For more than a century, sailors on patrol in the Bering Sea would make port calls into Dutch Harbor. So it wasn’t strange last week when Coast Guard Cutter Munro pulled into the remote port along the Aleutian Islands. What was unusual, perhaps, was how crewmembers assembled themselves in full dress along a humble Aleutian hillside.
At first glance, it would appear they were there alone. But they were not. They were there alongside the fallen. Last week, as the Coast Guard celebrated 222 years of service to our great nation, Munro’s crew decided the best way to commemorate the day would be to honor six Revenue Cutter Service sailors buried on the hillside.
It all started when Chief Warrant Officer Clifford Mooneyham, the ship’s main propulsion assistant, was coordinating events for Munro’s scheduled mid-patrol break in Dutch Harbor. Mooneyham originally set up the event to clean up the cemetery and assist with some simple grounds maintenance. But when he arrived he was surprised to see the extent of disrepair at the Revenue Cutter Service gravesites.
Headstones and marker boards were knocked over, wooden borders were rotten and dilapidated and weeds had grown through the rock beds that formed the burial sites. Mooneyham was troubled by what he saw.
“It was as if the Revenue Cuttermen, their heritage and the sacrifices, they made had been forgotten,” recalled Mooneyham.
The conditions at the gravesites impacted Mooneyham tremendously as he realized just how connected he is with his forefathers; a connection stemming from commonalities Bering Sea sailors of yesterday and today share.
“We each hold our shipmates and their contributions in high regards. We each have a strong commitment to our service, to the mariners and villages of Alaska and to our nation,” said Mooneyham. “For the most part, our routine is the same. We leave our loved ones to go on patrol. We take mid-patrol breaks in Dutch Harbor for repairs and recuperation and we spend our leisure time enjoying outdoor activities including hiking, fishing and hunting.”
Mooneyham has served in the Coast Guard for 23 years and has been stationed aboard Alaskan cutters for the past ten years. He has experienced countless patrols in Alaskan waters including the Inside Passage, Gulf of Alaska, Cook Inlet and the Bering Sea. He wanted the younger crewmembers aboard Munro to feel this same powerful connection as they helped honor the Revenue Cuttermen.
“Chief Warrant Officer Mooneyham and Captain, at muster, told the crew some of the stories of the fallen sailors that we are going to go and fix up their gravesites which made it more personal. Getting to hear about what they did and how they served relates to us all in the Coast Guard,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashley Mcdougal, a Munro crewmember who helped restore the gravesites.
“I’ve always believed in honoring those who have sacrificed for the good of others, but going beyond that, these men were our predecessors. I find it difficult to describe… the amount of respect I have for these men, I don’t think I could accurately capture it with words,” said Seaman Evan Tarbell, who also helped restore the gravesites.
Mooneyham and the crew paid their respects as they restored the gravesites. But more than that, they lived up to their ship’s motto, “Honoring the past by serving the present.”
“The project and our motto go hand-in-hand. The best way we can honor cuttermen in the past and the heritage from which we come, is to continue with the same devotion to service as they did in their day,” said Mooneyham.
While Mooneyham and the crew repaired physical aspects of the gravesites, they also collected historical information on each of the headstones. Because many of the stones are missing information or are deteriorated, Mooneyham aims to use this information to correctly identify who they are, their date of birth and death and the cutters they served on. Once he has the information he hopes Munro can work with the state library and historical society as well as the Coast Guard historian’s office to have headstones engraved as a permanent gravesite that will not deteriorate in just a few years.
The work means a lot to the crew. Everyone from the captain to those who have been aboard for just a few short months drew inspiration from the event. Mooneyham led efforts that not only paid respects to those who have gone before him, but inspired a generation of future Coast Guard men and women.
“There’s a sign posted on one of the office doors here,” said Tarbell. “I don’t remember what it depicts or where it originated, but there’s a quote on it that I think sums this project up nicely: ‘The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.’”
Thanks to Mooneyham and his shipmates aboard Munro, these words, spoken by soon-to-be President Calvin Coolidge in 1920, ring true today just as they did close to 100 years ago.