Captain Marvin Wyche Howard (Sept. 11, 1897 – March 26, 1969) was just a week and a half old when a tropical storm battered Ocracoke Island.
Gale force winds reached the Outer Banks of North Carolina on September 22. Two days earlier the storm had struck Tampa, Florida with torrential rains and high winds that flooded streets, demolished buildings, and tore vessels from their moorings.
According to “The New York Times,” Sept. 25, 1897, p.5, col.3, “The storm raged off Hatteras with almost unabated fury from early Wednesday morning [Sept. 22] until late Thursday night [Sept. 23] and the seas ran higher than that have been encountered for years.”
In his 71+ years Marvin Howard was to witness many more hurricanes and storms, both on Ocracoke and at sea.
Captain Marvin W. Howard:
The second child of Homer and Aliph O’Neal Howard, Marvin was born into a seafaring family.
As a young man, Marvin’s father, Homer Howard, had served on coastal schooners before joining the United States Life Saving Service in the early 20th century. In 1883 Marvin’s grandfather, James W. Howard, had given up a life at sea to become keeper of the Cedar Hammock Life Saving Station at the north end of Ocracoke Island, a position he held until he retired in 1903.
By the turn of the twentieth century seafaring was a dwindling vocation. Railroads, not schooners, were now transporting the majority of cargo. Marvin, like most island teenagers of his generation, moved to Philadelphia looking for work with the US Army Corps of Engineers. He was just fifteen years old when he secured a position as a deckhand aboard the four year old, 83’ derrick boat Rattler working the Delaware River. With its on-board crane the Rattler lifted heavy loads between vessels and to and from docks.
Marvin describes his experience in an article he wrote almost four decades later:
“I can think of nothing during my thirty-seven years away from my home of Ocracoke more pathetic…than when, as a boy, sharing with many others the fate of leaving Home, [I saw] the young men and old alike, each spring, start their migration northward, [to try to] find a job. [They would leave] their families, each with their luggage, and very few dollars in their pockets, walk down the sandy roads, before dawn, in the cold raw days of February and March, when the light of cottages from early risers shined bright and clear, down to the fishing wharves, where the daily mail boat left at 4 A.M.
“…These men were going off! Away – to the far north (for in those days Philadelphia or New York it seemed, was like ten thousand miles) to look for work, going where it was even colder than home, where if a job was found, they would remain for about eight or nine months, or until cold fall when the icy blasts froze up the rivers of the great industrial north, or fishing, on account of winter winds and cold, ceased along the Atlantic Seaboard.”
Marvin continued this semi-annual migration for almost three years, working for the Corps of Engineers and for the American Dredging Company. Then he had a change of mind. Exactly one month after Marvin’s 18th birthday (October 11, 1915) the 170 pound young man enlisted in the United States Navy at the Recruiting Station in Philadelphia, declaring his occupation as “mariner,” and his date of birth as September 11, 1893, claiming to be 22 years old. As an Apprentice Seaman he was granted $17.60 per month pay, and immediately sent to the Naval Training Station in Newport, Rhode Island.
Europe had been at war since July, 1914. President Wilson was determined that the United States should remain neutral, even after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. But concern and uneasiness always lay beneath the surface. Marvin realized he might find himself overseas after all.
Only one month after arriving in Newport Marvin was put in the hospital for an unknown illness. By December he was back at the Training Station where he remained until March, 1916.
In April Marvin began serving with 932 officers and other sailors on the Naval Training Ship, U.S.S. North Dakota, a 518’ Delaware-class dreadnought battleship fitted with 28 guns and two torpedo tubes. The North Dakota, along with other ships in the Atlantic Fleet was engaged in intensive training in response to the escalating threat of war.
A little more than a month later, in June, 1916, Marvin was transferred to the U.S.S. Oklahoma, a newly commissioned 583’ long battleship with 864 officers and men, and carrying 31guns. In August he was again hospitalized for two months¸ then, on his birthday, reassigned to the U.S.S. Davis, a 315’ destroyer with nine guns and 12 torpedo tubes. The Davis was commissioned just days before, on October 5, 1916, and had a complement of 99 officers and crew. Marvin remained on the Davis until his discharge from the Navy on October 10, 1919.
