Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Commemorates a Triumphant Rescue
One of most harrowing rescue operations in Coast Guard history occurred just over 100 years ago off the coast of North Carolina. On August 16, 1918, 51 men were sailing aboard the British tanker, Mirlo as it passed near Hatteras Island. This 6,997-ton ship was transporting as much aviation fuel as the ship could hold on a north-bound route to England when misfortune struck and the vessel was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Through a series of chain-reaction explosions, the ship was ablaze in flames and was ultimately torn in half.
The Mirlo’s men were able to evacuate into three available lifeboats. Sadly, one of those boats overturned its 15 passengers into the gasoline and fire infested waters. Only 6 of those sailors managed to hang onto the capsized boat. Another lifeboat couldn’t be properly steered because it was too heavy with its human cargo. Those 19 men were powerless as the boat drifted into the infernal and smoky environment that was overtaking the sea. The third lifeboat, carrying 17 men, fared a little better and was able to escape the blaze.
The clouds of smoke were seen by Leroy Midgett, the lookout, at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, which had recently become part of the U.S. Coast Guard. Led by the station’s keeper, John Allen Midgett, 6 brave surfmen went to the aid of the Mirlo’s men on a motor-powered surfboat. The surfmen had to endure several obstacles before they even reached the wreckage. First, they needed to haul the boat almost a quarter-mile to the coast using horses, line and carts. Then, they had to get their boat past the rough breaking waves—which required four attempts. Finally, they were on their way to the Mirlo and reached the only lifeboat that had cleared the flames. After learning that there were crews in 2 other lifeboats that needed help more urgently, the rescuers proceeded on to find those in greater peril. The surfmen cut their engine and paddled into the intense smoke and heat to search for the missing men. First, they found the overturned lifeboat, and rescued the 6 remaining sailors from the treacherous waters that were slicked in gasoline. Finally, they came upon the overcrowded lifeboat that had drifted into the flames. While the men in that boat bailed water, the surfmen were able to attach a line to the floundering vessel and haul it to safety.
Once the Mirlo’s men had been towed to an offshore location that was away from the flames and noxious smoke, the surfman returned to land and delivered the 6 men they had plucked from the top of the capsized lifeboat to safety. In the darkness of night, and while battling pure exhaustion, the men of the Chicamacomico Coast Guard Station returned to the sea on two more occasions to bring the remaining men from the Mirlo to shore.
Many exact details relating to the story of the Mirlo rescue have been debated over the years. However, in the end, 42 of the Mirlo’s original 51 sailors survived—though many had been burned—due to the heroics of Chicamacomico’s Coast Guardsmen. The British government recognized the Americans’ bravery and presented each man a Victory Medal. The United States also awarded these men Gold Lifesaving Medals and the Grand Cross of the American Cross of Honor for their valor. The British Board of Trade awarded the station a silver cup.
Visit the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe to see artifacts from the Mirlo rescue including the actual surfboat—No. 1046—that saved 42 men as well as some of the equipment used during the rescue. Browse photographs and learn more about the people involved with the Mirlo rescue. Descendants of some of the surfmen have contributed personal artifacts to the Mirlo exhibits. The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station is one of the oldest and most accurately restored Life-Saving Stations in the nation. It’s a fascinating destination with interesting displays and engaging reenactments. The station is open Monday through Saturday with paid admission. Learn more at Chicamacomico.org.