A Brush with Coast Guard History

 

by Bud Cooney

 

 

That February night in 1952 was bitterly cold and exceptionally black in the city of Portland, Maine.  All supplies needed for this weather patrol had been stored away.  All loose gear below decks and topside had been stowed, secured, or lashed down, ready for sea.  The captain was informed that the ship was ready to get underway.

The main engines of the three-hundred and eleven foot Casco-class Cutter Cook Inlet (WAVP384) were fired up, giving new life to the ship.  The gangway, our only bridge to shore, was hauled aboard and lashed secure.  Light snow began whipping about in a gusty wind.  All this activity was new to me, and I felt excitement mixed with a little tinge of fear of what was coming on my first weather patrol since graduating from Coast Guard boot camp at Cape May, New Jersey.

Word passed over the loudspeaker system to “Set the special sea detail, man mooring stations, prepare to get underway.”  There was great movement of personnel about the decks for a couple of minutes, and then relative calmness set in as the word came to “Take in number two line, take in the bow line.”  A couple of Seamen from the Cutter Achushnet (WAT-167), tied up aft of us, were stationed at the bollards to handle the mooring lines.  They soon became aware that the number two line and the bow line were frozen solid to the pier, and would have to be cut when we were letting go.  Fire axes were provided to accomplish this task.

Finally all lines were let go or chopped free and we were underway.  The ship glided slowly away from the pier.  There were hand waves farewell from the cluster of friends and relatives huddled in the cold, dim light on the pier.  Smiles were not part of this picture.  It wasn’t a happy time for anyone, for it would be above five weeks before we would tie up here in Portland once again.  This was not a departure for a pleasure cruise.  Danger lurked about in the vast, bleak, cold North Atlantic, and heartache and longing waited for those left on land.

We were all convinced that the job we were heading out for was real, was important, was risky, and was our duty as Coast Guardsmen.  We were trained to save lives and property at sea if called upon, carry out our designated responsibilities as the United States seagoing law enforcement agency, and to collect important weather data to provide ships at sea and transoceanic aircraft vital meteorological information to guide them on their journeys.

Another deck force Seaman and I were ordered to get below to the aft hawser locker to stow mooring lines as they were fed to us from the main deck.  Every evolution aboard this ship was a new learning experience for me and there was always a Boatswain’s Mate nearby to instruct on how things were to be done and when to do them.  Soon after I entered the hawser compartment I heard the loudspeaker blurt, “Secure the special sea detail and set the sea watch.”  By this time I was crawling about on top of three-inch hawsers stowing them in a neat coil.  The manila rope was wet, cold and rather stinky.  The compartment was damp and close.  I was both chilled and sweaty as I became aware of the rhythmic vibrations of the screws as they lifted up and settled back into the swells, a new sensation.  From what I had heard from others, I was well on my way to becoming seasick, another first for me as I never had been on the open ocean before.  Yes, this was it, a dizzy head and a jumbled stomach.  Would it pass?  Would I get used to it?  How would I tend to my tasks?  Here we were only starting out, and I had weeks to go before I would set foot on land again.  I had trouble trying to fathom the concept of what days and weeks of this perpetual motion really would be like.  Only time would tell.

The duty messenger came down from the bridge with a weather report hanging on his clipboard, informing all concerned that a full gale was catching up to us as we were headed up to Argentia, Newfoundland, to top off our tanks with diesel fuel for the long and rough trip into the Atlantic.  I recall thinking, This weather is enough for me now, what the hell is it like in a gale?

The watch list posted in the port passageway told me that, in addition to a multitude of other tasks, I would be standing the eight to twelve lookout/helm watch starting at zero eight hundred the next morning.

The first night underway was emotionally and physically strange and exhausting.  The motion of the ship set my new world rocking like nothing I had felt in my eighteen years on terra firma.  Making my way along passageways, up ladders, and through hatches without sea legs left me feeling foolishly out of control and hindered my ability to take charge of my God-given motive skills.  My world was unstable.

