Uniforms honoring the legacy of the historic Pea Island Life-Saving Station will be worn by the Coast Guard Academy’s football team in four games during the 2021 season.
The academy, located in New London, Connecticut, released the “Station 17” look on Tuesday which will debut when the Bears host Nichols for Homecoming Weekend (0’s and 5’s) this Saturday at Cadet Memorial Field.
Pea Island Life-Saving Station was the first life-saving station in the country to have an all-black crew, and was the first in the nation to have a black man, Richard Etheridge, as commanding officer.
The station was located not far from the New Inlet area between Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe, where a bridge dedicated to Capt. Etheridge now stands over the section of Pea Island breeched by Hurricane Irene in August 2011.
The U.S. Life-Saving Service was formed in 1871, a precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard, created by Congress to assure the safe passage of American and international shipping and to save lives and salvage cargo.
Station 17 was manned by a crew of seven, and bore the brunt of this dangerous but vital duty.
The United States Life-Saving Service was a United States government agency that grew out of private and local humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners and passengers. It began in 1848 and ultimately merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the United States Coast Guard in 1915.
A former slave and Civil War veteran, Etheridge, the only black man to lead a lifesaving crew, was appointed Keeper of the Pea Island Station. He recruited and trained a crew of African Americans to man Station 17 after the already in place all-white crew refused to serve under him.
Benjamin Bowser, Louis Wescott, William Irving, George Pruden, Maxie Berry and Herbert Collins made up part of this team and formed the only all-black station in the nation.
Although civilian attitudes towards Etheridge and his men ranged from curiosity to outrage, they figured among the most courageous surfmen in the service, performing many daring rescues from 1880 to the closing of the station in 1947.
The Outer Banks were known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of the rough seas.
The Pea Island crew saved scores of men, women and children, who, under other circumstances would have been considered the hands of those reaching out to help them, to be of the wrong race.
In 1896, when the three-masted schooner E.S. Newman breached during a hurricane, Etheridge and his men accomplished one of the most daring rescues in the annals of the Life-Saving Service. The violent conditions had rendered their equipment useless.
Undaunted, the surfmen swam out to the wreck, making nine trips in all and saving the entire crew. This incredible feat went unrecognized until 1996, when the Coast Guard posthumously awarded the crew the Gold Life-Saving Medal.
From the time of Etheridge’s assuming command in 1880, Pea Island was staffed by African Americans until the station was closed in 1947, after which the area became a wildlife refuge.
On August 3, 2012, the second of the Coast Guard’s 154-foot Sentinel-Class Cutters, USCGC Richard Etheridge (WPC-1102), was commissioned in his honor.
Etheridge was the first African American to hold the rank of keeper of a life-saving station. This meant that, under the racial standards of the times, the entire crew under his command would have to be black. A
lthough other black men had served as surfmen at Pea Island and other stations, Pea Island Station came to be manned entirely by a black keeper and crew. The other LSS stations, in North Carolina as well as throughout the nation, would be manned and run by whites.
Five months after Etheridge took charge, arsonists burnt the station to the ground.
Etheridge served as the keeper at Pea Island for twenty years. In January 1900, as Orville and Wilbur Wright were planning their voyage to Kitty Hawk to experiment with human flight, Etheridge, at the age of 58, fell ill and died at the station.
Pea Island continued to be manned by an all-black crew through the Second World War. The station was decommissioned in 1947. One of the last surviving surfmen to serve at the station, William Charles Bowser, died at age 91 on June 28, 2006.
Herbert Collins, who served in the 1940s and put the locks on the station when it was closed, died Sunday, March 14, 2010.
In 1996, the Coast Guard awarded the Gold Life-Saving Medal posthumously to the keeper and crew of the Pea Island station for the rescue of the people of the E.S. Newman. Etheridge and his family are buried at the Pea Island Life Saving Station memorial on the grounds of the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.
Coast Guard will wear the Station 17 uniform four times this season on both Homecoming Games (Sept. 18 and Oct. 2nd), on the road at Catholic on Oct. 16, as well as the Secretaries’ Cup matchup against Merchant Marine on Nov. 13.