Beginning in January of 1917 Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. After the sinking of several US merchant vessels and Germany’s attempt to enlist Mexico as an ally against the United States, President Wilson changed his mind and convinced the United States Congress to declare war on Germany, which happened April 6, 1917.
Eighteen days after the declaration of war, the Davis set sail from Boston harbor. She was one of the first destroyers to arrive in European waters. On May 4 the Davis arrived at Queenstown harbor (now Cobh) on the south coast of County Cork, Ireland. Employed primarily as a patrol boat and escort vessel, the Davis accompanied merchant convoys along the coast of Ireland.
In late June, 1917 the Davis escorted US Army transports carrying members of the American Expeditionary Forces on their way to France where they fought on the Western Front. Interestingly, Marvin’s older first cousin, Ira Thomas Wyche (1887-1981), was a captain (then major, and later lieutenant colonel) with the 60th Field Artillery, American Expeditionary Forces, who fought alongside the French and British in the St. Die sector of France.
On July 1, 1917 Marvin was advanced to Petty Officer, Gunner’s Mate, 3rd Class, then, on February 1, 1918, to Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class.
While on patrol during 1917 and 1918 the Davis rescued survivors of several vessels torpedoed by German submarines, and on May 12, 1918 picked up 35 crew members of the sunken U-103 and conveyed them to British authorities in Wales.
By June, 1918 Marvin had advanced to Gunner’s Mate 1st Class. However, on September 21, 1918 his rating was reduced to Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class for “leaving post without authority.” By the first of December he had regained his 1st Class rating.
In November, 1918 Allied forces and Germany signed the Armistice that ended the conflict in Europe. On December 13 the Davis was one of 28 destroyers and ten battleships that escorted the troop transport, USS George Washington, carrying President Woodrow Wilson and the American representatives to the Paris Peace Conference, into Brest, France.
Marvin Wyche Howard was honorably discharged from the United States Navy on October 10, 1919. His pay at discharge was $44.00 per month.
Service records indicate a dedicated and qualified seaman who earned high marks from his superiors for “professional qualifications,” “sobriety,” and “obedience.” Other than once leaving his post without authority, Marvin’s records show a consistently “clear record” of no offenses or punishments. His performance of duty is listed as “reliable, very good.”
Marvin returned to Ocracoke after his discharge and tried his hand at commercial fishing. This was also an opportunity for him to continue courting his childhood sweetheart, Leevella Ethel Williams. On February 8, 1920 they were married by Rev. F. C. West in Leevella’s home.
Less than a year later Marvin returned to Philadelphia with his new bride, and enlisted in the US Army Corps of Engineers. He served as “drag tender” (marine machinery mechanic) on the dredge Manhattan. He stayed on the Manhattan until 1923, becoming Third Mate.
Marvin and Leevella’s first child, Richard Olin Howard, was born July 8, 1921, in Morehead City, North Carolina, where Leevella had gone to live with family friends, and to be close to a hospital.
Marvin rose steadily in the ranks. He spent four years on the dredge Absecon as Second and First Mate. Later he shipped aboard the dredge Delaware as Second Mate; and then on the dredge Comstock as First Mate.
In 1933 he was transferred to the Mississippi River. In 1927 a major flood (Herbert Hoover described it as “the greatest disaster of peace times in our history”) “overwhelmed the levee system throughout the lower Mississippi Valley, flooded 23,000 square miles, forced 700,000 people from their homes, and destroyed about $400 million worth of property.”
The Flood Control Act of 1928, which Congress enacted in response to the great flood of 1927, authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to design and construct projects for the control of floods on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Maintenance of levees was abandoned. Marvin Howard was made Master of the “Agitator Unit,” which employed heavy duty submergible “agitator pumps” to manage floodways with a series of dams and reservoirs. Marvin remained there for three years.
Prior to Marvin’s transfer to Mississippi Leevella became pregnant with their second child, and she moved to Black Mountain, North Carolina to stay with islanders who had relocated there for health reasons. Martha Dean Howard was born February 13, 1933.
By 1936 Marvin and his family were living in Florida. A family story illustrates Marvin’s imperturbable supervisory style. Olin, just sixteen years old, had taken the family car one night. He returned home after dark and woke his father.
