The Pendelton Rescue

By Captain W. Russell Webster, U.S. Coast Guard

By 0400 on 18 February, the Pendelton was shipping seas over her stem but appeared to be riding well. Sometime after, she rounded the tip of Cape Cod off Provincetown and assumed a more southerly course.

At about 0550, after a series of explosive cracking noises, the Pendelton took a heavy lurch and broke in two. Gone with the darkened bow section were the captain and seven crewmen, all destined to perish. In the stem, which continued to operate normally, including all machinery and lighting, Chief Engineer Raymond Sybert took charge and mustered his 32 survivors.

In mountainous seas, the stem section and its human cargo drifted south, with a slight port list, about six miles off Cape Cod. The bow also drifted south, but farther offshore. No SOS had been issued. 2

Two Tankers in Trouble

On 18 February 1952, the Coast Guard would rescue 70 men from the seas. Like the Pendelton, the T2 tank vessel Fort Mercer also had split in half off Cape Cod, about 20 miles offshore.

The first news to reach the Chatham Lifeboat Station was regarding the Fort Mercer. With orders to launch a motorized lifeboat (MLB) to assist the tanker, the station officer in charge, Boatswain Cluff, ordered Chief Boatswain's Mate Donald Bangs to select his crew and man the CG36383 at Stage Harbor. At the time, BMI Webber thought, "My God, do they really think a lifeboat can make it that far out in this storm and find a ship amid blinding snow and raging seas with only a compass to guide it? If the crew doesn't freeze to death first, how will they get the men off the storm-tossed sections of the broken tanker?" 3

On the stem of the Pendelton, Sybert's crew sighted the beach at about 1400. At 1455, the Chatham Lifeboat Station's radar picked up two blips about 5 ½miles distant. At 1500, Bos'n Cluff visually sighted the bow section of the Pendelton and reported the contact to the Boston regional Coast Guard headquarters; Coast Guard PBY aircraft No. 1242 was diverted from ongoing rescue operations involving the Fort Mercer and shortly after 1600 made the first positive identification of both sections of the Pendelton. The Coast Guard now knew it had two stricken tankers and four possible rescue situations. 4

Bos'n Cluff's initial reaction was to dispatch his remaining crew, including BMI Webber, to North Beach in hopes they could render assistance to the Pendelton's crew if either section of the vessel came ashore. It soon became apparent that neither section would come ashore there, however, and the crew returned to the station to prepare the CG36500 MLB to render aid.

Bos'n Cluff ordered Webber to "pick yourself a crew. Y'all got to take the 36500 out over the bar and assist that ship, ya-heah?" With great trepidation, knowing his likely fate but understanding his duty, he replied, "Yes, sir. I'll get ready." 5

Only three men were available, as "other crew members had made themselves scarce when they heard CG36500 was to be sent," but all quickly volunteered. 6 Webber was joined by the station's junior engineer, Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey, and Seaman Irving Maske, a crewman from the nearby Stonehorse Light Ship who had been waiting for transportation back.

At about 1730, as BMI Webber and his crew readied their dory to row out to the CG36500, local fisherman and neighbor John Stello yelled out, "You guys better get lost before you get too far out." 7 Webber knew what his friend was suggesting: go out and probably die or get "lost" and live to talk about it.

Proceed as Directed

At 1755, Webber and his crew left the pier in their wooden 36-foot motorized lifeboat, driven by its single 90-horsepower gas engine. Turning into the channel, Webber 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." 8

As they approached Chatham's bar, the small-boat crew began to sing "Rock of Ages" and "Harbor Lights," but their voices were drowned out by the roar of the ocean colliding with the sand bar. 9 Crossing over, the CG36500 was smashed by a wave and thrown high in the air, landing on her side. The self-righting boat recovered quickly and was smote again; this time tons of seawater crashed over the boat, breaking its windshield and flattening Webber.

Scrambling to his feet, Webber noticed the boat's compass had been knocked off its mount. The cold, near-hurricane-force winds howled through the cockpit as he struggled to regain control and steer into the towering waves.

