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Memorial honors 1st Coast Guardsman to die while on search and rescue mission

By THE EVENING NEWS AND THE TRIBUNE, JEFFERSONVILLE, IND. | Erin Walden | Published: June 30, 2018

CLARKSVILLE (Tribune News Service) — One hundred and two years ago, U.S. Coast Guard boatman John Munz made history by becoming the first member of the Coast Guard to lose his life during a search and rescue.

A plaque unveiled Wednesday at the overlook of the Falls of the Ohio State Park recounts Munz's death, as well as the history of water rescues in the area. The river serves as a backdrop for the plaque, allowing guests to learn more local history and imagine braving the water more than a hundred years ago.

JOHN A. MUNZ

On the afternoon of June 27, 1916, two young men fishing in a small boat inadvertently went over the falls of the Ohio River. According to Chuck Parrish, retired historian with the Louisville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a 2-mile stretch in which the river dropped 26 feet proved dangerous for nearly all who passed.

"...a series of rock outcroppings, narrow channels and small islands made navigation through the area extremely hazardous, even when water levels were high. In the dry seasons of the year, the Ohio [River] here was completely unnavigable," Parrish said during a dedication of the plaque Wednesday.

Munz, along with five other members of the station crew, rowed out to the scene in two boats, according to Parrish. The boats went over the dam and were severely damaged on the rocks below, leaving the crew members and fishermen in the same deadly situation.

A nearby fisherman witnessed the struggle and managed to save each of those in peril except for Munz, whose strength gave out, according to the U.S. Coast Guard Enlisted Memorial Foundation. His body was recovered two days later and was laid to rest in Jeffersonville's Walnut Ridge Cemetery.

According to U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Adam Versluis, who also spoke on Wednesday, Munz was 27 years old and left behind a wife and three daughters.

Munz was the seventh member of the Coast Guard to die while on duty, but the first to lose his life in an active search and rescue.

WATERY RESCUES

At the time of Munz's death in 1916, the Coast Guard was relatively new (18 months old) but rescue missions on the Ohio River were not.

William Devan, John "Jack" Gillooly and John Tully volunteered on the river, regularly pulling persons and property from the water, Parrish said.

"I like to call them Louisville's first first responders to incidents on the water," he joked Wednesday.

According to Parrish, "there were many wrecks and accidents on the falls involving large steamboats with several hundred passengers aboard. In those situations, the crew would often row to the scene to save the crew and passengers and then go back several times to pick up luggage and other valuables, sometimes taking hours to do so."

The group also was called to duty during river floods in 1882, 1883, 1884 and 1913, saving hundreds from engulfed homes and businesses and delivering food, Parrish said.

As the three men volunteered their time and risked their lives for rescues on the river, similar grass-root efforts were occurring across the country. Those efforts were united under the "United States Life-Saving Service" in 1878, according to Parrish. The life-saving station along the banks of the Ohio was the only such station to be posted inland, primarily because of the two-mile stretch of river that Parrish described. The area was considered the most dangerous segment of the 981-mile-long Ohio River.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson moved to merge the United States Life-Saving Service with the United States Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard.

The station was operated by the Coast Guard until 1972, when the McAlpine Locks and Dam at Louisville were completed, submerging most of the falls and diverting boat traffic through the canal and locks.

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