Rescue Men: The Story of the Pea Island Surfmen

by Owen James Burke

“They were peaceful men, battling not only stormy seas, but waves of unimaginable hostility, saving the lives of many who fought to keep them slaves.”

Before there was a coast guard, merchant ships, explorers and other travelers by sea faced its horrors alone.  Of course, there was no GPS, VHF, or Doppler radar to follow, only sights and sounds, which often meant that it was too often too late to save oneself anyhow.  “Rescue Men” tells the story of the Pea Island Surfmen, who risked everything to save imperiled seafarers along Pea Island and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, an area that became known as “the graveyard of the Atlantic” for vessels and sailors alike.

After the Civil War, the United States turned its attention to an increasing number of casualties at sea and began a national lifesaving institution.  Socially elite white males were appointed positions as lead watch-keepers, but stations were left unmanned and responsibilities were often passed onto predominantly lower ranking African Americans (without pay).  Station inspectors from the north observed the lack of commitment among these leaders and appointed Richard Etheridge, an African American man, as the keeper of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station.  The white men at the station immediately resigned, refusing to face the indignity of working underneath a black man.

Etheridge, now without crew, hand-chose his own all-African American team and trained them “for excellence”.  Amidst threats, scorn, and even having their station burned down, the Pea Island Surfmen heroically and selflessly gave their lives while performing maritime rescue missions that were not previously imaginable.  The unprecedented nobility and courageousness of these men and their services at sea resides in the legacy of what is today, the United States Coast Guard. — OJB

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