by John A. Ullman
Rescue! No other word so illuminates the courage and selflessness of the human species at the peak of its form. On the night of February 18, 1952, a ferocious northeast storm slammed waves as high as 60 feet into the hulls of two tankers off Chatham. One sent out a distress call before she broke up, and rescue ships zeroed in on her from Portland to Nantucket. That was the Fort Mercer.
The other broke in two so fast that sending equipment was lost. Only a radio receiver was working. That ship was the Pendleton. Thirty-three men, clinging to the stern section of the smashed Pendleton, drifting helplessly past Pollock Rip lightship, banged about by mountainous waves, could hear the progress of a concerted rescue effort ... for the other tanker. Every detail of the fleet converging on the Fort Mercer, not a word about the Pendleton. But Chatham knew.
The Coast Guard station had picked up the Pendleton on radar, and was watching the two sections of the ship, marking their positions. Over the Fort Mercer hovered an amphibious plane from Salem Air Station. To the scene rushed cutters and tugs. All the craft able to cope with the pitiless sea were fighting their way there. Chatham station sent out an amphibious DUKW
to the Pendleton. It was too small to make it.
Webber (left) and Maske
Bernard Webber, Boatswain's mate, and a crew of three made the run, their rescue craft, the motor lifeboat without a name. Old 36500 she was called. The crew: Irving Maske, Andrew Fitzgerald, and Richard P. Livesey. Four men and a motor lifeboat, not expecting to get to the Pendleton, not expecting to rescue anyone if they did, not expecting to make it back over the perilous bar ... not expecting to live.
They managed, in spite of every adversity the sea could produce. Going over the bar, the little boat was pounded by a huge wave and much of its rescue equipment was lost. The compass
was dislodged ... the one piece of equipment that would help them find the drifting section of the tanker with the crew members still aboard; the one piece of equipment that would let them find their way back.
Simple, sensible seamanship would have dictated a prompt return to the station. A tiny craft, no compass, and the vast and rampaging sea. Ridiculous. But "rescue" is the word that scrubs common sense, abolishes reason, wipes out calculation and leaves nothing but courage and a refusal to quit. The rescue was made, and even that was incredible.
Click here to see larger photo showing the
Jacobs Ladder used by the Pendleton Crew
Of 33 men, 32 were picked off the tossing stern, down a Jacob's ladder over the tilted hull, the 36500 timing the rise and fall of the waves, one at a time, off the metal monster to avoid disaster, then back for one more rescue ... off to maneuver, back for just one more ... until they had all but the one who slipped and went under. Four Coast Guardsmen and 32 temporarily safe tanker crewmen on a valiant 36 foot motor lifeboat, and no compass to lead them home.
Bernie Webber says today that the Lord had a hand on the tiller that night. Hoping to reach the beach somewhere, he found the entrance to the harbor itself, made it over the bar, made it safe to the fish pier. Not only was the rescue incredible, even the survival of the 36500 was a miracle in its own right. The rescue made international headlines. The four stubborn Coast Guardsmen eventually got the gold medal for valor the service rarely awards.
The crew of the 36500 - Bernard Webber, Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey and Irving Maske
But what of the 36500? The boat was donated to the Cape Cod National Seashore for a display at their Coast Guard exhibit in Eastham. This move was never completed because of a shortage of funds for restoration. The vessel was eventually acquired by the Orleans Historical Society and restored by volunteers to her present mission, a floating museum dedicated to the memory of the Life Savers of Cape Cod.
Reprinted courtesy of the Cape Codder, Orleans, MA
- The 'Pendleton' Rescue - By Capt. W. Russell Webster, USCG
Read the detailed story of the unparalleled heroism by a Coast Guard small boat crew and resuce of 32 men from aboard the sinking 'Pendleton'.
- Bernie Webber Audio Interview - A five part audio interview with Bernie Webber.