From the field: Honor for the fallen

>Have you ever found yourself reading a memorial plaque and wishing you knew more about the individuals whose names are etched there for all see?

Port Security Specialist First Class Kevin Rofidal, a Coast Guard reservist at Marine Safety Unit Duluth, Minn., did.

(Right: Boatswain’s Mate First Class Edgar Culbertson, who perished during a rescue attempt on Lake Superior April 30, 1967.)

PS1 Rofidal’s wonder quickly transformed into a quest for information into the lives and sacrifices of individuals emblazoned upon a Duluth, Minn., plaque memorializing a Coast Guard rescue attempt during a frigid storm on Lake Superior in 1967. PS1 Rofidal’s dogged pursuit for information culminated with a memorial service and medal presentation held in Duluth April 30, 2009, which was exactly 42 years to the day when Boatswain’s Mate First Class Edgar Culbertson perished along with the three brothers Culbertson and his crew were trying to save.

Here’s PS1 Rofidal’s story about his quest to honor our fallen shipmate for his efforts to save others on what has become known by Minnesota residents as “Black Sunday.”

“It started last summer as I was walking the [Duluth] pier during a lunch break at drill and stopped to look at an old bronze plaque placed there to honor BM1 Culbertson. Even though I have been drilling at this unit for nine years, I had never seen the plaque – heard about it once, though.

As I stood there and read the plaque, a tourist came up to me and started reading it also. He then began asking me questions about the incident in 1967 and I was embarrassed that I didn’t know anything about the case. The rest of the day I spent time, off and on, asking other Coast Guard members about the rescue and couldn’t find anyone who knew the story.

(Right: Fireman Ronald C. Prei, Coast Guard Medal Recipient.FN Ronald Prei, along with two comrades searched into the night for three lost brothers during a terrible storm on April 30, 1967. During the rescue attempt, the three brothers and BM1 Edgar Culbertson were lost to the sea. For his heroism, FN Prei was awarded the Coast Guard Medal. U.S. Coast Guard Photo)

I started searching for records through the CG Historian’s office, National Archives, local historical societies and kept coming up empty, except the National Archives which paid off, but took several months for the results to come in.

I then pulled [Culberstson’s] death certificate and started to call cemeteries, funeral homes and potential relatives.

In early October, I found Culbertson’s brother and I called him. He filled in many blanks and offered to send me news clippings. Then he dropped a bombshell and asked me if I had spoken with BM1’s adult children, who I’d not heard about until then.

(Right: Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Richard Callahan, Coast Guard Medal Recipient. BM2 Richard Callahan, along with two comrades searched into the night for three lost brothers during a terrible storm on April 30, 1967. During the rescue attempt, the three brothers and BM1 Edgar Culbertson were lost to the sea. For his heroism, BM2 Callahan was awarded the Coast Guard Medal. U.S. Coast Guard Photo 1967)

My original focus was just to get news clippings and a picture to hang in the office. But during the next couple weeks, I talked with Casey and Cris [Culbertson’s adult children] and learned all about their father.

During our conversations they explained that 42 years ago, the Coast Guard Medal was presented to their grandparents, posthumously for their father. They both wondered why they hadn’t been invited to that service, being 6 and 9 at the time. During those early calls, my impression was that it could have been an oversight by the USCG. However, I later learned that the Grandparents, for a bunch of reasons, had probably chosen not to invite their grandchildren.

Casey and Cris were both proud of their father’s service but still had many questions about what happened in 1967. Rather than provide answers, many of which I did not know, I decided to track down Ron Prei – the young Fireman that had been tethered to their father during this rescue attempt.

I thought it would be better to introduce Ron Prei to the Culbertsons to help them get some closure, if that was possible. Ron Prei was obviously carrying around a great deal of survivor’s guilt and he opened up quite a bit over the course of 7-8 months.

Additionally, I felt we needed to look at submitting BM1 Culbertson to the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington D.C., which was just done. [If accepted, his name will be added to the memorial in 2010]

(Right: Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate Christopher Wissen, Officer-in-Charge of Station Duluth, presents the Coast Guard Medal to Casey Culbertson and Cristin Culbertson Alpert during a memorial service to mark the 42nd anniversary of the death of their father, BM1 Edgar Culbertson who perished during a rescue attempt to save three teenage brothers, who were also taken by the storm. The Coast Guard Medal was posthumously awarded to BM1 Edgar Culbertson in 1967 and a replacement medal to his children in 2009. April 30, 2009 U.S. Coast Guard Photo Fireman Ronald Prei (1967) / via PS1 Kevin Rofidal)

I also organized a memorial service to honor BM1 and remember the three Halverson boys. I worked through my reserve chain of command and then sat down with my executive officer in October [2008] and pitched the idea, which he endorsed and work started. Cdr. Michael Lebsack, Commanding Officer of MSU Duluth presented new Coast Guard Medals to the family, which was a priceless moment. The Fraternal Order of Police were also on hand to present the Medal of Valor.

(Left: The Minnesota Law Enforcement Association Honor Guard rendered honors for BM1 Edgar Culbertson at a memorial service held on the 42nd anniversary of his death which occurred on April 30, 1967 on this same pier in Duluth during a rescue attempt to save three brothers, who were also lost during the storm. April 30, 2009 U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer Jason Eason)

Interestingly enough, we held a short meeting that morning [April 30, 2009] with the CO, Officer in Charge of Coast Guard Station Duluth, the Ninth District Chaplain, Ron Prei and the Culbertson family.

The first part of the meeting was to put names to faces and talk about the schedule for the day. Then there was time for the family to ask Ron what happened and he told the story, answering their many questions along the way. As Cris said, you were the last person to see my dad alive.

Later that night, Cris told me that all the anger that she has been carrying around for 42 years, ‘melted away’ as Ron told the story. The Commanding Officer from the Coast Guard Cutter Alder [Cdr. Kevin Wirth] took the family on a tour of the cutter the next day, which Casey had told me he really wanted to do when arriving in Duluth.

(Left: Petty Officer Kevin Rofidal, Marine Safety Unit Duluth, stands with Ray & Loretta Culbertson during a memorial service to honor the life of BM1 Edgar Culbertson, brother of Ray, on the 42nd anniversary of his death during a rescue attempt on April 30, 1967. BM1 Edgar Culbertson was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal. April 30, 2009 U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer Jason Eason)

So, I guess what started as a quest to find some pictures and news clippings for the office turned into a wonderful day. I would be remiss if I did not mention how much our unit secretary, Sandra Trianoski contributed. She was the brains behind the operations.”

TV news story of the service (includes fantastic historical footage of the case): click here.

Bravo Zulu to PS1 Rofidal, Marine Safety Unit Duluth, Coast Guard Station Duluth, the local Shipmasters Association, the Law Enforcement Memorial Association, and the combined Duluth Police Dept. and Coast Guard Honor Guard for recognizing and honoring and embracing our Coast Guard history through this ceremony. Additionally, a big thank you to the ROMEO Group, a group of volunteers that clean and maintain an existing plaque dedicated to Culbertson.

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