Who was Joshua James?

This blog is part of a series leading up to the commissioning of the Coast Guard’s next national security cutter. On Aug. 8, 2015, the Coast Guard will commission the fifth national security cutter, Coast Guard Cutter James. Learn more about the James namesake in the coming weeks as Coast Guard Compass shares posts leading up the commissioning ceremony! Today, Coast Guard Compass shares the legacy of the cutter’s namesake, Joshua James.

Written by Victoria Stevens, Hull Lifesaving Museum curator

Crew of the U.S. Life Saving Station Point Allerton, led by Capt. Joshua James. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Crew of the U.S. Life Saving Station Point Allerton, led by Capt. Joshua James. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Legendary lifesaver Capt. Joshua James has come to represent the very embodiment of courage. And yet, it was a quality that James rarely spoke of.

He was a deeply modest man who reserved his comments on any of his rescues to the circumstances of the wreck and the efforts of the crew. No doubt, the ethic of the 19th century lifesaver was part and parcel of his upbringing.

Born on Nov. 22, 1826, James grew up in Hull Village, Massachusetts, where his father, brothers and neighbors were Massachusetts Humane Society volunteer lifesavers. Sadly, shipwreck was also part and parcel of life in Hull Village. James lost his mother in the wreck of the Hepzibeth on April 3, 1837, when he was just 10 years old.

Portrait of Capt. Joshua James. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Portrait of Capt. Joshua James. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

“Ever after scanning the sea,” he was said to be, “in quest of imperiled lives.”

In 1850, at the age of 23, James was awarded his first lifesaving medal, a bronze medal for saving the crew of the French brig L’Essai. By the 1870s, James had become the regular coxswain for the Humane Society boats. He was the natural choice to relieve Capt. Joseph Cobb as leader of the Humane Society crew when Cobb retired in 1876.

Perhaps James’s leadership style is best expressed with his own typical understatement. During the Great Storm of 1888, James and his volunteers saved 29 men from five ships during a ferocious two-day gale.

They were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for the treacherous rescue of the Gertrude Abbott at the height of the storm.

When a reporter later asked James whether the crew had understood the danger at the outset, and whether anyone had objected, James replied, “The danger to ourselves was discussed between us before launching. The danger to the crew of the vessel was also fully understood if a rescue was not attempted on the next low tide. No one objected to me, as I asked no one to join me.”

It is clear that, for James, there was no question of whether to set out. He led by example with quiet courage, faith in his own ability to meet the task at hand, and faith in the exceptional dedication of his neighbors, the volunteer surfmen of Hull.

Describing the 1888 rescues, the U.S. Life Saving Service Annual Report recounted, “Actuated by the highest motives, they set forth amid untold peril and triumphed by their cool courage and determination of purpose. There are few greater examples of heroism.”

Gold Life Saving medal awarded to Capt. Joshua James. Photo courtesy of Hull Lifesaving Museum.

Gold Life Saving medal awarded to Capt. Joshua James. Photo courtesy of Hull Lifesaving Museum.

When the new Point Allerton U.S. Life Saving Station opened the following year, James respectfully requested that he be appointed Keeper. Despite his advanced age, James received widespread support.

Boston businessman George Merritt recommended him as, “a cool, brave, level-headed man who is always chosen to lead the boats when lives are to be saved.”

James received the appointment, and left little doubt that he was up to the task. In 1896, at the age of 70, James was thrown from the surfboat while underway to the wrecked schooner Ulrica.

A newspaper reported, “The captain did not immediately rise, and a cry arose that he was lost. As he rose, however, the cry changed to one of joy from every heart. Then it was that the fortitude of the man was shown. Splashing his way shoreward he at once directed the maneuvers of his men as coolly as if nothing had happened.”

James and his crew carried on to successfully rescue Ulrica’s half-frozen sailors, earning Silver Lifesaving Medals.

On March 19, 1902, following a strenuous boat drill, James looked out to sea and uttered his memorable last words, “The tide is ebbing” before falling dead on Stony Beach. It was a loss felt deeply by the close knit town of Hull, and echoed throughout the Lifesaving Service.

Today, the Point Allerton Lifesaving Station, the Hull Lifesaving Museum, and now Coast Guard Cutter James will stand as monument to the man whose quiet courage saved so many lives.

In total, he officially saved more than 540 lives. Unofficially, he is credited with more than 1000 lives saved. He is one of the most celebrated life-saver in Coast Guard history. He was awarded five life-saving medals from both the Mass Humane Society and the U.S. Life Saving Service.

Funeral of Capt. Joshua James. Photo courtesy of the Hull Lifesaving Museum.

Funeral of Capt. Joshua James. Photo courtesy of the Hull Lifesaving Museum.

“Here and there may be found men in all walks of life who neither wonder nor care how much or how little the world thinks of them. They pursue life’s pathway, doing their appointed tasks without ostentation, loving their work for the work’s sake, content to live and do in the present rather than look for the uncertain rewards of the future. To them notoriety, distinction, or even fame, acts neither as a spur nor a check to endeavor, yet they are really among the foremost of those who do the world’s work. Joshua James was one of these.” – Superintendent of the U.S. Life Saving Service Sumner Kimball

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