The weather topside was not pleasant, although the crisp salt air was rather refreshing compared to the eclectic ambient smells below deck.  The night was cold and windy with only the white froth of the wave motions visible as I gazed out from the deck rail, no land in sight.  I had learned in the previous hours since we left the safety of port that I would make my foul weather jacket and metal bucket a part of my personal shipboard gear, the jacket to throw on if I could make it topside to purge myself and ease the sick feeling, or otherwise use the bucket as a catch basin.  These items became my underway security blanket for the next few weeks.  I soon learned, without calculation, which was the leeward and which was the windward side of the ship.  This information was crucial to the routine of spilling my guts over the side.

Word came over the loudspeaker from the bridge, “Twenty-two hundred, lights out in all berthing compartments, silence about the decks, the smoking lamp is out.”  I settled back into my rack.  The red glow of the battle lantern mounted low on the bulkhead next to my rack gave a sober atmosphere to the whole scene around the berthing compartment.  It felt good to lie flat on my back with my head cradled in my pillow to keep it from rolling to and fro.  I listened to the strange sounds of the steel hull creaking, the rattle of the metal lockers, and I could sense the up-and-down floating motion of my mattress.  I guessed it would be safe to fall asleep, as no one else about me showed any indication of concern.  Oh well!  The next day we would pull into Argentia just long enough to top off and head back out to Ocean Station Charlie one-thousand and five hundred miles out in the middle of the Atlantic.  Would I last ‘til then?  When would I get my sea legs?

The shrill of the bosn’s pipe came over the ship’s PA system, “Reveille—up all hands.”  I rolled out onto the moving deck as the berthing compartment lights came on.  I felt woozy and somewhat apprehensive about going to the mess deck to face morning chow.  I prompted myself to carry on and carry out my assigned tasks of being a seaman—without breakfast.

It was February 19, 1952.  I listened to a Radioman telling about the SOS they had copied and the bits and pieces of the big “job” we had missed.  The word came from headquarters via radio that we were too far out and must continue on course to our ocean station destination.

The nor’easter we were pounding against for the last day or so had taken its toll on two large T-2 type tankers as they labored in sixty knot winds and sixty foot seas, only four miles apart, east of Cape Cod.  The events that were taking place outside our reach involved an armada of Coast Guard ships, Coast Guard aircraft from Salem, Massachusetts and Quonset Point, Rhode Island as well as smaller thirty-six-foot Coast Guard motor lifeboats (MLBs) from Cape Cod and Nantucket, Mass, and numerous trained Coast Guard personnel at shore stations.  These were the rescue units that pulled together the humanitarian efforts from which many heroic acts and courageous deeds emerged during those dramatic days, the 18th and 19th of February, 1952.

Out on the cold, snowy, wild Atlantic where the wind reached seventy knots, only one battered T-2 tanker, the Fort Mercer, was able to send her SOS, as she was breaking in half in mountainous seas on the 18th of February.  The Coast Guard heard the Fort Mercer’s distress call and focused all attention on saving those desperate souls on board.  The Coast Guard Cutters, open lifeboats, and aircraft fought howling ice winds and pounded wild seas to reach the scene of the broken tanker.

The second T-2 tanker, the Pendleton, has also split in two and drifted helplessly in the turbulent seas, undetected.  The tragedy happened so fast that she was left with only radio receiver capabilities.  Thirty-three souls held on, clinging to the stern section and listening on a radio receiver as the rescue Cutters headed at best speed toward the Fort Mercer, miles away.

A vigilant Chief Electronics Technician, his eyes glued to the small radar at the Chatham Lifeboat Station, saw what appeared to be two sections of another ship.  As the stern section drift close by the Pollock Rip Lightship, the Coast Guard crew could detect the name Pendleton on the floating, storm-tossed hulk that held survivors on deck.  This now confirmed that not one, but two ships had split in half in the storm.

Calculating that the stern sections of the Pendleton might come ashore near the Chatham Lifeboat Station at North Shore, Cape Cod, the officer-in-charge at the station had his crew prepare the beach apparatus to execute a rescue from the beach; however, it soon became evident that the stern section would clear the shore and drift past.  The beach rescue operations were belayed.

