Madaket Millie to the Rescue!

By Captain W. Russell Webster, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired)

Millie, her father—a fisherman and scalloper—and her older brother all lived with her grandmother, Etta Jewett. Millie's education was limited by her father's long work hours and Madaket's isolation, eight miles from Nantucket's school. Most of her education came from listening to her grandmother read aloud, while they all shucked scallops.

Millie's first brush with a real maritime disaster came during World War I, when the 382-foot steamer Ruby, caught in a nor'easter storm and guided off course by a German saboteur, ran aground off Madaket. Not much is known about Millie's role in the recovery of the vessel's badly needed cargo of oil, but it is certain the days-long salvage operation made a lasting impression on the ten-year-old.

By age 11, it was said Millie had the strength and abilities of any two surfmen at the Madaket Lifesaving Station. She could roll over a dory, launch it, and fish with the best of them, and "could handle any sort of craft in almost any type of blow."

When she was 15, her grandmother and constant companion passed away, leaving her extremely lonely. Nearly 12 years later, Millie sent out lonely heart's club invitations and married Charles Pease, the only man who wrote back. But soon, Pease, a diminutive Frenchman from Yonkers, ran away. Millie took one of her rare trips off the island—fewer than ten in her lifetime—to retrieve her wayward mate. Unfortunately, the next time he was able to get a head start and left the island by airplane, this time for good. When Millie died, official records indicated that she and Charles had divorced, and he had predeceased her by a few years.

When Millie was in her 20s, she ran a small summer ice cream stand that featured "black, white and brown" (chocolate, vanilla, and coffee) ice cream. Her parlor was popular with the Coast Guard crews, who had few distractions at night. A customer once asked her if she had any strawberry ice cream. Millie responded: "It says black, white and brown up they-ah. I don't see no pink!"

"People, People, Thank God/or Dogs!"

During World War II, Coast Guard ranks swelled to 250,000. Among these were 24,000 Coastal Defense specialists and 1,800 dogs that were trained to accompany beach and port security patrols.

When asked how she thought of herself, Millie responded, "first of all as a dog trainer." She yearned to join the Coast Guard or any other service, but her poor eyesight kept her out of the military. Her way with animals, however, made her a natural to train canines. Very soon, Dogs for Defense from Dedham, Massachusetts, enlisted her as a volunteer trainer.

Millie's most daunting challenge was to procure enough meat for her German Shepherd and Pinscher pups, who had to weigh 60 pounds around the time of their first birthday to be eligible for more advanced training. She did this by sacrificing her own meat ration, an extremely scarce commodity. She trained 6 dogs and had 13 more in training by the end of World War II.

Millie was one of those gifted humans who could communicate with any animal. Her house at Madaket often was a refuge for animals of all varieties, especially injured ones. Neighbors observed her cupping swarms of angry bees and wasps in her large hands, only to release the completely becalmed creatures moments later. On another occasion, a wounded swan limped to her door and stayed until it healed.

Millie's contributions to the war effort went beyond training the dogs and beach patrols that kept a sharp lookout for ships in trouble and German U-boats. On one occasion, she towed a live mine away from shore to a U.S. Navy minesweeper in deeper water.

"The Only Thing I Know Is the Coast Guard"

By 1946, the Coast Guard, convinced new radio and radar technologies made it unnecessary for more than one rescue station in an area, closed Madaket Station. It was a sad day for Millie. But seeing the need for a presence at Madaket, she remained vigilant for those in distress. On 3 January 1947, the same day the Madaket Station closed and its crew moved to the Brant Point facility, the 400-foot Panamanian steamer Kotor ran aground in heavy fog off Madaket. The master of the vessel, completely disoriented in the fog, had misdirected rescuers to a location 40 miles away, where a massive search was under way. Millie spotted the Kotor's masthead lights near the beach, immediately alerted the Coast Guard, and organized the local recovery effort. She led lifesavers and salvors quickly to the grounding site. Referring to the new technologies that led the Coast Guard to close the Madaket Station, Millie remarked, "that high tech stuff was no help at all!"

