Coast Guard retiree recalls long-ago night of lifesaving heroism

New London - Retired Seaman Sherwood Anderson, who received the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal in 1957, is thinking about donating a file of documents related to his lifesaving effort to the planned National Coast Guard museum.

Anderson, a West Virginia resident who will turn 80 in January, sorted through the stack of papers while vacationing with his son at Camp Harkness in Waterford on Sunday. As he looked at photos, letters and newspaper clippings, the New Britain native reminisced about the night he saved a man from drowning as a 21-year-old lighthouse keeper.

On the night of Dec. 15, 1955, he was alone in the Plum Island Light Station in Southold, N.Y. - where he lived with two other Coast Guard members - when he was radioed by the Coast Guard and told to "watch out," recalled Anderson.

He was told that in Plum Gut, a channel between the island and Long Island's Orient Point, an 83-foot tug pulling a 115-foot barge was caught in heavy surf with waves reaching around 12 feet high, said Anderson. After fighting with the rough waters, the captain of the tug decided to cut loose the barge - which was carrying 800 tons of crushed trap rock - so he could make it through the channel.

With the knowledge that "someone always took care of the lines on the barge," Anderson showed a light from the shore to help guide the crew member to the island. He saw a man on the barge - the 35-year-old Walter Helm, Anderson later learned - get on a life raft and start paddling toward shore.

The raft was supposed to keep Helm upright, but Anderson saw the man get knocked over by a wave and unable to right himself. As he told the story at Camp Harkness, Anderson described seeing Helm's legs flailing in the air as he struggled.

Without thinking, Anderson jumped into the frigid winter waters and swam 25 feet out to grab the man and pull him to shore.

Anderson said the water must have been cold but he can't remember much about the temperature.

"You just feel it for a while" before the adrenaline kicks in and overrides the sensation, he said. He successfully reached Helm and brought him back to shore before helping him up the island's 25-foot bluff. He encouraged him to take a warm shower at the lighthouse and change into dry clothes. Anderson then went to speak to the captain of the tug about Helm's situation. A 1955 article in The Day reported that Helm was later treated at Plum Island's Animal Disease Research Laboratory.

It was the captain of the 83-foot tug that nominated Anderson for the gold lifesaving medal, which is awarded to a person who performs "a rescue of attempted rescue at the risk of his or her own life, and demonstrates extreme and heroic daring," according to the United States Coast Guard's Medals and Awards Manual.

An article in a 1957 edition of the U.S. Coast Guard Magazine, which was saved by Anderson, describes the gold and silver lifesaving medals as some of the toughest military decorations to win.

"At 21 years old, you don't think about those things," said Anderson, who gave the 3.5-ounce solid gold medal to his grandson. "It's just something you do."

Anderson received an early discharge from the Coast Guard so that he could attend school. While studying for his undergraduate degree at the University of Connecticut and then dental medicine at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, Anderson worked as a lifeguard.

But Anderson said that even after being licensed to rescue swimmers at McCook Beach in Niantic and then at the pool at Fairleigh Dickinson, he never saw a drowning person again.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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