It was time to send a lifeboat out into the raging seas to rescue the Pendleton men.  Attempts to send a Coast Guard amphibious DUKW and a motor surfboat out from the Chatham station proved to be too much as the raging winter winds and the turbulent seas breaking over the sandbar forced them back to the dock.

The task, to reach the half-frozen and desperate survivors on the stern of the Pendleton, fell to Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernard C. Webber and his young crew of the thirty-six-foot MLB (CG-36500).  Webber was coxswain, Engineman Second Class Andrew J. Fitzgerald was boat engineer, and Seaman Richard P. Livesey along with Seaman Irving W. Maske made up the heroic crew of the CG-36500.  As they left the Fish Pier at Chatham on that horrifying night they all knew their humanitarian and Coast Guard duty instructed that they had to go out, and may not return.

Their first, almost impossible challenge was to get out beyond the treacherous sandbar.  Despite ten-foot crunching rollers and howling wind-driven snow, almost no visibility, and the fact that the turbulent seas and gale winds tore the canvas canopy, shattered their windshield, ripped the compass off, and carried most of their lifesaving gear overboard, Webber and his heroic crew hung on, stood fast, and brought the rugged motor lifeboat across the bar and into deeper waters to continue their mile or so roller coaster ride out to the Pendleton.  Now, with no compass, the only navigational directions needed for the CG-36500 crew to reach the wreck had to come from the vigilant radar operator at Chatham Station via two-way radio.

The thirty-three cold, desperate men huddled on the stern section of the Pendleton spotted the dim spotlight on CG-36500 cutting through the darkness coming toward them in one instant, and disappearing in the black trough in the next instant.  Bos’n Webber and his crew heard the distraught shouts through the howling winds and seas, coming from the helpless souls on the tossing hulk of the Pendleton.  The MLB crew mustered all the boat handling skills to maneuver their small lifeboat to a dangerous position under the tossing stern.  A rope ladder was hung over the ship’s rail and the survivors, one by one, made their way down and clambered aboard the battered thirty-six-foot rescue craft.  For forty-five terrifying minutes the crew of the Pendleton climbed to safety.  Three half-frozen men missed their drop from the Jacob’s ladder to the bobbing boat, though two of them were hauled aboard the 36500, while the third was crushed and lost, as the seas bashed the MLB against the steel hull of the wreck.

The wet, shivering survivors took refuge in the cramped forward cabin and aft cockpit.  Now it was time for the overcrowded small lifeboat, with her wet, cold, and tired crew of four, and thirty-two survivors, to make its way back to safety.  With no compass, coxswain Webber turned the motor lifeboat for home.  This maneuver probably would have ended in disaster if it were not for the expert help from the radar operator at the Chatham station.  Chief Electronics Technician W.H. Woodman tracked the CG-36500 blip on his small search scope and directed Bos’n Webber by two-way radio with left and right turns that guided them on a safe course back to the Fish Pier at Chatham.

Thanks to God and the Coast Guard rescue team, all thirty-six people on board the seaworthy thirty-six footer made it back, battered, cold, wet, and, most importantly, alive.  The four young Coast Guardsmen of the CG-36500 received the highest award possible for their heroic deed, the coveted Gold Lifesaving Medal.

 

This account of the CG-36500 is only one segment of the spectacular rescues made during the storm off Cape Cod on February 18-19, 1952.  Incidents of courage, devotion to duty, and outstanding seamanship were evident during the rescue of seventy seamen from the two broken tankers, the Fort Mercer and Pendleton.  The entire mission during that winter nor-easter involved large Cutters, small motor lifeboats, and Coast Guard aircraft backed by teams of shoreside men and women who demonstrated that we were all, including myself and my crewmates aboard the Cook Inlet, “Semper Paratus”--Always Ready.

 

I was even out on that rescue in 1952 while stationed on board the Evergreen. - Jack

 

 

 

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