Coast Guard Heroes: Richard Etheridge

This Compass series chronicles the first 14 heroes the Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutters have been named for. These men and women, who stood the watch before us, lived extraordinary lives as they lit the way for sailors in times past, braved gunfire in times of war and rescued those in peril at sea. As Coast Guard heroes, their stories are a constant reminder of our service’s legacy. As the namesake of the Coast Guard’s newest patrol boats, they will inspire the next generation of Coast Guard heroes.

With contributions from LTJG Ryan White






Pea Island Life-Saving crew

Richard Etheridge, far left, and the Pea Island Life-Saving crew in front of their station, circa 1890. U.S. Coast Guard photo.


Captain Richard Etheridge was the first African-American to command a Life-Saving station when he was appointed as keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station on January 24, 1880. First Lieutenant Charles Shoemaker, a Revenue Cutter Service officer who recommended his appointment as keeper, noted Etheridge was “one of the best surfmen on this part of the coast of North Carolina,” and on October 11, 1896, Etheridge led his crew on a daring rescue that serves as a testament to his exemplary skills as a leader and a surfman.

The three-masted schooner, E.S. Newman, was caught in a powerful storm off the eastern coast of the United States. The storm, so severe that Etheridge had suspended beach patrols that day, blew E.S. Newman 100 miles off course and grounded the schooner two miles south of the Pea Island station.

After a distress flare was sighted, Etheridge launched a surfboat into the forceful waves and currents. The crew struggled to make their way to the schooner, and when they finally arrived they found they could not reach the vessel because it was not on dry land. Etheridge, seeing no room for failure, tied two of his strongest surfmen together and connected them to shore by a long line. The surfmen fought their way through the breaking waves as they went from the schooner to dry land ten times and rescued the entire crew of the E.S. Newman.

For the rescue of all souls aboard E.S. Newman the Coast Guard awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal to the Pea Island crew. Countless other heroic acts were performed by Etheridge and his men and his dedication to being a lifesaver was unyielding as he served for more than 20 years until his death on May 8, 1900.

A special place in the Coast Guard’s history

Pea Island in 1917

Pea Island Life-Saving Station on July 16, 1917. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Pea Island Lifesaving Station, or “Station 17,” was the site of many dramatic rescues. Together, the African American crew at Station 17, including Benjamin Bowser, Louis Wescott, William Irving, George Pruden, Maxie Berry and Herbert Collins, under the leadership of Etheridge, rescued sailors in the tumultuous waters along the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Allan Smith, producer of “Rescue Men: The Story of the Pea Island Surfmen” described the work ethic of these men: “In researching for the film, the one thing that stood out is that no matter what, you have a job to do. The job you have is probably important or it wouldn’t exist. And they did, what they did, to the best of their ability and this is something that we can all learn from.”

The station was “disestablished” on March 18, 1947 after nearly 70 years under an all African American crew and is credited as one of the earliest drivers of diversity across the naval services.

“Etheridge was the ideal of what we mean when we use the word, ‘American.’ He had honor and a sense of right,” said Smith.



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11 Responses

  1. Chuck McCall says:


  2. Jim Quinn says:

    It has been such a pleasure to see the effort our service has made in the past several years to regain and celebrate our history and our heritage. Our culture of “aw, shucks we all would do the same” is both wonderful and at times a hinderance to telling the story that we and the nation need to hear. The naming of the “Keepr Class” of buoy tender was a wonderful start and the “Sentinel” class named for USCG heroes is a celebration for us all.

    May we all be continued to be inspired by the fine men and women who are “Semper Paratus”.

  3. James Charlet says:

    For much more in-depth about this and even more about this amazing and largely forgotten history, come visit us at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site & Museum. We were the brother station to Pea Island on Hatteras Island, just six miles south. See our website for more details.

  4. Lawrence Peters, LT USCG (ret) says:

    I have been read the book on the PEA ISLAND station and I find it highly fitting that a cutter is named for Richard Etheridge. The bravery and skill show by he and his men set a good example for all to follow. The concept of putting African-Americans in charge of station was way ahead of its time. I believe it was the right thing to do and those life savers did not disapoint!

  5. Wesley E. Etheridg Sr. says:

    Thanks for celebrating my great,great uncle and his mens life saving
    efforts. My Grand Dad who was born and raised near Pea Island North Carolina around the time of Richard Etheridge death in 1900, we still have his birth certificate. Grand Dad’s name was Robert Etheridge (some called him Bob)he relocated his family to the Hampton Roads area in the 1930’s and worked as one of the first black automobile mechanics at the old Ford Motor Plant in Norfolk Virginia until his death in the late sixties. Consequently, we have continued to expand as a family, my Dad retired from the U.S. Navy in 1975 after over 20years of service and I am a retired Navel Veteran who retired in 1996. Recently my middle son earned his honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy after four years of outstanding service as a Quarter Master 3rd Class. I trust my grand children will proudly serve in the US Military Sea Service and or continue our families sea going tradition.


  6. tara says:

    a big thak you

  7. tara says:

    yes a big thank you forgot the n

  8. Liliana says:

    God bless you

  9. Liliana says:

    God bless you

  10. Andreas Etheridge says:

    It is very nice to know more information of my great great uncle.

  11. Hero's must be named says:

    I think all the men that took part in the E.S. Newman Rescue should be remembered, they are all hero’s as equal to the “finest hour’s” all the names with that event are remembered and the heroism of these men, feed the honor to which the men that operated in the coast guards finest hours, strived to uphold thus living the words of the Creed of the Coast guardsman.