The Long Blue Line: Unalaska’s lost cutterman Charles Moulthrope and the Commodore Perry

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Dr. Dennis L. Noble
Historian, U.S. Coast Guard retired

Steam cutter Commodore Perry in white color scheme. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Steam cutter Commodore Perry in white color scheme. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The men and women of the modern U.S. Coast Guard and their predecessors have accomplished some amazing feats, but many remain forgotten. Readers may find interesting this approximately three decades’ journey to unearth the rescue accomplished by a forgotten hero.

During the period from 1975 to 1978, while researching the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service in Alaska, I came upon a log entry describing the death of a seaman serving aboard the cutter Commodore Perry in 1896. Writing the required report of the death to his commanding officer, Capt. Horatio Smith, Lt. James Brown reported, “While making evening colors, the pennant became fouled and would neither break out nor lower. Seaman C.C. Moulthrope, who was assigned acting quartermaster and had the watch, went aloft to clear the pennant. He reached the trunk and endeavored, for the space of a minute, to break out the pennant, when for some unaccountable reason, he fell to the deck and was instantly killed.” Brown also reminded Smith that Moulthrope had previously performed a heroic deed while serving on the Perry.

Pen and ink sketch of Charles Moulthrope from the April 28, 1896, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. (Wreck & Rescue Magazine).
Pen and ink sketch of Charles Moulthrope from the April 28, 1896, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. (Wreck & Rescue Magazine).

There is so little known about the enlisted force of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service that I became interested in uncovering what deed Moulthrope accomplished that an officer would single him out in the report. I searched the files of the Gold and Silver Life Saving Medals in the National Archives and found nothing. The enlisted men of the Revenue Cutter Service had no service records, so that avenue remained a closed door. The only thing I knew about Moulthrope, beside his death and the comment by Brown was his final resting place in the cemetery at Unalaska.

Moving ahead to 1985, a local group in Unalaska named “Unalaska Pride” started a movement to restore the cemetery on isolated Unalaska Island. Later, I received an invitation to undertake the journey to Unalaska as part of the ceremony to honor the resting place of some of the crewmen of the old Bering Sea Patrol. Viewing Moulthrope’s grave, my path again crossed this forgotten seaman’s story.

Flash forward to the 21st century.

In 2005, while researching the 1896 court martial of Revenue Cutter Service captain, Michael Healy, I uncovered a collection of newspaper articles in a scrapbook filed in the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division. Someone had gone to great lengths to collect clippings on the service, which held much of the newspaper coverage of the trial. As I waded through the material, the drawing of a man caught my eye. As if scripted by Hollywood, under the headline “Victim and Hero of the Perry,” the story of Moulthrope’s heroism unfolded. I later visited the Newspaper & Periodicals Room of the Library of Congress and read the account in the April 28, 1896, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle.

According to the account, Moulthrope landed in San Francisco after serving as an ordinary seaman on the yacht Coronet. The owner of the yacht, Arthur Curtis James, wanted to sail to Japan and “observe the eclipse of the sun in August.” For unknown reasons, Moulthrope mustered off the Coronet in Sausalito, just north across the Bay from San Francisco.

Log entry from the Commodore Perry documenting the interment of Charles Moulthrope at the Unalaska Cemetery. (National Archives)
Log entry from the Commodore Perry documenting the interment of Charles Moulthrope at the Unalaska Cemetery. (National Archives)

The San Francisco newspaper reported that Moulthrope remained at the “house of Al White, whom he had known for many years.” Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Moulthrope had served a hitch in the U.S. Navy, being discharged in San Francisco. He then returned to the East Coast and eventually shipped in the Coronet and sailed back to the West Coast. He wished to sign on a Navy ship once again. One day, however, Boatswain Alfred Halfell, serving on Cutter Perry, visited White’s house “hurriedly and told White he needed a man. The place was offered to [Moulthrope] and he accepted it. He had no idea of going to the Behring [sic] Sea, but rough-and-ready sort of fellow that he is, made up his mind at once. Half an hour later he was rowed out to the Perry.”

Halfell had “made his headquarters at San Francisco for years. He was in the Navy for nine years, his last [enlistment] being on the Ranger, where he rose to the rank of chief boatswain’s mate.” He served for many years in the Pacific Squadron. Halfell left the Navy and “after a rest,” signed on board the Perry. A native of Switzerland, “he came to America while quite young.” At the time, he was 35 years old.

While en route to Port Townsend, Washington, the Perry ran into heavy seas.

Charles Moulthrope’s headstone still keeps a lonely vigil at Unalaska. (Jackie Whedbee, Find-a-Grave)
Charles Moulthrope’s headstone still keeps a lonely vigil at Unalaska. (Jackie Whedbee, Find-a-Grave)

“Halfell was swept overboard by one of the many seas that struck the vessel; a boat was manned [by four sailors] to attempt to his rescue,” but Halfell died before the boat reached him. While making the attempt, the rescue boat capsized, throwing the four sailors into the cold, heavy seas. “They struggled . . . and seemed doomed. . . .”

Moulthrope, “a powerful fellow, standing about six feet high, and weighing 180 pounds, [and described] as just the fellow who would attempt the seemingly impossible [rescue,] grabbled a line [rope] and leaped over the side.” He managed to swim to the four sailors succumbing to hypothermia. With almost superhuman effort, Moulthrope worked the line around all four of the helpless sailors. Those on board the cutter then pulled the unconscious men aboard the Perry and “[Moulthrope], the last to be hauled aboard, was still fresh and strong.”

The newspaper account recorded the praise Moulthrope received. It also noted a “proposal [by] Captain Smith of the Perry that [Moulthrope] be given a medal.”

Thus, after 110 years, the account of a brave but forgotten cutterman can now be told to the public. The only remaining question is why did Moulthrope not receive a medal? I believe that once Moulthrope died in the Bering Sea, Smith saw no reason to pursue the paperwork required for the medal.

Next to nothing is known about those enlisted men who served “before the mast” in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and it is unlikely that commissioned officers of the cutters knew very much about the men who served on deck. For all practical purposes, the enlisted force consisted of merchant marine sailors and, as many maritime historians have pointed out, most sailors in the 19th century had few ties to shore. It is, therefore, consistent with the times that Smith felt it not worth the effort to determine whether Moulthrope had a family that would appreciate a medal recognizing the courage of their son or brother. Be that as it may, I believe Moulthrope’s name should be added posthumously to the list of Gold or Silver Lifesaving Medals recipients.

Captain and crew from High-Endurance Cutter Munro give honors to Charles Moulthrope’s grave in 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Captain and crew from High-Endurance Cutter Munro give honors to Charles Moulthrope’s grave in 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the U.S. Lifesaving Service Heritage Association’s November 2006 issue of Wreck & Rescue. It is re-published here with permission of the author and the journal. Our thanks to them both for re-use of this article.

Charles C. Moulthrope will be honored as the namesake for WPC-1141, one of the Coast Guard’s new Fast Response Cutters.

 


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