BACKGROUND TO EVENT DEPICTED—“MIRLO RESCUE”
German submarines crossed the Atlantic in the late spring and summer of 1918 to carry the war to the coastal waters of the United States. The first vessel to arrive was U-151, the first enemy fighting ship to invade our waters since the War of 1812. After mining the entrances to Chesapeake and Delaware bays, she headed for the shipping lanes off the Outer Banks. In the period, June 5 to 9, she sank four ships off Currituck and Mage Head. Having disposed of his mines and most of his torpedoes, ammunition, and fuel the captain of U-151 turned eastward and began the long voyage back to his base at Kiel.
Four other U-boats crossed the Atlantic before the end of hostilities to add to the toll taken by U-151. Two of these submarines operated off the coast of New England, concentrating on sinking the small vessels of the fishing fleets, while U-117 and U-140 cruised off the coasts patrolled by surfmen of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Coast Guard Districts.
U-140 commanded by Fregattenkapitan Waldemar Kophamel departed from Germany, June 22, and reached the waters off the Virginia Capes in early August. The U-boat sank her first victim on this side of the Atlantic on August 4—the 10,000-ton tanker O.B. Jennings was sent to the bottom, 60 miles southeast of Cape Henry. Within the next 48 hours, three additional vessels (the schooner Stanley M. Seaman, the steamer Merak, and the Diamond Shoals Lightship) were sunk by U-140.
On August 8 the submarine attacked the Brazilian passenger steamer Uberaba. This time however, a United States destroyer, U.S.S. Stringham, was nearby and picked up the Brazilian’s call for help. For a time it looked to the 250 passengers on board Uberaba as if they were doomed, for the U-boat gained steadily on the slower steamship. But Stringham soon appeared over the horizon and, screened by the steamer, the “four-piper” darted out and attacked U-140 with shellfire and depth charges.
Shortly thereafter, the destroyer sent a terse report of the engagement, “Enemy submarine sighted….Dropped fifteen depth charges….Escaped undamaged.”
The message from Stringham may have meant that she and the steamer had escaped damage, but if it referred to the submarine it was in error. For U-140, in a crash drive to 300 feet, was rocked by a depth charge; her lights went out, seams opened and water gushed in and for a time the raider of the deep, by then more than 400 feet beneath the surface, was unman-ageable. The Germans finally regained control of their submarine and U-140 moved toward the open sea, surfacing the next morning. She then proceeded as rapidly as possible back to her home base in Germany. (1)
Captain John Allen Midgett and his Chicamacomico surfmen knew that ships were being sunk off the Outer Banks by submarines. In the days following the loss of the Diamond Shoals Lightship, they were especially watchful. On August 10 after U-140 had started for the “Fatherland” and before U-117 had arrived off the North Carolina coast, Surfman No. 5 P. L. O’Neal, who had the noon to sunset watch in the tower, reported an unidentified steamer hove-to, six miles northeast of the station, and displaying a signal asking assistance. “Captain Johnny” called out all hands at 12:50, and Motor Self-Bailing Surfboat No.1046 was pulled to the beach and launched through “moderate” breakers. Coming alongside the ship, the Coast Guard found that she was the Japanese steamer Shakamo, bound from Norfolk to the west coast of South America with a cargo of coal.
The master told Captain Midgett that he had been told to run in close to shore to avoid a submarine said to have been seen off Cape Hatteras earlier in the day. He asked Midgett if his current anchorage were safe. “John Allen” replied that he did not “consider him safe from submarines anywhere along the coast.”
Seeing that many United States ships were passing up and down the Hatteras coast, the skipper of Shakamo decided to hoist anchor and continue his voyage. At 4 P.M. the ship resumed her run south.
The lifesavers returned to the station with No. 1046 at 5:30 P.M. As soon as the crew was back, Cook J.E. Herbert signed out on liberty. (2)
While U-140 was sinking O.B. Jennings, Stanley M. Seaman, Marak, and the Diamond Shoals Lightship, a sister, Kapitanleutnant Droscher’s U-117 was en route across the North Atlantic. The submarine arrived off the coast of New Jersey on August 12, and during the next 48 hours she sank three vessels, two by torpedo and one by gunfire. Kapitanleutnant Droscher on the 15th pointed his U-boat toward the southwest. At daybreak on the 16th U-117 was off the Outer Banks.
