Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil – Semper Paratus.
Devotion to Duty – The Rescue of the Jonne Fishing Party
The Chandeleur Island Light’s beam sliced through the din of the storm. Winds howled across the barren strands of the barrier island. The wooden shutters of the abandoned keeper’s house slammed against the window panes as if they were being hammered by the devil against an anvil of anxiety. The men huddled quietly and listened as the storm continued to ravage the structure. Hopefully, the men thought, one of their loved ones would report them overdue. All the men clung onto their hope as the winds whipped and the rain fell amidst Mother Nature’s wicked tempest.
On Saturday evening, February 11, 1950, five men stepped aboard Champ Gay’s twenty-seven foot fishing boat Jonne. Pat Murphy, Wallace Edwards, Joseph Catchot, Don Eglin and his son-in-law, Mike LeMacchia were excited for an evening and day of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. While in the waters off of Chandeleur Island, the hull of the Jonne scrapped along an unseen shoal. The Jonne was no longer seaworthy. Gay limped the motor of the damaged boat and maneuvered toward the barren sands of the barrier island. The planned overnight of fishing and fun had ended early and unceremoniously with soggy and sand-filled shoes. As the winds increased and rain began to fall in heavy sheets, the men trudged toward the only structure in sight – the abandoned keeper’s house of the Chandeleur Island Light.
As the sun set on Sunday, February 12, 1950, loved ones of the men aboard the Jonne reported the fishing party overdue. At first light on the next day, a United States Coast Guard PBY, from the Air Detachment at Keesler Army Air Corps Field, alighted into the sky as the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat CG 83389 began her search on the coastal waterways off of Ocean Springs. Some friends of the missing men also put out to sea aboard the Boston Bill. Neither from air or sea were the six missing men found. The following morning, the amphibian once again alighted into the early morning sky to continue its search.
Later that morning, the stranded fishing party emerged from the confines of the keeper’s quarters. Looking aloft, they spotted a speck in the distance. The roaring engines of the Coast Guard amphibian lumbered overhead moments later. The men waved to the sleek aluminum-skinned aircraft as it banked and came around for another pass. The missing fishermen had been located. With the coordinates passed to the CG 83389, the at-sea asset diverted her course to complete the rescue.
A few hours later, the CG 83389 arrived on the scene. While the storm had passed, the waters off of the barrier island were still whipped into a frenzy. Chief Henry Morton, commanding officer of the cutter, ordered the anchor set. The cutter was three-quarters of a mile from the beachhead. The bar and her billowing breakers separated the Coastguardsmen and the stranded souls on the strand. Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Archie B. Croom volunteered to take the cutter’s dinghy to shore. Chief Morton agreed that it would be the only way to get to the men. A safety line was quickly and smartly rigged. Petty Officer Croom and a fellow Coastguardsman, William Stinson, maneuvered the dinghy free from the stern of the cutter and began navigating over the bar. Croom and Stinson battled the twelve-foot dinghy through two hundred and fifty yards of six-foot tall breaking waves. Once into smooth waters, Croom tied off the safety line to a buoy and then he and Stinson paddled to the dinghy the remaining distance to the beach. Taking two of the fishing party aboard the dinghy, Croom and Stinson again paddled out to the buoy. Clawing along the safety line hand-over-hand, the men fought through the towering walls of water to the anchored CG 83389.
With the two fishermen pulled aboard the cutter, Croom readied to set out again to the beach for the next two men while Stinson was relieved by fellow Coastguardsman Harold Harvey. Again, Croom navigated the dinghy through the breaking waves to the relative safety of the calmer waters. Two more of the fishing party were pulled into the dinghy and Croom and Harvey pulled themselves back to the cutter through the crashing crests. With the additional two fishermen landed on the deck of the cutter, Chief Morton told Boatswain’s Mate Croom to take a break and to let another member of the crew go back for the last two marooned men. Though his hands were bloody and raw, Croom respectfully waved off the offer of respite. He wanted to retrieve the last two men from the barrier island. Once again, Croom and Harvey battled back to the beach through the surging swells of seawater. With all members of the fishing party accounted for and receiving first aid and food, the CG 83389 hove her anchor and headed for port.
In two and a half hours, all of the members of the wayward fishing party were safe aboard the CG 83389 and bound for Biloxi, Mississippi. Finally landing on dry land, the bedraggled men had undergone a sixty-hour adventure that they would most likely never forget. Chief Morton remarked that the actions of his men, and especially Boatswain’s Mate First Class Archie B. Croom, had not only displayed their devout perseverance but also skilled professionals throughout the rescue of the stranded fishermen. It was, according to Chief Morton “the finest piece of boat handling I’ve seen in my 25 years of service.”
The search and rescue of the Jonne fishing party on February 14, 1950 has been largely relegated to the passage of time. Despite the toll of time, the display of skilled professionalism, determination and devotion to duty remain ever apparent as the men and women of the United States Coast Guard remain ever-vigilant to answer the call to action to save others imperiled and in need of rescue. For the Coastguardsmen aboard the CG 83389, the Jonne search and rescue mission was just that…another mission to put into action their training to ensure that others would survive their imperiled situation. It is for these reasons that the United States Coast Guard shall forever remain the true sentinels and saviors of the seas.
Morris, Ted A. “A Short History of Operations at U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, Biloxi, Mississippi – December 1934-March 1947.” 2006.
The Chronicle Star & The Moss Point Advertiser Newspaper.
“Coast Guardsman is Hero in Rescue of Six Marooned Ocean Springs Men,” February 17, 1950.
United States Coast Guard Aviation History. “1934 – Coast Guard Air Station Biloxi Established.” 2020.