By Ben Swenson
For centuries flotsam has washed ashore on the Outer Banks, but the ship that ran aground between Rodanthe and Waves in January 1976 surprised even longtime residents of these seaside communities.
The beaching of what had once been the USS Betelgeuse became a sensation, as locals and visitors descended to the scene. But where those gawkers saw blunder, one man saw opportunity, and like the hulking ship that loomed just offshore, made a larger-than-life spectacle of the affair.
Few could have suspected looking at the timeworn and rusting hull that January that the Betelgeuse had once helped free the world. It had come to life in 1944 as a Victory Ship, one of more than 3,500 vessels constructed during World War II to help carry cargo that supported the war effort.
Back then, the Betelgeuse was known as SS Columbia Victory, a vessel of the U.S. Merchant Marine. In the Pacific theater, the ship furnished supplies for American forces fighting in fierce engagements. At Iwo Jima, the vessel took enemy fire, narrowly avoiding disaster when the captain made a quick U-turn.
The U.S. Navy took over the ship in 1951 and soon rechristened it USS Betelgeuse – a celestially-inspired name that had belonged to a different warship during World War II. The Betelgeuse continued to transport military cargo around the world. Sailors were fond of the craft and called it “The Goose,” a nickname that adorned the Navy’s official patch.
In 1971, after 27 years of combined Merchant Marine and Navy service, the ship was decommissioned, and sat in a reserve fleet in Philadelphia. Five years later, the time came for the Betelgeuse to be recycled, and a tugboat attached a towline for the long trip to Texas. But the venerable, old ship wouldn’t go down without a fight.
The nor’easter that sidelined the Betelgeuse’s scrapping was fierce. When windspeeds reached upwards of 65 miles an hour, the tugboat captain faced a difficult choice: try to hang on to an unwieldy, uncontrollable behemoth that was threatening both vessels, or cut the towline. He chose the latter. The tempest shoved Betelgeuse ashore.
Word of the grounding spread in the community, and among the first to arrive was Joseph “Mac” Midgett Sr., part of a clan that had been on the Outer Banks for more than two centuries and had deep ties to the water.
Michael Halminski is a photographer who has lived on the Outer Banks for nearly 50 years. He remembers the morning after the Betelgeuse ran aground. Living in a mobile home at the time, Halminski recalled that there was at least 2 inches of ice covering the north-facing side of his residence. He loaded up his camera and film and headed down to the beach.
“Mac Midgett was already there,” he says.
The would-be salvor
Midgett was well-known in the community, Halminski says. He had a reputation both for craftiness and penchant for scuffling. He was a bear of a man with a rampaging beard, but underneath that gruff exterior, he was a generous and genuine.
When the Betelgeuse turned broadside to the shore, Midgett boarded the ship and tied a thin, green line to the bow. The other end was knotted to an anchor buried in beach sand. And with that, Midgett laid claim to the Betelgeuse.
Midgett’s legal grounds for claiming the vessel were about as solid as the shifting sands beneath it. He seems to have been relying on old maritime traditions that granted salvage rights to the first person to discover a shipwreck. Perhaps such a maneuver might have succeeded way back when wind-powered merchant vessels crashed on remote, unpopulated shores, spilling casks of supplies that would be unlikely to find their original destination.
“That’s what people have done here for generations,” says Halminski. “There were people that specialized in salvaging.”
But a big hunk of metal with paved roads leading more-or-less right to it wasn’t exactly that scenario. The Betelgeuse’s rightful owner, the salvaging firm Luria Brothers, had no intention of abandoning their property. They just needed to figure out how to get it unstuck.
Midgett nevertheless played the part of victorious salvor. For two weeks, he and close associates kept a 24-hour vigil on the beach. Some people remember seeing him standing defiantly on the ship’s bow, presumably in an effort to shoo rival claimants. “I figured the company might give up the ship,” Midgett told a Virginian-Pilot correspondent. “If they have to give it to someone, it might as well be me.”
An uncommon sight
Tourists flocked to see the ship. Although shipwrecks were once common along the Outer Banks, earning that stretch of water the nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic, that was rare by the mid-20th century.
The parties brokered a compromise. Freeing the Betelgeuse proved to be no easy feat. As insurance agents, Luria Brothers employees and other officials tried to formulate a plan for freeing the gargantuan boat. They tapped Midgett’s well of experience, and he ferried personnel from ship to shore, and helped them take soundings.
They needed all the help they could get. A sandy shoal formed on the oceanside of the Betelgeuse, wedging it in even tighter. Pulling on the hull and providing tension proved of little use. Workers measured progress in inches. The danger that the Betelgeuse might spill the 77,000 gallons of oil onboard complicated matters. The Coast Guard and Marine Corps came in to help.
Finally, after nearly two months of round-the-clock work, the Betelgeuse floated once more. The vessel went to meet its ultimate fate – scrapping. For his part, Midgett and his crew earned $4,600, courtesy of Luria Brothers. Midgett continued to be an active and a colorful part of the community for decades. He died in 2006.
Virginia Tillett served on the Dare County Board of Commissioners with Midgett and knew him personally for years prior to holding simultaneous political office. Like others in the Dare County, Tillett remembers Midgett as an outspoken man, but underneath the outsized personality, he had a big heart. “You never had to wonder where he stood on things, but he would give you the shirt off his back,” she says.
As for losing his claim to the Betelgeuse, Tillett says that Midgett was the type of person that could just let it go. “If things went his way, great. If not, he didn’t worry about it,” she says. “The fact that he lost that ship didn’t bother him one bit.”
Sources for this story include: The Virginian-Pilot and The Coastland Times newspaper archives and Outer Banks Vintage Scrapbook on Facebook.