Joshua James was born on 22 November 1826. A natural seaman, Joshua also applied himself to practical books, and started going to sea early in life with his father and brothers. One night when the helmsman lost his bearing in unfamiliar waters, Joshua was roused from a sound sleep and brought on deck. Yawning and with half-opened eyes, he scanned the heavens, laid down a course, remarked that a certain light would be sighted in two hours, and went back to bed. The light was sighted one hour and 55 minutes later. On another occasion Joshua was sailing a yacht in dense fog, all bearings apparently lost. Someone asked him where they were. He replied “We are just off Long Island head.” “How can you tell that?” he was asked. “I can hear the land talk,” he answered. He went into business with his father hauling, lightering, and freight carrying.
He joined the Massachusetts Humane Society in 1841 at age 15 and participate din his first rescue the same year. He was awarded a bronze medal on 1 April 1850 for the rescue of the crew of Delaware on Toddy Rocks. In 1864 he helped rescue the crew of Swordfish. In 1871 he helped in the rescue of a schooner. In 1873 he helped with the rescue of the crew of Helene. In 1876 he was appointed keeper of four Massachusetts Humane Society life-boats at Stony Beach, Point Allerton, and Nantasket Beach. On 1 February 1882, Joshua and his crew of volunteers launched a boat in a very heavy gale and thick snowstorm to rescue the crew of Bucephalus, and also on the same day they rescued the crews of Nellie Walker.
On 1 December 1885, he and his crew rescued ten people from Anita Owen. It was midnight, dark, with a northeast gale blowing a thick snow. Joshua and his crew got to a wrecked vessel under hazardous conditions, and found ten persons on board. They could only take five at a time. The captain’s wife was taken off first, then four others in the first load. On the trip to the beach the boat was hit by a huge wave and filled, but everyone reached shore. The second trip was more dangerous. The steering oar was lost and wreckage was all about. Nevertheless they managed to get the remaining five crewmen ashore.
On 9 January 1886, Joshua and his men rescued the captain of Millie Trim, but were unable to save the rest of the crew.
A special silver medal was struck for Joshua by the Humane Society in 1886, for “brave and faithful service of more than 40 years.” The report said “During this time he assisted in saving over 100 lives.”
The most famous rescue of his career, for which he received the Humane Society’s gold medal, as well as the Gold Life-Saving Medal from the United States Government, took place between 25 and 26 November, 1888. During that period he and his men saved the lives of 29 persons from five vessels.
An unusual rescue was made on 16 December 1896 when the three-masted schooner Ulrica was wrecked in a northeast gale and a thick snowstorm three miles south of the Point Allerton station. Joshua engaged a local farmer and two horses to rush the boat to the scene. The trainmaster of the electric train from Boston, hearing of the emergency, put the train at the service of the life-saving crew and rushed them to the scene. The schooner was 500 yards offshore. On the first two tries, the boat was thrown back on the beach. On the third try Joshua was thrown from the boat. The boat passed over him. He came up, grabbed the end of an oar, and was dragged back to shore with the boat. Realizing that he could not get the boat out, Joshua took command of the beach apparatus. A line was fired to the ship and secured, but it was too low for a breeches buoy. Joshua and his men got back in the boat and used the rope as a trolley line to pull themselves out to the vessel. The stranded sailors were so numb with cold that one of the lifesavers had to climb on board and help them off the schooner.
The crowning achievement of Joshua’s career was the rescue work in the storm of November 1898. On the morning of 27 November Joshua and his men rescued two survivors of thirteen men in two vessels dashed upon Toddy Rocks. Then they took in a family whose home was threatened by the storm. Next, by breeches buoy, they removed seven men from a schooner. After that they fought their way to a barge in the surf and rescued five men. All that night they kept a constant patrol. The second day they rescued three men from a schooner, then three men from Black Rock. For 48 hours they were engaged in continuous rescue work. Joshua said of the storm “We succeeded in getting every man that was alive at the time we started for him, and we started at the earliest moment in each case.”
Joshua James died on 19 March 1902. Two days earlier the entire crew save one of the Monomoy Point Life-Saving Station perished in a rescue attempt. This tragedy affected Joshua deeply, and convinced him of the need for even more rigid training of his own crew. At 0700 19 March, with a northeast gale blowing, he called his crew for a drill. For more than an hour, the 75-year-old man maneuvered the boat through the boisterous sea. He was pleased with the boat and with the crew. Upon grounding the boat he sprang onto the wet sand, glanced at the sea and stated, “The tide is ebbing,” and dropped dead on the beach.
With a lifeboat for a coffin, Joshua was buried, and another lifeboat made of flowers was placed on his grave. His tombstone shows the Massachusetts Humane Society seal and bears the inscription “Greater love hath no man than this — that a man lay down his life for his friends.”