The Long Blue Line: Coxswain James C. Osborn – flawed hero during World War I

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by Cmdr. William A. McKinstry

Painting of the SS Wellington with Seneca in the background. This response effort is the most honored combat-related rescue in service history. (Coast Guard Collection)

Painting of the SS Wellington with Seneca in the background. This response effort is the most honored combat-related rescue in service history. (Coast Guard Collection)

“The department takes great pleasure in commending you for your gallant courage, extreme and heroic daring in endangering your life in order to save that of John August Peterson [sic], coxswain, U.S.C.G., at 6 a.m., Sept. 17, 1918.”
Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, Nov. 22, 1918

Recruiting headshot of James C. Osborn taken during his enlistment process. (National Archives)

Recruiting headshot of James C. Osborn taken during his enlistment process. (National Archives)

Stories of personal heroism can be an interesting lot. These heroic efforts, such as those commended above by Secretary Josephus Daniels, often result from being in the right place at the right time. With that in mind, the story of James Clarence Osborn’s service 100 years ago is perhaps the most heroic Coast Guard combat-related story of the First World War.

Osborn, as best can be determined, was born in Chicago, in early November 1900. As a youngster, his family moved from Illinois to Kansas and then to Washington State. His father was a day laborer, and mother a homemaker who passed away when Osborn was quite young. When war was declared on Germany in April 1917, Osborn answered the call and enlisted within four months.

During his brief time in the Coast Guard, Osborn advanced to the rate of a coxswain aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Seneca. It was in this capacity that the stars would align and he would display bravery of an extraordinary nature. On Monday, Sept. 16, 1918, while the Seneca was on convoy duty, the British Steamship Wellington was torpedoed off the coast of France. The master of the Wellington requested Seneca’s captain assist in keeping the cargo ship afloat until it reached the port of Brest, France. Nineteen Seneca men volunteered to board the damaged vessel, including Osborn and Lt. Fletcher Brown. With the Coast Guardsmen assisting the stricken vessel, the Seneca returned to convoy duties and the Wellington steered a course for the safety of Brest.

During the night, Wellington’s transit to the French port proved rather uneventful. However, early the following morning, a gale arose, the seas increased and the Wellington began to founder. The volunteers from the Seneca and the crew of the Wellington struggled in earnest to keep the ship from taking on water, but their efforts were to no avail. At approximately 3:30 a.m., one of the vessel’s bulkheads collapsed under the strain of incoming sea water and began filling the ship with water. The engineers aboard Wellington bravely manned their posts so the deck crew could deploy the ship’s only serviceable lifeboat. Eight men, including one of the sailors from Seneca, safely deployed the lifeboat.

Faded photo of Seneca during its World War I service. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Faded photo of Seneca during its World War I service. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

At 4:30 a.m., shortly after one of the crew sent a final distress call, the Wellington began its final plunge. At this point, Osborn and the others faced a fight for their very lives. To wait to the bitter end before entering the frigid waters, Osborn and Brown stood upon the Wellington’s propeller as it was sinking and finally leapt into the water. With little to keep them afloat, the surviving Coast Guardsmen struggled to find floating remnants of the doomed ship. In these dire conditions, Osborn swam from one shipmate to another encouraging them to hang on. He improvised a raft from floating debris and, for five hours, he assisted unconscious shipmate Coxswain Jorge Pedersen in hopes that a ship would find them.

Image of the Navy Cross Medal, the medal awarded to 20 Seneca crew members. Many of Seneca’s medals were bestowed posthumously. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Image of the Navy Cross Medal, the medal awarded to 20 Seneca crew members. Many of Seneca’s medals were bestowed posthumously. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

By 10 a.m., on Tuesday, Sept. 17, Navy destroyer USS Warrington arrived and began rescue operations. Before the ship reached him, Pedersen slipped beneath the waves. Multiple efforts to secure a lifeline to him failed until Osborn, at great personal risk, dove beneath the surface and tied a line to Pederson. For his efforts that night, Osborn received recommendation for the Gold Lifesaving Medal by Seneca’s captain. The letter recommending the medal read:

your noble conduct and perseverance in going to the assistance of the semi-conscious Peterson [sic] when you were repeatedly washed off the raft by the high seas, not only saved the life of Peterson from the perils of the sea, but also set a splendid example of energy, bravery and courage.

In addition, Daniels awarded Osborn the Navy Cross Medal. Osborn is the only Coast Guardsman in the history of the service to receive both the Gold Lifesaving Medal and the Navy Cross Medal for bravery.

Following his service, Osborn became a carpenter and led a seemingly quiet life with his wife Louise in the New York borough of Brooklyn. During this time, he fell into trouble with authorities and was incarcerated for attempted grand larceny at Sing Sing Prison on the banks of the Hudson River. After his release from prison, he remained in Brooklyn until his death at the Fort Hamilton Veteran’s Hospital in May 1962.

Regardless of the troubles he faced late in life, Osborn’s story of heroism is one that should not be forgotten. He served his country with great distinction in keeping with all those who have served the long blue line both in war and in peace.

A letter from Coast Guard Headquarters sent to James C. Osborn in 1938 in Sing Sing Prison, N.Y. (National Archives)

A letter from Coast Guard Headquarters in regards to James C. Osborn in 1938 sent to Sing Sing Prison, N.Y. (National Archives)

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