Note: This news story is re printed here with the expressed  permission of The Cape Cod Times, Hyannis MA.

Cliff Schechtman, Editor in Chief


A legendary rescue

Fifty years ago, 32 seamen aboard a stricken ship were saved from a vicious storm by four Coast Guardsmen.


CHATHAM - There's an old Coast Guard saying, "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back."

Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Bernard Webber knew the saying, but wasn't quite sure it really meant what it seemed to say.


The bow of the tanker Pendleton floats six miles off Chatham after breaking in half in towering seas on Feb. 18, 1952.
(Photos from the collection of William P. Quinn)


Fifty years ago tomorrow, Webber, now retired and living in Melbourne, Fla., was in charge of the 36-foot wooden lifeboat with three on board from Coast Guard Station Chatham that saved the lives of 32 seamen on the stricken tanker Pendleton, which split in two during a fierce northeaster six miles off Chatham.

Eight others trapped on the Pendleton's bow perished. Their bodies were never recovered.

After surviving those seas and saving the lives of almost all the Pendleton's men, Webber, then 24, said he understood that old saying better than most.

"I never was really sure about that saying. But the night of the Pendleton, I found out that was true," he said.


The Coast Guard rescue boat CG36500 returns to the Chatham Fish Pier with 32 survivors of the wreck of the Pendleton.

The rescue, in pitch-black darkness, with hurricane-force winds driving stinging snow and sleet and monstrous waves 60-feet tall, has been heralded as the most difficult rescue attempted by a small boat station in the 212-year history of the Coast Guard.

"I believe the Pendleton rescue is clearly the pre-eminent rescue by a small boat crew in the entire history of the Coast Guard," said Capt. Russell Webster, former commander of Coast Guard Group Woods Hole, now chief of operations for Coast Guard First District in Boston.


The crew of Coast Guard rescue boat CG36500 relax after rescuing 32 crewmen from the Pendleton. From left are Bernie Webber, Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey and Irving Maske.

"There are very few in the same class in terms of degree of difficulty," he said.

That opinion is shared by local watermen who know firsthand the treacherous bars and dangers of the open ocean off Chatham.

"The conditions they endured are phenomenal. I read about it, and I kind of shake my head," said Chatham Harbor Master Stuart Smith, himself the recipient of honors from the Coast Guard for rescues at sea he has performed.

"What I have accomplished in rescues doesn't come anywhere near what they endured. Those conditions were like what we had in the Perfect Storm.

"In those conditions, to go out and come back," Smith paused, laughing, "I laugh because I'm not sure how you can accomplish that, even today.

"If anyone pulled off the impossible, they did. It's unbelievable they brought them all back," Smith said.




Marking a milestone

The Pendleton rescuers, at least one Pendleton crew member, and the USCG36500 lifeboat will be honored in private and public ceremonies Marking a milestone during Maritime History Week May 11-18.

In Chatham, Bernard Webber, coxswain of the motor lifeboat that carried 32 crew members of the Pendleton to safety, and surviving members of his crew will be honored in a private ceremony May 15. They will ride in the restored 36500, now a floating museum based in Orleans, and owned by the Orleans Historical Society, and be luncheon guests at Coast Guard Station Chatham.

From 3-5 p.m. May 15, there will be an open house at the Orleans Historical Society meeting house on School Street in Orleans, next to the town hall.

On May 18, from 1-4 p.m., special events will be held at Rock Harbor in Orleans. They will include tours of the CG36500, as well as tours of the Coast Guard's newest rescue boat, the 47-foot motor lifeboat. There will also be a demonstration of the old breech's buoy rescue apparatus.


All four members of the Pendleton rescue crew were awarded the Coast Guard's Congressional Gold Lifesaving Medal, equivalent to the military's top medal for bravery, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Coincidentally, a second tanker, the Fort Mercer, identical in design to the Pendleton, was crippled by the same storm on the same day, and also broke in two, stranding 43 men on the two sections. Since the Fort Mercer was farther out to sea, larger Coast Guard cutters responded to that ship, saving 38 from the stern section. Five other crew members were trapped on the bow. The bodies of those five were never recovered.

Coast Guard Chief Boatswain's Mate Donald Bangs, now living in Sandwich, attempted to reach the Fort Mercer with the CG36383 out of Stage Harbor in Chatham, but was diverted to the bow section of the Pendleton to rescue a crew member.

That individual jumped toward the CG36383 as rescuers arrived, but he fell into the sea, and his body was never recovered.

Counting the "Gold Medal" crew that rescued 32 from the Pendleton, different units involved in the Fort Mercer rescue were also honored for bravery.

In all, five gold life-saving medals, four silver life-saving medals, and 15 commendation medals were awarded for a total of 24 citations for the two rescues.

Both rescue crews from Chatham relied on the small boat station workhorse, the 36-foot motor lifeboat, powered by a 90-horsepower gasoline engine.

Webber, with crewmen Richard P. Livesey, Irving Maske and Andrew Fitzgerald assisting, somehow managed to bring back 32 of 33 crewmen marooned on the drifting stern of the Pendleton.

Webber's memories of that dramatic rescue are as strong as the wind and waves that pounded his lifeboat that night.

He remembers doing it. But to this day, he doesn't know how.

'Running into a stone wall'

The rescue began around 3 p.m. on Feb. 18, 1952.

That's when the Chatham station's radar picked up two contacts - the Pendleton's bow and stern sections - about six miles east of Chatham. After it became apparent the two sections were drifting south and were not going to come ashore, the Chatham Station prepared to mount an at-sea rescue effort.

