A LOCAL LIFE Herbert Collins, 88

Coast Guard Lt. Herbert Collins, 88, upheld family tradition at Pea Island

Lt. Herbert Collins served in the U.S. Coast Guard at the all-black Pea Island Station in North Carolina.
Lt. Herbert Collins served in the U.S. Coast Guard at the all-black Pea Island Station in North Carolina. (Family Photo)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Sunday, April 11, 2010

Growing up on North Carolina's Outer Banks, Herbert Collins dreamed of joining the U.S. Coast Guard and carrying on a family tradition that dated to the 19th century.

He was inspired by the men of Pea Island Station, not far from his home in Manteo, on Roanoke Island, where his great-uncle, grandfather and father had patrolled the beaches looking out for distressed ships in the feared "graveyard of the Atlantic."

"I would watch the surfmen come home and always admired their uniform," he told a Coast Guard newsletter in 2008. "I said to myself that I was going to get in the Coast Guard and Pea Island Station."

Herbert Malachi Collins, 88, who died of metastatic cancer March 14 at his home in Olney, often told stories of his family's close connection with the Coast Guard and Pea Island, the only facility ever to be entirely staffed by African Americans.

By the time Lt. Collins retired in 1973, his family held the record for longest continuous service in the Coast Guard, dating to 1880 with his grandfather Joseph Berry.

Lt. Collins's great-uncle, Dorman Pugh, served at Pea Island with the U.S. Life-Saving Service -- an early series of rescue outposts later added to the Coast Guard-- and was part of a seven-man crew that took part in one of the most historic rescues in the Coast Guard's history but whose bravery went unrecognized for a century.

On Oct. 11, 1896, Capt. Richard Etheridge, a former slave, and the first commanding officer of Pea Island, led six of his men, including Pugh, on a two-mile march through hurricane-force winds on a seemingly suicidal rescue on the Outer Banks.

A three-masted schooner, the E.S. Newman, had run aground in the middle of a torrential storm and was in danger of breaking up. After a six-hour effort, the rescue was a success and the all-black team saved nine of the Newman's crew, including the ship's white captain, his wife and their children.

But the seven men who risked their lives on the mission were never rewarded because of the color of their skin. It was not until 1996, 100 years later, that each of the rescuers posthumously received the Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medal, the service's most prestigious honor for water rescues.

Lt. Collins enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939, shortly after his 18th birthday. After boot camp in Florida, he was assigned to a cutter as a mess attendant. He was the only black man on the ship, and his duties included shining shoes, serving meals and scrubbing dishes.

He was transferred to Pea Island in late 1940 and served there for the remainder of World War II under the command of his uncle, Maxie Berry Sr. Lt. Collins spent his time on Pea Island going on patrols of the beaches and participating in rescue operations, rowing to sea in small lifeboats amid the heavy surf.

In 1947, the Coast Guard decided to close Pea Island Station. After everyone else had packed and left, Lt. Collins stayed behind and was put in charge of filing the necessary paperwork for its decommissioning.

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