CAPE MAY — Most died at sea trying to save mariners during search-and-rescue missions.
Some were torpedoed by a German U-boat off Greenland. One won the Medal of Honor for helping save the lives of 500 Marines under Japanese attack, and then made the ultimate sacrifice himself at Guadalcanal on Sept. 27, 1942. At least 12 died off the coast, including five on one March day off Atlantic City in 1932.
These are just a few of the ways 1,492 enlisted sailors with the U.S. Coast Guard have died in the line of duty since the modern-day Coast Guard was created in 1915.
There is no monument to honor them. A group of “Coasties” here at Training Center Cape May, the nation’s only boot camp for Coast Guard recruits, hopes to change that.
The nonprofit Coast Guard Enlisted Memorial Foundation has plans to raise $500,000 to construct a granite memorial listing the names of those who died in the line of duty.
“As a foundation we think Cape May is the best place for the memorial. It’s the birthplace for the Coast Guard enlisted corps,” said Chief Warrant Officer Donnie Brzuska, a member of the foundation.
The base draws 40,000 visitors a year for boot camp graduations, Sunset Parades, ROTC training, tours of the base and other events, so Brzuska figures the public will get plenty of chances to see the memorial.
Brzuska said there is a memorial for officers who went through the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. It’s called the Hall of Heroes and is located at the academy in New London, Conn. There is nothing for enlistees.
He said the genesis for the project was the 2010 death of Petty Officer Shaun Lin during a training exercise in the James River near Newport News, Va. Though more than 83 percent of the Coast Guard is made up enlistees such as Lin, when he died there was no way to honor his sacrifice.
“Everybody wanted to know where we were going to put his name. When an enlisted member dies, there is no place to remember them,” Brzuska said.
The effort is by active-duty and retired Coasties on their own time. The Coast Guard is not behind the initiative but is clearly hoping it succeeds.
“We applaud the effort of the Enlisted Memorial Foundation for their dedication to remembering our enlisted men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation,” said Capt. William Kelly, the training center commander.
The decision on how far back to go was a tough one but was based on available records. The Coast Guard traces its history to 1790, but the modern-day Coast Guard dates to 1915 when the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and U.S. Lifesaving Service merged into one.
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton created the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service on Aug. 4, 1790, before the U.S. Navy was even established, and sent the first cutter, Gen. Greene, to the Delaware Bay in 1791 to enforce customs laws and combat smugglers. There were plenty of deaths back then, but few records survived.
“A lot of records were lost or burned in fires,” said Steve Harrell, a retired chief warrant officer who is chairman of the foundation.
Master Chief Petty Officer Dawn Smith, the president of the foundation, said most records since 1915 were verifiable. A Coast Guard historian was involved in gathering the names, which are listed on the foundations website.
“When you put a name on granite, you want to make sure it’s right,” Smith said.
The memorial won’t include names before 1915, but will have a place to remember agencies that morphed into the Coast Guard, including the Revenue Cutter Service, Lifesaving Service, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, and Steamboat Inspection Service. They will be remembered in stones by the flagpole.
“We’re the longest continuous maritime service in the country. Longer that the Navy,” Brzuska said.
American Bronze & Stone of Englewood, Bergen County, has been contacted to construct the memorial, though its placement is still a long way off. The group has raised only $3,000 so far.
Brzuska said the Coast Guard can not legally provide any funding even though the effort is getting a lot of positive feedback. The foundation is hoping some of those who have been saved over the years by the Coast Guard will contribute.
“Since the Coast Guard’s inception, they’ve saved over 1 million people, from 1790 on, and that’s been documented,” Brzuska said.
The group has already picked out a site where they would like the memorial to be. It would be at the regiment field where events are held near the statue of the Coast Guard’s Medal of Honor winner Douglas A. Munro, who gave his life in the line of duty at Guadalcanal.
The foundation would give the memorial to the Coast Guard after its construction but continue to maintain it, ringing the large brass bell that would be its centerpiece at memorial services or when new names are added.
“It will increase. It’s a perpetual monument so there will be space for the inevitable,” Smith said.
There is another benefit to putting the memorial here where all enlistees go through boot camp, noted foundation Vice President Tom Dougherty, a retired chief petty officer who now lives in Egg Harbor Township.
“It reinforces for recruits that their chosen profession comes with its hazards. The sea, that environment, can be very unforgiving,” Dougherty said.
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