Coast Guard honors historic Pea Island surfman during ceremony in NC

Story and photos by Lt. Todd Porter

Benjamin Bowser Jr. was honored at his gravesite in Jarvisburg, N.C., June 11th. He was a surfman with the Pea Island Life-Saving Station, historically known as the only all-African American manned surf station, from 1884 until he died as the keeper in 1900.

Bowser served under Capt. Richard Etheridge, a station keeper who became the first African-American to command a life-saving station. Bowser was present during the rescue of the three-masted schooner, E.S. Newman, Oct. 11, 1896. Surfmen saved nine people in adverse sea conditions after the vessel ran aground two miles south of the station on Bodie Island during a hurricane. The entire crew was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for their gallant efforts a hundred years later by the Coast Guard. The Pea Island Life-Saving Station crew has been credited with saving more than 600 lives without losing a single surfman.

James Butz, a Coast Guard Auxiliary member discovered Bowser’s tombstone while waiting on the pastor at a church one day. He walked through the local graveyard and noticed the letters LSS engraved on Bowser’s marker, which sparked his curiosity.

Butz researched and rallied support to bring Benjamin Bowers’ story back to life. Retired Adm. Stephen Rochon served as the keynote speaker, who has close ties to the Pea Island Life-Saving Station’s descendents. He highlighted the humanity of the Pea Island Life-Saving crew that diligently served to save others without regard to the extrordinary dangers and/or color of their skin. Capt. S.A. Gardiner of the E.S. Newman was certainly greatful. After recovering the ships nameplate, Gardiner presented it to the Pea Island Station surfmen as a token of his gratitude.

Chief Petty Officer Robert Riemer, the officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Elizabeth City in Elizabeth City, N.C., was the master of ceremonies for the event. Crews from Coast Guard Stations Oregon Inlet, Elizabeth City, Sector Field Office Cape Hatteras and Aviation Technical Training Center participated in the ceremony. Station Elizabeth City personnel also took time to recondition the grave site, which began May 9. In addition, Paul O’Neal, the Currituck County commissioner, and Elaine Marshall, North Carolina’s secretary of state also attended as guest speakers.

Many of the Pea Island descendents were in the audience. The tone of the speeches illustrated how harsh the conditions were at the time as a surfman to live and overcome racial diversity. The ceremony highlighted how dedicated and vigilant the Pea Island Life Saving-Station crew really was.

The event created a new landmark for others to learn about the Pea Island Life-Saving Station. A flag pole and marker was placed at the foot of the gravesite by gracious donors to remember these brave and courageous surfmen.

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