The Pendleton Rescue, by CAPT. W. Russell Webster, USCG
It has been 50 years since BM1 Bernard Webber and his rag-tag crew of three volunteers ventured out over the Chatham, Massachusetts bar in a 36-foot wooden motorized lifeboat in 60-foot seas and 70 knot winds and rescued 32 crewmen from the stricken tank vessel Pendelton. Despite the passage of a half-century, memories of the rescue especially the horrific death of a thirty-third crewman during the rescue, are still vivid in the mind of the 73-year-old small boat coxswain.
This is the story of the unparalleled heroism by a Coast Guard small boat crew.
Pendelton's voyage. The 503-foot, 10,448 gross ton tank vessel Pendelton (T2-SE-A1 or "T2") was built by the Kaiser Company in 1944 and departed Baton Rouge, LA on Feburary 12, 1952. It was laden with a full cargo of 122,000 barrels of Kerosene and heating oil. The ship carried a crew of 41, including the master, Captain John Fitzgerald. Late on the evening of 17 February, Pendelton arrived off Boston. The weather was foul with extremely limited visibility. The captain opted to stand off and headed his vessel east-northeast at slow speed into Massachusetts Bay into the prevailing sea conditions. The wind and sea conditions worsened throughout the night, building into a full-scale 'Nor'easter' gale with snow and high seas.
By 4:00 a.m. on February 18, Pendelton began shipping seas over her stern, but the vessel appeared to be riding well. Sometime after 4 a.m., the vessel rounded the tip of Cape Cod off Provincetown, MA and assumed a more southerly course. At about 5:50 a.m. on 18 February, after a series of explosive cracking noises, the Pendelton took a heavy lurch and broke in two. At the time of the break, the vessel's circuit breakers tripped, leaving the bow section without power. The stern section continued to operate normally, including all machinery and lighting.
The Coast Guard's Board of Investigation concluded that the low temperatures on 2/18/52 tended to increase the notch sensitivity of the Pendelton's steel resulting in brittle fractures. Pendelton's condition of loading and ballasting with excessive buoyance in the bow and stern and heavy weight amidship created a sagging effect, which was aggravated by the extremely heavy seas. The board concluded the fracture of the hull was caused by failure of material under stress due to low temperature on a tension setup by the condition of loading and the situation of the vessel in an extremely rough sea.
Gone with the darkened bow section were the Captain and seven other crewmen, all destined to perish. In the stern, the Chief Engineer, Raymond Sybert, immediately took charge and mustered his 32 survivors and assigned them duties. Alone, adrift, in mountainous seas, the stern section and its human cargo drifted south with a slight port list about six miles off Cape Cod. The bow section also drifted south, but at a further distance offshore. No S.O.S. had been issued.
The Rescue. February 18, 1952 saw the Coast Guard rescue a total of 70 men from two T2 tank vessels, the Fort Mercer and the Pendelton. Both tankers split in half off Cape Cod. The T/V Mercer about 40 miles offshore, the T/V Pendelton about 10 miles. By noon on 18 February, there were four separate hulks adrift off Cape Cod. By mid-morning on February 18, the men at the Chatham Lifeboat Station (today known as Chatham Coast Guard Station) received word about the T/V Fort Mercer's predicament. Orders were received for the station to launch a motorized lifeboat (MLB) to assist the Fort Mercer.
At noon, the station Officer in Charge, Bos'n Cluff, ordered BMC Donald Bangs to select his crew and man the CG36383 MLB at Stage Harbor and proceed to assist the T/V Fort Mercer now 25 miles off Chatham. At the time, BM1 Webber, chosen to remain behind for other duties, thought "My God, do they really think a lifeboat and its crew could actually make it that far out to sea in this storm and find the broken ship amid the blinding snow and raging seas with only a compass to guide them?" If the crew of the lifeboat didn't freeze to death first, how would they be able to get the men off the storm-tossed sections of the broken tanker? He would soon find out.
