'It's the heart and soul' of the Coast Guard Festival

Marie Havenga • Aug 4, 2018 at 9:00 AM

Crew members of the original U.S. Coast Guard cutter Escanaba have long since left this earth, but their spirit was very much alive during Friday's National Coast Guard Memorial Service.

It was alive in the 94 descendants of the crew members who attended Friday's solemn ceremony along the Grand Haven waterfront in Escanaba Park to pay tribute to those who served aboard the ship that was lost at sea on June 13, 1943.

It was alive in the roses that crew members of the current Escanaba laid in front of the Escanaba memorial; alive in the prose and prayers of those who spoke at the podium; alive in the sunshine that glistened off the mast of the original Escanaba; and alive in 3-year-old Dillon O'Malley, great-grandson of the Escanaba's last survivor, Ray O'Malley.

Ray O'Malley died of lung cancer on March 8, 2007. He and Melvin Baldwin were the only crew members to survive the Escanaba's sinking in frigid North Atlantic waters.

Dillon was joined at Friday's service by his dad, Michael, and grandpa, Pete. Pete has attended every memorial service for the past 75 years. He remembers sitting at the park with his father when he was a youngster. These days, he attends with his own children and grandchildren.

“I haven't missed one,” Pete said, who followed in his father's footsteps serving as a Chicago police officer. Michael is also on the force. “My dad made every one, too, even when he was sick and not feeling well. The doctors made it clear he shouldn't make the trip (in 2006, the year before he died), but he said, 'Pete, if you don't take me, I'm going to go myself.'”

As Pete sat in the descendants section at Escanaba Park, the sun beating on his back, he reached down into a large bag at his seat and pulled out copies of articles about his father and the Escanaba.

“I made a whole album about him,” Pete said. “But it's hard to get 75 years of someone's life into a few inches of pages. I have all his military records and pictures of the Escanaba.”

Pete said he often thinks of his dad, but the memorial service always stirs those memories at a deeper level. Especially memories of Ray's smile.

Pete glanced at his grandson, being hoisted into the air by Michael.

“Dillon has that same thing,” Pete said. “He always has that big smile.”

Barbara Adams of Indiana is the niece of Escanaba crew member Eldon Clark, who went down with the 165-foot-long cutter. She teared up near the conclusion of Friday's ceremony.

“I was born on Dec. 21, 1942,” Adams said. “I have several letters he had written to my mother saying, 'I can't wait to get home to see the baby.' Then he was killed.”

Adams broke down in tears thinking of what might have been.

“I think he would have been the coolest uncle in the world,” she said.

Coast Guard Festival Executive Director Mike Smith said that, despite the fanfare of the festival, the memorial service remains at the core of the weeklong celebration.

“It's the heart and soul of what we do to honor the men and women of the United States Coast Guard,” he said. “This is the solemn time.”

As a special gift for the descendants, World War II aircraft performed a flyover to open the ceremony. At a private gathering following the service, descendants of the Escanaba crew members were to receive gifts in memory of their loved ones.

Smith told the families that Saturday night's fireworks finale will reflect many memories of those lost on the Escanaba.

“Here's to you, who will also keep the spirit alive,” he said to them.

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