100 Years Ago, 13 Drowned in Heavy Rip Currents Off Ocean Beach

by on May 7, 2018 · 1 comment

in Ocean Beach

One hundred years ago, on Monday, May 6, 1918, at least 13 men, including 11 servicemen, drowned in a single day in heavy rip currents off Ocean Beach. Over 60 people were rescued by lifeguards. The story was covered by the San Diego Union-Tribune, and we include the first few paragraphs of the story, below.

The tragedy forced San Diego and Ocean Beach to deal with the dangers of the surf and tides, and led to the formation of the first lifeguards.


CAUGHT in a terrific tide-rip which swept upon them without warning yesterday afternoon at Ocean Beach, scores of bathers fought for their lives, sixty were rescued by life guards and other bathers, two of them were drowned and their bodies recovered, and at least eleven others are missing. A crowd of over 5000 holiday makers looked on from the beach as bathers and rescuers struggled in the surf, powerless except to shout encouragement to those who were risking their lives for those whose strength was being sapped by the undertow.

The dead:
Hugh E. Burr, company B, 144th machine gun battalion, camp Kearny.
Charles Humphrey, bakery company 323, Camp Kearny.

The missing;
Sergt. Herman Hauber, company B, 159th infantry, Camp Kearny.
Sergt. Emmerson Donaldson, company D, 115th ammunition train, Camp Kearny
Corp. Eravella Taylor, company 5, 115th supply train, Camp Kearny.
Private Fred W. Sanborn, sanitary detachment, 160th infantry, Camp Kearny.
Private Ralph Brady, battery F. 145th field artillery, Camp Kearny.
Private Frank Mitchell, 204 aero squad, North Island.
Sailor H. P. Hanson, naval air station, North Island.
Sailor C. L. Pollitt, radio station, Point Loma.
I. H. Killingsworth, believed to be a sailor.
Marcus Regil, janitor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, city.
Catarino Anda, city.

Deeds of Heroism Recorded

The clothes of these men, with the exception of Killingsworth, were found in various bathhouses of Ocean Beach after the beach had been cleared of all bathers.

During the evening the police, together with the military authorities at the resort, canvassed the houses at which it was likely rescued men had been taken, and it was only after a through checking of each one that the above list was compiled. Killingsworth dressed at home and the report of his being missing was made by his wife, who said he was on the beach at the time of the catastrophe.

In addition to the list of the dead and missing, as gathered by the authorities, it is believed possible that several others who did not get bathing suits at the bathhouses may be lost.

This is practically certain, it is declared, concerning two Mexicans who are known to have used the top of a building as a dressing room.

As the magnitude of the catastrophe became more apparent the crowd swarmed to the head of the tide-rip. the lifeguards and police patrolmen immediately became the center of a rescuing party numbering 30 or 40 bathers. As the rescued were brought to the beach, willing hands wrapped them in overcoats and shawls and men and women bent themselves to the task of resuscitation.

Risks Life in Surf

The pulmotor at the beach was put in use and a telephone call rushed out a lung motor from police headquarters at San Diego. As Hospital Steward Paul Plaisted pushed through the crowd just in front of the spot where the tide-rip was strongest, eight unconscious bodies lay upon the sand, and others were being carried from the surf along the strand. Disregarding those who were in no danger of death Plaisted waited for those bathers who, it was seen from the shore, were floundering in the deep water between the breakers, and for whom heroic efforts were being made by rescuers.

The first of these to be brought in was Burr. Efforts to aid him with lifeboats, three of which were ineffectually trying to breast the heavy sea, were unavailing, while a lifeline, held by a number of rescuers, was carried far out into the surf by a number of swimmers.

At the head of these was Frank B. Merritt, motorcycle patrolman detailed to beach service for the day. Merritt finally secured the body, but was helpless in the undertow.

At this time occurred the most thrilling feat of the afternoon. Arthur Wilson of Ocean Beach, a young man whose swimming powers have made him well known at the resort, dashed through the surf while fully clothed, with the exception of his shoes, dived through th first line of breakers and struck out for Merritt and Burr.

Makes Daring Rescues

Together the patrolman and Wilson fought against the undertow while the rescuers with the life-line battled to reach them. When Merritt and Wilson finally had come in sufficiently for the other swimmers to assist them they were exhausted. Carrying Burr’s lifeless body to the dry snd of the beach Merritt turned to go badk and fell unconscious. Wilson retained consciousness, but was very weak.

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Ol OB Hippie May 7, 2018 at 8:09 pm

It’s really too bad it takes a fatal tragedy like this to spur government to act. Sounds just like San Diego, though.


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