While she was running on the surface at 6:30, the lookouts sighted a steamer and two smaller ships. Droscher ordered the crew below, and the submarine submerged. The Germans maneuvered their craft so as to attack the steamer. Studying the vessels through the periscope, Droscher saw that the steamer was zigzagging. The two smaller vessels both of which displayed the United States flag were large “motor boats.” The steamer which he estimated at 1,500 tons, was too far away, so the raiders of the deep determined to let her go.
As soon as the ships were out of sight, the U-boat surfaced. A course was set for Wimble Shoals Light Buoy. The submarine by 12:50 was near the light. A smoke cloud was Sighted, and once again U-117 dived. Holding his vessel at periscope depth, Droscher saw that the steamers were on a course parallel to Hatteras Island. They were too far off to attack, however.
With Wimble Shoals Light Buoy in sight, the Germans at 1:30 began laying mines. This work was interrupted, when a steamer was sighted. Droscher tracked the ship. She was about four sea miles away, and her course would take her between the mines and the buoy. Moments later, a second ship came into view, she likewise was about four miles away. Droscher, glued his eye to the periscope, and watched. The two ships were on a course which crossed in front of U-117. Droscher resolved to attack with torpedoes the first ship sighted, a loaded tanker, which he estimated to displace 2,500 tons. One of the tanker’s masts was bright; the other was painted black. This made her course difficult to plot.
At 3:30 Kapitanleutnant Droscher had the tanker lined up on his forward torpedo tubes. When Droscher gave the order, a torpedo was fired from the No. 1 tube. The range was 400 meters, and the torpedo was set at 3 meters. There was an explosion as the torpedo struck the tanker.
After the attack, Droscher turned his vessel toward the south and made a run toward the buoy. As the submarine moved along, holding a depth of 20 meters, she resumed setting mines.
When he next brought U-117 up to periscope depth, it was 5:30. Droscher saw that the tanker was still burning, great clouds of black smoke belched upwards. At a distance of two sea miles, the Germans sighted what they thought was a second steamer, likewise on fire. Unknown to the officers of U-117, the tanker had broken in two, and what they had seen were the bow and stern of the same ship.
A number of small steamers were observed by Droscher, as he swept the ocean off the Hatteras coast with his periscope. One of these vessels was on a course that would bring her dangerously close to the lurking submarine. Before the Germans could attack, an aircraft was sighted, and U-11 crash dived to 30 meters.
The airplane had left the area and all was clear at 7:30, when Droscher again brought U-117 up to periscope depth. All the mines having been laid across the shipping lane, the Germans planned to operate against merchant shipping off Cape Hatteras. But Droscher was compelled to set a course for Germany, for he learned from his chief engineer that fuel was beginning to run short, as one of the oil tanks had sprung a leak. (3)
The tanker torpedoed by U-117 off Hatteras Island was the British ship Mirlo of 6,997 tons, with a crew of 51. She had taken aboard a full cargo of oil and gasoline in New Orleans, Louisiana. Merlo’s master was William Roose Williams, a veteran of many years on the bridge. Casting off on August 10, Mirlo headed down the Mississippi and out into the Gulf of Mexico. She rounded the Florida Keys and started up the east coast toward New York Harbor. Despite the absence of the Diamond Shoals Lightship, which had been sunk by U 140 on August 6, she passed Cape Hatteras in safety shortly after noon on August 16 and held a course parallel to Hatteras Island.
At this hour, the wind was light and from the northeast, the sea comparatively calm. When opposite Wimble Shoals Light Buoy, the torpedo fired by U-117 struck the ship. A terrific explosion rocked the tanker, wrecking the engine room and putting the lights and wireless out of commission. Captain Williams ordered his lifeboats made ready for lowering and attempted to beach his ship (4)
Surfman No 8 Leroy Migett had the watch in the Chicamacomico “lookout” the ex-serviceman recalled that usually the day watches were from 6 A.M. to noon and from noon to 6 P.M. But recently the watches had been changed, and Midgett had the duty in the tower from 6 till 6. (5)
There had been a storm offshore, and the ocean on the 16th was still rough. About 2 P.M. a steamer passed approximately nine miles east of the station. A study of her course satisfied Midgett that she was on the Norfolk to Florida run.
