Centenarian Coast Guardsman honored


GWYNN ISLAND, Va. - Retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Russell Foster is given a challenge coin by Coast Guard Rear Adm. William "Dean" Lee Sept. 17, 2011 in Gwynn Island, Va. to celebrate Foster's 100th birthday. Foster served in the Coast Guard for 20 years and went from a lieutenant to a lieutenant commander in 24 hours. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Jourdin M. Pitts.

Post written by Petty Officer 3rd Class David Weydert.

What does one say to a man who has lived through two world wars, the Great Depression and served the nation for 34 years? For retired Cmdr. Russell Otis Foster, one can say thank you.

Foster, born Sept. 13, 1911, is currently the second oldest retired Coast Guardsman on record, and his life and career had revolved around the call of the sea.

In September, Foster, surrounded by family and friends, celebrated his 100th birthday in his hometown on Gwynn’s Island in Mathews County, Va.

Rear Admiral William “Dean” Lee, commander of the 5th Coast Guard District visited Foster during the celebration and presented him with his Admiral’s challenge coin while thanking him for his years of service.

Foster’s career of maritime service did not start with the Coast Guard, but with the Merchant Marines which he joined when he was 18. He then worked his way up from seaman to master. But that was only the beginning of his public service.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, America awoke to war and the threat of the Axis Powers, and the entire nation began producing increasingly large amounts of war material.

In February of 1942, in response to the demands of the war, the U.S. Maritime Service, a non-military merchant-marine reserve, and the marine safety responsibilities of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation were transferred to the Coast Guard. To accomplish the Herculean task of conducting safety inspections on all the new vessels being made, the Coast Guard offered direct military commissions to members in the Merchant Marines. Foster went to work for the Coast Guard, initially as a civilian, but in 1943, Foster accepted the military commission and became a lieutenant in the Coast Guard. Due to his prior service working for the Coast Guard and his Merchant Marine experience, Foster was advanced to lieutenant commander the following day.

PORTSMOUTH, Va. – Retired Cmdr. Russell Otis Foster, shown as a lieutenant commander, was born Sept. 13, 1911, and recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Foster served the Coast Guard with distinction from 1943 to 1963.

 The start of his Coast Guard career took Foster to Charleston, S.C., where he conducted safety inspections upon the new ships being rapidly constructed for war. Charleston Naval Shipyard produced destroyers, armed cargo ships, landing ships and transports in record numbers. Along with the inspections, Foster helped create an efficient and organized system for the ships entering and leaving Charleston Harbor.

The marine safety inspections that Foster conducted during World War II would later become one of the service’s core missions in 1945, a mission that is still conducted by the modern Coast Guard.

His hard work in South Carolina made an impression on the Coast Guard command. At the end of the war, the Coast Guard kept Foster in active status as an extended reserve officer, but that wasn’t enough for Foster. Despite the force reduction in the aftermath of the war and with support from the local South Carolina shipping companies and the Masters, Mates and Pilots of America, Foster petitioned the Armed Forces Committee for a permanent position in the Coast Guard. It was an uphill battle, until Foster sought the assistance of Burnet R. Maybank, then a U.S. Senator for South Carolina, and L. Mendel Rivers, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for South Carolina. Their support assisted Foster in keeping his Coast Guard career until his retirement in 1963.

As Foster continued his career, he was involved in several high-profile boards of inquiry involving accidents and deaths. He participated in the investigation of the SS Nicaragua Victory’s collision with the John P. Grace Bridge in Charleston, in which three spans collapsed due to the freighter’s impact; and the destroyer escort USS Darby’s collision with a Swedish ore freighter, which caused the deaths of two Navy Reserve members.

Throughout his career, Foster served the Coast Guard with honor, respect and devotion to duty and has embodied the core values of one of the nation’s illustrious maritime services for many years. Commander Foster continues to represent a proud chapter in the history of the Coast Guard and the nation.

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