Shortly after 6 p.m. Webber and his crew left the Chatham Fish Pier heading for the open ocean over the notorious Chatham Bars.

"I remember singing 'Rock of Ages,' going by the station. And I remember seeing the dim glow of the lighthouse, and thinking about all those suckers having a cup of coffee, and wishing we were there.

"I still have that feeling to this day," Webber said quietly.

Then he chuckled and recalled that he radioed the Chatham station three times on the way out to make sure they still wanted him to go out into the teeth of the gale.

"Proceed as directed" the station radioed back.

Going over the bar, a mass of waves stood like a menacing, moving mountain.

"The first wave was like running into a stone wall. It crashed down, spun us around and sent us back into the harbor. Then I turned us around and tried it again," he said.

The storm then smashed the CG36500 with a breaking wave that drove solid green water over the little boat.

The impact shattered glass in the windshield, and wrenched the compass off its mount.

Orleans resident and shipwreck author William Quinn, Webber's friend, said Webber still has tiny glass fragments in his face from the exploding windshield.

Once past the bar, Webber remembered that while the seas became taller, it was "at least manageable" since they were farther apart.

Winds were gusting 60 and 70 mph or more in the pitch black. Snow and sleet pelted the Coast Guard crew as they headed out in search of a ship they couldn't see.

"The only thing I had in my mind is that it was like being in a black hole," Webber recalled last week in an interview.

'Something was out there'

He turned the boat into the seas, heading east, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pollock Rip lightship, so he could get his bearings.

"Some of the waves were breaking over us, some weren't. It was like climbing up a hill, when you can't see the top," Webber said.

"About the time you think the old 90 hp was going to crap out and throw you backward, suddenly you were on top of the wave.

"Then you were sliding down, and I had to put the engine in reverse," he said, explaining that the lifeboat was traveling so fast down the backside of the wave, it would have buried its bow in the bottom trough and flipped end over end if he hadn't slowed down the descent.

He never saw the lightship, and he has no idea how long he headed east into the darkness and the huge waves.

"Time is a funny thing. I was working for the Lord," Webber said.

"Then a strange feeling came over me. I couldn't see anything, but all of a sudden, I heard a rumbling and crashing, and I knew something was out there."

He slowed down, told a crew member to shine a spotlight ahead, and "I was looking right where it split.

"There was a mass of frothing white water and twisted steel, rearing up and down in the seas," he recalled.

At first, they saw no lights, but as they rounded the stern, they saw the dim glow of deck lights, and one man at the rail, waving his arms.

"For cripes sake, all this way for one man?" Webber thought to himself.

But then someone threw a Jacob's ladder - rope sides with wooden steps - over the side, and the crew started scrambling down.

Some timed the jump from the ladder to the pitching boat correctly, landing on the slippery deck where Coast Guard crewmen snagged them and brought them to safety in the covered forward cockpit or stern engine compartment.

Others missed the boat and fell into the sea.

The Coast Guard crew managed to grab those in the water, somehow lifting them up and to safety.

"One of my guys would grab a hand, just in time, and then they'd fling them on board like a tuna. They were miracle workers," he said.

Except for one man.

Pendleton crewman George "Tiny" Myers, a 300-pound seaman who helped others to safety, fell into the sea from the ladder as Webber was maneuvering the lifeboat into position.

It was in the stern, and Webber had to deal with the heavy seas, and the Pendleton's three 11-foot propeller blades as he brought the boat in close.

"I had sight of him. I eased the boat in. There was almost no head room. Suddenly, a sea came up from behind, throwing the boat forward," he remembered.

Desperate, Webber jammed the motor into reverse and gave it full throttle.

The lifeboat didn't stop, and Myers was trapped between the tanker's hull and the lifeboat.

"It hit him. He exploded like a bomb. He was gone, and I was gone. It took the wind out of me, I tell you that," Webber said softly.

'Just ordinary guys'

On the way back to Chatham, still without a radio and any way to tell direction or location, Webber put the waves astern, knowing at worst the CG36500 would beach on Cape Cod or Monomoy.

Webber suddenly picked out a blinking red light. Unsure what it was, he thought first it was a beacon on top of the RCA radio towers on shore.

But then it was close to the lifeboat, and when the boat's searchlight hit it, he realized it was the red buoy in the inside of the Chatham Bar.

It meant Webber and his crew, and the 32 rescued seamen, would soon be safe ashore.

Webber radioed his position to the Coast Guard station, and got a quick response. He told them of his cargo, and asked for help at the fish pier.

A throng of people was on hand to help the rescued seamen and the exhausted Coast Guard crew.

The ordeal was over.

But the memories stay strong.

First and foremost, Webber remembers the death of Myers, something he did everything in his power to prevent, but couldn't.

Second is the courage of his crew.

"The performance of the other three guys, my God, I just can't explain it to you. They were just ordinary guys," he said.

Would he go out again?, Webber was asked.

"I'm sure I would. I was a public servant. The people I trained with, they set an example. Its gets inbred, like firemen and police - by their example, they shall lead," Webber said.

Webber served 21 years in the Coast Guard before retiring, including a tour in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

He remains a "Coastie" tried and true, and thinks his service deserves better than it has gotten.

"The Coast Guard has always had a very important, quiet role in the security of the United States," he said.

"I think the Coast Guard, even today with survival suits, fancy jackets and other paraphernalia, still deep down is a dedicated service, and is given extra duty above what other services are asked to do.

"I have the deepest respect for these people today," he said.


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