Shortly thereafter, an unknown force drew Midgett’s gaze toward the southeast. As he swept the ocean toward the Diamonds with his binoculars, he sighted a “white cloud” coming up. Within a few minutes, as the newcomer held a course parallel to Hatteras Island, Midgett saw that she was a big tanker going at full speed. White “waves” could be seen to each side of the bow. Like in the old saying, Midgett continued, “She had a bone in her throat.” (6)
As the ship approached Wimble Shoals Buoy, she changed course and headed to the northeast. Moments later, at 4:40 o’clock, there was an explosion abaft the tanker’s amidships. “A great mass of water shot up in the air.” The geyser seemed to cover the after portion of the steamer, which Midgett estimated to be about six miles east, southeast of the station.
Moments later, a cloud of white smoke boiled up from the after part of the ship, and was carried to the southwest by the light breeze then blowing. Since German submarines had been active off the Outer Banks, Surfman Midgett believed that the tanker had been torpedoed.
The tanker continued to bear to port, she completed a circle around the buoy and headed offshore. Flames suddenly shot “up from the stern of the steamer,” and a second explosion was clearly heard by the surfmen and villagers. All the while, the stricken tanker continued to bear to port, the smoke pouring out her side changed from white to black. Just as Mirlo was completing a third circle, there was another explosion. This time she broke in two, and the bow drifting to the northeast and the stern to the southwest. (7)
At the first explosion, Leroy Midgett from his post in the “Lookout” had called down to “Captain Johnny” that a ship had been torpedoed. Keeper John Allen Midgett at the first alarm called out all hands, including the man on Liberty. The crew was ordered to the stables to harness the team. Within three minutes, the horses had been harnessed, driven to the station,and hitched to the McLellen Boat-wagon which carried Motor Self-Bailing Surfboat No. 1046.
The 600 yards separating the station from the beach were covered at a trot. Arriving at the beach, the Coast Guardsmen lifted No. 1046 off the cradle and waded into sea. As they hurried about their duties, the lifesavers found that there was an offshore wind from the northeast, and the breakers were rolling in.
Villagers who had rushed to the beach helped Captain John Allen and his people shove-off. The sea was so rough (The breakers were 18 to 20 feet high.) that the surfboat soon filled to the gunwales, and the lifesavers had to return to the beach. As soon as the boat had been drained, it was launched, but again the breakers were too much, and she was waded back to the beach. This happed a third time. On the fourth try to get away from the beach, Captain John Allen and his crew made it through the surf. After clearing the breakers, they put away their oars and the engine was cranked. Although the ocean was still rough, it was nothing like the breakers. When No. 1046 finally cleared the beach and headed for the burning wreck, “Captain Johnny” checked the time: it was 5 P. M. (8)
While the Coast Guardsmen were making preparations to put to sea, a second explosion shook Mirlo and Captain Williams, having given up all hope of beaching his ship, called for the lifeboats to be lowered away.
The first boat to be manned was commanded by 2nd Mate J. Burns. Besides the mate, there were 14 sailors in the small boat. Burns’ boat fouled the stays and capsized, but the seamen, thrown into the ocean by the accident, all managed to gain the overturned boat and hung on. The other two boats got safely away. The starboard lifeboat commanded by 1st Mate F. J. Campbell immediately got under way and “made efforts” to rescue the men from Burns’ boat. While endeavoring to get to the men, there was an explosion and the gasoline and oil floating on the surface caught fire.
Captain Williams was in the port lifeboat. As he recollected this put the fire between his boat and the one commanded by 1st Mate Campbell. The fire was so close, the captain reported, that “we were almost burning and it was only by the strenuous efforts on the oars that we managed to save our lives, the fire following us within a few feet for half an hour at least. The captain believed that conditions were so terrible that it would be impossible for the other lifeboats “to have got clear.”
