Depths of Courage: Heroism at Sea and in Sanctuaries

50th Anniversary Sanctuary Signature Articles

By Elizabeth Moore | January 2022

Painting by Tom Freeman of the uss monitor sinking in a violent storm

At Great Risk to Herself

In the July 1964 issue of Ebony, author G. Allen Foster tells a vivid story of enslaved woman Mary Louvestre.1 In Norfolk, Va., after overhearing Confederate naval engineers discussing the plans for their new ironclad Merrimac and their hopes that the vessel would help them gain mastery over Union naval forces, Mary, a gifted artist and seamstress, is determined to copy the plans for the CSS Virginia and take them north to share with the Union: "In the morning, Mary felt a new strength. She sensed a new confidence and authority which she had never known before."

While some have questioned the details of Mary's life as told by Foster, the facts reveal a woman of significant accomplishment and resilience. The documentation of Mary's life is scarce but recent research2 indicates she was likely free (not enslaved, as Foster had written), the daughter of Haitian immigrants to Norfolk in the 1790s; married and the mother of several children, including at least two lost to yellow fever; and the owner of several businesses, a rare achievement of the time. Available sources also agree that she brought copies of the plans for Virginia (an ironclad being built on the hull of the former frigate Merrimac by the Confederacy) to Union officials and a warning that the construction of the vessel was well underway. If they had any hope of defending themselves against this revolutionary new vessel and maintaining their blockade, they had better hasten the work on their own ironclad, the USS Monitor. Gideon Welles, secretary of the Navy during the Civil War, wrote of Mary in 1879, noting how she "passed through the lines, at great risk to herself, to bring me the information."3

A drawing shows the remodeling of the USS Merrimac

A drawing shows the remodeling of the USS Merrimac to the CSS Virginia at the Gosport Navy Yard (now Norfolk Naval Shipyard). The image comes from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 1, The Century Company, New York, 1887.

What is also undeniable was Mary's courage. Despite being a free Black woman, she still faced severe gender, racial, and social restrictions and the journey she undertook was perilous. She could have faced severe repercussions, but she did it anyway. It was only one of many acts of both historic and contemporary heroism in the heritage of the sanctuary system. Come with us on a journey to explore the depths of courage in and around national marine sanctuaries.

At War

The waters of national marine sanctuaries have been the locations of maritime struggles in the wars our nation has faced. They are also places where the courage and heroism of American men and women shine through the years. The loss of USS Monitor in 1862 was one such example of special relevance to the sanctuary system, as the site of the wreck became the first national marine sanctuary in 1975. Sixteen members of the crew went down with the vessel when it sank in a storm; all lost their lives in service to the country. The story of one reveals the heroic gesture he made to try and save the vessel.

James Fenwick, a Scottish immigrant to the U.S. and the 24-year-old quarter gunner of the vessel (whose job was to help ensure the guns were working properly) had been assigned to Monitor only a month before, having served previously on USS Ohio and USS Sabine. Monitor was under tow by USS Rhode Island off the coast of Cape Hatteras when a storm arose and threatened to swamp both vessels. The crew of Monitor attempted to cut the lines between them; it was James who made the first attempt. But as recalled by a crewmate, Francis Banister Butts, later in 1885, the attempt cost James his life: "As there was a danger of being towed under by our consort, the tow-lines were ordered to be cut, and I saw James Fenwick, quarter-gunner, swept from the deck and carried by a heavy sea leeward and out of sight in attempting to obey the order."4 James left behind a pregnant wife he'd married only a few months before. Another sailor, John Stocking, also lost his life in the attempt before the master of the vessel, Louis N. Stodder, was able to do so, an act that later was recognized with a commendation.

a woman at a computer interviewing louis segal
Louis Segal, former merchant sailor and World War II veteran, was interviewed about his experiences during World War II. Image: David Dodsworth/NOAA.

