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James "Hutch" Scott's Heroic Actions
by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG - July 1, 2016

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James "Hutch" Scott, Coast Guard HeroWith so many superhero movies to choose from it may be difficult to remember real-life heroes aren't bullet-proof, can't travel at the speed of light and don't wear capes.

There are hundreds of untold stories of these real-life heroes who often put their own lives in jeopardy to save the lives of complete strangers.

James Hutchinson Scott was one of these heroes who lived to serve others. Born in East Liberty, Pennsylvania, on February 11, 1868, Scott was a member of a distinguished military family.

Scott decided to join the Revenue Cutter Service, one of the predecessor services that created the modern-day Coast Guard. He received an appointment to the Revenue Cutter Service School of Instruction and graduated with the class of 1891.

During his career, Scott demonstrated his bravery on many occasions. For example, during the cadet cruise to Europe aboard the sail training ship, Salmon P. Chase, the vessel's quartermaster fell overboard. Scott immediately jumped overboard to rescue the drowning man.

Scott's active duty career began on the Cutter Woodbury. On an icy, subzero day in January 1891, the Woodbury was cruising east of its homeport of Portland, Maine, when they came across the wreck of a three-masted schooner that had grounded on a rocky island. Heavy seas broke clear over the schooner, forcing the crew took refuge on a high ledge.

US Revenue Cutter Woodbury during the 1891 period. (U.S. Navy courtesy photo)
US Revenue Cutter Woodbury during the 1891 period. (U.S. Navy courtesy photo)

Woodbury's commanding officer commandeered a fishing dory in a local village to attempt the rescue in the island's roiling surf. After retrieving the fishing boat from the village, the captain called for volunteers and Scott immediately stepped forward. As Scott's dory deployed into the stormy sea, a U.S. Life-Saving Service surfboat appeared from down the coast and the race was on to see who would save the shipwrecked men.

Despite the greater experience and boat handling skills of the Life-Saving Service crew, Scott's dory reached the stranded sailors first. After some unsuccessful attempts to heave a line to the freezing men, Scott secured the rope around his waist and jumped into the bone-chilling water. He swam toward the rocks, yelling at the boat's officer to pay out the line. Scott reached the surf zone where seas dashed him against the rocks. He was dazed by his wave-tossed landing, but the sailors grabbed him and hauled him onto the slippery ledge.

Scott's daring feat allowed the men to secure the rescue line to the rocks. By the time they climbed down the line and into the dory, the stranded men had been exposed to wind, water and freezing cold for 14 hours. If they remained on the rocks any longer, they likely would have perished. This selfless act demonstrated yet again Scott's bravery and heroism.

A few years later, Scott found himself assigned to the cutter Hudson. Commanded by Civil War veteran, Lt. Frank Newcomb, Hudson was homeported in New York. Intended for harbor patrol duties, Hudson was essentially a large tugboat and had a draft of only nine feet. On April 25, 1898, Congress declared war with Spain, initiating the Spanish-American War. Due to her relatively shallow draft, the U.S. Navy command assigned Hudson to enforce the blockade off the coast of Cuba. By May 9, the Hudson took up her duty station between the ports of Cardenas and Matanzas. 

The USRC Hudson normally patrolled the waters of New York City. The Navy called her into service for the Spanish-American War and  outfitted it for war at the Norfolk Navy Yard, where it was docked on April 21, 1896. (U.S. Navy courtesy photo)
The USRC Hudson normally patrolled the waters of New York City. The Navy called her into service for the Spanish-American War and  outfitted it for war at the Norfolk Navy Yard, where it was docked on April 21, 1896. (U.S. Navy courtesy photo)

On May 11, 1898 ... the gunboat USS Wilmington and torpedo boat USS Winslow joined the Hudson in attacking Spanish gunboats moored in Cardenas Bay. Between 12 and 1 p.m., the three ships steamed into the bay and began searching for the gunboats. During the patrol, Winslow located the enemy vessels moored at the port of Cardenas.

The ship steamed toward the waterfront in reverse to make full use of her stern-mounted torpedo tube. When Winslow reached a distance of 1,500 yards from the wharves, she found herself perilously close to white range buoys set by the enemy to aim their artillery. The Spanish forces opened up on Winslow with one-pound guns blazing from the gunboats and artillery salvoes from cannon located within Cardenas's waterfront.

