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Flashback to 1936: With a blizzard raging, Coast Guard and other rescuers set out on a doomed mission

Sgt. Wilber Hunter, left, died on the ice of the Chesapeake Bay.

THE WASHINGTON POST

By KEVIN AMBROSE | The Washington Post | Published: January 5, 2018

Editor's note: This story is part of the Retropolis series about facets of the past that remain relevant.

Heavy snow blew horizontally across the frozen Chesapeake Bay into the faces of the 16 men in Crisfield, Maryland, who were loading sleds with food. The destination for the provisions: icebound Smith Island, where villagers were running out of food and needed help, according to a United Press International story that ran in The Washington Post.

It was 4 p.m. on Feb. 7, 1936, and they were facing an unexpected blizzard a storm far worse than the "bomb cyclone" lashing the East Coast this week. The 1936 blizzard was accompanied by heavy snow and gale-force winds.

Despite the poor visibility, the men carefully loaded two sleds with 1,000 pounds of food each, according to UPI. The plan was to push the sleds of food across the bay's ice to the Coast Guard cutter Travis, waiting several miles away in an ice-free channel.

The sleds and food would be loaded onto the Travis, which would ferry it to within a few hundred yards of Smith Island. The Coast Guard would put the sleds and food back onto the ice and take the food the rest of the way to the island.

The rescue team that evening was led by Maryland State Police Maj. Enoch Garey. On his team were three state troopers, two Travis crew members from the Coast Guard and 10 civilian volunteers.

Night was falling when the 16 men pushed out onto the bay ice with their sleds of food. Half of the men pushed the sleds while the other half pulled the sleds with ropes.

But they hadn't calculated how difficult it would be to push heavy sleds through 10 inches of fresh snow on uneven ice. The sleds did not glide easily on the ice, as they had hoped, particularly when they hit snow drifts.

Despite a tremendous effort, the sled team made it only about halfway to the Travis, Garey would later tell a Maryland board of inquiry.

The rescue team stopped and held a brief meeting on the ice to plan its next move. The Travis was not in sight it was probably still over a mile away and the shivering, tired men could not push the sleds any farther.

The group gave up and abandoned the sleds. Half of the men chose to walk back to Crisfield, following their tracks in the snow, while the state troopers and Coast Guard crew members decided to press forward to search for the Travis, according to the UPI story published Feb. 9, 1936.

As they walked in direction of the Travis, one of the men shouted, "Thin ice!" But the alarm was sounded too late. Two men broke through the ice and splashed into the water.

One frantically tried to climb back onto the ice, but it kept breaking. UPI reported that the other man in the water, a member of the Coast Guard, shouted to him: "Don't climb on the ice! Slowly wiggle your belly up on the ice until it can support your weight!"

They successfully wiggled their way back onto the ice. Their clothes and hair immediately froze when exposed to the cold wind and blowing snow.

They decided to turn around and follow their footsteps in the snow back to Crisfield, making it back to shore before hypothermia and frostbite killed them.

The rest of the men, however, continued their risky trek to find the Travis.

Then it happened again. Sgt. Wilber Hunter, a Maryland state trooper, fell through. "The rest of the party had considerable difficulty pulling him out because [his] clothes and boots were full of water," Garey testified later.

Instead of heading back to shore, however, Hunter decided to press forward to find the Travis with the rest of his team. It would be a fatal mistake. Hunter began to succumb to hypothermia. After about 30 minutes of walking, Hunter could no longer move. One man stayed with Hunter while the others continued their search for the ship.

The spotlight of the Travis finally guided the men to their destination. A search party was quickly organized to look for Hunter and his companion - and two more men fell through the ice. They had to rush back to the ship to find warmth.

Eventually, Hunter and his companion were located, but Hunter had already died.

"He died at his post like an officer and a gentlemen," Garey told UPI. He described sitting by Hunter's body after it was carried back to the Travis.

But his death was called "a needless and outrageous sacrifice" by the Salisbury Times, and many questioned the whole mission, including Maryland's governor, Harry Nice.

"I gave no instructions those men should try to reach the islands across the ice," Nice told state investigators, according to the Associated Press.

Red Cross Chairman J. Millard Tawes, a future governor of Maryland, denied that his group sponsored the ill-fated relief effort.

"I don't think the expedition was necessary," he told the state board of inquiry, which convened Feb. 18, 1936. "I had said that there was enough food on the island to last the week."

The state investigation concluded that the mission was not necessary and was really quite foolish. It noted that an airplane successfully dropped off 800 pounds of food on Smith Island soon after the blizzard.

As for the 2,000 pounds of food left on the ice, it was spotted slowly sinking into the Chesapeake the following week, never to be delivered to Smith Island.

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