The champion lifesaver of the Pacific coast

Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAdams served 27 years in the U.S. Coast Guard and is the namesake of the new McAdams Multipurpose Building at Group/Air Station North Bend. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAdams served 27 years in the U.S. Coast Guard and is the namesake of the new McAdams Multipurpose Building at Group/Air Station North Bend. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Throughout the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, there have been many notable leaders and heroes. But only one is known as the “the champion lifesaver and lifeboat roller of the Pacific Coast.” His name is Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAdams, and with a career spanning 27 years his exploits in the high surf off the Pacific Northwest are legendary.

Today’s lifesavers of the Pacific will be reminded of McAdams and his remarkable career on a daily basis with the new McAdams Multipurpose Building. Located at Group/Air Station North Bend, the building will facilitate engineering and rescue swimmer operations.

In 1972 then-commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Chester R. Bender, presented Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAdams with the first coxswain's insignia ever issued. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

In 1972 then-commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Chester R. Bender, presented Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAdams with the first coxswain’s insignia ever issued. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

“Master Chief McAdams truly represents what Coast Guardsmen should aspire to be. He was passionate about his craft, proficient in his duties and served as a mentor to future generations,” said Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Vice Adm. John Currier after attending the ceremony.

While it may seem strange the building that houses engineers and swimmers at North Bend is named after a boatswain’s mate, the crews know it takes a team – regardless of rate or rank – to perform Coast Guard missions every day. This notion of teamwork was further reaffirmed when North Bend’s crews came face-to-face with the lifesaver himself at the building’s dedication.

“Master Chief passed some good words about the way the Coast Guard was then and how they always got the job done with the equipment they had at the time. It was motivational in a way,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Dennis Gryzenia, a rescue swimmer at the air station. “After the ceremony his friends and family browsed through our shop spaces and told several stories about Master Chief McAdams. Pretty much everyone had a story, and they all came down to one thing – the master chief was one of those ‘Old Guard’ veterans who just went out there and made stuff happen. You’ve got to respect that.”

McAdams entered the U.S. Coast Guard Dec. 7, 1950, and after a small stint trying to figure out what rate he wanted to be, he knew there was only one for him – boatswain’s mate. After choosing his rate, the rest, as they say, is history.

The career lifsaver spent close to three decades operating with the service’s motor lifeboats. He worked with everything from 36-foot to 44-foot motor lifeboats and even helped in the design of the 47-foot motor lifeboat used today. Noted for his seamanship, McAdams, participated in more than 5,000 rescues and was credited with saving more than 100 lives.

But while his boat skills were unrivaled by his peers, they were pushed to the limit in the large swells commonly seen at river entrances along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. McAdams survived nine “rolls,” where his self-righting 16-ton lifeboat actually capsized and then rolled upright again. Buried under the surf and trying to wait for the ship to roll back is something he will not soon forget.

Retired Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAdams gives a heartfelt speech during a building dedication ceremony at Group/Air Station North Bend, Ore. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn.

Retired Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAdams gives a heartfelt speech during a building dedication ceremony at Group/Air Station North Bend, Ore. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn.

“In one operation while in charge of a 44-foot MLB [motor lifeboat]… my two man crew and myself were pitched-pulled, that is, end-over-end, by a large breaking swell,” wrote McAdams. “We were pushed down for approximately 40-some seconds. We are strapped in, but are outside and must hold your breath while the tons of water cascades over you, and you hang precariously upside down till the MLB rights itself again.”

McAdams is one of few people in the service to receive both the Gold Life Saving Medal and the Coast Guard Medal. He earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal in 1957 at Yaquina Bay when he was the coxswain of a rescue crew that saved four people capsized in the surf. He earned the Coast Guard Medal for a 1968 rescue near Umpqua River, Ore., where he led his crew through 35-knot winds and 15-foot breakers to rescue three people.

In 1972 then-commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Chester R. Bender, presented him with the first coxswain’s insignia ever issued. The famed lifesaver commanded many of the small boat stations dotted along the Pacific Northwest coast, including the Coast Guard’s Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment, Wash., where he wrote the textbook used to train future lifesavers.

In 1977, it was time for McAdams to retire. Serving as the officer-in-charge of Station Yaquina Bay in Newport, Ore., he was conflicted on what he wanted his last words to be as a Coast Guardsman.

“You know your last words; what do you say after 27 years in a service that you love,” recalled McAdams.

So he did something that may not be the first thing you would think a boatswain’s mate would do – he wrote a poem. Here are the last lines of his poem, his last words in blue.

“And the years have passed and here I be, flipping through the pages of memory, and the life has been good and I’ve taken all bets and I leave it now with no regrets. And through the bureaucracy and the call so wild, the isolated duty and the assignments that were mild, there has been someone important no matter the place that has always been there with a smiling face. She’s weathered the storms and the calms of my life. Her name is Joanne and she is my wife. So gather this chapter with a closing we bring and we thank you Lord for everything.”

Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Vice Adm. John Currier and presiding officials applaud for retired Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAdams. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Vice Adm. John Currier and presiding officials applaud for retired Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAdams. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

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  • Drnogo

    Great story and a great man.  What every Coastie should strive to be.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vince.patton3 Vince Patton

    A true Coast Guard legend!  I’m proud to have had the opportunity to meet and know him!

  • Gary Martin

    I have fond memories of Chief McAdams during the many schools I attended with him. The stories he shared were both entertaining and educational. He was truly an inspiration and a great teacher. His love of the Coast Guard is truly as deep as the sea.

  • Rodger Petersen

    I remember him as the best of the best.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.naylor.9 Robert Naylor

    I love hearing stories like this. I do Estate sales for a living and Men like him make me proud to be American. I only wish I have met him.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JN46QCXCB4IEVHVHVIM54ZKBGI Carter Fall

    I am proud to have served with him, both at Cape “D”, and at Yaquina Bay Station.  He was more than a legend.. He was, (and is) the Coast Guard.

  • RDC Pinn (Retired)

    thanks masterchief! fair winds and following seas.

  • Yohoho

    American
    Heritage Dictionary:
    pitch·pole 

    (pĭch’pōl’) intr. & tr.v. Nautical, -poled, -pol·ing, -poles.To flip or cause to flip
    end over end: The raft pitchpoled in the
    rapids.

  • SailorMitch

    It’s people like Thomas McAdams that make this country great.  We need more like him!

  • LFHAYDON, BMCM, USCG

    I HAVE SERVED MANY YEARS WITH MASTER CHIEF McADAMS. IT HAS BEEN AN HONOR AND A PRIVILEGE TO HAVE KNOWN AND SERVERED WITH MASTER CHIEF McADAMS SEVERAL TIMES DURING OUR CAREERS. HE IS WELL DESERVING OF THIS AWARD DEDICATED TO HIM.

  • http://www.facebook.com/randy.beamer.5 Randy Beamer

    I was on the Cutter Yocona from ’75-’77. I had the good fortune to meet Master Chief McAadams a few times, when he would come over to see our BMC, Larry Hicks, and BM1 Dave Womelsdorff. He was looked upon in awe, and we all found out real soon that he was from the era of “Wooden ships and Iron Men. God bless him and his family. There aren’t many like him.
    Randy Beamer QM3

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001101804553 Rick Hamp Sr.

    I went on many a boat call with Chief McAdams when I was a we lad stationed at Cape “D”. Fair winds and smooth sailing Mac in your retirment years. For some reason I dont believe he will ever retire! God Bless you and Joanne and Mac,

    Thanks for the Memories! Richard Hamp Sr.