“Daddy, I’ve driven the car into the river.”
“Well, go to bed now son,” his father advised him. “We’ll take care of it in the morning. Just don’t tell your mother.”
In 1937 Marvin was again transferred to the sea-going hydraulic hopper dredge Manhattan, this time as Master. He remained with her until 1943. He and his family were living in Norfolk, Virginia, in a section so populated by islanders that it was dubbed “Little Ocracoke.” Two years later the Manhattan was sent to Galveston, Texas. The Manhattan, originally launched on July 9th, 1904, carried a crew of 54 men and worked night and day dredging the port of Galveston.
Olin stayed in Norfolk to finish high school, but spent the summer working in Galveston with his father on the Manhattan. Olin was impressed that his father, who had dropped out of school at age fifteen, was proficient in the use of logarithms for navigation. When his son asked him, “How did you learn to do that?” Marvin replied, “I know a lot of things you don’t know I know.”
The United States entered World War II December 8, 1942. In 1943 Marvin was commissioned Major in the Army and took command of the dredge Chester Harding. The Harding and several other sea-going hopper dredges were fitted with 3-inch deck guns and 20-millimeter antiaircraft guns, and sent to Europe. Marvin, promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, was designated commodore (a senior U.S. military captain who commanded squadrons of more than one vessel). He was the first Army officer to become commodore of a fleet of merchant vessels, in this case four dredges that crossed the Atlantic.
Sea-Going Hopper Dredge Chester Harding:
The Chester Harding was a 289 foot long, 3,800 ton “trailing suction hopper dredge” that was built in 1939 by Pusey & Jones, Shipbuilders in Philadelphia. Named for Chester Harding (1866-1936), US Army Corps of Engineers officer and governor of the Panama Canal Zone from 1917 to 1921, the dredge was sent to England to assist Allied Forces in dredging the Thames and the strategic channels surrounding the port of Liverpool.
The Chester Harding, like most trailing suction hopper dredges (TSHD), was fitted with two suction pipes that worked like vacuum cleaners when their drag heads were lowered to the seabed and trailed behind the vessel. The dredge spoil was loaded into the central “hopper.” When full, the hopper was dumped, or pumped out at a disposal area.
When the war was over Marvin returned to his domestic duties with the Corps of Engineers. For the next few years he and his family lived in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania; Wilmington, Delaware; and New Jersey.
During his long career Marvin served on eleven different dredges¸ and was master of four of them. He was sent to various ports in the United States, and even to Mexico, to keep shipping channels and ports navigable for large commercial and military vessels. His family often moved with him, especially when he was assigned to locations for lengthy periods of time.
Marvin retired from the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1951 after a distinguished career. A 1945 internal document of the Philadelphia District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Who’s Who in the District”) described the “spic and span condition of [Marvin’s] ship,” and claimed that Marvin Howard was “the best dredge operator in America.”
After retirement Marvin and Leevella moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to spend time with their daughter and her family. However, Marvin and Leevella had always longed to return to their home on Ocracoke Island. Immediately they made plans to have a modest home built on family land along Howard Street.
Leevella & Marvin Howard:
In 1953 Marvin and Leevella moved back home to their beloved island.
Marvin was a self-taught “Renaissance man” who took an active interest in his community. He periodically wrote newspaper articles and letters to the editor, and was a prolific reader. One of his favorite books was the 1939 novel “How Green Was My Valley,” by Richard Llewellyn, which tells the story of a Welsh family and the struggles in their mining community. One of the book’s characters is a “rough but gentle” prizefighter named Dai Bando.
Soon after moving back to Ocracoke Marvin acquired a Water Spaniel who became his constant companion and hunting partner. Inspired by Llewellyn’s character, Marvin named his dog Diabando. Marvin delighted in showcasing Diabando’s talents by having him perform various tricks, including rolling over on command and jumping through hoops. Along the shore of Silver Lake Diabando often entertained onlookers by diving into the harbor and returning with clam shells Marvin tossed off the dock, an indication of Diabando’s talent as a waterfowl retriever.
