It was the dead of winter in the Southern Hemisphere on the morning of June 1st 1773. A ship called the De Jonge Thomas was trying to ride out a storm in Table Bay off the coast of South Africa. Having fought the stormy seas all night, the ship was straining against her last anchor. The captain knew he had to beach the ship if the crew was going to survive.
So at 5am, with the sky still dark, he gave the order. The anchor line was cut, the sails set, and the captain pointed the ship to a level stretch of shore just north of Salt River’s mouth. What the captain didn’t know was that the river had burst its banks and it was emptying into the sea right where the ship was headed.
As soon as the ship crossed the river’s path, it swung broadside to the beach and within minutes, pounding from the gigantic waves broke the ship apart. Desperate sailors clung to the broken hull. Some tried for the nearby shore, but the frigid temperature of the water, combined with the heavy current from the river, proved too much; and all but a few perished.
A handful of soldiers were immediately dispatched to the beach. But they could do little more than watch and keep order over the growing crowd of spectators.
A little while later, one of the soldiers’ fathers arrived on horseback to bring his son some food. It was 65 year-old Wolraad Woltermade. Hearing the desperate cries of the survivors still clinging to the wreck, the old man rode his horse past the soldiers and into the sea. The horse swam out to the wreck and Woltermade called out for two men to jump into the sea and grab on to the horse’s tail. Reluctantly they did, and Woltermade towed them to shore.
He immediately turned back out, and two-by-two he rescued the sailors. After his seventh trip and 14 rescues, the horse needed to rest. But when Woltermade dismounted on the beach, the still-stranded sailors bellowed out desperate cries of despair. Against the pleas of his son, Woltermade got back on his horse and headed back out to sea. He wouldn’t make it back. Desperate for rescue, and fearing that Woltermade wouldn’t return for another trip, several men swarmed the horse and drug it down.
Woltermade’s lifeless body was found on shore the next morning. Originally the government wasn’t all too impressed with Woltermade’s actions. One account states that they considered him to be “an officious fool who had lost his life unnecessarily”. Witnesses to this event didn’t feel the same way and as his story spread Woltermade became a legend. By the twentieth century every bravery medal issued by South Africa was done so in Woltermade’s honor.