Flags of our fallen

Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Angela Henderson

The orange sun slowly sets over the horizon on a perfect day near the shores of Hawaii’s famous landmark, Diamond Head. The ruddy rays reflect off a 47-foot motor life boat floating gently in the sea; its boat crew scans the sky while two bright orange rescue helicopters separate from the dense, green foliage of the tropical island.

One helicopter crew contacts the small boat crew to synchronize their course and speed. The helo then slowly descends until it hovers 40 feet above the boat. The other helicopter splits off and circles the scene, waiting for that perfect moment.

Seaman Garrett Hamilton, a boat crew member from Coast Guard Station Honolulu, waits patiently in the well deck of the small boat for the helicopter to drop the lead line. This is the usual routine of helicopter operations training, but this particular evening is special. Instead of dropping a rescue swimmer or basket into the back of the boat, five Coast Guard ensigns are lowered. Today is the end of their journey; a journey that has taken the five flags from sunny Miami, Fla., to chilly Kodiak, Alaska, all in memory of four Coast Guardsmen lost in the line of duty.

This scene in the warm waters off the island of Oahu was about the same as on the night of Sept. 4, 2008. That evening, shortly after 8 p.m., Cmdr. Thomas Nelson, Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Wischmeier, Petty Officer 1st Class David Skimin, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Nichols lost their lives in a training accident just south of the Honolulu International Airport.

In the year following the accident, the Oahu community dedicated numerous events in memory of the ‘6505’ crew. All the while, the flags slowly made their way across the United States.

The idea originated from Master Chief Petty Officer Patrick Daniels, the command master chief at Air Station Atlantic City.

“In the past, when people have retired, we’ve sent flags to each of the stations they’ve been at, and it was flown over the unit and then given to them at their retirement ceremony,” said Daniels.

It was this sentiment that inspired Daniels to pay homage to the crew of ‘6505.’

After the accident, many in the Coast Guard aviation community wanted to do something special for the crew but didn’t know what would be appropriate. The command at Air Station Atlantic City brainstormed ways to draw attention to the Coast Guard Foundation memorial fund set up for the families. In addition, they wanted to provide a heartfelt gesture from the Coast Guard aviation community as a whole.

“I was surprised at how many people knew these guys, and I know it was this way throughout the Coast Guard,” said Daniels. “The command and I came up with a few ideas and then I consolidated everything and sent an e-mail out to the aviation engineering leading chief network.”

After Daniels sent the e-mail, he received many responses from people who were very excited about the idea. And just like that, the ensigns started their journey.

Their first stop was Air Station Cape Cod. From there, Atlantic City, N.J. Then Elizabeth City, N.C.

And they kept going.

Daniels mapped out a timeline so that each unit would receive the flags with enough time for the flags to make their way back to the ‘6505’ memorial in Hawaii.

“Following a timeline and a path around the U.S., each air station would take at least two photos with the ensigns, however they saw fit, and then pass the flags on to the next air station,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott Harris, the HH-65 leading chief petty officer at Barbers Point.

As the flags continued their journey, the photos taken by the air station crew members picked up momentum. Air station crews would hear about what the previous air station did and then try to incorporate their own twist on representing the flags.

“In one of Air Station Houston’s photos, crew members lined up behind five Coast Guardsmen who are holding the flag poles with the ensigns. In front of them are four men kneeling, heads bowed, and their right hands placed on a helmet,” said Harris.

Soon enough, a true grassroots effort took hold.

“Everyone got onboard with the idea and gave all the support they could possibly give,” said Harris. “And to the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t mandatory for people to go out there so they could take the photos. Everyone would just show up; everyone wanted to be there.”

As the project gained more momentum, another tribute began to take shape – to put the photos together in a book.

With the help of one of the memorial project officers, Lt. David Maccaferri, and a rescue helicopter flight mechanic, Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Ewing, the concept started to become a reality.

Ewing said he’s made photo books before, but he said he went to great lengths to ensure this book was special.

“We decided to not write any captions and let the photos speak for themselves,” said Ewing. “The only writing we put in there were the names of the fallen crewmembers.”

“It’s an honor to work on this project, where the final result is a book that is going to be a tribute to the crew, and these family members can look back and remember the whole Coast Guard supporting their family,” said Maccaferri.

Fittingly enough, the flags’ last stop was Air Station Barbers Point.

“We decided that we wanted to fly the flags attached to the 47-foot boat. This is how the accident happened, and this symbolizes the beginning and the end of the ‘6505,’” said Harris. “We wanted a physical attachment between the 47 and the rescue helicopter.”

These are the flags of Coast Guard heroes.

Of husbands, sons, fathers, friends and shipmates.

They are the flags of our fallen.



Five Coast Guard ensigns, that have traveled across country, have come to the end of their journey. These five flags, that have been flown at every Coast Guard air station from Miami to Kodiak, Alaska in memory of four Coast Guardsmen that lost their lives in the line of duty, were presented to their families at a memorial held at Air Station Barbers Point, Friday, Sept. 4, 2009.Five Coast Guard ensigns, that have traveled across country, have come to the end of their journey. These five flags, that have been flown at every Coast Guard air station from Miami to Kodiak, Alaska in memory of four Coast Guardsmen that lost their lives in the line of duty, were presented to their families at a memorial held at Air Station Barbers Point, Friday, Sept. 4, 2009.

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