Milton Cooper, 93, a longstanding figure among locals in Bethany Beach and surrounding areas, will soon become one of the first inductees into the Delaware Maritime Hall of Fame. Cooper and four other inductees will be awarded their Hall of Fame status at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Lewes Yacht Club.
Cooper was born in 1914, in a house a little less than a mile from the one in which he currently lives. He graduated from Lord Baltimore High School in 1933.
Cooper started a career in the Coast Guard at Pope’s Island, Chincoteague, after a friend told him of an opening there. He had a business degree from Beacom College (now Goldey Beacom) College in Wilmington, but returned home after finding it was hard to live on what he made and pay his room and board.
“After paying for that and food, there was nothing left. So I came back home and the only job here I could get was cleaning out chicken houses. So I did that until I heard about the Coast Guard,” Cooper explained this week.
“Back then, the Coast Guard was the job to get, because you stayed in a lifetime — 30 years or so,” he recalled. “My first assignment while I was in Pope’s Island was to patrol the beach and assist boats in distress.”
He retired from the U.S. Coast Guard in 1957, having been stationed at the Indian River Lifesaving Station for his last six years as chief boat’s mate (lifesaving) or CBM (L).
These days, Cooper is filled with pride as he talks of some of his assignments over the years.
In 1937, he saw action in the Ohio River Flood. “We sent a boat from our station, and we stayed out there six weeks. We pulled about 300 from rooftops and windows. It was a bad flood.”
In 1940, when Germany was bombing England, he was one of 50 Coast Guardsmen sent to the U.S. Mint in Washington, D.C., to guard it. He was stationed there for four months. “I got to know the men who worked there, so they’d let me destroy the old or frayed money. It was funny to be able to come home and say, ‘I got to destroy a million dollars today.’”
During World War II, the Coast Guard became part of the Navy, and he did Navy transport in the Pacific. In 1942, he was in Guadacanal, in the Solomon Islands, putting troops ashore.
“Don’t forget to tell her you got married,” Ruth Cooper suggested from across the room during the Coastal Point’s interview with him this week. And, indeed, he did get married.
In 1943, Cooper married Ruth, a local girl who lived down the street and was eight years his junior. They went on to have two children, and are happy grandparents and great-grandparents as well now.
His career at the Coast Guard started in Chincoteague, but over the years he was stationed in Port Richmond, Philadelphia; Brigantine, N.J.; Cape May, N.J.; Lewes; and finally at the Indian River Lifesaving Station, where he carried out his last six years of duty. He did everything from escorting ammunition ships from Hog Island to the Delaware Breakwater in Lewes; to being in charge of a boot camp responsible for boat training, to managing a 130-foot submarine doing Air-Sea rescue.
In 1948, he assisted when the Indian River Inlet Bridge went down because of ice.
“There was ice stacked up for miles off shore. The ice just shoved through the inlet and eventually cut the piling right off. One person drowned, but we saved three people.”
After his career with the Coast Guard, he was captain of the University of Delaware’s R.V. Wolverine, R.V. Skimmer and the R.V. Joanie. He also worked for the state as Delaware shellfish warden for oysters, clams and crabs, and set up and organized the first small boat-safety division office in Dewey Beach, for the registering and licensing of boats. The Marine Police office was housed there as well.
Beside his interests in the water, Cooper started the Delaware Chapter of Ducks Unlimited in 1970, and there is a monument to him at Prime Hook, for his dedication to the conservation of marshland that sits alongside where people launch their boats. Another achievement he holds is as the Delaware champion goose-caller for five years. “I was always and avid hunter and fisherman,” he said, in speaking of his lifetime of achievements.
According to Bonnie Dougherty, chairwoman of the Delaware Maritime Hall of Fame Committee, “Mr. Cooper seemed one of the most well-rounded of our nominees. He has done everything, and he is so dedicated to the life of a waterman and committed to the sea. He truly is remarkable and deserves to be recognized.”
The Delaware Maritime Hall of Fame falls under the umbrella of the Overfalls Maritime Museum Foundation, which works to restore the Lightship Overfalls (LV118) in Lewes.
According to the foundations Web site, “The ship, built in 1938, is one of the few survivors of the 179 lightships that marked the U.S. waterways from 1820 to 1983. She is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Close to following the scores of her fellow lightships to the cutter’s torch, the ship was saved when the Overfalls Maritime Museum Foundation formed and refused to let her die.”
Milton Cooper and Robert F. “Bobby” Senseny are the only two living inductees in the Delaware Maritime Hall of Fame this first year. The others are Capt. David W. Hiott, the Kalmar Nyckel’s first captain; Captain John Penrose Virden of Lewes, who was the Pilot’s Association for the Bay and River Delaware’s first president in 1891; and Washington A. Vickers of Seaford, who died in 1930 and had distinguished himself as a lifesaver for 37 years with the U.S. Lifesaving Service.
When asked if he knew any of the other inductees, Cooper said he did not know any of them personally, though at least one had made an impression on the young Cooper.
“Vickers, the guy with the whiskers, he was my idol,” he said. “I had always heard of him and his work ethic. He rented the house that was here before mine. So he lived in the same spot as I live in today.”
The inaugural banquet will be held Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Lewes Yacht Club. Tickets cost $75 per person. For more information, visit www.overfalls.org, or call Joan Reader at 645-9290 for reservations.