On the Pendelton, the engineer and his crew sensed their demise as the stem hulk hobby-horsed southward, smashing bottom with each new wave. Although several Coast Guard cutters and the CG36383were nearby, only the CG36500 and her crew would be given one attempt to save Sybert and his men.

When Webber finally got the CG36500 across the bar, he knew the water was deeper because the space between waves had increased, as had the wave heights. 10 Weather observations from nearby cutters indicated sea heights of 40-60 feet. 11

Occasionally, when the waves rolled the vessel over, the gasoline engine would lose its prime and die out. Each time, Engineer Fitzgerald crawled into the cramped compartment to restart it, and each time he was rewarded with severe burns, bruises, but finally the steady chug-chug of the engine and the relief and appreciation of his shipmates.

The boat proceeded roller-coaster fashion, laboring up one side of a huge wave and surfing down the back side. Coxswain Webber knew too much speed was not good and, unchecked, would cause the bow to bury in the next wave and swamp the small vessel. 12 He had to reverse the engine on the back side of each wave to slow the boat down.

The first navigational waypoint was the Pollock Rip Light Ship, where Webber hoped to reorient himself and give his crew a breather in the lee of the larger vessel. Weather and visibility had worsened, and freezing horizontal snow lashed the coxswain's face through the broken windshield. He wore no lifejacket to give himself the best chance to react and guide the vessel.

After about an hour of struggling, fearing he had missed the lightship, 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, but a large wave lifted the crewman up and over the coxswain flat and carried him aft, where he landed with a thud, but miraculously unhurt.

Webber crept the boat forward, and the searchlight soon revealed a black mass of twisted metal, which heaved high in the air on the massive waves then settled back in a "frothing mass of foam." 13 Each move produced a cacophony of groans as the broken ship strained in the 60-foot seas. No lights were apparent as Webber maneuvered the small boat aft along the port side of the Pendelton's stern section.

Leaping to Safety

Rounding the stern, the CG36500's searchlight illuminated the word PENDELTON, and moments later, the larger vessel's own deck lights became apparent. A small figure above began waving his arms frantically, then disappeared.

Quickly, people began to line the Pendelton's starboard stern area, many shouting instructions, which were unintelligible over the wind and crashing seas. Webber looked on their position as "inviting" relative to his own and was considering strategies for how he and his crew could join them when a Jacob's ladder was tossed over the side and, unbelievably, men started down like a procession of ants. 14 The first man was dunked in the water like a tea bag then lifted 50 feet in the air as the Pendelton rolled and heaved.

Webber sent his crew forward to assist as he maneuvered the CG36500 along the Pendelton's starboard quarter. One by one, the tanker's survivors jumped, crashing on the tiny boat's bow or falling into the sea, where Webber's crew assisted them on board at great personal risk. Some Pendelton crewmen were sling-shotted out from the ship on the Jacob's ladder by the whipping of the waves. As they reached their zenith of flight, the ship would snap them back and slam them against the hulk.

After multiple approaches and 20 men recovered, the CG36500 began to handle sluggishly, but the human parade continued to descend. There was no turning back, and Webber decided they all would live or they all would die. 15

And so it went as Webber and his crew literally stuffed their rescuees into the boat and risked life and limb again and again. Finally, with 32 survivors recovered, there remained at the bottom of the ladder only George "Tiny" Myers, a 300-pound giant of a man and the inspiration of the Pendelton crew for his personal heroics. Myers had distinguished himself by helping his 32shipmates before considering his own situation.

Myers jumped too soon and was swallowed up by the sea. Moments later, he was visible underneath the stern, clinging to one of the Pendelton's 11-foot propeller blades.

Easing ahead cautiously, Webber felt the stern of his small boat rise as a monstrous wave overtook her. The CG36500 was driven ahead faster and faster toward Myers. Webber backed his engine hard, but the boat smashed into the 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.

All was again dark as the CG36500's searchlight was extinguished. Coxswain Webber was sickened at losing Tiny, but he knew the fate of the 36 men on his small boat still rested in his hands. 16

Coming Home

With no compass and zero visibility, Webber had just two choices: head east into the seas and hope to survive 10-12 hours until daylight brought the slim chance of transferring passengers to a larger rescue ship; or put the wind and seas on the small boat's stern and let them force the vessel ashore someplace where help might be nearby.