By the time that they were “clear of the fire,” the men in Captain Williams’ boat were exhausted. Though suffering from shock and burns, the captain called for the sailors “to lay on their oars.” Standing up in the craft, Williams looked about “with a view to going back and attempting to rescue or look around for” 2nd Mate Burns’ boat. On doing so, he “sighted a boat On the horizon coming toward us.” As the newcomer came nearer, Captain Williams and his people saw that she was a power self-bailing surfboat from the “life-saving station on shore.” (9)
Motor Surfboat No. 1046 was about five miles offshore, when she encountered the lifeboat with Captain Williams and 16 of his men. Captain John Allen, as his boat chugged along, threw his trumpet to his lips and hailed the lifeboat, asking if those aboard wanted assistance.
Williams asked the Coast Guardsmen “to go to the rescue of one boat capsized and one boat intact with part of my crew in it.” The captain told the lifesavers that ‘if they could see an opening in the fire to go into it,” as he believed the missing boats cold be found there.
Before pushing on, Captain John Allen Midgett told Captain Williams “not to get too close to the beach as the surf was bad.”
Williams replied that he would “keep off” until the lifesavers returned, or till someone put out from the beach in a boat to assist.
The survivors in the port lifeboat watched the surfboat enter the burning sea. Within a few minutes, smoke and flames hid the lifesavers from view. (10)
Approaching within several hundred yards of the stricken tanker, the lifesavers saw that she had broken in two—about 75 feet of water separating Mirlo’s bow and stern. Since the bow was nearer, “Captain Johnny” steered for it.
Barrels of gasoline aboard the ship were exploding, and as each detonated, sheets of flame flared at least 100 feet into the air. The surface of the ocean between the surfboat and the bow was covered by burning gasoline and oil, while a great pillar of black smoke rolled upward. As the craft approached the sinking ship, Leroy Midgett thought he glimpsed a U-boat’s periscope. (11)
No. 1046 circled the wreck, coming up on the lee side, where Captain John Allen Midgett found an area free of burning oil and gasoline. Between two giant pillars of fire, when the smoke cleared a little, the lifesavers sighted an overturned lifeboat, she was near the bow—about one-fourth mile now separated the two sections of Mirlo. The heavy swell was washing over the craft. Captain John Allen and his men, because of the smoke and fire were unable to make out any survivors.
Men react differently when confronted by an emergency. Without a moment’s hesitation, Captain John Allen Midgett turned No. 1046 toward the blazing sea. Considerable difficulty was encountered in running the motor surfboat “through the smoke, floating wreckage, and burning gas and oil.”
As the surfboat chugged along on an easterly course, the smoke and flames formed an arch. One of the Coast Guards sighted a man clinging to the top of the lifeboat. Coming closer, the men from Chicamacomico could see other survivors hanging to the lifeboat’s gunwales. (12)
The sailors clinging to the sides of the lifeboat were themselves covered with oil, their clothes and their hair singed. Only by remaining under water as long as breath would hold out, then coming up again for a hurried gasp of air and submerging once more, were they able o remain alive; even so, nine of them disappeared, leaving six still holding onto the overturned boat. (13)
Coming alongside in the surfboat, “Captain Johnny” and his men snatched six exhausted, burned and blackened sailors from the jaws of death. The heat from the fire was so intense that it scorched and blistered the paint on the rescue boat. It was “hot country,” Leroy Midgett recalled. (14)
As soon as the last man had been pulled aboard, Midgett skillfully piloted his boat out of her precarious position.
Examining the survivors, the Coast Guardsmen saw that all had been burned, but none seriously. The sailors told Captain John Allen Midgett that to escape death that “many times they had to dive under the water.” They told the lifesavers that “they had seen some of their crew sink and disappear in the burning sea, and that they were sure that none were afloat except those in the lifeboats.” Nevertheless, Captain John Allen and his crew continued to search the vicinity of the sinking for survivors. No more were found, so he concluded that the nine missing had “perished and sunk in the burning sea.
