Going for Gold: The USCG’s Lifesaving Medals

I. Introduction. The Coast Guard recognizes America’s heroes for their daring, and often death-defying water rescues with the prestigious Gold and Silver Lifesaving Medals. On average, five or six Gold Lifesaving Medals are given out each year to recognize extraordinary acts of heroism. About 15 Silver Lifesaving medals are given out annually for slightly lesser acts of courage. 1 These medals are like Olympic medals in one sense, because they have great meaning to the recipients and those that have been saved. In another way, they are unlike Olympic medals because they recognize a single defining moment in the lives of the participants–­­a moment that no amount of training could prepare the participants. Some have likened the Lifesaving Medals to the prestigious Medal of Honor in terms of their rarity and importance. 2 They are a tribute to selfless heroism in the face of death. The process of investigating these acts, especially those acts that have gone unrecognized for many years, costs time for local Coast Guard commands, but offers unique rewards when the investigation is finally completed.

II. Background. The Gold and Silver Lifesaving medals were established in 1874 by an Act of Congress, which authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to bestow the medals upon individuals who endanger their own lives in saving or endeavoring to save lives from the perils of the sea, within the United States, or upon any American vessel. In 1967, this authority was transferred to the Secretary of Transportation, with administrative oversight being transferred to the Commandant of the US Coast Guard. The Gold Lifesaving Medal, originally designated the “Medal of the First Class,” was created for “acts of extreme heroism,” while the Silver Lifesaving Medal, designated as “Medal of the Second Class,” was for life saving acts of a lesser degree of heroism or risk of life. 3 Civilians as well as military members under certain conditions, are eligible to receive lifesaving medals. Coast Guardsmen may, under certain circumstances, and with the Commandant’s approval, receive a ten percent retirement bonus for having been awarded a lifesaving medal. 4 Examples of Coast Guardsmen who have received this bonus are rare because the lifesaving medals are non­military awards, usually reserved for actions which occur during off­duty times.

The medals are among the most valuable, the Gold Medal being comprised of 99.9 percent pure gold, and the Silver Medal being comprised of 99 percent pure silver. The first Gold Lifesaving Medals were awarded in 1876 to three brothers who saved the survivors of a shipwreck on Lake Erie. The brothers maneuvered their 12-­foot boat in high seas and gale­force winds to reach the victims. 5

The first woman to be awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal was Ida Lewis, the daughter of the keeper of the Lime Rock Lighthouse in Rhode Island. On February 4, 1881, two soldiers were crossing the ice between the lighthouse and the garrison at Fort Adams when they fell through the weak ice and plunged into the frigid waters below. Miss Lewis, standing on the dangerous ice, threw the survivors a rope and pulled them to safety one at a time. Miss Lewis was known to have rescued at least 13 others from drowning prior to this incident and as many as 25 throughout her career as a lightkeeper at Lime Rock Light. 6

Notable recipients of the awards include Navy Commander Chester W. Nimitz, who received the Silver Lifesaving Medal for rescuing a shipmate off Hampton Roads, Virginia in 1912; and Navy Lieutenant Richard E. Byrd, who also received the Silver Lifesaving Medal for rescuing a shipmate in Santo Domingo in 1914. 7

III. Yesterday’s Hero Recognized Today. There is no statute of limitations for the awarding of the Gold or Silver Lifesaving Medals. 8 Take the Pea Island, North Carolina Lifesaving Station, the only all­-African American crew in the US Lifesaving Service, (the USCG’s predecessor organization). The crew was recognized on October 11, 1996 for its daring rescue of the schooner E.S. Newman’s crew on October, 11, 1896! Relatives of the seven-­man Pea Island crew were on hand to see their descendents receive posthumous recognition for having successfully battled hurricane­force winds and the Atlantic’s surging waters to save nine men from the E.S Newman. 9

In a more typical example, the Coast Guard took 12 years to recognize another hero.