Webber tried his radio again and received an immediate acknowledgment. Once he briefed his superior that he had 32 Pendelton survivors on board, a squabble ensued between the nearby cutter McCulloch and the Chatham station about options—including an at-sea rendezvous with the McCulloch and a second transfer of survivors. 17

Webber turned off the radio and devised his own plan to beach the CG36500 at the first opportunity. 18 The small vessel would be held on the beach as long as possible with the engine while the survivors clambered ashore. The Pendelton crew gave a cheer of approval and support and on they went.

Very soon, a flashing red light appeared, and incredibly, the boat's searchlight revealed the buoy marking the turn to Old Harbor, Chatham, and safe water. A quick call to the station was met with excitement, for everyone knew that the rescued were now survivors. After another stream of over-direction and gibberish, Webber once again secured the radio after requesting assistance at the Fish pier.

A crowd of men, women, and children met the CG36500, securing lines and helping the shocked and, in some cases, sobbing survivors and rescuers ashore. 19

In a message to the Chatham Lifeboat Station the day after the rescue, Rear Admiral H. G. Bradbury, Commander of the First Coast Guard District, sent his personal congratulations to BMI Webber and his crew for their "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." 20

Webber and his three crew members all received the Treasury Department's Gold Lifesaving Medal for "extreme and heroic daring" during the Pendelton rescue. 21

1 VAdm. Merlin O'Neil. USCG Commandant's remarks at Department of Treasury awards ceremony, 14 May 1952.

2 Information on the Pendelron is taken from U.S. Coast Guard Commandant. Merchant Vessel Inspection Division, Marine Board of Investigation; structural failure of tanker Pendelton off Cape Cod on 18 February 1952, with loss of life, 25 September 1952. The Coast Guard's Board of Investigation concluded that low temperatures had tended to increase the notch sensitivity of the Pendelton's steel, resulting in brittle fractures. Excessive buoyancy in the bow and stem and heavy weight amidships created a sagging effect, which was aggravated by the extremely heavy seas.

3 Bernard C. Webber, Chatham , "The Lifeboat Men" (MA: Lower Cape Publishing, 1985), p. 43.

4 Capt. Charles B. Hathaway, USCG, (Rel.), "'From Highland to Hammerhead,' The Coast Guard and Cape Cod," Library of Congress Catalog card number 00-130105, 2000, p. 133; and Commander. Coast Guard District One, Boston, messages 182150Z February 1952 and 191615Z February 1952.

5 Webber, The Lifeboat Men, p. 46.

6 Bernard D. Webber, correspondence with author, 27 September 2001.

7 Webber, The Lifeboat Men, p. 46.

8 Webber. The Lifeboat Men, p. 47.

9 Webber, letter to author, 27 September 2001.

10 Webber, letter to author, 27 September 2001.

11 Commander, Coast Guard District One, Boston. Record messages 181948Z February 1952 and 191615Z February 1952 indicated "near hurricane force winds" and that the much larger Coast Guard cutters McCulloch and Legare had suffered extensive weather damage during the rescue, including cracked plates and loss of lifeboats.

12Webber, The Lifeboat Men. pp. 47-48.

13 Webber, The Lifeboat Men, pp. 47-48.

14 Webber, The Lifeboat Men, pp. 47-48.

15 Webber, The Lifeboat Men, pp. 47-48.

16 Webber, The Lifeboat Men, pp. 47-48.

17 Hathaway, From Highland to Hammerhead. p. 135.

18 Coast Guard Air Station Salem, MA, record message 182220Z February 1952. The PBY thought the life boat was "experiencing radio troubles."

19 Webber. letter to author, 27 September 2001.

20 Commander, First Coast Guard District Boston, record message 192 129Z February 1952.

21 In all, 24 Coast Guardsmen were honored for their efforts during the Fort Mercer and Pendelton rescues. Five Gold Lifesaving Medals, fourSilver Lifesaving Medals, and 15 Coast Guard Commendation Ribbons were awarded to the rescuers.

 

Captain Webster is Chief of Operations, First Coast Guard District, in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.

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