Lisa D Healy
winds and unruly seas, the crew of Coast Guard Station Cape Charles 41502 went
in search of a tugboat in distress last January. Officially, the crew of the
41-foot utility boat was not supposed to go out that day. But five Coast
Guardsmen, led by their officer-in-charge, volunteered for the mission of
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about heroes. It wasn’t long ago that the country met 45-year Navy veteran Rudy Boesch, long-recognized as a hero in the SEAL community, on the television show “Survivor.” There are more heroes around than most people realize, but because many of us are caught up in our date-book-dictated lives, we don’t often notice the heroic events that happen around us every day.
But many Coast Guardsmen and residents in Cape Charles, a town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, cleared their calendars for Aug. 30 to welcome five Coast Guard heroes into the elite group of people who’ve performed high acts of bravery.
There weren’t any television cameras to capture the details of the Coast Guardsmen’s bravery during the rescue of three tug boat crewmen during the blizzard on Jan. 25.
later, thousands of fans didn’t arrive hours before the ceremony began at Cape
Charles’ Palace Theater, like they did for last week’s “Rudypalooza!” No
one asked for autographs, and there weren’t any balloons, banners or T-shirts.
But the Coast Guardsmen didn’t mind, because these heroes prefer not to be
honored that way.
Boatswain’s Mate Joe Habel tried to avoid the limelight at the ceremony for
the heroes, encouraging reporters and guests to talk to his boat crew rather
than him. The 20-year Coast Guardsman was quick to pass the recognition to his
were a team,” Habel said. “I wasn’t the only one out there.”
were four other boat crew members: Willard Leavelle, a first class machinery
technician who kept the engines running on the station’s 41-foot utility boat:
Thomas Palmer, a third class boatswain’s mate who helped look for the tug in
near-zero visibility and plucked the tug’s crew from the 38-degree water; John
Grant, a seaman who worked alongside Palmer as a lookout and helped rescue the
survivors from the water; and Matthew Haggerty, a third class boatswain’s mate
who was the crew’s navigator. They were all confused over the attention, too.
were just going what we’re supposed to do,” Grant said.
Coasties do go out in bad weather and perform daring rescues every day. But Jan.
25 was different. It was the worst weather any of the crew had every seen in
this part of country.
ago, Coasties were expected to perform rescues regardless of the weather. But
Cmdr. Ted Harrop, Commander Group Hampton Roads, explained to the audience, at
the awards ceremony that expectation is no longer true.
20 years ago, most Coast Guard stations and units had a placard or sign posted
somewhere at the unit that contained the rescuer’s motto, and in those days
that motto read, ‘You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.’
When a crew responded in severe weather conditions and made it back safely, the
Coast Guard simply recognized their heroic actions without much more ado than
pinning a medal on them.
was the end of the story. Rightfully so, we have taken those placards down and
replaced that old motto with a new motto. And the new motto is that, ‘You
don’t have to go out, but you have to come back.’”
There is a commandant instruction that sets limits on when a 41-foot utility boat can be used for search and rescue missions. Rescue attempts are restricted in seas above 8 feet and winds of more than 30 knots. Those parameters were set because the boat has a tendency, in rough seas, to flip end over end.
years ago, two Coast Guardsmen died when the 41-footer they took out on a
mission flipped over while operating in high seas. Because of that incident, the
Coast Guard commandant placed restrictions when to use the boat. And those
restrictions can only be broken under specific circumstances.
explained that the circumstances on Jan. 25 did meet the criteria required to
allow the eager Coast Guardsmen to perform the job the do best: saving lives.
was no one else,” Harrop said.
