A visit to the home of the 'storm warriors'

On display outside the Port Orford Lifesaving Station is the pride of the U.S. Coast Guard "surfmen" who were stationed there, Motor Lifeboat 36498.Courtesy of Paul Hadella

Officially, they were called U.S. Coast Guard surfmen. But among themselves, they went by the more colorful name of "storm warriors." They were a special breed of servicemen who came to the aid of shipwrecks.

From 1934 to 1970, a complement of 13 of them conducted search-and-rescue missions from the Port Orford Lifesaving Station on the Oregon Coast.

The two-story building that housed an office and quarters for the crew is now a museum, located within Port Orford Heads State Park. Spend some time studying its collections of artifacts and historical documents, and you'll come away knowing more about U.S. maritime history — particularly as it pertains to the Coast Guard — than you ever learned in school.

Not only that, but your faith in humanity will be restored as you come to appreciate the courageous, selfless spirit of service that motivated the storm warriors to risk their lives to save others.

On display outside the museum, looking sturdy and grand, is the pride of their lifesaving fleet, Motor Lifeboat 36498. Picture it, though, going up against a raging sea, doing the work it was built to do. Even at 36 feet — large enough to carry up to eight Coast Guardsmen and 20 rescued survivors — it was a mere speck on the ocean. And a very vulnerable one at that, with storms whipping waves into a frenzy all around it.

Yet only one such lifeboat was lost during the years when the station was open. The vessel's ingenious self-righting, self-bailing design had something to do with the success rate. Credit must also go to the men operating the boat, who trained daily.

During World War II, the population at the Port Orford facility swelled to more than 100. Machine-gun pits and foxholes were built. Lookouts kept constant watch of the ocean for enemy ships, submarines and planes.

In fact, it wasn't a storm that crippled the tanker ship S.S. Larry Doheny on Oct. 6, 1942 — but a torpedo from a Japanese sub. This same submarine had attacked the S.S. Camden two days earlier, sinking it off Coos Bay. On Sept. 9, a seaplane had launched from its deck and dropped fire bombs in the woods east of Brookings.

The Doheny was dead in the water and burning, south of Port Orford, when the surfmen arrived. The captain and five crew of the doomed ship were dead. The rest were rescued and brought back to the station.

The Coast Guard established lifesaving facilities along waterways throughout the country — 61 on the Great Lakes alone. Responsible for the 40-mile stretch between capes Blanco and Sebastian, the Port Orford station was one of several in Oregon.

What made it unique was its location atop the headlands, nearly 300 feet above its boathouse at Nellies Cove. Imagine being roused in the middle of the night by the rescue alarm, then having to scramble out of your quarters, across a wide yard, and down a steep, 500-step stairway — just to reach the lifeboat.

No matter how terrifying the weather conditions, the storm warriors knew it was their duty to jump into the boat and head straight into the churning surf. Waiting out the storm was not an option. Their motto summarized their code of honor, while acknowledging that any mission could be their last. It went, "You have to go out. You don't have to come back."

Sometimes the surfmen lucked out. If a distressed ship happened to be foundering within 600 yards from the shore, they could attempt a dry rescue from the beach. This required packing a small cannon, known as a Lyle gun, with rope and harness, and firing it at the ship.

It took a good aim and some luck to reach the target. But, if successful, a pulley system could be set up between the ship's mast and makeshift scaffolding on shore, bringing people to safety on a sort of zipline ride across the water.

One ship that benefited from this so-called breeches buoy lifesaving system was the S.S. Cottoneva, a steam schooner that ran aground, amid 75-mph winds, at Battle Rock in Port Orford on Feb. 10, 1937. The captain and all 26 seamen were rescued.

A life preserver from the Cottoneva, plus other objects salvaged from local shipwrecks, is on display at the museum. Its propeller, now caked with rust, rests outside the Port Orford visitor center along Highway 101.

After your self-guided tour of the museum, explore the state park's trio of trails.

The Headland Trail opens to spectacular vistas of the vast Pacific and its ruggedly beautiful coastline. The Nellies Cove Trail takes you to an overlook of the old boathouse site, while the Tower Trail leads to where the Coast Guard observation tower once stood. Only the concrete bedding remains.

The museum is open April through October, Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Admission is free — with donations welcome.

For a charge, visitors can make a G.I. "dog tag" on a vintage machine to take home as a souvenir.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.


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