Millie's vocal protests to keep the Madaket Station open after the Kotor grounded—along with similar comments from several others—fell on deaf ears. The Coast Guard rationalized the Madaket Station's closure by indicating mariners in the area had never been safer because Millie was on watch.

Already a volunteer in many ways for 36 years, Millie in 1947 was made an official active member of the Coast Guard's civilian arm, the Auxiliary. Just two years later, she assisted the charter fishing vessel Constance when she became swamped. Millie dispatched and coordinated the response of all people in the Madaket area who could help. In 1952, the Coast Guard gave her the honorary title Warrant Boatswain, W-1, in the regular U.S. Coast Guard.

Maritime Protector 1, Marine Predator 0

On 4 October 1954, the island was still feeling the effects of Hurricane Edna, and strong ocean swells swept an 11-foot, 300-pound blue shark into nearby Hither Creek. Millie was in her backyard cutting wood, when she "heard this critter thrashing in the creek." Initially, Millie thought it was a serpent. All she could see was the fish's fin sticking six inches out of the water. Children were swimming nearby, and she knew she had to do something, so she set off in a skiff with the only weapons she had: a pitchfork, a rake, and near-superhuman strength built up from years of shucking scallops. A neighbor in a powerboat helped corral the shark while Millie, as she recalled it, "stuck a pitchfork in him and it goes 'boom!'—nothing happens. Their skin is too tough. I don't know if it's tougher than mine 'cause I never stuck a pitchfork in mine. But it's some kind of tough, I know that."

By this time, the shark knew it must kill or be killed. Millie described the struggle: "Every time the big critter came for me and the boat, he'd get a darned good jab from the pitchfork. It was the most comical setup you'd hope to see. There was no blood or nothing like that." Ninety minutes after crisscrossing the creek several times by the two boats and many engagements later, Millie exhorted, "We were getting bushed but the big fish finally turned belly up and surrendered." Millie and her neighbor towed the beast to shore where, for good measure, the local state trooper put a bullet in its head. She typically downplayed her adventure and said, "It was just a day's job, that's all."

Formal Status as the West End Command In military tradition, to have "command" is a sign of complete trust by one's superiors and the vesting of total responsibility. In 1965 Millie was promoted to the rank of W-4, Honorary, and bestowed the title "Commanding Officer, West End Command."17 On 25 April 1967, Millie's vigilance paid off when she spotted a crippled U,S. Air Force EC-121H Warning Star aircraft on fire, crossing over the island at 100 feet of altitude, engines spitting fire and metal, shedding parts, and about to crash. The pilot, Air Force Colonel James Lyle, opted not to try an emergency landing at the island's airport to avoid killing innocent civilians and ditched in the ocean.

Part of the broken fuselage ended up in Millie's yard as the crippled craft sputtered overhead. Millie immediately pinpointed the crash site and alerted rescuers, who retrieved the plane's navigator and sole survivor, Lieutenant Joseph Guenet, who was ejected miraculously from the fuselage as it broke in two.

In April 1975, Millie was authorized to fly weather-warning flags for the Coast Guard at her home. Local fishermen appreciated this service, which she performed with one caveat-that she would fly the flags when she wanted and how she wanted. By this time, she had 65 years of experience observing and predicting the winds and seas and needed no direction.

In June, the Coast Guard surprised Millie during her visit to the cutter White Sage (WLM-544) in Nantucket harbor, when it officially recognized her 1965 promotion to the officer ranks. Her reaction, referring to the ten-year delay in acknowledgment, was frank and typical: "It's about time!" According to her friend, summer resident Fred Rogers (the late "Mr. Rogers"), "It was the proudest moment of her life."

In July, the Coast Guard awarded her its highest civilian award, the Meritorious Public Service Commendation. Captain Robert Hanson, the former regional commander, noted:

Millie played a major role in many maritime events and helped ease or avert coastal accidents. She has given unselfishly of herself, her energy and her time to the people of both the Madaket Lifesaving Station of years past and to the Brant Point Coast Guard Station. We cannot begin to describe the feelings we have for her. Even those who never worked directly with her are attached to her. She is a great lady.

