Researching and writing history is not the most lucrative of life’s pursuits. Sometimes, however, it provides benefits more valuable than money.
In 2018, for the centennial of one of the greatest U.S. Coast Guard rescues of all time, I wrote a little book titled, “Into the Burning Sea—The 1918 Mirlo Rescue." The book features the eyewitness account of 24-year-old, 3rd officer Victor Albert Wild of the steam tanker MIRLO, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat about five miles east of Rodanthe village. An unimaginable conflagration of flames and explosions from three hundred thousand gallons of gasoline and kerosine set afire, spreading across the ocean, created a nightmarish hell from which the British sailors had to escape. Through the heroic, selfless efforts of six lifesavers from Chicamacomico Station led by “Captain” John Allen Midgett, 42 of the 51 victims of the torpedo attack were rescued.
In my book, I wrote the following: "Captain Johnny was raised to believe that what a person chose to do and not do in life often had a profound effect on the lives of others, sometimes extending down through generations, like ripples in a pond to a distant shore. Such was the impact of the choices Captain Johnny made in the summer of 1918."
Then, later in the book, I wrote this: "Victor Albert Wild could never forget what he experienced at Wimble Shoals off Rodanthe in 1918. The visions of his drowning shipmates, the seemingly inescapable fires, the heroic efforts of the dauntless men in the little motor surfboat, the pretty young daughter of Capt. Midgett who loaned him her bedroom, each moment filled his mind and reoccurred in his dreams for the rest of his life.
"In 1970 Wild was nearing his 76th birthday, his memory gradually fading. He was curious if any of the valiant lifesavers from Rodanthe were still alive. His daughter Mirlo encouraged him to find out. Without the names and addresses of the men, Wild wrote a letter.
'Dear Sir or Madam,
An oil tanker by the name of Mirlo was torpedoed in 1918 off Rodanthe Island, Cape Hatteras & the crew were all saved by the Midgetts. I was third officer on her at the time & going through my papers brought back old times. I was wondering if any of those brave men are alive today. If so I should like to hear from them. I do not know if you will receive this letter but I am taking a chance as I do not know the full address.
I remain yours sincerely, VA Wild (ex-Master Mariner)'
"Wild addressed the envelop to simply, “Midgetts, Rodanthe, North Carolina.” He posted it and hoped it might produce a reply. It did. The Rodanthe postmaster in 1970 had no idea to which of the many Midgetts to forward the letter but when they opened it and read the words, they knew just the person who should receive it: 61-year-old Bethany Midgett Gray, Captain Johnny’s pretty young daughter. Over the next few months, Wild and Gray corresponded.
"When one reads Wild’s letters to Bethany Gray the lessons of history and the true essence of the lifesavers’ legacy becomes evident. It is here where the ripples in the pond extend, emanating from that moment at 5 p.m. on the 16th of August 1918, when motor surfboat no. 1046 gained the open ocean and proceeded to rescue the 42 men of the steam tanker Mirlo. The legacy of Chicamacomico’s lifesavers today can be found not just in medals or silver cups or Coast Guard cutters or the preservation of an historic place—it is found in the flesh and blood and lives of families who would not have lived had it not been for John Allen Midgett’s unselfish act of courage 100 years ago.
“'You must realize that had it not been for your father that I would not have been alive today,' Wild wrote from London to Bethany a few months before he died in December of 1970. 'I can see now lying in the bed facing the sea in the front of your house with the water on fire. It was if the world was alight & of course I must have seen you. … Will you convey to your family & brothers my regards and tell them that if it had not been for a brave man saving us off the oil tanker Mirlo I would not have had the lovely family I have.'”
Yesterday, those “ripples of the pond” emanating from 1918 reached me, too, when Victor Albert Wild’s granddaughter Mirlo sent me an email from England. She and her husband had just watched a C-SPAN video of me presenting a lecture on the 1918 MIRLO Rescue. This is a part of what she wrote:
"I must say, my husband and I were very moved watching the video of your excellent talk and hearing all the details of the rescue. We found it a very emotional experience, especially seeing the photograph of young Victor looking so dazed. A few tears were shed! … (I have to be honest, though, and tell you that, growing up, I often secretly wished I had been named after something rather more glamorous than an oil tanker!) … We are so pleased that you found Grandad’s account in the archives and were able to build the personal account of a survivor into your book (which, incidentally, we haven’t read yet, but it is on the way. In fact, 8 copies are on the way, one for each branch of our family so that they can read the dramatic rescue of their Grandad, Great Grandad and Great Great Grandad by the brave US lifeboat men!).”
There can be no greater reward for the historian than that!