Monitor was not the only vessel claimed by the treacherous waters off of Cape Hatteras. Over the last 500 years, thousands of vessels were lost to storms and the notorious shifting sands and inlets of the barrier islands, enough that the area's nickname is the Graveyard of the Atlantic. But war too has taken its toll, particularly during World War I when German U-boats crossed the Atlantic for the first time to attack coastal shipping and over two decades later during World War II's Battle of the Atlantic, which claimed almost 1,700 lives and 90 ships during a six-month maritime battle in 1942. This area is so significant it is the subject of a proposed boundary expansion for Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

Louis Segal (1923 - 2018), a merchant mariner and member of the U.S. Navy, who joined a 2016 research expedition to the battlefield that found U-576, recalled what took place there: "We were escorting and protecting convoys from German U-boats. And we were searching for submarines with sonar, and found some once or twice and dropped depth charges on them." At first, the veteran said, they were fearful of the formidable U-boats, but he and the other heroes who protected our nation kept up the fight: "You get used to the fear, and I never thought my ship would go down. We knocked down several German aircraft, which the Germans never admitted to."5 The proposed expansion of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary seeks to provide long-term protection and comprehensive and coordinated management for this collection of nationally and internationally significant historic shipwrecks and recognize and interpret the battlefield that surrounds them.

group photo infront of a plane of the Tuskegee Airmen Class 44-B
A photo of Tuskegee Airmen Class 44-B shows Lt. Frank Moody, third from right in the middle row. Image: U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency, Air Force, Album ID: 836714, Photo ID: 25573368.

One sanctuary in the Great Lakes is also helping share another story from World War II, that of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Michigan was home to several African American air combat units including many graduates of the Tuskegee pilot training program, who received advanced training to help prepare them for aerial combat. As with many similar training programs during the war, dozens of accidents occurred that resulted in the loss of both aircraft and crewmen. Two Tuskegee airplanes have been discovered in Michigan waters near Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, one of them belonging to Lt. Frank Moody, who was killed when his Bell P-39Q Airacobra crashed in Lake Huron on April 11, 1944. His body washed ashore on June 3 and he was buried in Los Angeles. Frank had just graduated from Tuskegee, with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant, on Feb. 8, 1944, and was only 22 when he died.

During Disasters

Sanctuary staff, volunteers, vessels, and facilities have responded to human-caused accidents and natural disasters that test our fortitude and resilience, from oil spills and plane crashes to hurricanes and tsunamis. For example, data about oiled shorelines and wildlife collected by Beach Watch volunteers from Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary have helped in identifying, responding to, and recovering from numerous oils spills, including 1996's Cape Mohican incident, 1997's mystery tar ball event (eventually traced to leaks from the sunken Jacob Luckenbach), and 2007's Cosco Busan spill.

Scuba divers collecting marine debris underwater
A volunteer diver holds up some of the debris removed from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary after Hurricane Irma in 2017. Image: Jack Fishman

The crew of the Manta, the research vessel for Flower Gardens Bank National Marine Sanctuary, helped the U.S. Coast Guard survey the Houston ship channel for navigation hazards after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, a critical component of the effort to reopen the Port of Houston, one of the nation's largest. The same year, volunteers removed 2.5 million cubic yards of terrestrial debris, like furniture, appliances, pipes, and building material, after Hurricane Irma swept through Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The Mokupāpapa Discovery Center opened its doors as a community center for Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and local towns when 2018's eruptions of Kīlauea volcano closed the park's visitor center.

Sanctuary vessels responded to numerous plane crashes, from the small plane crash in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 1997 that took the life of singer John Denver to Alaska Air 261 that crashed off Anacapa in 2000 in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary with 88 fatalities. Staff from that same sanctuary dealt with another tragedy in 2019 when they helped respond to the loss of the dive vessel Conception as it caught fire and sank off Santa Cruz, taking the lives of 34 people on board.

