Coast Guard Heroes: Joseph Napier

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

St. Joseph Station and crew

The U.S. Life-Saving station and crew from St. Joseph, Mich. during rowing practice with their surfboat. Photo Courtesy of the Michigan Maritime Museum.

As keeper of the Saint Joseph Life-Saving Station, Station 6, Joseph Napier demonstrated his heroism during multiple rescues as a career lifesaver on the Great Lakes. His gallantry was no more visible than on the day he risked his life and led his crew into gale-force winds to save six souls aboard a stranded vessel.

On Oct. 10, 1877, the schooner D. G. Williams was on her way into port when a heavy gale stranded the vessel on the outer bar. The schooner’s crew of six clung to the rigging for safety as the waves continued to break over the side of the ship. Napier found three volunteers from his crew to face the dangers of the storm and together they head out to rescue the men on the wrecked schooner.

On the first attempt of the rescue, his boat capsized in the breakers and never made it to the vessel. Napier and the three other crewmen pulled themselves back onto their rescue boat and readied themselves for a second attempt.

The second attempt proved to be more successful and the life-saving crew brought back two sailors. Napier and his crew went out for a third trip when their boat became completely swamped with water. The rescue of the remaining crew seemed impossible, but Napier and his crewmen bailed the boat as they continued to battle breaking seas and again reached the vessel taking off two more men from the D. G. Williams.

On the fourth attempt Napier and his crew were thrown out of the boat during a surge of waves, and one of his legs was seriously inured. As one of the men safely swam ashore Napier was able to pull himself towards the rescue boat from a line that a crewmember threw to him. Napier, now battling his leg injury along with the harsh seas, succeeded in righting his boat and brought it alongside the schooner. The remaining two men were taken aboard and finally, after every last effort was made, the crew of the D. G. Williams was joined together safely ashore.

A special place in the Coast Guard’s history

Station St. Joseph

The original Life-Saving station built in 1874. The site still serves as the current location for Coast Guard Station St. Joseph. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy.

In 1855, the federal government began a program to provide port cities equipment to be used during maritime emergencies. St. Joseph, Mich. was a busy port on the Great Lakes and was among the first Great Lakes cities to be designated for a Life-Saving station.

During the early years, the station was just a boathouse and was manned by local townspeople who volunteered whenever they were needed. The station’s commander, or keeper, lived on the site year-round. Because there was a need for skilled and committed rescuers the surfmen were taken into the Life-Saving Service as paid employees in 1877.

Napier was appointed the keeper of the station and was responsible for training a crew of six surfmen to man the station. The station officially began operating in spring of 1877, but Napier and his crew began training in 1876 and are known to rescue those in peril late in that year.

“Joseph Napier continues to serve as an inspiration not only to this crew but also to the community,” said Chief Adam Kane, Officer in Charge of Motor Life Boat Station St. Joseph, the Coast Guard Station that resides in the same place as the old Life-Saving Station. “Since taking command of this unit in June citizens of St. Joseph have educated me on the history of his accomplishments and the dedication he showed during his storied career as a lifesaver. The stories of his heroic rescues’ serves as motivation to the past and current Guardians of Coast Guard Station St. Joseph.”

More than 134 years after the Life-Saving station was established with Napier as keeper, the Coast Guard continues to operate along the shores of the Great Lakes. While the station’s response boats are more capable than their predecessors, and their crews are no longer local volunteers but men and women from all over the United States, their dedication to the mission and the community remains steadfast.

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2 Responses

  1. Blake Austin says:

    Great story! Living here in Texas, I was unaware until reading this story of just how rough the Great Lakes could get in a storm. When the stranded saw him approach who could guess it was Napier? But now they’re ashore and couldn’t be happier!

  2. Mike Passwater says:

    Blake, I live about 45 minutes away from St Joe and it is truly one of the great towns on the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes have taken ships as large at the 729 foot Edmond Fitzgerald in 1975, during a terrific storm. One storm, in 1913, there were 12 major vessels lost on the Great Lakes, with 235 sailors. This storm blew for 3 days and in one 9 hour period, the wind speed didn’t drop below 62 mph. The U.S. Life Saving service was created before the Coast Guard. In 1930 (I’m probably wrong on that date), the Life Saving Service and the Lighthouse Service was combined to make the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard have carried on the proud traditions and heroics that were part of the Life Saving Service. There is a good book called, Wreck Ashore by Fred Stonehouse, that describes a brief history of the Life Saving Service, plus some of the rescues these guys performed. To take a boat, like that shown above, and row out to a stranded ship to rescue the crew, in a storm, takes a lot of guts. The un-official motto of the Life Saving Service is “The regulations say that you have to go out, but they don’t say anything about you coming back”. They had stations on all coasts, not just on the Great Lakes. If you ever get up to South Haven, which is just north of St Joe, the museum there has an excellent display of the boats used in the old Life Saving Service and early Coast Guard. Sorry I got a little long winded, but I’m really into Great Lake history.