On the afternoon of 3 July, 1984 fisherman Jack Newick rescued Mr. James Sanborn and Mrs. Marjorie Blair from beneath a capsized 27 foot long sailing vessel in Little Bay, New Hampshire. Mrs. Blair and Mr. Sanborn were two of a sail boat’s crew of five that had been beset by a sudden 60­-knot squall.

The other three lucky crew had been literally ejected from the sail boat as it turned turtle and had been rescued by a cruising USCG Auxiliary craft. Mr. Newick, a Mr. Heaphy, and a Mr. Scritchfield heard the distress calls issued by the local marina. Newick and his two friends embarked immediately in their fishing boat and were on scene within minutes of the sail boat capsizing.

Despite the 66 degree water temperature in Little Bay, Newick jumped in the water and got on top of the capsized sail boat where he felt and heard Mrs. Blair’s desperate cries for help. Mrs. Blair was pounding urgently on the hull with a fire extinguisher, and Newick felt the vibrations through his feet.

On Newick’s first dive 18 feet beneath the surface, he became entangled in the sail boat’s rigging, but still managed to determine there were two survivors under the boat. Newick again dove beneath the surface and fastened a line to the lower part of the mast. Mrs. Blair later indicated she and Mr. Sanborn shared a pitch­black, claustrophobic air pocket the length and width of two heads! Time was running out.

Heaphy then heaved around on the fishing vessel’s winch and righted the sail vessel to a 45 degree angle, but did not break the air pocket which the two victims relied upon. Newick then dove two more times through the maze of rigging and sail, without a wet suit or SCUBA gear, and brought Mr. Sanborn and Mrs. Blair to the surface. Newick was in the frigid water for 25 minutes.

Mrs. Blair was treated at a nearby hospital and released the day after the rescue. The 76 year-­old Mr. Sanborn, exhausted from his ordeal, was hospitalized in critical condition. Despite Scritchfield having performed lifesaving CPR on the boat ride to shore, Sanborn had a stroke two days later and died. 10

Mrs. Blair still sends her rescuers a Christmas card each year, thanking them for giving her the gift of life. Jack Newick was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal in a ceremony at Base South Portland, Maine in 1996. Heaphy and Scritchfield were also recognized for their extraordinary efforts and received USCG Public Service Commendations.

IV. Conclusions.

  • Recognizing today’s and yesterday’s heroes is the right thing to do, but can be time consuming, especially as the Coast Guard streamlines itself. While the Coast Guard receives outstanding press coverage when it recognizes old and new acts of courage, that same press coverage routinely brings the promise of one or two new disclosures of unrecognized heroes and heroic acts.
  • Each disclosure must be researched and investigated, taking typically well over 100 hours! In the case of older events, where memories have faded and witnesses are not easily located, the time investment is often greater. Many investigators do their research in front of a microfiche reader or sifting through stacks of old papers. Some older events have occurred before the newspapers had converted to computer storage methods. In an environment where the Coast Guard is streamlining, this time investment can be a consideration for the small Search and Rescue units that normally receive these inquiries. However, the USCG must be Semper Paratus (Always Ready) to recognize its deserving lifesavers lest they sink into oblivion.


  1. US Coast Guard, Medals and Awards Branch Information Flyer, 1996.
  2. Williams, Hugh, D., CDR, USCG (Ret), “Special Appointments to the USCG Academy,” The Bulletin, USCGA Alumni Association magazine, October, 1996, Vol. 58, No. 5, p.S.
  3. Opcit.
  4. US Coast Guard, Medals and Awards Manual, pp 1­8 & 1­37 and USCG Personnel Manual p. 12­C­32.
  5. US Coast Guard, Medals and Awards Branch Information Flyer, July, 1996.
  6. Clifford, Mary Louise, “Keeper of the Light,” American History, Sept/Oct 1996, Vol. XXX1 No. 4, p. 28.
  7. Opcit.
  8. US Coast Guard, Medals and Awards Manual, p. 4­5.
  9. The Virginian Pilot, Thursday, 10 October, 1996, p. B5.
  10. US Coast Guard Commander, Group Portland, Maine letter 1650 dated 16 February, 1995.