Shortly after Chief Bangs and his crew left to assist the Fort Mercer, BM1 Webber was ordered to the Chatham Old Harbor area where he and his crew would spend the next several hours helping local fishermen re-moor their fishing vessels which had been moved by the ongoing Nor'easter.
Back on the stern section of the Pendelton, Engineer Sybert's crew sighted the beach at about two p.m. At 2:55 p.m., the Chatham Lifeboat Station's (CLS) radar picked up two blips about five and a half miles distant. At 3:00 p.m., Bos'n Cluff visually sighted the bow section of the Pendelton. Cluff's report to the Boston regional Coast Guard headquarters caused Coast Guard PBY aircraft No. 1242 to be diverted from ongoing rescue operations further offshore involving the Fort Mercer. Shortly after 4 p.m., the PBY made the first positive identification of both sections of the Pendelton. The Coast Guard now knew for the first time it had two stricken T2 tankers and four different possible rescue situations.
Bos'n Cluff's initial reaction was to dispatch his remaining crew, including BM1 Webber, to the North Beach area (between Orleans and Chatham) in hopes they could render assistance to Pendelton's crew if either section of the vessel came ashore. It soon became apparent that neither section would come ashore there and the crew returned to the station to prepare to use the CG36500 MLB to render aid. The Pendelton's stern section and its crew of 33 drifted close to shore. Close enough that local residents could occasionally hear the ship's whistle and see the vessel as it &galloped along up and down huge waves, frothing each time it rose or settled back into the sea."
Bos'n Cluff then ordered, "Webber, pick yourself a crew. Ya-all got to take the 36500 out over the bar and assist that thar ship, ya-heah?" With great trepidation having seen the conditions offshore and knowing his likely fate, but understanding his duty, he replied, "Yes sir, Mr. Cluff, I'll get ready." It was time to choose his crew. Only three men were available, none of whom Webber had in mind. All three quickly volunteered. BM1 Webber's volunteers included the station's junior engineer, Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey, and a crewman from the nearby Stonehorse Light Ship, Seaman Irving Maske, who had been waiting for transportation back to his lightship.
At about 5:30 p.m., as BM1 Webber and his crew readied their dory to row out to the CG36500 MLB, local fisherman and neighbor, John Stello, yelled out over the din: "You guys better get lost before you get too far out." Webber knew all too well what his friend was suggesting. Go out and probably die or get lost and live other days to talk about it. Webber asked Stello to call his wife Miriam, who had been alone and sick at home for two days, and let her know about the rescue attempt.
At 5:55 p.m., Webber and his last-minute-crew left the pier in their wooden 36-foot-long motorized lifeboat driven along by its single 90 horsepower gas engine. As coxswain Webber turned his lifeboat into the channel, he could see the station's lights and hoped for a hasty recall. Hearing nothing, he radioed the station and received the curt response "Proceed as directed." Back on the Pendelton's stern, Engineer Sybert saw the stern section headed for grounding on Chatham's bar and certain disaster. Sybert used the tanker's engines to keep the tanker off the bar, but this only increased the vessel's list and trim dangerously. When some of Sybert's crew heard that a motor lifeboat from Chatham was on the way on their personal radios, efforts to maneuver the stern were stopped.
As the CG36500 approached Chatham's bar, Webber and his crew began to sing Rock of Ages and Harbor Lights. Their voices were soon muffled by the thunderous roar of the ocean as it collided with the sand bar. As the CG36500 crossed the bar, the boat was smashed by a mountain of a wave and thrown high in the air. The boat landed on its side between waves. The self-righting boat recovered quickly and was smote again, this time tons of seawater crashed over the boat breaking its windshield and flattening coxswain Webber. Quickly scampering to his feet, Webber noticed the boat's compass had been knocked off its mount. The cold, near hurricane force winds howled through the boat's cockpit as Webber struggled to regain control and steer in to the towering waves.
