Why does one particular Coast Guard rescue mission still matter after sixty-four years? by Theresa Barbo

After thousands of Coast Guard rescues, why does one particular mission still matter after sixty-four years?

by Theresa Barbo, author of The Pendleton Disaster off Cape Cod: The Greatest Small Boat Rescue in Coast Guard History

Movie-poster.JPG Pendleton-Crew.JPGIt all comes down to one question:  after tens of thousands of rescues by the Coast Guard, why does one particular mission still matter after sixty-four years? 

I’ve often asked myself that question since I began researching the famous Pendleton rescue off Cape Cod in 2002, and after The History Press published the first edition in 2007. And after all these years, I think I’ve found the answer, and I’ll get to that in a minute.  

But here’s a snapshot of the story:  one horrendous hurricane, or what we call a Nor’easter up here in New England, swept across the region on February 18, 1952. Tremendous property damage caused by high winds totaled into the millions, and out at sea, fishing boats torn from their moorings would litter the coastline for weeks. 

En route from Louisiana to the northern seaport at Portland, Maine, were two 503’ oil tankers, the Pendleton and Fort Mercer and both headed into the belly of the storm. And a few miles off the coast of Cape Cod, the merciless waves snapped each tanker in two. A Coast Guard investigation of the Pendleton wreck would later determine that faulty construction and loading methods combined with awful weather led to a “complete failure of the hull girder.” 

At the moment the Pendleton broke apart, five people on the bow, including the captain, were killed.  Aboard the now-drifting stern of the Pendleton were thirty-three survivors. But the storm had knocked out power so any radio communication was impossible.  Survivors, though, kept blown the horn. Aboard was an 18-year-old sailor named Charlie Bridges, who remembered waking up to grinding noises and odd vibrations circulating through the vessel. Most shipmates were also sleeping when the ship snapped in two, and Charlie was clueless about their dire predicament.  But not for long.  

Charlie grabbed his pants, his lifejacket and shoes and “went topside till morning.” And he raced around telling other sea men “the other half of the ship is gone.” 

Then the morning of February 18, 1952, dawned.

For another look at the Pendleton disaster, check out this illustrated children's book, also by Therea Mitchell Barbo. Jack Nickerson and his faithful lab, Sinbad, wake early one snowy Cape Cod morning, just as the Pendleton is in serious trouble. There's no time to waste--the Coast Guard, including Jack's friend Bernie Webber, leave Chatham Harbor in search of the "Pendleton" crew. They don't yet know that Jack and Sinbad have snuck aboard the rescue boat as stowaways.

Back on land, at the Coast Guard Motor Life Boat Station in Chatham, located at the elbow of Cape Cod, crew had spent much of February 18 on the water, hauling loose fishing boats back to their moorings.  It was freezing cold, with high winds whipping their faces, but the Coast Guard crewmen continued on through the day including Bosun’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber. 

Late that afternoon, the Officer-in-Charge of the Chatham Station, Daniel Cluff, ordered Bernie to find himself a crew and see if the latest report was true:  that the stern of the Pendleton that had just floated by Chatham with its horn blaring had survivors.  Already exhausted, but not one to disobey an order, Bernie looked around for volunteers. He found three:  Engineman Andy Fitzgerald, Ervin Maske and Richard Livesey.  

The rest of the story is, as the adage goes, history.

As Bernie and his crew left Chatham Harbor bound for the open ocean, the windshield had blown in and the compass was torn from its mount.  Only a miracle kept this vessel from being destroyed.  [By this time, separate efforts by the Coast Guard and Navy had resulted in the rescue of survivors aboard the Fort Mercer.]

Yet the four Coast Guardsmen aboard the CG36500, a 36’ motor life boat with a modest 90 horsepower engine, in the blackness of a hurricane and in seas reported to be as high as 60’, had never trained together, but against all odds, they had located the hulk of the stern of the Pendleton.  

As a meager spotlight shone across the stern, someone aboard the Pendleton threw a Jacob’s ladder over the side, and the 36500 drew up against the vessel and the rescue began.  For each person rescued, Bernie had to maneuver the 36500 just so, and he ended up making a separate pass for each sailor.  But one sailor didn’t make it.  George “Tiny” Myers, an able seaman at over 300 pounds, landed in the water near the 36500 and clung one of the Pendleton’s propeller blades. But a wave slammed the 36500 into Myers, killing him.  It was a death that none of the rescuers have ever forgotten.

Bernie had a choice:  keep going or call it a day.  He kept rescue efforts in full swing, and thirty-two seamen were crammed into every possible nook aboard the rescue boat that had a maximum capacity for eleven survivors.  He shouted to everyone that ‘we are all going to live, or we’re all going to die,’ so clearly this was now a team effort between Coast Guard and merchant marine sailors. Bernie radioed into the Coast Guard that he had survivors and was en-route home. 

By some miracle, Bernie saw a distant red blinking light marking the entrance to Chatham Harbor. By then word of the 36500’s success had filtered through town via short wave radio and over 100 people were on hand to help as the vessel pulled up alongside the dock. 

To answer an earlier question why this rescue still matters sixty-four years later?

Because it’s an excellent example of how high the human spirit can climb by four scared young men who risked their lives to save imperiled strangers.  And for that reason the rescue lives on forever in Coast Guard history.

Journalist, author and historian Theresa M. Barbo is the author of six books of historical non-fiction published by The History Press. Barbo is a noted public speaker throughout New England and a former award-winning broadcast journalist and news magazine history editor. She is also a former executive in the non-profit sector.