The six sailors knew nothing of the whereabouts of the other lifeboat. They had lost sight of her in the fire and smoke rising from the burning gas and oil. “Captain Johnny” headed No. 1046 before the sea and wind in hope of locating the missing lifeboat. Within a short time, the third boat with 19 men aboard was sighted.
Only the rising wind, and resultant high waves, had kept alive the six men clinging to Burns’ lifeboat till the lifesavers had arrived; for though the gasoline and oil had stilled the water, there was sufficient wind and splashing water to keep the worst of the searing heat from them. The same wind, however, almost proved the downfall of the 19 men in 1st Mate Campbell’s boat. The craft was overloaded and so crowded that the men could not row, and she was drifting with the wind and sea. When observed by the lifesavers, Campbell’s lifeboat was about nine miles southeast of Chicamacomico. Overtaking the craft, No. 1046 came alongside, so that the lifesavers could pass a line aboard. After taking the boat in tow, Captain John Allen Midgett headed back toward the area where he had told Captain Williams to wait. (15)
It was starting to get dark, when Captain Williams and the men in his boat again sighted the motor surfboat; she was now towing one of “our lifeboats.” As the boats came nearer, Williams saw that “most of the crew of the upturned boat” had been saved. Taking cognizance of the number of men in No. 1046, Williams and his comrades, believing that all had been saved stood up and gave “a great cheer.”
Captain John Allen Midgett then hailed the survivors and announced that “a number of lives had been lost.” This depressed the sailors very much. (16)
Taking Captain Williams’boat in tow, No. 1046 headed toward Hatteras Island. Crowded into the two lifeboats were 36 survivors, while in the station boat were the lifesavers and the six men pulled from the sea.
When within two miles of Chicamacomico, the “wind began to freshen from the northeast, and the sea was rising on the beach.” It was now dark and for safety Captain John Allen Midgett decided to “make a landing.” The two ships’ boats were anchored well outside the breakers, while the lifesavers landed the six men picked up through the surf. Lifesavers on shore used powerful lights to illuminate the area. Upon reaching the beach, Captain Midgett and his people were met by the keeper and crew from Gull Shoal, who assisted in landing the survivors.
Captain John Allen Midgett and his men now headed back into the breakers. Utilizing a pass through the bar east of Waves, the lifesavers soon rendezvoused with the lifeboats. A number of the sailors were transferred to No. 1046 and landed through the surf. Four trips through the breakers were made by Captain Midgett and his people, before the last of the 42 men save from Mirlo were safely on the strand.
Surfmen were put into Mirlo’s two boats, which they brought ashore. As fast as the seamen were landed, they were taken to Chicamacomico Station by teams pulling carts from Chicamacomico and Gull Shoal.
The last of the survivors were landed at 9 p.m. Before allowing his men to secure, Captain John Allen Midgett saw that all boats were pulled up on the strand, so they would be out of danger from the sea. When Keeper Mdgett returned to the station and signed the log it was 11p.m. (17)
So far as Captain Williams could observe, Keeper John Allen Midgett and his people had conducted the operation “most skillfully.” Williams placed himself on record that the bravery and gallantry of those men was the means of saving all the crew that remained. “I also noticed, “ he wrote, that “the eyes of all the life saving crew were all bloodshot, which was caused by their getting so close to the fire as to be partly gassed and smoke into their eyes”
When they were put ashore, Captain Williams recalled, he and his men were in a terrible plight “with burnings and very little clothing on.” On their arrival at the station, the survivors were given first aid and had their burns dressed. Next, they were served hot coffee and food, and provided with clothing, furnished by the Blue Anchor Society and members of the Chicamacomico crew. The kindness and consideration of the lifesavers, Williams reported; “undoubtedly saved our men suffering from shock….”
