On this Date in Coast Guard History

GM1 Willis Goff receives the Silver Star Medal

GM1 Willis Goff receives the Silver Star Medal

JANUARY 22

Gunner's Mate First Class Willis Jerry Goff, a crewman on board the cutter Point Banks on patrol in Vietnam, was awarded the Silver Star for "his heroic courage and gallantry in action while engaged in armed conflict against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong aggressors in the Republic of Vietnam on Jan. 22, 1969." He and fellow Point Banks crewman Engineman Second Class Larry D. Villarreal volunteered to man the cutter's launch to rescue a group of nine South Vietnamese soldiers who were trapped along a beach by two Viet Cong platoons. Under continuous enemy fire, they made two landings on the beach to rescue successfully all of the South Vietnamese soldiers.

EN2 Larry D. Villarreal was awarded the Silver Star Medal on February 18, 1969, at Department of Transportation Headquarters in Washington, D. C. and Mr. Willis Jerry Goff was awarded the Silver Star Medal on April 19, 1969 at Cat Lo, RVN; both awards were for extraordinary heroic action while serving in the Republic of Vietnam.

His citation read, in part: ". . .with courageous disregard for their own safety, Petty Officer Goff and his fellow crewmember were able to rescue nine South Vietnamese Army personnel who would have met almost certain death or capture without the assistance of the two Coast Guardsmen. Petty Officer Goff's outstanding heroism, professionalism, and devotion to duty and to his fellow man were in the highest traditions of the United States Naval Services."

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JANUARY 28

The Coast Guard Act of 1915 was passed by Congress and subsequently signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on the January 28, 1915. The act created the United States Coast Guard as a new service outwardly modeled on the structure of the U.S. Navy and under the command of the Department of Treasury.

The Coast Guard was created from the merged United States Life-Saving Service and the United States Revenue Cutter Service, which had been established in 1790 to prevent smuggling until the reestablishment of the Navy in 1798.

Although placed under the U.S. Treasury Department, the Coast Guard was temporarily transferred to the Navy Department during World War I and again during World War II. In 1939, the Coast Guard also integrated and incorporated the United States Lighthouse Service and, in 1942, the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation. In 1967, the Coast Guard was placed under the United States Department of Transportation. Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the Coast Guard was placed under the Department of Homeland Security.

February 12

The Shipwreck that Changed the Coast Guard Forever

Story and artwork by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki

When the clock tolled 12 a.m. on February 12, 1983, the 605-foot cargo ship Marine Electric trekked northward 30 miles off Virginia's Eastern Shore, plowing slowly through the gale-force winds and waves stirred up by a winter storm.

An able-bodied seaman relieved the watch and peered forward, noticing for the first time that the ship's bow seemed to be riding unusually low in the water. Dense curls of green ocean rushed over the bow, some of them arching 10 feet over the deck before crashing back down. The crew had been battling 25-foot waves for hours, but until now, the bow had bucked and dipped as normal.

Now it seemed only to dip.

Over the next two hours, the waves intruded with increasing vigor. The entire foredeck was swallowed in 6 feet of water. The main deck was completely awash.

At 2:30 a.m., the ship's master, Phillip Corl, summoned his chief mate, Robert Cusick, to the bridge and shared his fears: the bow was settling, they were taking on too much water, and the crew was in real trouble.

At 2:51 a.m., the captain made the first radio distress call to the Coast Guard.

"I seem to be taking on water forward," Corl said. "We need someone to come out and give us some assistance, if possible."

By the time assistance arrived, the Marine Electric had listed, rolled violently to starboard, and capsized, hurling most of its 34 crew into the 37-degree water. Chaos ensued.

Robert Cusick

Robert Cusick

Chief mate Cusick surfaced with a gasp, managed to get his bearings, and spotted a partially-submerged lifeboat nearby. After swimming through towering waves for 30 minutes, he pulled himself into the swamped boat and started thrashing his legs to stay warm.

"All the time I kept looking out and yelling out, 'lifeboat here,' just continually yelling out to keep myself going," the chief mate said. "Then I waited and prayed for daylight to come."

The Coast Guard had long since dispatched an HH-3F Pelican helicopter crew from Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and directed the crews of several cutters to the Marine Electric's position, but the tumultuous weather conditions slowed the rescuers' progress.

Naval Air Station Oceana had to recall available personnel before launching a helicopter crew, including rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class James McCann.

Painting by Thomas Pickard

Painting by Thomas Pickard

At 5:20 a.m., the Coast Guard helicopter crew was the first to arrive on scene. They had expected to find the Marine Electric's sailors tucked into lifeboats and rafts, but instead, they found a blinking sea of strobe lights, empty lifeboats, and bodies strewn below.

The Navy aircrew arrived and deployed McCann, who tore through the oil-slicked waves, searching for survivors. He managed to recover five unresponsive sailors before hypothermia incapacitated him.

The Coast Guard crew scoured the southern end of the search area and discovered one man, Paul Dewey, alone in a life raft. They dropped the rescue basket so he could clamber inside, then hoisted him into the helicopter. About 30 yards away, they spotted Eugene Kelly, the ship's third mate, clinging to a life ring, and lowered the basket to retrieve him.

Cusick remained huddled in his lifeboat until the sailors aboard the Berganger, a Norwegian merchant vessel whose crew was helping search the area, sighted him and notified the Coast Guard. The helicopter crew retrieved him in the rescue basket, then took off for Salisbury, Maryland, to bring the three survivors to Peninsula Regional Medical Center.

Captain Mont Smith receives a Public Service Award November 12, 2011

Captain Mont Smith receives a Public Service Award November 12, 2011

Meanwhile, more Coast Guard and Navy rescue crews converged on the scene to search for survivors. Coast Guard Capt. Mont Smith, the operations officer at Air Station Elizabeth City, had piloted a second Pelican helicopter through turbulent headwinds for over an hour in order to reach the site.

He and his crew scanned the debris field below for signs of life. The people they saw were motionless, and it was difficult to determine whether they were simply too hypothermic to move, or deceased. Smith spotted one man and hovered over him, squinting through the whipping snow, trying to decide what to do.

"We all felt helpless," Smith said. "There was no way to know if the man was dead or alive. We had to try something."

Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Pesch, the avionics electrical technician aboard the helicopter, volunteered to go down on the hoist cable. After some deliberation, Smith agreed. Pesch's descent in the rescue basket was a harrowing one.

"The whole world seemed to be churning," Smith said. "I struggled to maintain a smooth hoist, but I know it was erratic."

Once in the water, Pesch grappled with the basket, trying to hold it steady as he guided the unresponsive man inside. It took several attempts, and then he scrambled into the basket himself and ascended back to the helicopter alongside the victim.

The aircrew spotted another potential survivor, and although Pesch attempted to descend again, the hoist cable spooled back on itself on the drum. The crew was forced to abort their mission and departed for nearby Salisbury Airport, where the man they had pulled from the water was pronounced dead on arrival by paramedics.

Dewey, Kelly and Cusick were the only men pulled from the ocean alive that morning. Their 31 shipmates had either succumbed to hypothermia or drowned. All told, Coast Guard, Navy, and merchant vessel crews recovered 24 bodies from the scene of the capsizing. Seven were never found. It is likely the ship's engineers were trapped belowdecks when the vessel capsized.

"Throughout Coast Guard history, the missions of the service have been written in blood," said Dr. William Thiesen, historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area. "Such was the case with the loss of the Marine Electric. This tragic event led to stricter marine safety regulations and the establishment of the Coast Guard's premiere rescue swimmer program."