The Pendelton's engineer and his crew sensed their demise as the stern hulk hobby-horsed southward smashing bottom with each new series of waves. Although there were several Coast Guard cutters and the CG36383 nearby, the fortunes of fate would only allow CG36500 and her crew alone one attempt to save engineer Sybert's men. Coxswain Webber finally brought CG36500 across the bar and knew the water was deeper because the spacing between the waves had increased and so had the wave heights. Weather observations from nearby cutters involved in the Fort Mercer and Pendelton rescues indicated sea heights between 40 to 60 feet.
Occasionally, the lifeboat's engine would die out when the waves would roll the vessel so far over that the gasoline engine would lose its prime. Each time, engineer Fitzgerald would crawl into the cramped compartment to restart the main engine --- his efforts were rewarded with severe burns, bruises, the steady chug-chugging of the engine and the collective sighs of appreciation from his shipmates. The boat proceeded roller coaster fashion as it slowly labored up one side of a huge wave and surfed down the backside, accelerating towards the trough. Coxswain Webber knew too much speed was not good and unchecked, would cause the boat's bow to bury in the next wave and swamp the small vessel.
The boat's motion was so swift, coxswain Webber had to reverse the engine on the backside of each wave in order to slow it down. His first navigational waypoint was the nearby Pollock Rip Lightship, where Webber hoped to re-orient himself and give his crew a breather in the lee of the larger vessel. The weather and visibility worsened in freezing horizontal snow that lashed the coxswain's face through the broken windshield. He wore no lifejacket in order to give himself the best chance to react and guide the vessel. After about an hour of struggling and fearing he had missed the lightship, coxswain Webber slowed the CG36500 to a near standstill as he sensed, rather than saw, something ahead. He sent a crewman forward to energize the boat's small searchlight. Within seconds, the light was on and a large wave lifted this crewman up and over the coxswain flat and carried him aft where he landed onboard, miraculously unhurt, but with a thud.
Creeping the boat forward, the searchlight soon revealed a pitch black mass of twisted metal, which heaved high in the air upon the massive waves and then settled back down in a "frothing mass of foam." Each movement of the giant hulk produced a cacophony of eerie groans as the broken ship twisted and strained in the 60-foot seas. No lights were apparent as coxswain Webber maneuvered the small boat aft along the port side of the Pendelton's stern section. Rounding the stern, CG36500's searchlight illuminated the word PENDELTON and moments later, the larger vessel's own deck lights became apparent! And, then a small figure above began frantically waving his arms! He soon disappeared. Coxswain Webber then saw a mass of people begin to line Pendelton's starboard stern area, many shouting muffled instruction, which were unintelligible over the wind and crashing seas. He looked upon their position as "inviting" relative to his own and thought of strategies for he and his crew to join them above.
Without notice, a Jacob's ladder was tossed over the side, and unbelievably, men began to start down the ladder like a procession of ants! The first man at the bottom was dunked in the water like a tea bag and then lifted 50 feet in the air as the Pendelton rolled and heaved. Webber sent his crew forward to assist. Coxswain Webber skillfully maneuvered the CG36500 along the Pendelton's starboard quarter and, one by one, the Pendelton survivors either jumped and crashed hard on the tiny boat's bow or fell in to the sea, where Webber's crew assisted them onboard at great personal risk. Some Pendelton crewmen were sling-shotted out from the ship on the Jacob's ladder by the whipping and rolling motion of the waves. As soon as they had reached their zenith of flight, the ship would snap roll them back violently and slam them against the side of the Pendelton.
