U.S. Coast Guard Legend Lt. Herbert Collins Dies At 89 <


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U.S. Coast Guard Legend Lt. Herbert Collins Dies At 89

Daniel Guevarra

March 17, 2010 - The last remaining survivor of the historic all-African American Pea Island life saving station died Sunday after waging a battle with cancer. Born in Manteo, N.C., Jan. 1 1921, Collins enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939 at Elizabeth City, N.C. Shortly after boot camp he was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Tallapoosa where he served as a mess attendant.

He continued to serve as a mess attendant in subsequent assignments until he was assigned to the all-African American Pea Island life saving station where he served as a surfman for the duration of World War II. During his assignment at Pea Island, Collins participated in a number of daring search and rescue missions including the response to a distressed ship that had been hit by a torpedo between the Pea Island and Chicamacomico Coast Guard stations.

This historic chapter in his career closed as Collins locked the doors of the Pea Island Station in 1947 as part of the last Coast Guard crew to staff this historic unit. After closing Pea Island, Collins served in numerous capacities ashore and afloat, including tours aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa in St. George, N.Y., Coast Guard Cutter Ironwood in Honolulu, the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, Md., District Five Headquarters in Portsmouth, Va., and Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Collins became a Boatswain’s Mate while at Pea Island and rose steadily through the ranks during his distinguished career.

He earned his Warrant Officer appointment in 1959 and becoming a Chief Warrant Officer 4 in 1968. In 1969 he received a commission and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant while stationed at Coast Guard Headquarters. He went on to assignments at Long Beach, Calif. and Portsmouth Va., before retiring in Aug. 1973. Collins’ assignments prior to Pea Island include stations from Florida to Virginia, including the Coast Guard Cutter Mendota in Norfolk Va., where he served alongside another Coast Guard legend including renowned author and Coast Guardsman Alex Haley.

"I had the extraordinary personal honor to spend time with Herb Collins and his family not long ago and his love for our service was deep and enduring. Lieutenant Collins service to the Coast Guard and our nation is significant, especially in light of the challenges that African Americans faced as the service was integrated,” said Adm. Thad Allen, Coast Guard Commandant. "Today we mourn the loss of a legendary shipmate and at the same time celebrate his legacy of excellence and tenacity.”


Historical Remarks:

The original site of the Pea Island Station was acquired by deed dated 25 July 1878 under provisions of the Act of Congress, approved 3 March 1875 and covered a tract of land containing 3 acres.  In 1896, by deed of 7 December that year, a new site was acquired and the old site was "abandoned and reverted to the grantors."  On 25 September 1908, additional land and right of way adjoining the station property was acquired from E. M. Midgett, et. al.

Captain Richard Etheridge became the first African-American to command a Life-Saving station when the Service appointed him as the keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station in North Carolina in 1880. The Revenue Cutter Service officer who recommended his appointment, First Lieutenant Charles F. Shoemaker, noted that Etheridge was "one of the best surfmen on this part of the coast of North Carolina." Soon after Etheridge's appointment, the station burned down.

Determined to execute his duties with expert commitment, Etheridge supervised the construction of a new station on the original site. He also developed rigorous lifesaving drills that enabled his crew to tackle all lifesaving tasks. His station earned the reputation of "one of the tautest on the Carolina Coast," with its keeper well-known as one of the most courageous and ingenious lifesavers in the Service.

On 11 October 1896, Etheridge's rigorous training drills proved to be invaluable. The three-masted schooner, the E.S. Newman, was caught in a terrifying storm.  En route from Providence, Rhode Island to Norfolk, Virginia, the vessel was blown 100 miles south off course and came ashore on the beach two miles south of the Pea Island station.  The storm was so severe that Etheridge had suspended normal beach patrols that day.

But the alert eyes of surfman Theodore Meekins saw the first distress flare and he immediately notified Etheridge.  Etheridge gathered his crew and launched the surfboat.  Battling the strong tide and sweeping currents, the dedicated lifesavers struggled to make their way to a point opposite the schooner, only to find there was no dry land.

The daring, quick-witted Etheridge tied two of his strongest surfmen together and connected them to shore by a long line. T hey fought their way through the roaring breakers and finally reached the schooner.  The seemingly inexhaustible Pea Island crewmembers journeyed through the perilous waters ten times and rescued the entire crew of the E.S. Newman.  For this rescue the crew, including Etheridge, were recently awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal by the Coast Guard.

By deed dated 11 June 1930 a new site containing 10 acres and more conveniently located, was acquired from the trustees of the Pea Island Club.  The consideration for this conveyance was the formal abandonment of all the property on the island which had been used for lifesaving or Coast Guard purposes up to that time. Declarations of Abandonment of the site acquired in 1896 and the site and easement acquired in 1908, were executed and recorded.

The station was "disestablished" on 18 March 1947. A board of survey noted that the dimensions of the property were approximately 200 feet by 2,400 feet and that the land was owned by the U.S. Biological Survey and had been used by the Coast Guard under a "use and occupancy permit".  In 1949 the Pea Island Station was turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, for use in connection with the Pea Island Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.

The station's boathouse was removed in 1948 by contractor "Ferrebee" and moved to Oregon Inlet Lifeboat Station for use as a garage and repair shop.  The Board of Survey recommended that the lookout tower be left in place and retained in service "to house present Coast Guard telephone Communication system outlet and to serve as occassions [sic] demand as shelter for use by Stations performing assistance work in this area."

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