May Day-May Day
WordS No One Ever Wants To Hear
By Warren J. Toussaint
This article originally appeared in "Shipmates" April-May 1997 published by the Ninth Coast Guard District.
There are some Coasties who think that duty on a "sweet water" ship is a piece of cake, calm weather, easy duty, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. This article should enlighten all of you old salts. - Jack -
Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1958, at
5:31 p.m., the limestone carrier, Carl C. Bradley, was up bound on
Lake Michigan, having delivered her last limestone cargo of the year to Indiana
on November 17,1958. She stayed close to the Illinois and Wisconsin shores
because of reports of severe weather conditions rapidly developing from the
west. As it reached the area of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., it had to turn to the
northeast in order to cross the upper area of Lake Michigan on its way to the
homeport of Rogers City, Mich., on Lake Huron. Suddenly, the Bradley's steering
wheel went slack, as if the gears had suddenly disconnected. On the course it
was on, the winds and waves were striking the ship on the aft quarter of the
port side causing the ship to rock severely. First
Captain slammed the engine room telegraph to stop engines and sounded the
general alarm. He grabbed the whistle cord and began to tug seven long blasts
and one short -
the signal to abandon ship.
Fleming again called out the Mayday. For a moment there was silence on the
channel. All who heard the call were stunned.
A voice finally responded. It
was the radio operator at marine radio station WAD, Port Washington, Wis. His
response, "This is an emergency, this is an emergency. Clear the
channel." He then asked Fleming to repeat the ship's position. Fleming did
so and added that the ship was beginning to break up and sink. There were more
thuds rumbling through the ship as he spoke. As he glanced aft from the rear
windows of the
Almost every Coast Guard unit on the Great Lakes heard the calls, including Ninth Coast Guard Headquarters in Cleveland. The duty quartermaster on the USCGC Sundew, moored at its homeport in Charlevoix, Mich., had gone to the bridge to listen to the weather report when he heard the distress call. The call was also heard by all ships underway or at anchor on the lakes. In fact, many ships had to put anchors fore and aft to prevent drifting due to high waves and strong winds. Big ships rarely anchor on the Great Lakes, but many did that late afternoon. Waves were 25 to 35 feet high and winds were blowing up to 60 miles per hour. Whole gale warnings were in effect. Those ships that were underway were moving slowly, especially those downbound on Lake Michigan.
SUNDEW Underway on Lake Michigan - Courtesy of Fred's Place
Minutes after the Mayday call,
the Coast Guard responded through Ninth District Coast Guard Rescue Coordination
Center in Cleveland. Some Lifeboat Stations in Northern Lake Michigan began to
ready their 36-foot motor lifeboats, even before word reached them from
Cleveland. Before the duty quartermaster on the Sundew could notify the
commanding officer at the lifeboat station in Charlevoix, he called LCDR Muth,
skipper of the Sundew, at home to tell him of the sinking and to notify
him that Cleveland wanted him to get underway immediately. Sundew initiated
a recall for its crew. Meanwhile, repeated attempts were made to contact the Bradley,
but to no avail.
Even before help was on the
way the 636-foot Bradley had broken in two and sunk beneath the waves of
Northern Lake Michigan. Four men, including Elmer Fleming, jumped into the water
as the forward section began to turn over. They surfaced alongside the sole life
raft which had floated free from the forward section. After a few minutes all
four men climbed aboard the raft.
One foreign vessel, downbound
to Chicago, had spotted a ship on their radar. The foreign ship had seen the
forward section go black, watched the lighted rear finally passed through the
highway bridge. Citizens of Charlevoix, along with anxious Coast Guard wives,
were standing on the shore and could not believe the Sundew was actually
going out in the storm. She had to go. "You have to go out, but you do not
have to come back", is an old Coast Guard saying. Many believed they would
never see the Sundew again.
As the Sundew passed
the Charlevoix Lifeboat Station a 36-foot motor lifeboat followed her out the
channel and entered Lake Michigan. The 36-footer was pitching so violently that
LCDR Muth ordered her back to the station. His reasoning was that he would be
looking for one big ship and did not want have to be looking for a small one.
Sundew's journey to the vicinity of the last known section begin to dive
under, then saw smoke billowing.
Moments later nothing was
visible by naked eye or radar.
The Sundew was moored
port side to at the Coast Guard Buoy Depot in a small channel between Round Lake
and Lake Charlevoix. It was customary to get underway by going
location of the Bradley was
proving difficult. The maelstrom now caused almost all of the crew that had
responded to the recall to be seasick.
After rounding a point of land and moving in a West to Northwest direction the real
fury of the waves took effect. Some
reaching the last location of the Bradley and not finding any trace of
the ship, a search grid was initiated, which meant the Sundew took the
full fury of the wind and wave ultimately on the port, then the starboard side.
The only relief came for a few brief minutes as the ship turned to run with the
wind before again turning in the grid.
searchlight on the flying bridge was turned on and swung from side to side.