Marvin’s love of hunting and the outdoors is evident in an article he wrote titled There’s Nothing Like the Glory of November on the Banks. “As one feels the bite of the blustery, windy day, particularly if a hunter, the urge to take gun in hand, call Rover or Brando or Nipper, and go a-hunting, is strong,” wrote Marvin. “It would not suffice alone to hunt birds, but rather to take in the wonders of autumn’s beauty among the woodlands, the salt grasses and the sand hills.”
Diabando was a superb hunting dog, but his overenthusiasm for retrieving led to tragedy. While hunting one blustery fall day Marvin fired at a low-flying flock of ducks. Just as he squeezed the trigger for a second shot Diabando leapt into the line of fire and was killed.
Marvin was broken-hearted. He never acquired another dog.
Marvin Howard could be sentimental and deeply affected by life. However, like most of his family, he also had an impish sense of humor, and a penchant for good-natured fun.
Marvin Howard with “Wig” & “Mustache”:
One afternoon, after Leevella left the house to walk down the sandy lane to attend a Ladies Missionary Society Meeting at the Methodist Church Marvin went right to her closet. In a few minutes he had donned one of her dresses, positioned a fancy Sunday hat on his head, and draped an old purse over his arm. To everyone’s delight, Marvin joined the other ladies at their meeting, and even stayed for refreshments.
But Marvin was never satisfied with just personal pranks. He was gregarious, and quickly immersed himself in his community and church. In 1953 he made a proposal at the Ocracoke Civic Club’s Spring Meeting. “Let’s have some fun,” he announced, and suggested adding a parade to the annual July 4th pony penning and patriotic noontime service.
For many years the highlight of Ocracoke’s July 4th celebration was a mid-morning penning of the island’s wild ponies. On July 3rd a half dozen young islanders would ride to Hatteras Inlet where they camped out for the night. Early the next morning they began rounding up the scattered herds, each led by one stallion, driving several hundred ponies the length of the island. The entire village was on hand to witness the pony penning. Young boys who perched among the branches of live oaks at the edge of the village were usually the first to announce the arrival of the herds. Everyone stopped to watch as the horses thundered down the sandy lanes and were driven into the corral. Once penned, colts were branded and several of the horses were sold to enthusiastic local and mainland buyers.
In 1953 a new tradition was begun. The first “Queen of the Pony Penning” was crowned.
Marvin at Pony Pen, ca. 1954:
A patriotic program and flag raising was held at the schoolhouse at 11:30 a.m.
In 1953, after their mid-day dinner, islanders gathered along the newly paved concrete roads awaiting Ocracoke’s first annual July 4th parade.
The quirky, homegrown parade was a huge success. For several years Marvin, Lum Gaskill (dressed like Blackbeard the Pirate), and others led the parade riding Banker stallions. World War II era Dodge ambulances, Army surplus Jeeps, and other vehicles followed. Some were decked out in red, white, and blue banners. Others sported tableaus featuring hunting scenes, Indian villages, groups of local musicians, and square dancers. Some participants rode on the hoods of their vehicles, or balanced on the roofs. Most crowded into the stake body, or hung on from the running boards. Costumes included outlandish hats, Indian war bonnets, clown outfits, old-time bathing suits, and much more.
July 4th Parade:
Although the Ocracoke Island July 4th Parade was discontinued after several years, it was revived in the 1970s and has been a major attraction on Independence Day ever since.
Marvin Howard was not content with just one annual event focused on a national holiday and the island ponies. His father and grandfather had both been accomplished Outer Banks equestrians, and Marvin was determined to pass on his love of horses to the younger generation.
In May of 1954 Marvin organized Ocracoke Boy Scout Troop #290. Fourteen teenagers signed up as original members, with Marvin Howard as scoutmaster, and Kermit Robinson as assistant scoutmaster.
The newly organized Boy Scout Troop had an enthusiastic beginning. They took their first trip in August, hiking 10 miles down the beach to spend the night camping.
But Mr. Marvin, as the scouts called him, had a broader vision for his scouts. Troop 290 would be a mounted troop, at the time the only mounted Boy Scout Troop in the country. Each scout was required to earn $50 to purchase one of the island’s wild ponies. But that was just the beginning. The horses then had to be caught, penned, tamed, and cared for…all by the scouts themselves.