At Work

Working on or near the water is inherently perilous: we are after all land creatures who can't breathe underwater. As long as we have engaged in maritime activities, we have also had those who help protect us from the dangers that go with it. For several centuries, the network of light stations and lighthouses (starting with the Boston Light built in 1716) and lifesaving stations (formally began in 1848 and eventually merged into the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915) provided aid to ships and those who sailed on them, and saved countless lives. Among them are a few heroic female lighthouse keepers who took extraordinary action to save lives, including the famed Ida Lewis, who with her parents and by herself kept the Lime Rock Light Station, Rhode Island, from 1857 to 1911, and was credited with saving 18 or more lives. Closer to home, Barbara Mabrity tended the Key West Light Station overlooking what is now Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, starting with her husband in 1825 and on her own until her retirement in 1862. She kept the light burning through not one but four hurricanes in 1835, 1841, 1842, and 1846, which destroyed the lighthouse even as she was inside.

USCG Barbara Mabrity at sea
The 175-foot USCG buoy tender Barbara Mabrity, home-ported in Mobile, Al., was named in 1999 for an intrepid lighthouse keeper who tended to the Key West Light Station through not one but four hurricanes. Image courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

More recently, one potentially tragic incident resulted in the destruction of a sanctuary vessel but no loss of life, due to the quick action and courage of a NOAA Corps officer. In November 2000, while conducting research in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary with two scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey onboard, the sanctuary's research vessel Ballena was hit and capsized by a rogue wave over 20 feet tall. NOAA Corps officer Mark Pickett, captaining the vessel, rescued the two scientists from drowning. He was later awarded a NOAA Gold Medal for his heroism and courage. The vessel, a complete loss, was replaced in 2003 by R/V Shearwater, which today continues to serve as the sanctuary's primary research platform.

Today, many staff members of the sanctuary system practice a quieter kind of courage in their everyday jobs. On any given day, a number of sanctuary staff may be diving. The members of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary's mooring buoy team tend to the network of more than 900 buoys that help protect corals from anchor damage. In other sanctuaries, researchers may be diving to monitor invertebrates in Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, observing monk seals in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, or surveying shipwrecks in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Videographers might be underwater getting footage for future 360o virtual dive experiences or to build 3-D images of shipwrecks. Some of the more advanced divers, who have undergone special technical training by NOAA, use rebreathing technology that allows them to go deeper and stay longer underwater.

A team of NOAA rescuers free a humpback whale from a tangle of fishing gear
A team of specially trained NOAA rescuers successfully free a humpback whale from a life-threatening tangle of fishing gear in Hawai‘i. Image: R. Finn/NOAA under permit #932-1905.

Sanctuary staff will be at work on boats too, conducting research, engaging with sanctuary visitors to let them know about the special place they are visiting, or responding to an on-the-water emergency. Sometimes those emergencies involve freeing large whales entangled in fishing gear and other marine debris, a dangerous undertaking that requires extensive, specialized training. In 2017, after a trained Canadian fisherman was accidentally killed during an operation to free a right whale tangled with fishing gear, American disentanglement networks paused operations for several months to review their safety procedures before resuming rescue efforts. Since its founding in 2002, the Hawaiian Islands Entanglement Response Network, with over 350 trained participants, has freed more than 30 whales.

Stand Up

Courage in and around national marine sanctuaries wears many faces but shares a consistent motivation: the protection of the wildlife, people, communities, and nation who depend on the ocean. Writer and activist Maya Angelou wrote: "Develop enough courage so that you can stand up for yourself and then stand up for somebody else."6 Sanctuary staff and volunteers show their courage and stand by their values every day.


  1. "The Woman Who Saved the Union Navy" by G. Allen Foster in Ebony, July 1964:48-55.
  2. "Who Was Civil War Spy Mary Louveste? New Research Reveals a More Complete, Complex Life Story." The Virginian-Pilot, February 21, 2021.
  3. "The First Iron-Clad Monitor" by Gideon Welles in The Annals of the War Written by Leading Participants North and South, The Times Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1879.
  4. "The Loss of the Monitor" by Francis Banister Butts in Century Magazine, 1885.
  5. Battle of the Atlantic: Archaeology of an Underwater World War II Battlefield - The Adventurous Life of Louis Segal
  6. Rainbow in the Cloud: The Wisdom and Spirit of Maya Angelou, Random House, 2014.