A Real American Hero

It’s not often–actually not at all for me, until now–that you get to meet a real American hero. I don’t mean a reality TV show hero. I mean a decorated, documented, recognized, written about hero.

I did on Tuesday. His name is James D. McCann, II. He was my instructor for a SCUBA refresh.

In the wee morning hours of February 12, 1983, Captain Robert M. Cusick Jr. was aboard the Marine Electric, an old tanker that sank off the coasts of Virginia in 37 degree waters with howling winds and 20 to 30 foot seas. The Coast Guard was called out, but this was before they had a rescue swimmer program. So the Navy was brought in.

Says Mr. Cusick, who died September 12, 2013,

“I was saved, near my final moments of life, by the bravest of the brave, the crew of the United States Coast Guard Helicopter 1471 and the U.S. Navy rescue swimmer James McCann, whose actions resulted in the U.S. Coast Guard promulgating their program of rescue swimmers, which has, in the intervening time since this tragedy, caused untold numbers of lives to be saved, which otherwise surely would have been lost,” Cusick wrote in recalling the accident in 2002.


Petty Officer McCann dropped from a Navy helicopter into the water and remained there for 1 1/2 hours saving lives, while risking his own. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal for heroism, the second highest honor given during peace time by the U.S. Navy.

Mr. McCann was unassuming when I asked him what he did before teaching SCUBA.

“I was a Navy Rescue Swimmer.”

“A Navy Diver?”

“No. A Rescue Swimmer.”

“Like the Coast Guard?”

At that point he got quiet, pursed his lips, and had the look someone gives when about to explain certain facts to a child.

“No. I’m the reason the Coast Guard has a Rescue Swimmer program. I trained them.”

Then he told me the story of the Marine Electric and Captain Cusick. And the subsequent hearing and the development of the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer program and he as the trainer. I was quietly stunned.

“I was given the Navy and Marine Corps medal. I didn’t even know what it was. The event happened. The Navy pulled me out of the water after an hour and a half because I was getting hypothermic. Three days later I was given the medal. I had no idea at the time that three days to get this medal is unheard of.”

Mr. McCann passed me on my refresh and invited me on a dive when I’m back in town. I wish I were staying that long.

We swimmers and divers salute you, James McCann.

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