled bravery, the captain of the Newman presented the Pea Island surfmen with the side of the sunken vessel that bore its name. The Coast Guard posthumously awarded the crew with the Gold Life-Saving Medal in 1996 for their acts during that fateful night as well as years of unprecedented service rendered at the Pea Island Station.
This film, based on a book written by David Zoby and David Wright entitled Fire on the Beach, who also helped produce the film, is truly a running testament to the legacy of these seven men. Shining a bright light on the Pea Island station surfmen, the documentary not only does a great job of giving a detailed background on the stations crew but also helps the audience to realize the merit and many accomplishments of our nation’s smallest military branch. It also provided a chance for North Carolina locals to shine having citizens lend their talent as the voice overs for the film instead of Hollywood professionals. With aspects such as this, the film gives back to the Pea Island area in more than one way.
This film should not only remind those of us in the Coast Guard of an actual great event within our service but also instill a personal sense of pride in knowing that you literally are a part of a great history just by donning the U.S. Coast Guard uniform. It also reminds all of us that none if us, military or not, should never let negative ideas such as racism or hate for any reason hold anyone back from accomplishing great things. You never know who might just be there to pull you out of the water. I award this film with “5 unexpected life savers out of 5”.