The rescue of the SS Mirlo on August 16, 1918 at Chicamacomico Station became the most highly-awarded maritime rescue in all of American history. Each of the six surfmen in Surfboat No. 1046 received three very, very special medals. The one on the left is the Grand Cross of the American Cross of Honor, which reads "Unusual and Extra-Ordinary Heroism, To the Maximum Degree." In the 30 year history of that medal, only 11 were ever issued nation-wide. This is one of them. It belonged to Zion Midgett, Chicamacomico Surfman No.1.
The middle was a special medal struck by King George of England to honor the American Surfmen who saved the British sailors from the Mirlo. Only six of these exist. All were received at Chicamacomico.
The one on the right is the United States Life-Saving Service/Coast Guard Gold Medal, their highest award. Each is individualized with the name of the life-saver. The reverse has a tiny and brief description of the rescue.
Personal Recommendation for James Charlet
I first met James Charlet in the 1990s when he was a volunteer at the Chicamacomico Historical site where I was serving as a director. Even then he loved to share the history of through storytelling and to create programs to educate visitors with heroic stories of the U.S Life-Saving Service.
One of his most favorite stories was that of the sinking of the British tanker “S.S. Mirlo” off our North Carolina coast during WWI and the subsequent rescue of 42 of the 51 British sailors during extreme weather conditions by six local men stationed at Chicamacomico Life-Saving Service Station. James recounted this story weekly and it was one of my favorites, as Surfman #1 was my grandfather, Zion S. Midgett.
James was then hired at the Site and his responsibilities grew. Through his efforts, Chicamacomico was the only Site using active U.S. Coast Guard personnel to perform weekly lifesaving drills. This event always drew crowds but even more so with active duty “Coasties” involved. At the same time, James oversaw the care of the original life-saving equipment used in those drill reenactments.
James also originated and oversaw the details involving the annual “Hero’s Day” celebration – an event to honor all branches of the Armed Services as well as law enforcement, fire departments, the electrical cooperative, etc. This event had broad support from the community and the surrounding area.
Chicamacomico needed a storyteller to bring everyday mundane facts to life, and James showed a great love for sharing history. Visitors left feeling they had been a part of history from having heard the heroic stories of the past recounted in a lively fashion. Having heard these stories, many developed a personal relationship with Chicamacomico and returned over and over as well as sending others our way.
Chicamacomico Historical Association
The letter to the right was written by Jackie Farrow Wenberg. He mother was from the Midgett family. Her grandfather was Zion S. Midgett. Zion was Surfman N0.1 at the Chicamacomico Station and was one of the six rescuers of the SS Mirlo who rode together in Surfboat No.1046. These are his medals for that historic rescue
For the last several years I’ve been fortunate to witness James Charlet as he greets visitors at the Chicamacomico Live Saving Station and tells them stories of the station as well as the men who served there. Children and adults alike are held spellbound as he weaves in heroic tales as well as what it was like to live at the lifesaving station on a daily basis. Even though I’ve heard him speak on numerous occasions, I still stop and get drawn into his fascinating monologue that fires up one’s imagination. He is truly a walking encyclopedia of not only the station’s history, but the men who lived there. ~ ~ ~ Martha Battle Jackson, Curator, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh, NC
"What a totally fantastic experience to have James and Linda Charlet join us and take us back in history! From period costume to their unique and talented way of making history come to life, we were all thoroughly entertained and educated about the significant value of the early US Life-Saving Service. The positive feedback from our group has been overwhelming!" ~ ~ ~ Bebe Bush, VP, WADWCC
"I have spent over five years working closely with James. I participated in the Beach Apparatus Drill at the Chicamacomico Life Saving Station, Rodanthe, N.C. every summer from 2009-2014. I would stand waiting inside the boat house for my part in the reenactment to begin and I would listen through the boat house doors as James spoke to the crowd. I have heard the same speech ever week for years now, but I still found myself listening intently to James speak about the Life Saving Service. Even after the routine had set in I still found the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as James spoke about the rich history and successes of the Life Saving Service as if it were the first time I had ever heard the story. James is truly an outstanding speaker who is so clearly passionate towards resurrecting the remarkable and at times almost unbelievable story of the U.S. Life Saving Service and the Heroes that served amongst its ranks." ~ ~ ~ BM1 Kenny Akana, United States Coast Guard, Boson’s Mate First Class
Over the past two decades, I have spent many hours at the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station where I came to know James Charlet. His extensive knowledge of North Carolina and Outer Banks history gives him a great ability to bring to life the stories of Hatteras Island and the people and of the Lifesaving Service. He is a natural story teller, able to quickly adapt the level of his presentation to his audience and draw them into the events he is describing. His enthusiasm is contagious and he makes his audiences want to hear more. He has diligently expanded the programs and visibility of the Lifesaving Station, making it one of the must see attractions for visitors to Hatteras Island. ~ ~ ~ Commander Carl R. Smith, USCG (retired), Master Mariner
“I’ve never really believed in time travel – until I had the good fortune of meeting and listening to a presentation by James Charlet. He whisked me away, amongst 27 of my Leadership OBX colleagues, to a blustery day in 1896 when the schooner, E.S. Newman foundered and the crew was rescued by the brave men of the Pea Island Life Saving Station. I was transfixed for almost an hour, as this brave adventure unfolded before me – then I was left standing in silence, once again amongst my colleagues – speechless and in awe.” ~ ~ ~ Larry R. Warner, Exhibits Curator, North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
James Charlet is an outstanding speaker. He handles large groups as easily as if he were speaking to only one person. His vast knowledge on the US Life-Saving Service and his natural acting ability make him an engaging performer. We always walk away from his presentations having learned a great deal while having enjoyed the experience thoroughly. His speeches are moving yet inspirational. I especially enjoy his talk on the sinking of the Mirlo, the ship sunk by a German U-boat during which Chicamacomico’s keeper led a valiant effort to rescue the British crew. The surfmen had to traverse waters aflame from the sinking tanker’s oil. I also love his talks on the “Mighty Midgetts” of Chicamacomico–just to name a few of the topics on which we have heard him speak.
Several times during the past two decades, James has hosted the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society during its annual event for members to conduct tours and breeches buoy drills. We enjoyed his flawless coordination of presentations, US Coast Guardmen that perform the drill, and talks that ranged from the history of the US Life-Saving Service to specific shipwrecks off our coast. He is a champion for “America’s Forgotten Heroes,” our US Life-Saving Service surfmen, and he works tirelessly to see that they receive due credit. His fervor for their stories and selfless sacrifice is excellent material for exciting presentations. And no one can do it better than he.
We are honored to have an opportunity to endorse James as Speaker on the United States Life-Saving Service with a concentration on the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” area.~ ~ ~ Cheryl Shelton-Roberts & Bruce Roberts, Cofounders Outer Banks Lighthouse Society & Photographers and authors of maritime publications
The following comments are from audience members at the Hatteras Story Telling Festival, Hatteras Village Civic Center, Cape Hatteras, NC, May 2, 2015:
Keeper James was the absolute highlight of the weekend for us! Remarkable and touching. ~ ~ ~ Harold & Kathy Wiebush, Cary, NC
Fabulous vocabulary lesson* and amazing story! ~ ~ ~ Susan Myers
* from the optional “Hence the Phrase” program; nautical origins of common, everyday expressons.
The stories were inspirational and honored the bravery and dedication of the men who served in the U.S. Life-Saving Service. ~ ~ ~ Sheldon Hanft, Charlotte, NC, Professor Emeritus, Appalachian State University.