What’s Going On: The greatest sea evacuation of all time

Thanks to the Oscar award-winning movie “Dunkirk” which came out in 2017, most of us are familiar with the World War II battle which culminated with a historic sea evacuation that allowed for the rescue of nearly 340,000 allied soldiers.

The overpowering German army had pushed the combined French/British/Belgian forces to the northern tip of France. The retreating army had a force it couldn’t defeat in front of it … and the Atlantic Ocean behind it. With no available Navy to rescue these soldiers, the Allied forces were suddenly in danger of a potential death blow before America had even entered World War II.

But if you watched the movie, you know what happened next. The British hastily assembled the most ragtag flotilla ever seen, with destroyers, merchant ships, fishing boats, yachts, and even lifeboats shuttling soldiers across the English Channel.

In nine days, 338,226 soldiers were rescued in what was hailed as the largest marine evacuation in human history.

The Dunkirk evacuation, code named Operation Dynamo and also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, kept that historic distinction for many years, but when it lost it, it lost it in a big way.

By comparison, the new number one sea evacuation rescued an estimated 500,000 people, or nearly 50 percent more. Even more impressive though is instead of taking nine days, this evacuation of a half-million people — civilians, no less — required only nine … hours.

However, most people, especially here in the Midwest, have likely never heard of “Operation Boatlift.” And who can blame them? That’s not exactly a catchy name, and there hasn’t been (nor likely will ever be) a Hollywood blockbuster movie made about it.

But the best reason most of us haven’t heard of this event was another major story dominated the headlines of the day: America had been attacked by terrorists.

There is a certain image associated with “island” life. Palm trees. Coconuts. Sandy beaches. Drinks with umbrellas in them and maybe a grass skirt.

None of those immediately come to mind though when you think of New York City, and most specifically, the island better known as Manhattan. Maybe its because it’s surrounded by rivers … and not oceans or even big lakes. Maybe its because it’s a concrete paradise with skyscrapers outnumbering trees.

But Manhattan is, geographically speaking, an island. And when the World Trade Center was struck by a plane on the morning of Sept. 11, all modes of transportation save one in and out of lower Manhattan became unusable. Subways and bridges were closed. Air traffic was prohibited.

The only way off the island was by swimming … or boat.

Immediately, the sea walls surged with people trying to get off the island. There was a lot of them, but they were more bewildered than scared. There was a lot of volume as one person described it, but not a lot of panic.

That would change when the first tower collapsed. Panic was everywhere and The Coast Guard issued a call for any and all boats to help with the evacuation.

“If it floated, and it could get there, it got there,” engineer of the Mary Gellatly Robin Jones recalled in a 10-minute film about the operation.

It was Dunkirk, 60-years later and New York style, featuring vessels from the New York Waterway and the Coast Guard, as well as a mishmash of privately-owned ferries, tug boats, fishing boats, party boats, small professional diving boats … well, you get the picture.

The first boats showed up, mostly privately-owned ones, and started ferrying people to Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, or anywhere else.

“I worked on the water for 28 years, I’ve never seen that many boats come together at one time that fast. One radio call and they just all came together,” Jones said.

While it was a day of tragedy for the country, for many of those boat operators, it was also a day of victory over an overwhelming obstacle.

“I do feel in a way honored that I was a part of it,” said Capt. Kirk Slater of the New York Waterway. His colleague, Capt. Rick Thornton, echoed those sentiments in an even greater way by calling the rescue effort “the greatest thing I ever did in my life.”

There’s a commonality between those men, responding emergency personnel, passengers on Flight 93, and countless individuals who on that day of tragedy, loss and sadness overcame obstacles and turned into heroes.

The stories are countless and this one is better detailed in a short film called “Boatlift” that was made in 2011 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attacks. You can find it on YouTube.

When the 9/11 anniversary rolls around each year, we frequently hear the mantra of “never forget.” While it’s appropriate to remember the attack and honor those who lost their lives, its equally important to remember these stories of triumph.

They remind us that at least on one day, we weren’t liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. We were Americans and that when called upon, we can do great things … together.


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