47-foot boat from Coast Guard Station Little Creek was en route to the tug, but
it was more than 30 miles away. A helicopter that would ordinarily be used to
pluck people out of the water couldn’t fly in the more than 70-know winds. The
Coast Guardsmen at Coast Guard Station Cape Charles had to go.
wanted to go. And they knew they would come back.
the call comes — you go,” Haggerty said.
of the dangers, each crewman was a volunteer. Led by Habel, the station’s
officer-in-charge, each Coast Guardsmen was confident in their leader’s
ability to maneuver the boat in such volatile weather and seas. They donned
survival suits and were off the battle the ice, snow, freezing rain and
near-zero visibility. There mission was clear, however. Rescue three crewmen
from the 110-foot tugboat Bay King. The tug had lost its 260-foot barge fully
loaded with petroleum products, and the tug itself was in danger of crashing
into a shoal near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
knew they could come,” the tug’s captain, Parran Keane said after the
ceremony. “I was amazed they got there as quick as they did. They were
incredible. When I saw the boat I was like, ‘Yes!’ I felt safe then.”
the real terror was yet to come for the tug’s crew. After trying
unsuccessfully to maneuver close to the tug, the Coast Guardsmen gave the order
for the three men to abandon the tug. The crew was hesitant, but was left with
only two choices: stay on the tug and die or enter the water and trust the
Coasties to rescue them from the 38-degree water.
And within minutes, the Coast Guardsmen put their plan into action. As one Coastie threw a line into the water, another was standing by with a line in hand in case the first line didn’t reach the men. The wind blew the first line back into the 41. A man grabbed the second line and was safely lifted aboard the Coast Guard boat. The second man was lifted aboard, too. Each spent less than two minutes in the water. But getting the third man on board was more difficult. He weighed nearly 350 pounds. It took several tries, but he was eventually rescued safely.
— Coasties and tug crewmen — came back. Through blizzard conditions, the 41
had completed its mission. Three tugboat crewmen were alive, and five Coasties
were, too. Other than being cold and wet, everyone was in good condition.
actions were justified, warranted, properly executed and stand as a testimony to
their personal commitment, dedication and professionalism and to the reputation
of the rescuers of life,” Harrop said.
months after the rescue, the day had come to honor the heroes for their
sacrifice. For Habel, there was the Coast Guard Medal. Only Coast Guardsmen who
distinguish themselves by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy
are eligible for this medal. The act has to be a voluntary act performed in the
face of great danger that is above normal expectations and presents great danger
to one’s own life.
crew of CG 41502 received the Meritorious Service Medal. It’s awarded to
members of the armed forces who distinguish themselves through outstanding
non-combat meritorious achievement in service to their country.
actions qualified, too.
the ceremony, Keane was overcome with emotion while talking about the incident.
Keane’s young son tightly embraced his father’s left leg while watching the
Coast Guardsmen receive thanks from those attending the ceremony.
Palmer sat in the front row of the Palace Theater wiping the tears from her face
and clutching her 4-month-old son as she watched Vice Adm. John E. Shkor,
Commander of Coast Guard Atlantic Area and Coast Guard Fifth District in
Portsmouth, pin her husband’s medal to his light-blue shirt pocket.
Palmer received his recognition and the audience clapped for him, his 2-year-old
daughter giggled and said, “Dat’s funny.”
feel kind of silly,” Palmer said, “Coasties do this stuff every day.”
Cody Leavelle sat next to his grandmother as his father was honored. The day’s
events made perfect sense to him.
dad gets a paper saying he was good,” Cody said with a sheepish grin.
Vice Adm. Shkor echoed Cody’s sentiments — albeit a little more eloquently.
are humbled in the face of their skill and of their courage,” Shkor said.
“Their heroic actions reflect credit upon themselves and are in keeping with,
no, they set the standard for the highest traditions of the United States Coast
Guard. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.”
Coasties likewise hope this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, although they
said they wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
have been numerous awards and recognition ceremonies during the last few months
for the Coast Guard heroes. And there are still more to come.
this ceremony was special. It was special to the family members and to the town
of Cape Charles who have grown attached to the crew of Coast Guard Station Cape
are our boys,” said Carol Evans co-owner of the Cape Charles Bed and Breakfast
with her husband, Bruce.
(Habel) has through his leadership showed the town of Cape Charles that we have
a responsibility to the Coast Guard”, Bruce Evans said.
the heroes see the opposite. “What I did out there that day was no big deal. I
was just a crew member,” Haggerty said.
that to the Keane family. They’re likely to see his efforts as being a little
all came back.
they didn’t even have to go.
To Coast Guard Stories