Against Tremendous Odds, a Small Coast Guard Crew Turned a Suicide Mission into a Cause for Celebration

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The history of the U.S. Coast Guard stretches back 224 years to the founding of the Revenue Cutter Service on August 4, 1790. For more than two centuries, this small and often overlooked branch of the military has served our nation during times of peace and war, living up to their motto,

Semper Paratus, or “Always Ready.” An especially terrible storm during the winter of 1952 would test this resolve, pitting one small crew against enormous odds…

The bow section of the Pendelton rest submerged in the seas six miles from Chatham, Mass.

On February 18, 1952, four Coast Guardsmen did something so courageous, so seemingly mad, that it has gone down in Coast Guard history as the most daring small boat rescue ever. That it was a successful effort – many attribute to it being a miracle.

It was winter, and one of those infamously fierce storms called nor’easters was roaring up the New England coastline. Seas were boiling with 60-foot waves, howling winds up to 70 knots, and lashing snow. Two T2 tankers several miles apart from one another experienced the most frightening of disasters for seamen: they broke apart in stormy seas. One, the Pendleton, was floundering about 5-6 miles off of Cape Cod, and the Fort Mercer was another 20 miles out to sea. The Coast Guard sent a specialized seaplane, a PBY Catalina, out to find the Fort Mercer. It found and reported the break-up of the Mercer and then was diverted to check on the Pendleton, which had also broken in two.

Recipe for Tragedy

The Pendleton began shipping seas around 4:00 a.m. on the 18th and broke in two at around 5:00 a.m. The bow section lost all power after the break-up and floated alone in the dark, trapping the ship’s captain, John Fitzgerald, and seven other crewmen. They would not survive the events of that day. In the stern section, the Chief Engineer, Raymond Sybert, took charge of the remaining 32 crew members, mustering them and assigning them duties. They were drifting southward with a slight port list about 6 miles off the Cape Cod coast, while a rescue mission was launched for the Fort Mercer.

Later in the afternoon, at about 6:00 p.m., four Coast Guardsmen from the Chatham Lifeboat Station, now known as the Chatham Coast Guard Station, including BM1 Bernard Webber and his three-man, volunteer crew launched their 36-foot motorized lifeboat (MLB), CG-36500, with its single 90-horsepower gas engine out into the raging Atlantic in what appeared to most to be a suicide mission to try to rescue the crew of the Pendleton. They were Coast Guardsmen. This was their duty, the core of their mission as a service. Though the effort was life threatening and would be the very definition of difficult, they did not hesitate to go to the aid of those unlucky mariners.

“Though the effort was life threatening and would be the very definition of difficult, they did not hesitate to go to the aid of those unlucky mariners.”

They knew that their chances were slim. As they headed out of the harbor, they began singing “Rock of Ages,” their voices drowned out by the heavy winds and seas. As they crossed the bar, their MLB was struck by a huge wave and thrown onto its side. The self-righting boat recovered only to be hit again by an even greater wave, which crashed over it, broke the windshield and knocked coxswain Webber flat to the deck. The compass had been broken from its mount, and they struggled to remain in control of the boat in the hurricane force winds that were now howling through the cockpit of the boat.

Into the Storm

After crossing the bar, in the deeper water, the waves were farther apart but much larger. The engine on the MLB would die out every time the small craft was rolled over by a heavy wave. One of the crew, Engineer Fitzgerald, had to crawl into the small engine compartment space and restart it. Each time he would suffer burns and bruises, but he would get it going again to the appreciation of his shipmates. At one point, coxswain Weber sent a crew member forward to charge the search light. A wave struck that man and carried him up and over the cockpit, dropping him, fortunately, with a thud at the stern of the craft.

They finally came up on the floating black hulk of the Pendleton’s stern section. As they drew closer they could hear its eerie groaning and creaking sounds. Their searchlight revealed the ship’s name, and when they looked up, they could see the Pendleton’s own deck lights and a solitary figure waving his arms frantically. That figure disappeared into the darkness. Then coxswain Webber saw a mass of people lining the Pendleton’s starboard stern area.

A Jacob’s ladder was tossed over the side, and before coxswain Webber could respond, men began climbing down it. Webber sent crewmen forward to assist them, skillfully maneuvering the MLB to keep it close to the Pendleton. One by one the Pendleton crew jumped or fell to the forward deck of the MLB. Some fell into the sea and were pulled aboard, the Coast Guardsmen risking life and limb with every rescue. In the end, 32 survivors would be brought aboard.

There was one more though: a 300-pound man by the name of George “Tiny” Meyers, who had unselfishly helped the other 32 men before considering his own situation. When the others were aboard the Coast Guard MLB, he came down the Jacob’s ladder and at the last minute jumped, but moments too soon. He fell into the sea. He was spotted later clinging to the propeller of the Pendleton. Coxswain Webber tried to maneuver the MLB up close to get to Meyer but a huge wave lifted the MLB and drove it forward into the Pendleton and, unfortunately, Meyers who would be the only one who not to survive the rescue attempt.

Safe at Last

For their heroic efforts, 21 U.S. Coast Guardsmen were decorated for their participation in the rescue of 70 men.

Coxswain Webber now had to decide what to do next in the pitch black of night and the continuing weather conditions. He could either head east further out to sea to ride out the storm, rendezvous with a larger Coast Guard cutter and another risky transfer from ship to ship in the high seas, or head toward the coast and land somewhere where help might be had. He made contact with the Coast Guard ashore but lost the radio contact.

Webber decided to head to the coast and possibly beach the MLB with its engine holding the boat there long enough to get all the Pendleton survivors ashore. The rescued survivors cheered the decision. After a while Webber and his Coast Guard crew saw the red light of the buoy that marked the Chatham harbor. They had made it home.

For their heroic efforts, BM1 Webber and his three volunteer crew members were awarded the Treasury Department’s coveted Gold Lifesaving Medal for “extreme and heroic daring.” Together with the life-saving measures at the wreckage of the Fort Mercer, the Coast Guard saved 70 men that day.

We wish to honor all those who have served and who are now serving in the United States Coast Guard. We honor your commitment to saving lives and to protect our coasts and harbors, and the often heroic efforts and deeds that you perform in carrying out your duties to the nation. Semper Paratus! We know that, indeed, you are “Always Ready.”


Images
1) Coast Guard photo of bow section of tanker Pendleton grounded near Pollock Rib Lightship six miles off Chatham, Mass on the morning of Feb. 19, 1952. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Richard C. Kelsey).
2) A general view of the ceremony in the Treasury Building, Washington, DC, May 14, 1952, where 21 U.S. Coast Guardsmen were decorated for their participation in the rescue of 70 men from the tankers Fort Mercer and Pendleton, which broke in two during a violent storm off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., February 18, 1952. Five of the men received the Treasury Department Gold Lifesaving Medal for “extreme and heroic daring;” four received the Silver Lifesaving Medal for “heroic action;” and 15 were cited for “courage, initiative and unswerving devotion to duty,” and authorized to wear the Coast Guard Commendation Ribbon. Three others who were awarded the latter decoration were unable to be present. The presentations were made by Under Secretary of the Treasury Edward H. Foley and Vice Admiral Merlin O’Neill, Coast Guard Commandant. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by unknown photographer).


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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.