Marvin Howard, second from left, with Boy Scouts:
As scout Lindsay Howard described it in a 1956 “Boy’s Life” article, “These ponies are no easier to break than a western range pony. You even have a job lassoing one – if he decides to take off into the ocean. These ponies have grown up next to the sea, and are as much at home in water as on land.”
Breaking the ponies normally required two scouts, one to hold the horse (usually blindfolded with a t-shirt), while the other slowly slipped on a bridle, blanket and saddle. With more than a little trepidation the scout then mounted his steed. After snorting, bucking, and trying every trick to throw his rider, the pony finally tired and settled down. Eventually horse and rider learned to trust and respect each other.
By the spring of 1955 the boys of Troop 290 were well advanced in “scoutcraft.” Four were Tenderfoot Scouts. Others were studying hard to pass First Class Requirements, and the troop expected to have six Explorers by mid-March.
Captain Marvin Howard was an inspiration to all of his scouts. The boys often stopped by his house just to spend time with their scoutmaster. He showed them how to tie square knots, sheet bends, and bowlines. He demonstrated how to groom their ponies, and how to keep bridles and reins supple. He taught them the values of fairness, honesty, and courtesy.
And he told stories…stories of far-away places, of war, of storms at sea, of people he’d met, of lessons he’d learned. Leevella understood Marvin and his commitment to his scouts, but she made sure he kept his life in perspective. If the boys came by at suppertime Leevella stood at the door. “Marvin can’t come out to play,” she’d announce. “He’s going to have his supper now.”
Marvin’s impact on the lives of his scouts is summed up by former scout Frank DeWayne Teeter. “I learned more in scouts than I ever did in school,” the island native and commercial fisherman says.
The scouts’ first spring outing of 1955 was something of an adventure. Eleven year old Lewis Tolleson described the camping trip:
“We met at Mr. Marvin’s house, ready to head for the cattle pen. When we had ridden our ponies as far as the Loop Shack, Mr. Marvin remembered that he had forgotten his tent, so he had to go back for it. We continued on our way and Mr. Marvin caught up with us at First Hammocks. At Shad Hole we stopped to water our horses. At the Cow Pen we found all of our equipment, which Mr. Charlie Ahman had brought up there for us in his jeep.
“Tents up, it was time for a little chow. Lum Gaskill arrived in his jeep and brought apples which we shared with our ponies.
“He told us the wind was going to change, so we turned our tents around in the opposite direction.
“At about three in the afternoon Van Henry, Sommers, and the Cub Scouts came down for a visit. Then we got supper and fed and watered the horses.
“Capt. Marvin appointed those who were to stand watch every two hours, and we went to bed, but not to sleep. There was plenty of rain, so much that Joe Ben and Rudy said they could swim in their tents. Frank Teeter, George Lewis, and James Barrie went hunting for poor geese and came back wet and freezing.
“We were up at daybreak. The weather had cleared some. We ate breakfast and then fed our horses. Mr. Charlie came for our baggage at ten, and we were on our way home. We had fun, and so did the horses, climbing hills and jumping little shrubs. We got home about 12 o’clock, and were glad to be here.”
In June of 1955 Marvin yielded to a call to return to the sea. He accepted the position of captain of his former dredge, the Chester Harding, and sailed to Lake Maracaibo in northwestern Venezuela. Lake Maracaibo, with an area of more than 13,000 km² is actually a brackish bay connected to the Gulf of Venezuela by the narrow and shallow Tablazo Strait. The lake is located in the Maracaibo Basin, a large sedimentary basin where prodigious oil reserves were discovered in 1914. The shipping channel had been dredged previously, and the Harding was contracted to deepen the channel to allow ocean-going vessels unlimited access to the oil reserves.
Captain Marvin Howard and the Chester Harding spent seven months at Lake Maracaibo, dredging the 100km long entrance channel to a depth of 14m (about 35 feet).
During that time Marvin’s thoughts were never far from home. He purchased a newly published children’s book, “Digby the Only Dog” by Ruth and Latrobe Carroll, which told the fictionalized story of one Ocracoke dog, Digby, and the island’s numerous cats.
Ruth Latrobe’s illustrations of Ocracoke village scenes brought memories of home to the veteran sea captain. According to the “Coastland Times”, September, 1955, “Capt. Howard took a temporary leave of absence and now after 3 months, he wishes he was back at Ocracoke with his church, his Sunday School, his PTA, his Boy Scouts, the Civic Club, and last but not least, his wife.” He wrote numerous letters to his family, his friends, and his scouts.
