Fog made the difference between a reprimand and a medal
Legendary Coast Guard lifesaver took his brand-new rescue boat dangerously close to shore to save four drowning people; hundreds of people were watching and cheering, but USCG brass wanted to bust him for risking the boat.
Master Chief Tom McAdams stands near the steering station of a
Coast Guard boat. (Photo: US Coast Guard) [Larger image: 800 x
February 12, 2012 — By Finn J.D. John
Legendary Coast Guard motor lifeboat operator Master Chief Thomas McAdams always knew the weather could have a big impact on his life.
What he wasn’t expecting was for a fog bank to make the difference between getting reprimanded and possibly demoted, and being awarded the Coast Guard’s top lifesaving medal.
But that’s exactly what happened one June day in 1957, when McAdams and his crew saved four people from drowning in the surf near the mouth of Yaquina Bay.
The legendary coxswain with the big cigar
McAdams is a legend in the Newport area, and probably the most famous Coast Guard enlisted man ever. He started his career as in 1950, and by the time he retired in 1977 he’d participated in some 5,000 rescues and saved at least 100 people from drowning. He’d survived nine rolls — in which his motor lifeboat was fully capsized by the surf and he had to hold his breath and wait for it to roll back upright.
Crew members who went out with him said you could tell how much trouble you were going to be in by watching the big cigar he always kept burning in his mouth. If he took it out of his mouth, turned it around and put the lit end into his mouth, you knew you were about to get very wet. And if you ever saw him spit it out, you took a deep breath and braced for impact, because the boat was about to get rolled.
Called into action
On this particular day, McAdams got a call from the Coast Guard’s observation tower that there was a pleasure boat in trouble just off the north reef. Almost every boat the life station had just then was out rescuing somebody, and the only boat available for McAdams to take out was the brand-new 52-foot motor lifeboat, the biggest boat in the station, the pride of the Coast Guard, the most expensive boat it had ever built.
This 52-footer was completely unlike the 52-footer up at Point Adams, the Triumph, which sank on the bar four years later (here's that story). This one had a steel hull and twin screws, and unlike the Triumph it was made to roll.
The beach and jetty were full of onlookers all helping point the Coasties to the spot, and it was a good thing, too, because the fog was fairly thick and visibility was short.
Four people, drowning
The 52-foot motor lifeboat Victory passes the Cape Disappointment
Lighthouse in February 2003. This is the boat Thomas McAdams used
to rescue the four drowning boaters just off the beach at the mouth of
Yaquina Bay in 1957, when it was virtually brand-new. (Photo: Kurt
Fredrickson/US Coast Guard) [Larger image: 1200 x 789 px]
When they got to the scene, McAdams knew the situation was serious.
“I could see the bottom of a 16-18-foot capsized boat and then I’d seen a couple of heads by it,” McAdams said, according to a Coast Guard oral history interview. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re in the inter-breakers. We’ve got to get them out. They’ll never make it.’”
The problem was, they were in about 10 feet of water, with heavy swells, and the boat drew six feet. There was a pretty good chance, even with McAdams at the helm, that the boat — the gorgeous, new, super-expensive 52-foot twin-screw rescue lifeboat, the pride and joy of the Coast Guard — would end up ignominiously stranded on the beach.
McAdams doesn’t seem to have even considered that. Let four people drown to save a Coast Guard asset? It wasn’t in his DNA. Into the breakers he went, cigar firmly fixed in his teeth.
He kept the boat in the crest of a swell and got within six feet of the upside-down boat, then dropped into the trough and sure enough, the boat bounced hard on the sandy bottom.
“I could see four people in the water and there was a man holding his wife and his wife was not in very good shape,” McAdams said. “Her head was kind of going down and he’s yelling, ‘Help!’”
Rescuing the people
McAdams left the helm, ran to the rail and leaped onto the upside-down hull of the capsized boat. From there he dove out into the surf, swam to the struggling couple and dragged them back through the sea to the lifelines of the rescue boat. The whole time, the boat was rolling heavily in the water, occasionally pushing the three of them under water.
“I yelled to the fellows on deck and they grabbed the woman and they pulled her on up,” McAdams said. “Well, they got the woman up and I got up myself and I heard ‘Help’ off the bow. …”
It was the other two people, a man and a woman. Again the woman was almost done for, and the man was fading fast as well.
This time McAdams sent one of the other guys to get them, and soon strong hands were pulling them aboard — first the woman, who wasn’t breathing, and then, while a crew member resuscitated her, the man. Then McAdams and another crew member went and pulled the first man on board.
“Then I got him up onboard and I said, ‘Okay, we’ve got everybody,’ and then I heard, ‘Help!’” McAdams remembered. “Well, I said, ‘Who else is yelling help?’ Well, it was my seaman who I had sent overboard” — to rescue the second couple — “and he’s so tired now and cold from being in the water that all he could do is barely hang on the lifelines.”
Could they get off the beach?
Once the rescuer was safely rescued, McAdams sent everyone below decks except one crew member — a seaman named Schmidt. “I’m going to need you to help me get this boat off the beach,” he told him. The rescue boat was still bouncing on the sand with every passing wave.
McAdams now looked up for the first time and realized the fog had lifted. All around “Chicken Hill” — the park where the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse is — and on the bridge, people and cars were stopped and watching the rescue. They’d seen the whole thing: McAdams’ dramatic leap to the upside-down hull and dive to pull the first couple to the boat; the second couple being pulled aboard, the woman being worked on to get her breathing again, their obvious success in saving her — everything.
Now they were going to watch McAdams and Schmidt either triumphantly get the boat out of the breakers and off the beach, or ignominiously wash ashore and have to be rescued themselves. The two of them got busy.
Once McAdams got on the power, the screws dug a big hole in the sandy bottom, so there was plenty of water under the boat. He just couldn’t get out of the hole. Finally he turned the boat around with the stern pointing out to sea — thinking, “If I can turn around and get my stern to the sea and get over that hump I built, I’ll probably tear the steering out of the boat but I’ve got twin screws.”
It worked — on both counts. McAdams brought the damaged boat triumphantly back into port, steering it with the two throttles.
The local Coast Guard brass — the group commanding officers, in charge of the life stations — were furious.
“They were upset because I’d taken the most expensive lifeboat the Coast Guard had and beached it and could have lost the boat on the beach,” McAdams said. “I said, “But we saved four lives, what are they worth?”
Meanwhile, some of the people who’d been watching the show from the bridge and from Chicken Hill turned out to be VIPs. Telephone calls started pouring into the district admiral’s office, including one from Governor Robert Holmes and another from the commander of the Oregon State Police. The local officers, fearing they’d get in trouble, hadn’t told the district admiral’s office any of the details, so the admiral didn’t know what to say.
“The admiral’s getting’ all these calls. All he’s got is this little message,” McAdams told author Dennis Noble. “When the officers find out the admiral is asking about the rescue they say, ‘Yes, we’re goin’ to hang those guys.’”
The admiral’s office quickly set the local officers straight on that score. They had something else in mind: Two gold lifesaving medals, and two silver ones. McAdams and his crew were heroes.
But in 2005, when he talked to Noble, McAdams was still sounding a bit bemused by the role that fog bank played.
“If the fog hadn’t lifted, I’d probably have been busted,” he said.
[Sources: Noble, Dennis L. Rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2005; U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office, www.uscg.mil/history]