'Black Sunday' washes up memories for Duluthians

By Makinzie Cole

In the early 1980s, a piece of Duluth's history went missing. The north breakwater pier was under construction, being widened and reinforced. Afterward, the re-installation of a plaque commemorating the brave actions of a man unknown and neglected by many, but one man remembered.

On April 30, 1967, a day remembered by Duluth residents and meteorologists as "Black Sunday," Boatswain's Mate First Class (BM1) Edgar A. Culbertson along with two other rescuers answered a call. It reported three teenage brothers trapped at the end of the pier, as 20 foot waves crashed overhead.

BM2 Richard R. Callahan and Fireman Ronald C. Prei, volunteered alongside Culbertson. The three tied themselves together with a piece of rope each spread 25 feet apart.

The three men struggled against the waves but eventually made their way to the end of the pier. The missing boys were nowhere to be seen. As soon as the team realized they were too late and turned back to abort the mission, Culbertson was swept into the 36-degree water by winds with forces up to 40 knots.

Despite the efforts of his comrades, Culbertson's section of rope had broken off. His fate was out of their hands.

The missing boys, Eric Halverson, 17, and his twin brothers Nathan and Arthur Halverson, 16, were most likely swept out into the lake where the temperatures are so cold, human flotation is no longer possible. They were never found, but Culbertson's lifeless body washed up to shore after the storm.

Later that year, the original bronze plaque was installed in Culbertson's honor. He is the only one of Duluth's Coast Guardsmen to die in rescue efforts. Though his final resting place is in the Woodlawn Cemetery outside of his hometown in Detroit, Mich., Culbertson's final act of bravery at 32 took place in the fiercely powerful waters of Lake Superior 43 years ago.

Thanks to Capt. Tom Mackay, a retired lifetime Park Point resident and a close friend of Ed's, Culbertson's heroism has not been forgotten.

"There was a local dive where we'd all hang out after work in the evenings. Ed and I got to be good friends. We spent quite a lot of time at that bar," said Mackay. "He was a great guy, one hell of a likable guy."

After the pier construction had been completed in the early 1980s Mackay realized the plaque had never been reinstalled. He called on those at the International Shipmasters Association to help him locate it.

"I was afraid his memory would be forgotten forever," said Mackay. "I would I've hated to see that happen."

Soon after, the plaque was found in storage. Mackay demanded it be reinstalled on the new pier.

Chief Randall Atcherson of the Coast Guard Station Duluth Search and Rescue says that their branch of the U.S. Coast Guard is and always has been a "slow station." In relation to the number of search and rescue missions in the service as a whole, their numbers are small, so the loss of any one of their men╒s lives is something to be commemorated.

Mackay held the same opinion, assuming the rest of Duluth's Coast Guard branch would agree. On April 30, 2008 he organized an event in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the courageous act that took the life of his fallen friend. He invited all five separate branches of the Guard: the station, the buoy tender, the navigation unit, the marine safety unit and the electronics unit. Only one member showed up.

A year later, in 2009, Port Security Specialist First Class Kevin Rofida of the Coast Guard heard about Mackay's efforts in his own quest to track the story behind the plaque.

He arranged for another event. This time, Kevin Worth, the Aldridge's captain, brought the entire crew to witness it.

"Medals were awarded, bagpipes played and a big rifle salute brought it home," said Mackay. "I was very proud at that ceremony last year because [Culbertson's memory] was almost forgotten, and then here I am right in the middle of this ceremony and it really hit me."

That day, Mackay's diligence was acknowledged. The Coast Guard awarded him a certificate of appreciation for upholding the memory.

Culbertson's name was submitted to the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial in Washington, D.C. last year after the second commemoration. Boatswains Mate First Class Edgar A. Culbertson was recently accepted and is to be added to the memorial this summer.

Here in Duluth, Culbertson's legacy is under the protection of Mackay's watchful eye. On most Fridays he visits the memorial, there to remind of servitude, gratitude and of lives lost. Mackay and his friends maintain the plaque, which is on the north wall of the north breakwater pier.

If you visit, there is a good chance it will be garnished with four blue flowers, courtesy of Tom Mackay. One for Ed, and one for each of the young men he gave his life trying to save.

Video Sideshow by Makinzie Cole

Amazing Grace bakery and café remembers its owner

Duluth man chef by day, washboarder by night