Marvin mailed “Digby the Only Dog” to his eleven year old granddaughter, with this inscription: “This book has been in Maracaibo, Venezuela where a mixture of Races are as greatly diversified as the Ponies, Geese, Chickens, Ducks and Cats and Dogs. This book was flown back to the U.S.A. stopping at Montego Bay, Jamaica. It is a Xmas present to a wonderful and sweet girl ‘Dally’ from Granddad. The scenes are of our Little Home Town – Ocracoke, NC. My love, Pop”
By the end of 1955 the deepened shipping channel allowed large oil tankers to navigate into Lake Maracaibo. In just a few years Venezuela was producing 15% of the world’s oil, accounting for more than 90% of the country’s exports. As early as 1956 three quarters of Venezuela’s oil came from the Maracaibo Basin, the largest oil field in South America.
His task complete, Captain Howard brought the Chester Harding back to the states, and settled again into his island community.
Winds of change had already begun impacting Ocracoke. In 1950 Hatteras Island native, Frazier Peele, established a three-car private ferry service across Hatteras Inlet. Although Peele built a more substantial four-car ferry the next year, there was still no paved road the length of Ocracoke Island. Travelers took their chances driving to the village at low tide on the hard-packed sand.
When the Ocracoke Boy Scouts traveled to Hatteras for camping trips, Jamborees, and other occasions they blindfolded their mounts before leading them onto the ferry.
In 1957 the state of North Carolina bought Peele’s franchise, built a two lane paved road to the inlet, and replaced the old wooden ferry with converted World War II landing craft.
More change was coming the next year. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore Park, a seventy mile long string of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, was dedicated on April 24, 1958. All of Ocracoke Island, with the exception of the village, was included in the Park boundaries. Plans called for the removal of all livestock, including wild horses.
Marvin Howard lobbied tirelessly to convince the National Park Service to consider ways to keep the horses on the island. Eventually, in order to protect motorists and the island’s wild horses, a remnant herd of Banker Ponies was corralled about seven miles from the village.
Change continued ever more rapidly. Ocracoke was quickly entering the modern world. Tourists were discovering the island, ponies no longer roamed free, and the scouts were growing up. The age of innocence was coming to an end. Troop 290 would soon become just a memory.
In 1959 successful businessmen, Daniel, William, Alfred, and Leslie Taylor, brothers from coastal North Carolina, began construction of the Sea Level, a sound-class ferry built to transport motorists from the mainland town of Atlantic, North Carolina to Ocracoke. William T. Skittleharp was the Sea Level’s first captain when the operation commenced on March 1, 1960. Exactly one year later the North Carolina Highway Commission purchased the Sea Level, and the mainland terminal was moved to Cedar Island. Marvin Wyche Howard, still drawn to the sea, became captain.
Several years later Marvin finally hung up his captain’s hat. By then most of the roads in the village had been paved, and islanders were opening restaurants and building motels to accommodate the growing influx of visitors. Most of Marvin’s scouts had graduated from high school, and many left the island to join the military or attend college.
Marvin with Grandson:
Marvin continued to serve his church and his community, and then he fell ill with cancer. He and Leevella moved to Winston-Salem to be with their daughter Martha Dean and her family. Marvin died there, March 26, 1969. His body was brought back to Ocracoke and laid to rest in the Community Cemetery. Leevella returned to Ocracoke for summers, and for long visits back home on Howard Street. She died in 1982.
Marvin and Leevella’s graves lie under the shade of several live oaks. Inscribed on their single marker are the immortal words of Alfred Lord Tennyson: “Sunset and evening star and one clear call for me and may there be no mourning [sic] of the bar when I put out to sea.”
Marvin & Leevella Howard’s Gravesite:
Five months after Marvin died major hurricane Gerda, with winds up to 110 mph, passed just off shore of Ocracoke. It was one storm the old sea captain didn’t have to contend with.
 See http://www.villagecraftsmen.com/news092110.htm for a biography of Ira Thomas Wyche, Ocracoke native and Major General in the US Army.