Nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the coastline of the Outer Banks of North Carolina is sprinkled with thousands of shipwrecks that lie just offshore from Carova to Ocracoke Island. While many of the vessels that sank to the bottom of the sea ran aground in storms during the 17th and 18th centuries, others—such as a tanker called the Mirlo—were the victim of attacks as recently as World War I.
A British tanker that weighed 6,667 tons and had a crew of 51 members, the Mirlo was carrying a cargo load of gasoline and oil from a port in New Orleans, Louisiana, to New York Harbor in August 1918. As the ship emerged from the Gulf of Mexico, rounded the Florida Keys and began making its way up the coast of the Eastern Seaboard, it became increasing exposed to the threat of enemy German submarines that had invaded U.S. shipping lanes during that spring and summer. Several ships were sunk by mines laid and torpedoes launched from the U-boats, putting Captain John Allen Midgett and his crew of surfmen at the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station on Hatteras Island on guard should any ships be sunk off the Outer Banks.
Located in the village of Rodanthe, toward the northern end of Hatteras Island, the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station was commissioned on Dec. 4, 1874, and home to the first shore-based rescue responders in the state of North Carolina. In the early afternoon on Aug. 16, 1918, the Mirlo struck a mine dropped by German U-boat 117 off Wimble Shoals, resulting in a series of explosions that destroyed the engine room and caused the cargo load of gasoline the ship was carrying to erupt into flames. Realizing that the boat was not salvageable, the captain ordered his crew to board the Mirlo’s three lifeboats and evacuate the sinking ship.
The first lifeboat to leave the Mirlo capsized in the Atlantic Ocean, tossing all 16 of its passengers into the sea. When a third explosion erupted on the nearby Mirlo, all but six of the sailors who clung to the capsized lifeboat perished in the seas that were still rough from a recent storm. A second lifeboat contained 19 passengers and drifted helplessly amid the fiery gasoline-soaked seas while a third lifeboat, which carried 16 crewmen and the captain of the Mirlo, was able to clear the flaming wreckage and head toward the coastline of the Outer Banks.
The rescue that ensued has since been deemed one of the most dramatic rescues in maritime history. A Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station lookout named Leroy Midgett was in his post when the Mirlo first exploded and notified Captain John Allen Midgett Jr. of the attack. The alarm was sounded, and the crew raced to the stables to harness the team of horses, rode to the station and readied the McLellen Boat wagon that carried the rescue boat: Surfboat No. 1046. The crew put the surfboat into the ocean and fought their way through strong offshore winds and crashing waves with heights up to 20 feet to attempt to reach the crew members of the Mirlo who were stranded in lifeboats off the coast.
The huge breakers overwashing the surfboat ultimately flooded the small vessel before it could reach the crew of the shipwrecked Mirlo, forcing it to return to the shore to be drained. Two relaunches were attempted, but the breaking waves were too large and too strong, and the surfmen from the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station were unable to get the surfboat past the breakers. The rescue crew tried a fourth launch, which was ultimately successful, allowing the boat to clear the rough waves and make it through the surf into the open waters where the Mirlo crew was stranded near the burning wreckage of the tanker approximately five miles off the coast of Rodanthe.
The Chicamacomico rescue crew reportedly first encountered the lifeboat that contained the Mirlo’s captain, who instructed the rescuers to bypass their boat and search instead for the survivors of the boat that had capsized after the explosion. Pushing through flames that shot 100 feet in the air from exploding barrels of gasoline that had been aboard the Mirlo, the rescue crew pressed on until they reached the capsized lifeboat—and found a handful of survivors clinging to the overturn boat in the smoke and rough seas. According to accounts by the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, the six surviving men were exhausted from the ordeal and coated in oil. The Chicamacomico rescue crew pulled the sailors from the sea and continued their search for any remaining survivors in the other lifeboat.
Once the lifeboat was spotted, the rescue crew realized that the vessel was extremely overloaded, leaving it so crowded that the men aboard could not move enough to row it toward the shore. Instead, it was drifting out to sea. The Chicamacomico crew pulled their surfboat alongside the lifeboat, tossing a line aboard so the lifeboat could be towed to safety. The crew then headed back to the spot where they had encountered the Mirlo captain’s lifeboat and been instructed to move on to save those in more immediate danger and provided a tow for that lifeboat as well.
As darkness fell on the coast of the Outer Banks, the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station rescue crew towed the two lifeboats toward Hatteras Island, ultimately saving the lives of 36 sailors from the sunken Mirlo tanker. Later that fall, on Nov. 8, 1921, Captain Midgett and his crew of surfmen were awarded gold lifesaving medals for “gallantry and humanity in saving life at sea” by the British government for their incredible efforts to save the lives of dozens of sailors who were aboard the Mirlo when it was destroyed by German forces. Today, surfboat No. 1046 and an assortment of photos, artifacts and replica equipment can be viewed at the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Historic Site and Museum in Rodanthe.