The heroes who rescued 32 seamen in 60-foot seas



Nearly 60 years have passed since Bernard C. "Bernie" Webber and his crew of three Coast Guard lifeboatmen braved a vicious Atlantic nor'easter with 70-knot winds and pounding 60-foot seas for one of the most daring rescues in maritime history.

Webber was coxswain of the CG36500 lifeboat, which responded to the SS Pendleton, a 503-foot oil tanker that broke up off Cape Cod. Webber died in January at his home in Melbourne, Fla. He was 80.

After running away from the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Mass., Webber enlisted in the merchant marine during World War II. Afterward, he enlisted in the Coast Guard and served at lighthouses, lifesaving stations and lightships and aboard a tug. He was commanding officer of the Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat Station in Chatham, Mass. After being promoted to warrant officer, Webber served a tour of duty in Vietnam before retiring in 1966.

But perhaps the defining moment of Webber's remarkable career unfolded early Feb. 18, 1952, when the Pendleton, and its crew of 41, with a full cargo of 122,000 barrels of kerosene and heating oil, was nearing the end of a voyage from Baton Rouge, La., to Boston.

The ship confronted blizzard conditions as it steamed through an intense gale. As raging seas began pouring over the stern, a series of explosive cracking sounds was heard as the vessel began fracturing. It made a final lurch as squealing, wrenching, sparking steel gave way.

The Pendleton's clock read 5:50 a.m.

The tanker had split. Aboard the bow section were Capt. John Fitzgerald and seven other crew members, including the chief mate, second mate, third mate and the ship's radio operator. At the moment of parting, electrical breakers tripped, casting the bow into darkness.

In the drifting stern section, 33 crewmen contemplated their fate, while all machinery and lighting continued functioning normally.

Forty miles eastward of the Pendleton, another tanker was in trouble The SS Fort Mercer broke in two at 8 a.m., but not before the radio officer was able to get off an S.O.S.

Deprived of the ability to send a distress call, the Pendleton and its crew began losing hope as they drifted helplessly southward while being pounded by mountainous seas. They had a radio receiving set, which allowed them to hear transmissions of Coast Guardsmen who were racing to aid the wallowing Fort Mercer but who were unaware of the Pendleton's peril.

Eight terrifying hours would pass before the Coast Guard picked up the Pendleton on radar.

At 5:30 p.m., with the Pendleton's stern drifting dangerously near North Beach, the officer in charge of the Chatham Lifeboat Station ordered Webber, engineer Andrew J. Fitzgerald and two seamen, Richard P. Livesey and Irving W. Maske, to clear the Chatham Fish Pier in the CG36500 and make for the ship.

Chatham residents could hear the doomed ship's whistle blowing above the storm, said Richard Ryder, who was 12 at the time and at home recuperating from the flu.

At 5:55 p.m., Webber and his volunteer crew got under way. He gunned the boat over the treacherous Chatham Bar and was clobbered by 10-foot seas, which caused his self-righting boat to roll. When it surfaced, its compass had been torn from its mount, the windshield was smashed and the canvas canopy swept away.

Still, Webber, who had been knocked to the cockpit's floor, and his brave crew pressed on. Waves poured over the vessel, repeatedly dousing its engine, and Fitzgerald would scurry to restart it.

About an hour after leaving port, they reached the pitching and bouncing hulk. Webber snapped on his searchlight and saw PENDLETON written across its stern. Its crew then rushed on deck and dropped a Jacob's ladder over the side of the listing wreck.

As the men scampered down the ladder, Webber tried holding the CG36500 in the roiling seas. With the two vessels rising and falling, he had managed to land 32 crew members aboard the dangerously overloaded CG36500.

One crewman, George D. "Tiny" Myers, the ship's cook, was not so fortunate. He had stayed behind assisting fellow crew members, and then climbed to the bottom of the ladder. He jumped too soon, and was crushed to death by the rescue craft as it plowed into the Pendleton's hull, which moments later capsized.

"Bernie said he would never forget Tiny's face and eyes and the fact that he couldn't save him," Bonnie Snow, historian of the Orleans Historical Society in Orleans, Mass., said the other day.

Webber finally turned for home and managed to cross the Chatham Bar without incident.

"Actually, Bernie never thought they'd ever make it back," said Snow, an old friend.

Those aboard the bow, which grounded on Pollock Rip Shoal six miles off Chatham, did not survive. The stern came to rest off Chatham, where it was visible until several years ago.

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