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'The spirit lives on every single day'

Alex Doty • Jun 14, 2018 at 10:00 AM

It’s been 75 years since the Escanaba sank in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II, but the spirit of those who served aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter lives on.

The Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival Committee paid tribute to the ship’s crew during a memorial ceremony Wednesday morning at Escanaba Park. The event honored the 103 men who went down with the ship, as well as the two survivors who’ve since died.

“Today was unbelievably great,” Coast Guard Festival Executive Director Mike Smith said Wednesday. “It was a perfect blend of citizens who love the Coast Guard, people who are serving in the Coast Guard, people who have served in the Coast Guard, connected to people who have a direct legacy to the Escanaba. We’re Coast Guard City for a reason, and today the light is on and we’re shining brightly.”

The service featured a roll call and bell toll for all 105 men who served aboard the ship on June 13, 1943, as well as a rifle salute and the playing of “Taps.” Proclamations from Tri-Cities communities and the state of Michigan paid tribute to the Escanaba. 

A new brick memorial in front of the Escanaba mast and life raft at the waterfront park was also unveiled. It features the names of those who served aboard the ship when it sank.

“Thanks to a lot of hard work, it was a vision of the Chief Petty Officers Association to continue to tell our story physically through bricks,” Smith said. “It just coincided greatly with a good vision to honor the 75th anniversary of the Escanaba.”

Smith said they hope to continue with the project and honor those who’ve served in the Revenue Cutter Service, on small boats and other areas.

“Today was the start of a long process,” he said.

RELATED: Photo Gallery: Escanaba 75th anniversary memorial service

Some of the family members of those who lost their lives and of the survivors attended the waterfront memorial.

Linda Biggins came from Grand Rapids to honor her father, Max Bonham, who died when the ship sank.

“I really didn’t know my father — I was only 2 and a half years old when he was killed,” she said. “But we’ve always come to Grand Haven and remember memories.”

Biggins said it was special to see the Grand Haven community continue to care about the Coast Guard, and she hopes to attend the Coast Guard Festival later this summer.

“I think a couple of my cousins are coming up from Missouri, because my dad was from Missouri,” she said. “There was eight in the family, and three of them were in the Coast Guard.”

Peter O’Malley, whose father Raymond was one of the survivors, was also in attendance at Wednesday’s ceremony with his family. He said that he was surprised by the bricks placed in remembrance of the Escanaba crew.

“My dad was big on bricks,” he said. “We have one at our church that we bought for the Escanaba.”

Attending the festival’s National Memorial Service is an annual event for the family, O’Malley said.

“We’re here all the time,” he said. “We have not missed it in 75 years.”

The Coast Guard Festival plans to continue to celebrate the spirit of the Escanaba at this year’s event. It was announced in March that the current Escanaba, based in Boston, would return to Grand Haven for this year’s festival, which runs July 27 to Aug. 5.

“The spirit lives on every single day, but this summer it will be very prominent when the harbor is filled with the glorious Escanaba III,” Smith said.

Rear Adm. Joanna Nunan, commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District, noted that the deep-rooted connection the Grand Haven area has with the Coast Guard is what helped decide to bring the Escanaba to this year’s festival.

“The spirit of those brave sailors and determined citizens of Grand Haven is with us off the coast of Hawaii, high in the rigging of the tall ship Eagle, in the response boats, the dunk tanks, the glow of the command centers, and on a certain 270-foot cutter sailing out of Boston,” she said. “’Send the Escanaba to Grand Haven,’ leadership decided. Let’s show Grand Haven where she’s from, and let’s show Grand Haven where she’s been.”

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