by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn
An oysterman in a weather-beaten skiff prepares to tend his beds as a blood-orange sun peeks over the Atlantic horizon. A herd of wild ponies drink in a freshwater wetland where buffleheads and mallards hunt for breakfast among reeds on the glistening, glass surface. Laughing gulls fight over a jackknife clam, their cries muffled by the sound of crashing surf pummeling the sand.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia, making up the southernmost portion of the Delmarva Peninsula, is an isolated, often-overlooked stretch of land between southern Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Chincoteague, Virginia, a small island community teeming with maritime culture located just south of the Maryland border off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, is one special place the Coast Guard calls home. Locals there are passionate about their town, customs and history. As it turns out, this often means they’re passionate about the Coast Guard – the seagoing service has been a seam in the social fabric there for generations.
The spirit of honoring past Coast Guardsmen in the Chincoteague area helped prompt the National Park Service to promote preservation of the old Coast Guard station located on neighboring Assateague Island.
The Assateague Beach Coast Guard Station, located at Tom’s Cove, was constructed in 1922. The structure served as the Coast Guard Station for the area until it was decommissioned in 1967 and became part of the Assateague Island National Seashore.
“The Assateague Beach Coast Guard Station is the park’s only nationally significant cultural resource,” said Deborah Darden, National Park Service superintendent at the Assateague Island National Seashore. “It is critically important to understanding the park’s history that we find a way to preserve the station and tell its story.”
Missing puzzle pieces to the station’s story, and of the Coast Guard in the area surrounding Chincoteague, are likely held by the people who live there.
“There is a significant number of Coast Guard veterans who are either from Chincoteague Island, buried on the island or retired to the island,” said Lt. Cmdr. Justin Strock, supervisor at Coast Guard Sector Field Office Eastern Shore. “There is an extremely rich Coast Guard tradition on Chincoteague.”
One retired Coast Guardsman, Kerry Bowden, a Chincoteague native who served in the Coast Guard for 30 years, now works for the service in a civilian capacity as the housing officer for Coast Guard Sector Field Office Eastern Shore in Chincoteague. Bowden, like many locals, discovered the Coast Guard while growing up on the island and decided to join after high school. ”Lots of people from Chincoteague join the Coast Guard and Coast Guard members from away discover Chincoteague during their service and decide to retire here,” said Bowden. “The Coast Guard offers employment opportunities here and Chincoteague offers old-fashioned, small town living that appeals to a lot of folks. You walk down the street and you know the people you see. Coast Guard members get involved in the community and are among those familiar faces. They help maintain cemeteries here, they provide a color guard for memorial services and participate in the parades. As a local here in Chincoteague and as a retired Coast Guardsman, I can say I’m proud of both.”
More than 350 Coast Guard retirees reside on the island year round. This inspired an annual island tradition known as the Coast Guardsmen of Yesteryear Breakfast. Every year since 1999, on the Saturday morning before Veterans Day at the school on Chincoteague, approximately 100 – 150 retired Coast Guardsmen and members of other uniformed services gather for a breakfast in celebration of their service to the nation.
Active-duty Coast Guard members in Chincoteague had the opportunity to meet with one unique former Coast Guardsman and WWII veteran on April 27, 2015. Richard Smith, who was awarded a U.S. Coast Guard Bronze Star 69 years after his honorable actions during the Battle of Guam in 1944, visited Chincoteague to speak about his Coast Guard service, including his experiences serving in WWII. Aids to Navigation Team Chincoteague, Station Chincoteague and Sector Field Office Eastern Shore personnel recognized Smith’s service and presented him with a plaque. Smith, a resident of Salisbury, Maryland, and native of East Liverpool, Ohio, served in the Coast Guard from 1942 to 1945. A medical corpsman, Smith spent five days on Guam in 1944 and tended to approximately 36 men during battle.
“The highlight of my Coast Guard career was serving as a pharmacist’s mate in Chincoteague,” said Smith.
While living Coast Guard heroes and historic Coast Guard treasures accentuate the island’s unique character, Chincoteague’s true claim to fame lies with the wild ponies on neighboring Assateague Island and the pony-penning week held every July. Coast Guard crews play an important role in the events that draw international attention each year.
The Chincoteague ponies, made famous by the Misty of Chincoteague series written by Marguerite Henry beginning in 1947, are believed to be descendants of horses brought to the island by 17th-century colonists looking to avoid livestock laws and taxes on the mainland. In 1835, the practice of pony penning began with settlers rounding up ponies and taking them off the island. In 1924, the first official Pony Penning Day was held by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, where ponies were auctioned as a way to raise money for equipment. The annual event continues in the same fashion to the present day.
The ponies are rounded up on Assateague Island and driven into the water by volunteer “Salt Water Cowboys” on the last Wednesday of each July in the event known as the Chincoteague Pony Swim. The annual event draws tens of thousands of spectators from around the world. Coast Guard Station Chincoteague crew members are charged each year with enforcing a safety zone on either side of the channel where the ponies make the swim.
The day before the swim each year, the Coast Guard hosts an open house in Chincoteague drawing up to 2,000 people. Locals and people from away learn about safe boating, tour Coast Guard facilities and assets, and mingle with the Coast Guardsmen stationed there.
The summer months in Chincoteague, and pony penning week in particular, are critically important to the island’s economy and culture.
“Most off-island people don’t understand how much pony penning week means to the people of Chincoteague Island,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Aaron Hofmeister, a crewman at Station Chincoteague.
Another thing pony swim spectators and boaters from away might not realize is the danger of operating a boat in the waters around Chincoteague. Constant shoaling in the area means waters deep enough to navigate one day might be too shallow the next.
“Chincoteague offers the crew great opportunities to conduct Coast Guard missions in a very unique and challenging area of responsibility,” said Chief Petty Officer Hank Deatrich, the officer-in-charge at Station Chincoteague. “This area keeps us all fresh and makes us stay vigilant in our duties as the constant shifting of shoals and limited water make it very challenging.”
Following seasoned local mariners on shortcuts outside marked channels can easily land visiting boaters aground. Even experienced boat operators in the area can run into trouble due to shoaling.
“As hard as it is to operate in this area due to the constant shoal shifting, I must say working here has made me a better navigator,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Madeline Sorrentino, a boat operator at Station Chincoteague. “Boating on these waters made me understand the importance of good seamanship and area knowledge.”
The Coast Guard is not always able to reach boats that run aground in these shallow waters and often depends on help from local mariners.
“The watermen here adapt every day to the shifting shoals and have often been of great service in approaching different areas on the water,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Timothy Jacobs, a boat operator at Station Chincoteague.
Perhaps the cooperation between the locals and the Coast Guard in Chincoteague stems from the fact that many were Coast Guardsmen, are related to, or know somebody who served in the service.
The island community and the seagoing service are intertwined historically and culturally. Hopefully passion and support for the Coast Guard will remain there for years to come. Preservation of the old station might lie with learning more from those who served there, and with those currently working to educate others about the station’s potential.
“The old Coast Guard station complex represents so much,” said Vicki Walsh, National Park Service employee at Tom’s Cove Visitor Center at the Assateague Island National Seashore. “It can be used to tell many stories. The stories of its construction, its different structures, its location, of weathering the storms, of the service that took place there – the organization behind the work, the Coast Guardsmen who carried out their missions there. The structure and its location are a physical link in the continuing chain of service to sea-going people. The place is an opportunity that needs to happen.”