On Feb. 18, 1952, four men braved a howling nor'easter off the Cape Cod coast to save 32 shipwrecked sailors. They brought all but one to safety in a wooden motorboat designed to hold no more than 16 people.
They were four Coast Guardsmen at the Chatham Lifeboat Station who volunteered to try to make what seemed to be an impossible rescue. They faced freezing temperatures and 60-foot waves in the hopes of reaching the Pendleton, an oil tanker that had snapped in two during the fierce storm. All received the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the Coast Guard’s highest honor, for “extreme and heroic daring.”
The Coast Guard called it the greatest rescue by a small boat in its history. The four men were called heroes. They shrugged it off and said they were just doing their job.
At 5 a.m. on Feb. 18, 1952, the Pendleton was headed south in blinding snow and violent seas 10 miles off the coast of Chatham, Mass. Suddenly the crewmen heard explosive cracking noises. The vessel lurched heavily and then broke in two.
The Pendleton’s bow section lost power and drifted south with the captain and seven crewmen aboard. The power remained on the stern section, and the chief engineer took charge and assigned duties to the 32 crewmen.
No SOS was issued.
At midmorning the Chatham Lifeboat Station got word that another tanker, the Fort Mercer, had also snapped in half. Cutters, an airplane and a lifesaving motorboat were sent to rescue the vessel 20 miles off the coast.
Hours later, radar at the Coast Guard station showed the two broken pieces of the Pendleton.
Coxswain Bernard Webber was told to pick his crew and rescue the shipwrecked sailors. Three men volunteered for the suicidal mission: Coast Guardsmen Ervin Maske, Andrew Fitzgerald and Richard P. Livesey.
Rock of Ages
They launched the 36-foot boat named the CG-36500 into mountainous waves, blinding snow and zero visibility. As they approached Chatham’s treacherous sand bar, they sang Rock of Ages and Harbor Lights.
The Pendleton was just on the other side of the sandbar.
As they crossed the bar, a wave smashed into the CG-36500 and threw it into the air. It landed on its side and righted quickly before another wave struck it, breaking the windshield and flattening Coxswain Webber.
Capt. W. Russell Webster described what happened next in the Naval Institute Proceedings.
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 Pendleton’s stern section.
Rounding the stern, CG-36500’s searchlight illuminated the word PENDLETON 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 Pendleton’s starboard stern area, many shouting muffled instruction, which were unintelligible over the wind and crashing seas…. Without notice, a Jacob’s ladder was tossed over the side.
There were 32 men aboard the Pendleton. The CG-36500 was designed to carry 12.
The Pendleton crewmen began climbing down the ladder. One by one they either crashed on the bow of the CG-36500 or fell in to the sea, where the crew helped them aboard. Some of the Pendleton crewmen on the ladder were flung away from the ship and then slammed into it.
After 20 survivors were recovered, the CG-36500 began to handle sluggishly. Webber knew they couldn't possibly make a return trip. He decided they would all live together or die together. They stuffed 31 men into the boat just as the Pendleton began to sink. Tragically, the last Pendleton crewmember fell into the water and couldn’t be recovered.
Coxswain Webber safely maneuvered the overloaded and damaged CG-36500 through the still-raging seas onto the fish pier. A crowd of Chatham men, women and children helped the shocked and sobbing survivors ashore.
The crew of the Fort Mercer was rescued by crews aboard Coast Guard cutters.
'Utter Disregard of Your Own Safety'
Rear Admiral H. G. Bradbury congratulated the four CG-36500 crewmembers for “outstanding seamanship and utter disregard of your own safety in crossing the hazardous waters of Chatham bar in mountainous seas extreme darkness and falling snow during a violent winter gale to rescue from imminent death thirty two crewmembers… minutes before the tanker capsized.”
It was later determined the tankers were made of steel used in wartime construction that had too high a sulfur content, which turned the steel brittle at lower temperatures.
The boat was added to the National Historic Register in 2005. In November 1981, the Cape Cod National Seashore deeded the boat to the Orleans Historical Society. Volunteers from Chatham, Orleans and Harwich restored the boat and relaunched it in a public ceremony attended by Bernard Webber and his wife.
On July 26, 2014, residents of Sandwich, Mass., boarded the restored CG-36500 at the Sandwich Marina Seafest. In 2014, Walt Disney Studios filmed the story of the daring rescue on location in Chatham, Cohasset and at the former Fore River Shipyard in Quincy. Based on the book The Finest Hours, it was scheduled to be released Jan. 29, 2016.
To see a video about the rescue, click here.
Photo of the Pendleton stern by Richard C. Kelsey, Chatham; courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard. This story is updated from July 2014.