In her short acceptance speech, Millie economized and said, "I've been doing this for 50 years, and I'll do it for 50 more if I can."

Legend Locks Lips

Millie had a wry sense of humor. One former Brant Point crewman noted, "She scared the newest crewmembers without even trying." As part of her weekly ritual visits to the station, two crew members were dispatched to pick her up. Sometimes, Millie would grab a new crewman by the shoulders and plant a "long, wet kiss right on the lips." Seasoned crewmen knew that once Millie had you in her grasp, "you were not going to break her grip." Old Salts did not immediately tell the rookies that all they had to do was salute Millie as soon as she came to the door and she would salute back, forgetting about the kiss.

Each time a crewman departed the station after a successful tour, he would be given a crisp five-dollar bill and a sharp salute. Retired Captain Bill Nolan, the regional commander from 1981 to 1984, recounted a close encounter with Millie. During his departure ceremony, and a rare trip off island for Millie, she was so happy for him that she gave him the "wet one" and a five-dollar bill. And the gifts did not stop there, as Captain Nolan later noticed that dog-lover Millie had given him fleas, too.

Tough on the Outside

Stories about Millie have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Yankee magazine, Reader's Digest, and National Geographic. And she was in an episode of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." She even was featured on her own postcard and is the subject of a modern children 's book. Despite her celebrity, she remained purposefully out of the limelight, preferring mostly her relationships with animals. Offered the opportunity to go to New York for a benefit, she declined, reasoning she would rather spend the money for her dogs.

Bothersome reporters seeking the legendary Madaket Millie met frequently with the familiar refrain, "Get the hell out of here!" One was even karate-chopped in the throat upon arrival and rebuked sharply when Millie caught him surreptitiously taking pictures of her three-legged kitten. This same reporter attempted to butter Millie up with a blueberry nut cake, which Millie quickly tossed in the refuse heap. Her response to the offering was typical: "Is this a bribe or a come-on?"

Despite this thin veneer of irritability, Millie routinely kept an eye on the homes of islanders when hurricanes or strong nor'easter gales threatened. She also took care of those who opted to stay behind and ride out the storm. According to her friend Mr. Rogers, "Millie visited an elderly neighbor four times a day to put glaucoma drops in her eyes. And when a recluse fell ill, Millie moved in and slept on her bedroom floor." Millie's philosophy was simple: "It's not good for sick people to be alone."

Legend Leaves Legacy

Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1981, Millie submitted to one off-island surgery and lengthy stay in Boston, but her condition worsened in early 1990. She refused needed follow-on treatment, opting to spend her final days near the people, animals, and place she loved most. She died 1 March 1990 at age 82, having assisted the Coast Guard in one capacity or another for more than 78 years.

Millie would have loved the 24 March remembrance ceremony the Coast Guard organized in her honor. More than 300 people from all walks of life, from seaman to admiral, from laborer to lawyer and politician, attended. A military ceremonial platoon rendered honors, and a bugler played taps. Flags at Coast Guard facilities were half-staffed in her honor. But most of all, she would have loved her final helicopter ride, which had been among her last wishes. Coast Guard records indicate Millie was evacuated from the island by their aircraft at least twice. Each time, she insisted on wearing her dress uniform and that the aircraft take the shortest route back when returning her to her cherished Madaket. At the end of the ceremony, the Coast Guard helicopter crew carefully spread her ashes over Hither Creek, forever commending her to the place she loved so dearly.

All that remains of Millie's belongings are a few artifacts in a local museum, but the legacy of the woman who dedicated her life to the safety and security of others will live on in the hearts and minds of the hundreds of people she touched. Her selfless devotion to her country and those in distress, despite adversity, remain an inspiration. The men and women of today's Coast Guard Station Brant Point, Nantucket, Massachusetts, have nominated Mildred Jewett as the new namesake for their 21st-century million-dollar rescue boat in tribute to Millie's lifetime volunteer efforts.

Captain Webster retired recently after 26-years in the U.S. Coast Guard. He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings and Naval History.

 

Captain Webster is Chief of Operations, First Coast Guard District, in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.

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