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The Last Stop in Civilization
On Monday, January 5, 1942, a lapstrake picket boat with its ensign snapping in the afternoon breeze carefully navigated the serpentine Hatteras Inlet channel. Leaving astern gentle swells rolling in from the sea, the little white boat crept toward the Coast Guard lifeboat station docks at the desolate northeast end of Ocracoke Island. Huddled on the transom with their watch caps pulled down tightly over their ears were two men, both wearing newly issued woolen pea jackets with lapels fully fastened, their hands plunged deeply in pockets and their collars pulled upward to defend against the piercing winter wind. The glum looks on their facesone more morose than the otherwere ones of resignation, like innocent but condemned men on their way to the gallows.
Fresh out of boot camp, the two homesick and disheartened Coast Guard seaman recruitsTheodore Mutro, age 20, of Pennsylvania, and Ulysses Levi (Mac) Womac, age 18, of Tennesseewere on their way to their first wartime assignment. It wasn't quite what they expected, nor was their bus trip down the beach from Manteo, driven by a cheerfully barefoot 13-year-old boy. They must have felt like they had somehow fallen into a sandy version of Alice's Wonderland.
A few men stood on the dock ready to catch the boat's lines. “Well, boys, welcome to the Bermuda of the U.S.A.!” someone shouted. Bermuda of the U.S.A.? What sort of wise guy is this? Mutro muttered to himself as he grabbed an extended arm and pulled himself up on the dock and took a quick look around. Mutro, a gruff native of a rough and tumble shipyard town on the Delaware River, retorted, “Hey, I thought we were at war with Germany; what are we doin' here? Someone's made a terrible mistake.” Womac, younger and less self-assured, kept his thoughts to himself.
“You're not there yet, son,” a petty officer replied with a thick “hoi-toide” brogue. “And watch that mouth. You boys got another 13 miles to go. Your limousine awaits.” The PO pointed to a rusty, weather-beaten International Harvester pickup truck parked nearby. Oh, brother, Mutro thought to himself, more beach driving!
Mutro and Womac had arrived at the Coast Guard's Hatteras Inlet Lifeboat Station, which wasn't on Hatteras Island at all but located on Ocracoke Island. The station, previously known as Cedar Hammock Life-Saving Station, was not particularly well-situated as the restless inlet it guarded was gradually encroaching southwestward, toward the eroding barrier of sand wrapping around the isolated outpost. The station was easily one of the more remote, austere, wind-swept spots on the U.S. East Coast, and from a vantage point on its landward approaches opposite the inlet, it looked like it sat in the middle of a vast and desolate desert. The installation consisted of four simple buildings, a couple of large cisterns that collected and stored fresh water, and a spindly lookout tower. Leading away from the station toward the distant village of Ocracoke was its tenuous umbilical cord to the outside world, a long line of telegraph poles. There wasn't much to the place. But what the Hatteras Inlet station had going for it, which especially benefited those unlucky mariners who found themselves in distress on or near Diamond Shoals, was that it had the nearest and quickest motor-lifeboat access to the ocean in that stretch of the Outer Banks. Nevertheless, for new arrivals to the island, it was a forlorn place.
In a 1999 interview, Mutro recounted his first impressions of Ocracoke Island as he rocked back and forth on a swing beside his house. “Last stop in civilization!” he said without hesitation. “This guy comes to pick me and Womac upKenneth Smith, I think he was. Me and Womac loaded our sea bags on the back of the truck and climbed inside. [Smith] tells us, 'We've only got one room lefttwo men to a room,' he says.”
An experience not unlike the Midgett Brother's bus ride, the pickup truck's tires spun, the gears ground, the transmission clunked with a sound like it was about to fall out of the back, and off they went along the deeply rutted tracks toward the beach. “Zzzz, zzzz, zzzz,” Mutro spits and sputters, attempting to recreate the sound of the stalwart truck bucking its way down the beach. “Shifting and all, he comes on top of the beach, staying in the tracks, zzz, zzz.”
Mutro and Womac arrived at Ocracoke village. Mutro: “He comes into the village. Curiosity gets the best of me. I asked him, 'Where's the heart of town?' He says, 'You're right on the main drag now, do you want to get out and look around?' 'No,' I says, 'I've seen everything!'”
Ocracoke village, however, was not without its charms. Mutro and Womac just hadn't discovered them yet.