Medal awarded for heroism performs one final heroic actEdie Blane's Uncle Jerry didn't need a medal, he wanted to help his family
This year is the 106th anniversary of the sinking of the motor vessel Larchmont, a terrible tragedy that occurred in Block Island Sound that affected many families, including my own.
Previous accounts of the disaster have mentioned that Block Island fishermen acted heroically in the aftermath of the sinking and several were awarded medals for their efforts. It has also been reported that one of these men may have “sold a medal.” That man was my grandfather and here is the story of what actually happened.
The Larchmont set sail from New York City on Feb. 11, 1907, bound for either Providence or Fall River. She had 200 passengers, including crew. It was a bitterly cold night – about 9 degrees above zero – clear but with a strong wind blowing at 65 miles an hour from the Northwest.
Coming across Block Island Sound was the sailing vessel Knowlton, carrying a full cargo of coal. The Knowlton struck the Larchmont, which was fatally damaged and sank in just minutes. Passengers and crew were thrown into the freezing water. Word of the disaster reached Block Island by the morning when a young survivor came ashore on the West Beach near North Light. He managed to crawl to the light, waken the keeper Elam Littlefield and gasp: “More to come.” The young man was frozen and Elam Littlefield somehow got word to Old Harbor where the fishing fleet berthed.
The fishing vessel Elsie was in Old Harbor when word of the wreck arrived. The captain of the Elsie was John Smith, who was my Uncle John. He had a rule that no matter what the weather his crew was to be at Old Harbor no later than 5 a.m. If bad weather precluded heading out to sea he would make a decision to set sail or not while the crew was assembled. With everyone there on the morning after the wreck, the Elsie might have been the first to leave the Harbor and head to the disaster site.
The Elsie was 65 feet long and had one small gas engine. The crew consisted of Capt. Smith, his two brothers and three nephews, his brother-in-law Jeremiah M. Littlefield, Jr. (who was my grandfather) and Jeremiah’s brother Edgar (grandfather of Charon, John and Albert Littlefield and Cindy Littlefield Deane).
With the wind still blowing hard in from the northwest, and the freezing temperatures, saltwater ice began to cover Elsie’s rigging and decks. Once clear of Clay Head, the crew spotted some wreckage and a person feebly waving his arm was spotted. As the Elsie hove to, the crew launched a dory and rowed to the wreckage to gather the survivors.
It was a terrible job, requiring superhuman strength, to wrest the half-frozen people from the sea and get them on the dory. Everything was covered in ice and the seas were rough and the crew needed to row back to the Elsie. It may have required several trips because there were seven or eight survivors, who were clad in flimsy nightclothes and clinging to the wreckage.
The Elsie headed back to Old Harbor, where the survivors were provided medical care (but I believe one of the survivors died). Many other fishing vessels left Old Harbor that day but no other survivors were found. The fleet spent the day going back and forth searching for their grim cargoes.
Block Island folks gave assistance and also gathered up the dead who had washed ashore. I remember Gladys Steadman telling me of the terrible feeling throughout the island. The dead were stacked up in the boathouse of the Life Saving Station (where the Beachead Restaurant is located). The Life Saving Station at Sandy Point was another location where the frozen corpses were taken.
When the full story came to light the eight members of the Elsie’s crew were hailed as heroes. Four medals were struck to honor their bravery and an awards ceremony was held at Harbor Church that spring. One medal was from the U.S. Life Saving Service, one from the Rhode Island General Assembly, and one from the U.S. Congress. The fourth medal was the Carnegie Gold Medal.
These quiet fishermen were a bit embarrassed by all the fanfare, having done what all seafaring folk do – giving assistance to those in peril by the sea. They also had to face their friends who had also gone out in their boats and by circumstance had not picked up living survivors.
One of the recipients of the four medals was my grandfather, Jeremiah Littlefield, Jr., known to most islanders as Uncle Jerry. He had a very hard homelife. His wife, Nellie, my grandmother, suffered for years from crippling arthritis and pre-tuberclular disease. She was confined to a wheelchair for the last eight years of her short life. Their household consisted of my grandfather, grandmother, my father Byron and a homeboy, Bill Fitzgerald. There were no women in the home (my grandmother’s two sisters died in their early 20s).
Fishing was not prosperous, and at the time grandpa had very little money. My grandmother needed a doctor frequently because of the great pain she was in. The bills for the doctor piled up and he needed to be paid. He even prepared a note for my grandfather to sign using their house as security. My grandfather would not sign the note because he feared that he might be out on the street. The doctor, Carroll Ricker, persisted and finally my grandfather said the only thing he had of value was the Carnegie Gold Medal. The doctor took it.
Did my grandfather sell the medal? Not for monetary gain. He gave it because he had no other funds. Later, a good friend of mine who heard the story was stunned and said, “Jerry, how terrible the doctor took the medal.”
“We went out to save folks, we didn’t need a medal,” my grandfather said. “We would have done it for anyone in such dire straits.”