This Saturday, April 27 one of the most heroic life saving rescues on Sullivan’s Island will be remembered in an awards ceremony at the old Coast Guard station on Sullivan’s Island. In August 1898, James L. Coste, a Surfman with the lifesaving station on the island (forerunner of the Coast Guard), died while saving the life of young Ned Schachte, who almost drowned while swimming in the waters in front of Fort Moultrie.
In this historic ceremony, Coste will be posthumously awarded the coveted Silver Lifesaving Medal for Heroism.
This drama was headline news at the time of its occurrence. “LIFE CREW TO THE RESCUE,” ran the August 20, 1898, Charleston Evening Post, one of the many newspapers who reported the story in detail. Long-time East Cooper residents will recognize many of the names mentioned.
“The cry of distress was heard by the life saving crew and Coste, one of the best swimmers of the crew, made for the water and quickly swam out to Schachte, who was almost exhausted from the terrible struggles with the waves.
“Guard Coste was followed by Capt. [Jack] Adams, Guards G. Bequest and [William] Tapio. Captain [Elmore] Martin, who was out horseback riding at the time, heard the cries of young Schachte and dismounting he quickly threw off his coat and removing his shoes swam out towards Coste, who had Schachte trying to bring him in, reaching the two men about the same time as Capt. Adams and Tapio. Capt. Adams was the first to relieve Coste, Capt. Martin and Guard Tapio assisting him. They spoke words of encouragement to the boy, telling him they were out for a little fun and would soon reach beach.
“A BATTLE WITH THE WAVES. Suddenly the swimmers reached a point where the current sweeps around the jetties like a mill race. It was a flood tide and the sea was choppy. Ned Schachte became frightened and seized Capt. Adams around the throat with a death like grasp. Capt. Martin released the boy’s hold just in time to save them both, as Capt. Adams had become considerably exhausted. In fact all of the men were, as the battle of the waves and strong tides was a terrific one.
“Guard Bequest in the meantime came with life belts and Schachte was delivered to him. He had not had the boy long before he cried out that he was being swept out to sea by the strong current. A boat from the life saving sta6tion had been launched and in a short time picked the men up and started for the shore.
“Tapio had become very weak and was seen to go down once. The boat reached him just in time to save him from a watery grave. The water was only waste deep but the poor fellow had completely worn himself out and his strength had about left him when he was picked up. He was in an unconscious condition when the shore was reached. Some time was spent in restoring him to consciousness. Tapio is an expert swimmer.
“COSTE GOES DOWN. Capt. Martin and Capt. Adams, after seeing that young Schachte was all right, made their way for the shore. They gave no thought to Coste, as they knew him to be an expert swimmer and had seen him make for the beach after he had been relieved of Ned Schachte. Instead of following the current, which forms an eddy around the rocks at that point, and swimming to shore, he attempted to swim across and it swept him away.
“All of the men who took part in the rescuing of Schachte displayed remarkable bravery and coolness. Not once did any of them lose their head or become nervous, and it is not an easy thing either for a man rolled and tossed by a choppy sea, trying to save the life of another, to keep cool throughout.”
Coste’s body was recovered around 2 a.m. the following morning. The double tragedy around this event was that Coste was only 27 years old and a newlywed. He had married Louisa Bruggeman only a month earlier.
The Silver Lifesaving Medal is one of the oldest decorations for heroism in the United States. Established in 1874, this medal of honor is bestowed by the U.S. Coast Guard upon someone recognized for endangering his or her own life by “saving, or endeavouring to save lives from perils of the sea, within the United States, or upon any American vessel.”
Receiving this medal puts Surfman Coste in good company. Others to receive this prestigious award include Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, General George S. Patton and Rasmus Midgett, an ancestor of Capt. John Midgett, who long-time islanders may remember as the commander of the Coast Guard station when it was still active in the 1960s.
Fifth-generation island resident Hal Coste, James Coste’s grand-nephew, will receive the award for the extended Coste family. Ironically, Hal also helped save the life of a swimmer caught in the same waters in 1991.
Numerous dignitaries will be at the awards ceremony this coming Saturday, including one important figure, Charleston’s mayor, Joe Riley. Riley has a particularly personal reason for remembering Surfman James Coste’s heroism.
The young man Coste saved, Ned Schachte, was Mayor Riley’s grandfather. The public is invited to this historic event.
Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.