“It appeared” to Captain Williams that Captain John Allen Midgett and his crew had “done one of the bravest deeds which I have ever seen by entering into the fdires as they apparently did, as it would have bveewn impossible for me only having oars and the exhausted state of the boat’s crew to have done the same.” (18)
After being fed, the survivors bedded down for the night. The next morning, August 17, the mariners were given breakfast, and at 9 a.m. U.S.S. Legonia anchored off the station. All the crew, except Captain Williams were placed aboard the ship, which sailed for Norfolk at 11:45 a.m. Captain Williams had left for the same destination at 10 a.m. on the seaplane A-765. (19)
On November 8, 1921, the British Government awarded Gold Lifesaving Medals for “Gallantry and Humanity in Saving Life at sea” to Captain John Allen Midgett, Zion S. Midgett, Arthur V. Midgett, Prochorus L. O’Neal, Clarence E. Midgett, and Leroy S. Midgett. At the same time, a silver cup awarded by the Board of Trade was given Captain John Allen. (20)
Nine years later, July 23, 1930, at a public meeting in Manteo, North Carolina, Grand Crosses of the American Cross of Honor were awarded to Captain Midgett and the other members of the crew of No. 1046. The medals were presented by Rear Admiral F.C. Billard, Coast Guard Commandant. (21)
(1) David Stick, Graveyard of the Atlantic (Chapel Hill, 1952), 193-204.
(2) Chicamacomico Log, Aug. 10, 1918
(3) Die Kriegstagebucher von U-117, 11 Juli-22 September, 1918, Das Militargeschichtliche Forschungsamt, Freiburg im Braisgau. Translations from the log by personnel Waterways Experiment Station, Vicksburg, Miss.
(4) Stick, Graveyard of the Atlantic, 204; Williams to Huastera Petroleum Co., Dec. 20, 1920. A copy of this report is in Capt. W. Williams’ Papers. The captain’s papers are in the hands of his son, J.E.R. Williams of Paignton, Devon, United Kingdom. Williams to Bearse (files, Vicksburg National Military Park).
(5) A study of the Chicamacomico Log for August 16 shows that Midgett was mistaken. Clarence Midgett had had the sunrise to noon watch, while Leroy Midgett had duty in the tower from noon to sunset.
(6) Taped interviews, Leroy Midgett with Historians Fred Roush and William Harris, March 26, 1959, and March 21 & April 15, 1963 (files, Cape Hatteras NS). Leroy Midgett was questioned by Historian Fred Roush on March 26, 1959, and by Historians Roush and Harris on March 21 and April 15, 1063, regarding his part in the Mirlo Rescue.” On all three occasions, he told a similar story.
(7) Ibid.; Report of Assistance, Chicamacomico Station, Aug. 16, 1918 (files, Cape Hatteras NS); Chadwick to Hdqrs., Aug. 16, 1918 (N.A., R. G. 26, Chicamacomico File 651).
(9) Williams to Huastera Petroleum Co. Dec.20, 1920 (files, Vicksburg NMP).
(10) Ibid.; Report of Assistance, Chicamacomico Station, Aug. 16, 1918 (files Cape Hatteras NS);.
Taped Interviews, Midgett with Roush & Harris, March 26, 1959, March 21 & April 15, 1963 (files, Cape Hatteras NS).
(13) Ibid.; Stick, Graveyard of the Atlantic, 204-205.
(14) Taped Interviews, Midgett with Roush & Harris, March 26, 1959, March 21 & April 15, 1963, (files, Cape Hatteras NS).
(15) Report of Assistance, Chicamacomico Station, Aug. 16, 1918 (files, Cape Hatteras NS).
(16) Williams to Huastera Petroleum Co. Dec. 20, 1920 (files, Vicksburg NMP).
(17) Ibid.; Report of Assistance, Chicamacomico Station, Aug. 16, 1918; Taped interview, Midgett with Roush & Harris, March 26, 1959, March 21 & April 15, 1963 (files, Cape Hatteras NS).
(18) Williams to Huastera Petroleum Co. Dec. 20, 1920 (files, Vicksburg NMP).
(19) Report of Assistance, Chicamacomico Station, Aug. 16, 1918 (files, Cape Hatteras NS); Chadwick to Hdqrs., Aug. 16 & 17, 1918 (N. A., R. G. 26, Chicamacomico File 651).
(20) (N. A., R. G. 26, File 073).