Coast Guard Surfman awarded Cdr. Ray Evans Outstanding Coxswain Trophy

Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Thornton, a Surfman and Boatswain's Mate at Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light, and recipient of the 2018 Cdr. Ray Evans Outstanding Coxswain Trophy, operates a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat by Barnegat Light, New Jersey, May 9, 2019. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Seth Johnson

Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Thornton, a Surfman and Boatswain’s Mate at Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light, and recipient of the 2018 Cdr. Ray Evans Outstanding Coxswain Trophy, operates a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat by Barnegat Light, New Jersey, May 9, 2019.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Seth Johnson

Twelve-foot seas, howling winds and dark night aren’t the typical conditions boaters head out into, but when Coast Guardsman Eric Thornton’s duty section received a call for help, they suited up and headed 20-miles off of Barnegat Light, New Jersey in a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat to bring a man safely home who was beset by heavy weather in a rowboat on June 4, 2018.

Thornton, a Turlock, California native, lead his crew and navigated his boat through 12-foot breaking waves to a rowboat designed for a trans-Atlantic journey, that had drifted from New York City to Southern New Jersey in a nor’easter. Once on-scene, Thornton took the mariner aboard and then placed the rowboat in tow. Finally, he conducted a challenging bar transit with waves breaking at 12 to 14 feet.

He didn’t know it at the time, but this was just one of the cases and many reasons Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Thornton was selected for the 2018 Coast Guard Cdr. Ray Evans Outstanding Coxswain Trophy, which distinguishes one coxswain in the Coast Guard for their skill of operating boats, leadership and exceptional performance.

“Personally, this means the world to me,” Thornton said of his nomination for trophy recipient. “It’s truly an honor and something I would have never believed that I would obtain during my career, and I’m beyond humbled by it.”

Assigned to Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light, Thornton serves as a Boatswain’s Mate and has obtained the esteemed qualification of Coast Guard Surfman – a role with roots that go back to the very foundation of maritime lifesaving services in the United States. In his role he serves in many capacities such as search and rescue, law enforcement, marine resources management, as well as mentor, coach and role model to new and old personnel alike.

“Petty Officer Thornton did a flawless job on his search and rescue cases which went into his selection for the Cdr. Ray Evans award,” said Chief Warrant Officer Paul Ashley, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light. “Two of the three cases that were highlighted in the award submission required him to make judgement calls during times of limited communication, which integrated both his instinctual calmness and sound decision-making as well as training.”

Ashley says that since Thornton arrived at the station, he has remained a humble person who has proved himself time and time again in challenging cases and weather scenarios, and whose approachable and friendly personality lends itself to him helping new members to the station.

“This was 100% a surprise to me,” Thornton said. “I heard I might have been put in for the trophy, but I was in California when I was told I would be receiving a phone call from Mr. Ashley. When I talked to him he said there was someone who would like to speak to me and it was Admiral Keith Smith, the 5th District commander on the phone congratulating me for being selected. The only words I could muster up was that I was truly honored.”

Throughout 2018, Thornton distinguished himself by amassing 305 underway hours during 156 sorties and took part in 23 search and rescue cases resulting in saving 13 lives and $289,345 in property.

Chief Petty Officer Robert Shay, Executive Petty Officer of Station Barnegat Light says that Thornton’s performance while driving boats and leading crews through heavy surf, a skill that requires great attention and skill of watching and creating a strategy for navigating waves, is phenomenal.

“For me, what stands out about Eric is his calmness,” said Shay. “You really have to be even-keeled under pressure type of person as a Surfman, and he carries that not only in the surf, but his approach to everything in life.”

Thornton says that for him the people who helped shape his career were his mentors both in Oregon and in Barnegat Light, as well as the National Motor Lifeboat School, which he said taught him skills that he still uses to this day for surf and heavy weather navigation.

“The biggest thing for me is first and foremost, no matter how many good things happen, stay humble and pass your knowledge down to the next person in line,” said Thornton. “That’s what people did for me and it’s what I do for the next people in line.”

The Cdr. Ray Evans Outstanding Coxswain Trophy is named after Coast Guard Cdr. Ray Evans, a Signalman 1st Class and recipient of the Navy Cross, who served alongside Douglas Munro, the Coast Guard recipient of the Medal of Honor, in the Battle of Guadalcanal. On Sept. 27, 1942, during the battle, Evans provided covering fire for the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines serving under Col. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller. Evans remained at his post through the entire operation and with every other member of his crew killed or wounded, he maintained control of the boat with one hand while firing his machine gun with the other until the last boat cleared the beach.


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