After seeing the shelling, Hudson steamed toward the Winslow at full speed and engaged the enemy. By 2:00 pm, the battle raged between the Spanish artillery and gunboats against Winslow, with its one-pounders; the distant USS Wilmington, with its heavier four-inch guns; and Hudson, with its six-pounders. Scott commanded Hudson's aft six-pound gun, overseeing the gun crew while sitting calmly on an icebox and smoking a cigar.

Early in the firefight, with Spanish gunners closed the range on Winslow. Accurate enemy fire disabled Winslow's steering gear and one of her engines. Her captain, Lt. John Bernadou, called out to the Hudson, “I am injured; haul me out.” In addition to her battle damage, a strong breeze was pushing the torpedo boat dangerously close to the enemy batteries and shoal water too shallow for Hudson to navigate.

Hudson steamed as close to the stricken torpedo boat as she could while Scott stood on the bow preparing to heave a line to Navy ensign Worth Bagley and several enlisted men on Winslow's deck. Scott and Bagley were old friends, and Bagley yelled to Scott, “For God's sake, get us out of that fellow's fire!” Scott yelled back “Keep your shirt on old man. We'll get you out in a minute.” But by the time the cutter closed enough for Scott to heave the heavy line, a shell exploded among Winslow's men, killing Bagley and an enlisted man, and mortally wounding three more men. Bagley and his shipmates were the first Americans killed in the Spanish-American War.

USS Winslow torpedo boat during 1898 period. (U.S. Navy courtesy photo)
USS Winslow torpedo boat during 1898 period. (U.S. Navy courtesy photo)

Despite the enemy shells, strong winds and shallow water, Hudson's crew managed to secure a three-inch hawser to the Winslow and tried to tow it out of range. Due either to tow strain or one of the numerous incoming rounds, the hawser snapped. Determined to succeed, Newcomb exclaimed, “We will make it fast this time” and plowed Hudson through the muddy bottom, backing and filling to carve a path to the stricken Winslow. Scott and his deck crew secured the Winslow alongside the cutter in tugboat fashion and finally hauled the ship out of range of the enemy guns, rescuing the remaining 15 souls aboard.

The men of the Winslow and Hudson had served with honor during the Battle of Cardenas Bay. Congress recognized three of Winslow's crew for heroism with the Medal of Honor. During the battle, Hudson's crew also served with distinction as they manned guns and worked on deck without any protection from enemy fire. In addition to rescuing the Winslow in a hailstorm of incoming rounds, the cutter poured 135 six-pound shells into Spanish positions in only twenty minutes and reduced one enemy battery on shore. Overall, the battle resulted in the destruction of two Spanish gunboats and heavy damage to enemy shore batteries.

At the height of the action, Hutch's 6-pound gun kept up a steady covering fire as the cutter moved in to rescue the crippled Winslow and its surviving crewmembers. Newcomb was the only officer who had seen combat action and he wrote in his after-action report that each of his men performed “in a cool and efficient manner” under fire and that “each and every member of the crew . . . did his whole duty cheerfully and without the least hesitation.” Newcomb also praised the heroic efforts of Scott for his “coolness and intrepidity” in handling his gun crew and securing a line to Winslow “under the most trying circumstances.”

Hudson continued its patrols along Cuba's coast until early August and the war's conclusion. On August 12, she returned to New York City to a rousing welcome by local citizens. In a special message to Congress, President William McKinley commended Hudson for rescuing the Winslow “in the face of a most galling fire.” Congress also recognized Hudson's crew with specially minted medals for their valor. A joint resolution provided Newcomb with the war's only Congressional Gold Medal. Congress awarded Scott and Hudson's other officers the Congressional Silver Medal, and bestowed the Congressional Bronze Medal on the enlisted crewmembers.

Scott remained in the Revenue Cutter Service a few more years after the war. He served as executive officer on board the cutter Manhattan, and then received temporary command of Cutter Washington. He also served as navigation officer of Cutter Gresham, when the crew rescued 103 passengers and crew from the grounded Portuguese bark Fraternidada. Throughout his career, Scott carried with him the memory of Cardenas and the dreadful combat loss of his friend.

Scott ended his Revenue Cutter Service career as executive officer of Cutter Perry, resigning on July 1, 1901. He was the first Revenue Cutter Service officer to receive an official letter of regret from the Revenue Cutter Service. Scott was a member of the long blue line and he performed honorably in the face of impossible rescue conditions and fierce enemy fire.

By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
Provided through Coast Guard
Copyright 2016

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