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Throughout the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, there have been many notable leaders and heroes. But only one is known as the “the champion lifesaver and lifeboat roller of the Pacific Coast.” His name is Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAdams, and with a career spanning 27 years his exploits in the high surf off the Pacific Northwest are legendary.
Today’s lifesavers of the Pacific will be reminded of McAdams and his remarkable career on a daily basis with the new McAdams Multipurpose Building. Located at Group/Air Station North Bend, the building will facilitate engineering and rescue swimmer operations.
“Master Chief McAdams truly represents what Coast Guardsmen should aspire to be. He was passionate about his craft, proficient in his duties and served as a mentor to future generations,” said Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Vice Adm. John Currier after attending the ceremony.
While it may seem strange the building that houses engineers and swimmers at North Bend is named after a boatswain’s mate, the crews know it takes a team – regardless of rate or rank – to perform Coast Guard missions every day. This notion of teamwork was further reaffirmed when North Bend’s crews came face-to-face with the lifesaver himself at the building’s dedication.
“Master Chief passed some good words about the way the Coast Guard was then and how they always got the job done with the equipment they had at the time. It was motivational in a way,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Dennis Gryzenia, a rescue swimmer at the air station. “After the ceremony his friends and family browsed through our shop spaces and told several stories about Master Chief McAdams. Pretty much everyone had a story, and they all came down to one thing – the master chief was one of those ‘Old Guard’ veterans who just went out there and made stuff happen. You’ve got to respect that.”
McAdams entered the U.S. Coast Guard Dec. 7, 1950, and after a small stint trying to figure out what rate he wanted to be, he knew there was only one for him – boatswain’s mate. After choosing his rate, the rest, as they say, is history.
The career lifsaver spent close to three decades operating with the service’s motor lifeboats. He worked with everything from 36-foot to 44-foot motor lifeboats and even helped in the design of the 47-foot motor lifeboat used today. Noted for his seamanship, McAdams, participated in more than 5,000 rescues and was credited with saving more than 100 lives.
But while his boat skills were unrivaled by his peers, they were pushed to the limit in the large swells commonly seen at river entrances along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. McAdams survived nine “rolls,” where his self-righting 16-ton lifeboat actually capsized and then rolled upright again. Buried under the surf and trying to wait for the ship to roll back is something he will not soon forget.
“In one operation while in charge of a 44-foot MLB [motor lifeboat]… my two man crew and myself were pitched-pulled, that is, end-over-end, by a large breaking swell,” wrote McAdams. “We were pushed down for approximately 40-some seconds. We are strapped in, but are outside and must hold your breath while the tons of water cascades over you, and you hang precariously upside down till the MLB rights itself again.”
McAdams is one of few people in the service to receive both the Gold Life Saving Medal and the Coast Guard Medal. He earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal in 1957 at Yaquina Bay when he was the coxswain of a rescue crew that saved four people capsized in the surf. He earned the Coast Guard Medal for a 1968 rescue near Umpqua River, Ore., where he led his crew through 35-knot winds and 15-foot breakers to rescue three people.
In 1972 then-commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Chester R. Bender, presented him with the first coxswain’s insignia ever issued. The famed lifesaver commanded many of the small boat stations dotted along the Pacific Northwest coast, including the Coast Guard’s Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment, Wash., where he wrote the textbook used to train future lifesavers.
In 1977, it was time for McAdams to retire. Serving as the officer-in-charge of Station Yaquina Bay in Newport, Ore., he was conflicted on what he wanted his last words to be as a Coast Guardsman.
“You know your last words; what do you say after 27 years in a service that you love,” recalled McAdams.
So he did something that may not be the first thing you would think a boatswain’s mate would do – he wrote a poem. Here are the last lines of his poem, his last words in blue.
“And the years have passed and here I be, flipping through the pages of memory, and the life has been good and I’ve taken all bets and I leave it now with no regrets. And through the bureaucracy and the call so wild, the isolated duty and the assignments that were mild, there has been someone important no matter the place that has always been there with a smiling face. She’s weathered the storms and the calms of my life. Her name is Joanne and she is my wife. So gather this chapter with a closing we bring and we thank you Lord for everything.”