After multiple approaches and 20 survivors safely recovered, the CG36500 began to handle sluggishly. The human parade continued to descend unabated. There was no turning back as coxswain Webber arrived at yet another defining moment and made the decision that they would all live or they all would die. And, so it went as Webber and his crew literally stuffed their human cargo aboard and risked life and limb again and again. Finally, with 32 survivors onboard the CG36500 there only remained the 300-pound giant of a man George (Tiny) Myers, the inspiration of the Pendelton crew for his personal heroics, suspended at the bottom of the ladder. Myers jumped too soon and was swallowed up by the sea. Moments later, he was again visible underneath the stern of the vessel, clinging to one of Pendelton's 11-foot-long propeller blades.
Easing ahead cautiously, Webber felt the stern of the small boat rise as a monstrous wave overtook CG36500. The boat was driven ahead faster and faster towards Myers. Coxswain Webber backed his small craft's engine hard, but the boat smashed into Pendelton and Tiny Myers. The CG36500 was ejected from underneath the Pendelton by another large wave just as the hulk was lifted one last time and rolled over and sank. All was again dark as the CG36500's searchlight was extinguished. Coxswain Webber was sick at the thought of losing Tiny Myers, but knew the fate of the 36 men on his small boat rested exclusively in his hands. Lost with no compass to steer by and in zero visibility conditions, there were just two choices. Head east into the seas and hope to survive 10-12 more hours until a new day's light brought the slim chance of transferring passengers yet again to a larger rescue ship. Or, put the wind and seas on the small boat's stern and let them force the vessel ashore somewhere where help might be nearby.
Coxswain Webber then tried his radio again and received an immediate acknowledgement. Once he briefed his superior that he had 32 Pendelton survivors aboard, there ensued a squabble between the nearby CG cutter MCCULLOCH and the Chatham Lifeboat Station about various options. These included a suggestion of an at-sea rendezvous with MCCULLOCH and a second transfer of survivors! The radio was quickly turned off and Webber devised a plan to beach the CG36500 at first opportunity. The small vessel would be held on the beach as long as possible with the engine while the survivors clambered ashore. On cue, the Pendelton crew gave a cheer of approval and support and on they went. Very soon, a red flashing light appeared! And, the boat's searchlight incredibly revealed the buoy that marked the turn to the entrance to Old Harbor, Chatham and safe water!
A quick call to the station was met with excitement and elation for now everyone knew that the rescued were now survivors! Soon, another stream of over-direction and gibberish caused coxswain Webber to secure the radio after requesting assistance with the survivors at the Fish pier. A crowd of Chatham men, women and children met the CG36500 at the pier, securing lines and helping the shocked, excited and in some cases, sobbing survivors and rescuers ashore. Coxswain Webber saw his friend and fisherman John Stello once again and inquired about what the sick Miriam Webber had said when she learned of the CG36500's return? Stello replied that she had said: "Tell Bernie to get his butt home just as soon as possible!"
BM1 Bernard C. Webber, USCG, of Chatham, Massachusetts, and his three crew members all received the Treasury Department's coveted Gold Lifesaving Medal for "extreme and heroic daring" during the Pendelton rescue. **
** In all, 24 Coast Guardsmen were honored for their efforts during the Fort Mercer-Pendelton rescues. Seventy of the possible 84 crewmen were eventually saved from the broken vessels. Five Gold Lifesaving Medals, four Silver Lifesaving Medals and 15 Coast Guard Commendation Ribbons were awarded to the rescuers. On average, five Gold Lifesaving Medals and 10-12 Silver Lifesaving Medals are awarded each year for acts of heroism on the water.
1. O'Neil, VADM, USCG Commandant's remarks at a Department of Treasury Awards Ceremony, 14 May, 1952.
2. U.S. Coast Guard Commandant, Merchant Vessel Inspection Division, Marine Board of Investigation; structural failure of tanker Pendleton off Cape Cod on 18 February 1952, with loss of life, 25 September 1952.
4. Webber, Bernard C., Chatham, The Lifeboat Men, Lower Cape Publishing Co., 1985.
5. Hathaway, G., CAPT, USCG, From Highland to Hammerhead, 2000.
Reprinted courtesy of the US Naval Institute Proceedings magazine.