It was Feb. 18, 1952, when Coast Guardsmen from the 1st Coast Guard District responded to a maritime disaster. During the height of a winter nor’easter, two World War II era tankers, SS Fort Mercer and SS Pendleton, split in half placing the lives of their 84 crew members in jeopardy. Motor lifeboat crews from Cape Cod and Nantucket Island stations responded, as well as cutters Eastwind, Unimak, Yakutat, Acushnet and McCulloch, and various aircraft from nearby air stations. Together they rescued 70 persons from the foundering ships. Thirty-two of those were saved by one motor lifeboat alone.
After a busy day of rounding up fishing vessels that had slipped their moorings in foul weather in Chatham Harbor, Mass., Petty Officer 1st Class Bernie Webber, Petty Officer 2nd Class Andy Fitzgerald, Seaman Ervin Maske and Seaman Richard Lively returned to the station to warm up and relax, believing that they had put in a pretty full day. It was only beginning… Upon arrival to the station, they were directed to get underway, cross the Chatham bar in the venerable CG-36500 and look for survivors from the Pendleton.
From the outset, the odds were stacked against this crew. Webber identified his three willing, but still cold, volunteers to get underway with him from crewmembers remaining at the station, as the first boat was underway responding to Fort Mercer’s mayday. As they readied the CG-36500 to get underway, one of the local fishermen shouted out, “You guys better get lost before you get too far out.”
That advice was offered because the fisherman knew that the Chatham bar was breaking in full fury, and the chances of getting across the bar safely were remote. Sure enough, the CG-36500 ran into trouble on the bar. The windshield on the coxswain flat was broken into a thousand pieces, and the thrust of the breaking swells tore the compass from its mounts.
Webber felt compelled to continue on the rescue mission, not only because a radio call from the station ordered them to continue out to sea, but also out of a sense of duty to the potential survivors on the Pendleton. The only useful tool available to assist the crew in locating anyone in the darkness was their trusty searchlight that continued to light their path and their own senses.
The crew of the CG-36500 strained to hear anything over the roar of the storm that might lead them to the stricken ship and they were eventually drawn to the sound of twisting metal from the broken Pendleton as it shifted in the stormy seas.
Bringing a wooden 36-foot motor lifeboat alongside a freighter in mountainous seas is near impossible without placing your crew in grave danger. Yet, that is exactly what Webber and his crew did. With the light from the small searchlight and timing the movement of the swells as they rolled through, Webber and his crew approached the stern of the floundering vessel more than 30 times to extract the survivors, one by one.
Amazingly, they rescued 32 crewmembers. During the last attempt to extract the final crewmember, a swell pushed the 36-foot motor lifeboat against the hull of the Pendleton, crushing the survivor. He was quickly lost in the darkness of the stormy night. Despite their overall success, that one loss haunted Webber and his crewmembers for many years.
With all survivors aboard, the crew of CG-36500 turned west, hoping to find safety by landing on one of Cape Cod’s sandy beaches. Miraculously, they found their way across the Chatham bar and into safe harbor. Local citizens listening to this rescue story unfold via radio met the CG-36500 at the pier and immediately helped them remove the survivors and drive them to the warmth of the station.
It was truly the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history! Several times during the past decade, different groups of Coast Guard history enthusiasts have tried, and failed, to load 32 “survivors,” plus a crew of four, onto the CG-36500… and that was pier-side, in calm waters!
Fitzgerald, the CG-36500’s boat engineer, attended our 60th anniversary kickoff event on Wednesday, and he said it was only through providence and the outstanding boat handling skills and “sea sense” of Webber that enabled them to go out, make the extraordinary rescue of 32 people and return to homeport.
You can read much more about the Fort Mercer and Pendleton rescues in several well-researched and recently published books, including, The Pendleton Disaster off Cape Cod – The Greatest Small Boat Rescue in Coast Guard History and The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue.