Barnegat Light Coast Guardsman Joins Elite Club

Eric Thornton Becomes 533rd Surfman in Service’s History
By RICK MELLERUP | Mar 14, 2018
Photo by: Nora Devin

On March 7, Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Eric Thornton was awarded his United States Coast Guard Surfman Pin. In doing so, he joined the U.S. military’s elite.

Every service has its elites. Best known to the public these days are SEALs, the U.S. Navy’s Sea, Air and Land teams, the Navy’s primary special operations force. That’s what happens when you kill Osama bin Laden. Back in the 1960s the best-known special forces group was the U.S. Army’s Green Berets. The Green Berets were preceded by Army Rangers and have since been supplemented, Army-wise, by the Delta Force, highlighted in the 2001 film “Black Hawk Down.”

U.S. Marines consider all of their brothers and, these days, sisters, elite. But there is an upper crust, Marine Reconnaissance teams, Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance, and members of the Marine Special Operations Command. The U.S Air Force has pararescue jumpers, trained to rescue downed pilots, and its Air Force Combat Controllers, who are inserted behind enemy lines to provide air support coordination. I’ve probably forgotten a dozen other elite units.

But much of the public forgets the U.S. Coast Guard is the fifth armed force of the United States. It isn’t part of the Department of Defense, but rather the Department of Homeland Security and before that the Department of Transportation and before that the Department of the Treasury. With just over 30,000 members, it is far and away the smallest of the U.S. armed forces.

It is truly an armed force in times of war. In World War II, for example, Coast Guard coxswains piloted the landing craft in many a battle in the Pacific and on D-Day in Europe. In Vietnam, Coast Guard Squadron One had 26 Point-class cutters, 82-foot patrol vessels, assigned to interdict the movement of supplies and arms by Viet Cong and North Vietnam junk and trawler operators. Meanwhile, some 8,000 members of the Coast Guard also provided port security, installation and maintenance of aids-to-navigation, manned LORAN stations in both Vietnam and Thailand and, of course, conducted search and rescue missions.

Search and rescue is the Coast Guard mission that is best known to the American public. Every time there is a major hurricane, such as Katrina, what service is the first to respond? President Donald Trump said “there’s no brand that went up more than the Coast Guard” while he was visiting members of U.S. Coast Guard Station Lake Worth Inlet in Florida on Thanksgiving Day 2017 after the service had responded to a rash of hurricanes that fall. “What a job you’ve done.”

And that’s not to mention the job the Coast Guard does on a day-to-day basis, rescuing mariners from the seas (and lakes and rivers as well), sometimes in the most incredible conditions imaginable. The Coast Guard’s official motto is “Semper Paratus,” Always Ready. Its unofficial motto is “You have to go out, you don’t have to come back.”

The Coast Guard also has its elites. Helicopter pilots. Rescue swimmers. Divers. Maritime Safety and Security Teams. And, of course, Surfmen. Indeed, the last may be the most elite Coastguardsmen of all, considering there have been only 534 of them in the Coast Guard’s long and illustrious history.

And now BM2 Thornton is one of them.

Years of Training;

Bucking Big Ones

Making rescues in the open sea, often in high seas and brutal winds, is tough enough. But making rescues in heavy surf is an altogether different game. That’s why the Coast Guard has three levels of coxswains, the person in charge of a small boat.

A person successfully navigating a tough training, qualification and certification process is awarded a Coxswain Badge. Thornton, who has served in the Coast Guard for 6½ years, and specifically at Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light for four, earned his Coxswain Badge in May 2015 after being trained in all aspects of operating a 47-foot motor life boat, the fast, rugged and self-righting backbone of the Coast Guard’s small boat fleet.

The next step is becoming a Heavy Weather Coxswain, which requires training at the Coast Guard National Motor Lifeboat School near the mouth of the Columbia River at the appropriately named Cape Disappointment just outside of Ilwaco, Wash. While there on temporary duty, Thornton learned to perform risk assessment, basic engineering casualty control procedures, advanced operating skills for heavy weather boat handling, and towing consistent with Coast Guard policy and standards. He earned his Heavy Weather Coxswain rating in April 2017.

To earn his Surfman pin, Thornton had to return to the motor lifeboat school for further training.

Even though he was being interviewed on the phone, it was easy to imagine Thornton’s face when he tried to describe the surf conditions at Cape Disappointment, known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” Readers can get an idea of the Cape Disappointment experience by Googling Cape Disappointment surfboat training. Thanks to YouTube, there are plenty of examples throughout the years. Thornton reduced his memories to one simple word – wow!

A highlight of Thornton’s pinning ceremony was his reading of the Surfman’s Creed:

I will to the best of my ability, pursue each mission with the commitment, compassion, and courage inherent in the title “SURFMAN.”

I will endeavor to reinforce the worldwide reputation of our forefathers in the Lifeboat Community.

I will maintain a guardian’s eye on my crew at all times, and keep a cool, yet deliberate, hand on the throttle.

I will give of myself and my knowledge as those who gave to me; so as the line of Coast Guard Surfman will live forever.

I will ensure that my supervisors rest easy with the knowledge that I am at the helm, no matter what the conditions.

I will never unnecessarily jeopardize myself, my boat (which costs $1,214,000), or my crew; but will do so freely to rescue those in peril.

I will strive with dedication and determination to bring credit upon Coast Guard Surfmen past and future.

Thornton’s pride at joining the elite few resonated even over the phone, as it should. He’s made amazing progress since joining the Coast Guard out of his hometown of Turlock, Calif., about an hour southeast of San Francisco.

“I wanted to serve my country,” he said of enlisting. “I like the water, so I decided the Coast Guard was the best bet.”

By the way, Thornton’s Coast Guard career would have been much different if he had gotten his station of choice before being assigned to Barnegat Light. His preferred destination at the time was Lake Champlain (the Coast Guard patrols any major interstate body of water such as the Great Lakes and the Mississippi and Missouri rivers). Not much surf there.

Station Barnegat Light is designated as one of only 21 surf stations in the Coast Guard, so Thornton isn’t the only Surfman at the station. He’s joined six more. And to repeat, he’s joined an elite club numbering just 534.

“I was number 533,” said Thornton (another earned his pin down south a few days later). By the way, Surfman may be an outdated word, considering he said four of the members of the elite group are women.

LBI Has Seen

Surf Disaster

The surf conditions off Long Beach Island may not normally be nearly as rugged as those in Cape Disappointment, but at times they can be frightening indeed. One time was April 16, 1854. That’s when the packet ship Powhatan sank off the coast of LBI. The 600-ton wooden schooner left Havre, France in March 1854 on its way to New York City, but it ran into a spring snowstorm off LBI and hit the Barnegat Shoals.

Now, the Powhatan was only 100 yards offshore of present-day Surf City, but the surf and wind were so strong that it battered the ship, eventually breaking it in two as a small crowd watched helplessly from shore. According to various sources at the time, some 200 to 365 people, mostly German immigrants, drowned and washed ashore. Some washed as far south as Atlantic City.

Fifty-four were buried in a mass grave at the Smithville Methodist Church while another 45 were buried in Absecon. But the majority of victims washed up on LBI and were buried in the Baptist cemetery in Manahawkin. In 1904 the State of New Jersey erected a monument to the “Unknown of the Sea” honoring the victims. It still stands today at the back of the old cemetery across Route 9 from the Stafford branch of the Ocean County Library.

Needless to say, given that past example the area is blessed to have Thornton and his mates stationed at Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light. To borrow a phrase from President Trump, they’ve got quite the brand.

Congratulations, BM2 Thornton. And thank you for your service.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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