As one of the five Armed Services, the Coast Guard has proudly stood the watch for more than 221 years, even during the early years of our nation, when there was no Navy to defend the seas. Few know that the Coast Guard is the only service awarded the battle streamer for Maritime Protection of the New Republic, a distinction we earned protecting our new nation from 1790 to 1797 after the Continental Navy had been disbanded.
In peacetime and in wartime, Coast Guardsmen have always served with the knowledge that the profession of arms is frequently dangerous and requires sacrifice. Each day, Coast Guard women and men risk their lives so that others might live. We protect people on the sea, we protect the nation against threats delivered by the sea and we protect the sea itself.
This year is also the bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812. Therefore, we also want to highlight and remember Coast Guardsmen who died in America’s second war for independence. We must remember seaman John Barber, a crewman serving in a Revenue Cutter, who was captured by the British on May 28, 1813, and became our first prisoner of war. He later died onboard a British prison ship in Chatham, England.
Barber represents a legacy of Coast Guardsmen and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. They were average Americans, no different than you or me. They were all young. They enjoyed life. And none of them set out to be a hero. They were simply performing their duties in service of our nation.
Signalman First Class Douglas Munro gave his life evacuating besieged Marines at Guadalcanal during World War II. Munro was born on Oct. 11, 1919, in Vancouver, Canada, and moved with his family to Vancouver, Wash. He became a U.S. citizen in 1922 and lived most of his life at home in South Cle Elum, Wash., where he attended grade school and high school. He enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939 and had an outstanding service record. On Sept. 27, 1942, he was removing Marines from a beach by Higgins boats under heavy enemy fire when he was mortally wounded. He stated in his dying breath, “Did they get off?” Munro was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was 22 years of age.
Seaman William Flores gave his life in an effort to save his shipmates following a deadly collision and sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn. Flores was born in 1961 and raised in Carlsbad, N.M. He left high school early and, with his parent’s permission, enlisted into the Coast Guard. On the night of Jan. 28, 1980, after the 180-foot buoy tender collided with a 605-foot tanker, Flores leapt into action providing life jackets to crew members and helping the injured. He went down with the ship, but many who survived credit his efforts for saving their lives. Flores was awarded the Coast Guard Medal for extraordinary heroism. He was 19 years of age.
Damage Controlman Third Class Nathaniel Bruckenthal gave his life while securing Iraqi oil terminals as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bruckenthal was born on July 17, 1979, in Stony Brook, N.Y., and lived in Hawaii, Virginia and Connecticut. He enlisted into the Coast Guard in 1999 and served at several Coast Guard units, meeting his wife along the way. On April 24, 2004, while detached to USS Firebolt, Bruckenthal and six others were poised to board a dhow threatening the Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal when the small craft exploded, killing Bruckenthal and two Navy petty officers. He was awarded the Bronze Star with valor. He was 24 years of age.
Today our young heroes serving in our armed forces continue to step forward to answer the call of duty. I am grateful for them, and on behalf of the men and women of the Coast Guard, I want to express my deep and sincere appreciation for their service. On this Memorial Day, I ask that you pause and reflect upon all who have given their lives in the ongoing effort to protect our freedom. We will never forget them. Today, we honor them by standing the watch, and ensuring the Coast Guard remains semper paratus — always ready — to serve, protect and defend our freedoms.
Papp is commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.