Main colors at ceremony: stripes, medals Coast Guard rescuers honored on King's day

January 16, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN STAFF

The old men of the Pea Island Coast Guard station told William Bowser that he could find a future serving his country, that one day, if he could wait, the color of his skin would no longer be a barrier to the golden stripes and brass medals that would adorn his smart blue uniform.

But the young Coast Guard seafarer did not have the patience to wait it out on a lonely outpost in the center of North Carolina's Outer Banks. He had suffered so many slights, cut bait for too many officers, been barred from too many boating competitions, shined too many shoes.

Sixty years after a bitter, young African-American quit the Coast Guard, he returned yesterday to mark the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay. It was, Bowser acknowledged, a sad but triumphant occasion.

"This is what those men predicted in the 1930s, when I left Pea Island," the 82-year-old said, gazing at a crowd of black and white faces in the Coast Guard Yard's gym. "And I regret the day I didn't listen."

For a morning, the sprawling Coast Guard complex forgot the racial divisions that still haunt the nation and marked the progress -- however imperfect -- that has been made since King was born 69 years ago.

In the audience of the red brick gym, black workers sat with white ones. Gold stripes and colorful ribbons festooned the uniforms of black and white officers alike. Maryland's two U.S. senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both white, flanked the U.S. secretary of transportation, Rodney Slater, who is black.

"You represent the essence of Dr. King's dream," Slater told an appreciative crowd.

Memorializing Pea Island

One black man, Stephen Rochon, deputy commander of the Coast Guard operational center in Baltimore, used the event for his platform, to memorialize the Pea Island Life Saving Station. The all-black rescue station, once about 30 miles north of Cape Hatteras, has become Rochon's passion.

It was at Pea Island that Bowser served and that Lt. Herbert Collins of Olney, another African-American, began his 32-year Coast Guard career. Collins' father, Marshall, was one of the Pea Island veterans who counseled Bowser to stay and wait out America's intolerance. Bowser refused to listen, but Herbert Collins heeded the advice.

Collins also remembered the slights of segregation, when his duties revolved around making officers' bunks and shining their shoes. But he stayed, ultimately earning the honor of decommissioning the Pea Island rescue station in 1947 and then moving up the Coast Guard ranks until retirement.

"I didn't volunteer to go," said Collins, 77. "They sent my retirement orders in the mail. I think they were trying to tell me something."

But these days, in Coast Guard circles, Pea Island has grown famous not for the heroism of Collins' brand of endurance but of a more traditional sort of bravery: the rescue of nine souls nearly lost in an 1896 shipwreck.

The story of the rescue unfolded like a revelation to Rochon when, in 1989, he was asked to speak at the Coast Guard's first celebration of its African-American history. Pea Island was never meant to be an all-black unit. It was just that when Richard Etheridge, an able seaman, was named commander of the Pea Island rescue station in 1880, the white surfmen fled. Etheridge was black. The surfmen -- the rank-and-file of the Life Saving Service, the Coast Guard's predecessor -- refused to serve under his command.

Etheridge remained with a corps of black surfmen willing to take his orders, and 16 years later, on the night of Oct. 11, 1896, his leadership was put to the test. The schooner E. S. Newman, captained by Sylvester Gardiner, blew 100 miles off course from its route from Rhode Island to Virginia. In a driving rain and hurricane-force winds, the Newman ran aground on a sand bar and splintered in the surf.

Surfman Theodore Meekins saw the flare and alerted Etheridge, but strong tides and sweeping currents made it impossible to use their boats. Instead, the two strongest swimmers on Pea Island lashed themselves together and swam through the breakers and whitecaps with a life line. One by one, over six hours, all nine aboard were brought safely to shore -- including the captain's wife and 3-year-old daughter.

That year, Rochon noticed, Coast Guard officers at other stations were honored for dragging drowned bodies from the deep and for trying but failing to save shipwreck victims. But not a word of official commendation was given to Etheridge and his men, for nearly a century.

After Rochon made the rescue his crusade, the Coast Guard acted. In 1996, all seven crewmen of the 1896 brigade finally received their Gold Lifesaving Medals posthumously.

Message for today

In the story of Pea Island heroism, Rochon has found a message for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, one where judgment lies in the content of one's character, not in the color of one's skin.

"When the strong black hand of Theodore Meekins reached out to grab the desperate white hand of Capt. Sylvester Gardiner, it was just one individual reaching out to another," he said.

For Bowser, King's lessons are found not in history books but in the multiracial crowd that gathered around him at the Coast Guard gym to shake his hand after the ceremony.

"There were Negroes who had been in that [Pea Island] station for 20 years. They had knowledge running out of their heads, and they still had nowhere to advance," he remembered. "Now, there's no more black and white. At least it's not predominant. Who cares if you're black or white or Chinese or what? It's what you can do."

Yesterday during the Coast Guard ceremony, that seemed to be so.

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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