Occasionally, what happened to be a body was seen, but before any attempt to
recover the body was made, it was out of the beam of light. The Sundew also
made contact with a foreign vessel, the only ship that had seen the demise of
the Bradley. It was difficult to communicate with the foreign ship
because of language problems. She did offer to search the immediate area but
informed Capt Muth that she had to get to Chicago in order to return and clear
the St. Lawrence Seaway before it was closed to navigation for the winter.
the entire rescue effort the Sundew was sealed. No one was allowed
outside. Even the bridge was sealed. Because of the mooring status not
everything on board was tied down and there was no time to do so before sailing.
Gas bottles broke loose and were lost over the side. Every can of paint in the
forward locker burst. Paint was sloshing two feet deep in the locker, which was
discovered when the locker was finally opened several days after the event.
Because of the difficulty in moving about, many of the crew tied themselves to
the mess tables to prevent injury. No one went below to the crew's quarters.
Between manning the searchlight and checking on the crew, the corpsman had to
report their status to the captain. To state that there were some anxious
moments is stating it mildly. Several rolls in excess of 50 degrees
4 a.m. on the 19th, the corpsman was told to lay below and try to get some rest
because the Captain determined that the corpsman's services would probably be
Coast Guard aircraft notified Sundew
of bodies in the water, and sighting an overturned lifeboat on the shore of
one of the small islands in the area. After making sure there were no more
survivors, the Sundew sent a small boat out to recover the
By the afternoon of the 19th
it was decided to return to Charlevoix with the two survivors where they could
receive extensive medical attention. The bodies on the buoy deck were covered
with a tarp. At 4:23 p.m. the battered Sundew, her flags shredded, weary
crewmen leaning on the rails, returned to Charlevoix, escorted by boats from the
Lifeboat Station and planes over head. The silence of the city around the
mooring area was eerie. The only sound was that of the ship moving through the
channel and waters at a slow pace. Everyone in the area knew of the loss of
life. The local contract doctor came on board to officially declare the men dead
and to check on the status of the two survivors. After removing the bodies, the
two men who survived were taken to the local hospital for further treatment and
reunion with their wives who had been flown to Charlevoix from Rogers City. The
long night and day was over -- for
now. The Sundew returned to search the area at dawn on the 20th and 21st
and spent all the daylight hours there, but found no trace of the Bradley and no
more survivors or bodies. Out of a crew of 35 on the Bradley, just two
survived, 18 bodies were recovered, and 15 bodies were never found.
Terror manifests itself in
many ways. All the crew of the Sundew recall being very hot, then very
cold. However, when the seas calmed and help was needed for the survivors and
assistance in bringing bodies on board, everyone responded immediately. Some of
the younger members of the crew had never seen a dead boy, yet they too
responded when the call for help was issued.
The life raft was delivered to
the Coast Guard Buoy Depot in Charlevoix, along with the life boat. The life
raft has since disappeared. In 1994 the lifeboat was found at Put-In-Bay in Ohio
and is now at the marine museum on Beaver Island. The First Mate, Elmer Fleming,
passed away several years ago after retiring from the Bradley Steamship Company.
The other survivor, Frank Mays, never sailed again on the lakes and is
Capt. Muth is retired from the
Coast Guard and resides in Florida. The corpsman retired in 1981.
The Bradley was lost
because she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. With wind and waves coming
at her from the rear and riding high in the water, despite full water ballast,
she simply broke in two and was lost.
CWO Warren J. Toussaint, US Coast Guard Retired, was the HM2 aboard the Sundew.
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From Ken Laessar's CG History Site:
Sundew WLB 404
Built by Marine Iron & Shipbuilding, Duluth MN
Keel laid 29 November 1943
Launched 8 February 1944
Commissioned 24 August 1944
1 Nov 45-15 Jun 53 stationed at Milwaukee, Wl, and used for A/N and icebreaking
8 Jul 48 stood by stranded MV Edgewater near Milwaukee, Wl
15 Jul 53-1 Jun 58 stationed at Sturgeon Bay, Wl, and used for A/N and icebreaking
14 Jan 54 freed icebound FVs in Green Bay, Ellison Bay, and Jackson Harbor
1 Jun 58-Aug 77 stationed at Charlevoix, MI, and used for A/N and icebreaking
12 Jul 58 patrolled Port Huron-Mackinac I. Race
18-20 Nov 58 rescued two from MV Carl D. Bradley in northern Lake Michigan
10 May 65 assisted in search for survivors from U.S. MV Cedarville and Norwegian MV
Topdalsfjord collision 1 mi NE of Mackinaw City, MI
24Jun 69 located and escorted lost tug Wright to Alpena, MI, following equipment failure
29 Apr 70 towed disabled 17-foot PC to St. Ignace, MI
Aug 77-Aug 78 underwent major renovation at GG Yard, Curtis Bay, MD
Aug 78-1980 stationed at Charlevoix, MI, and used for A/N and icebreaking
1980-90 stationed at Duluth, MN, and used for A/N and icebreaking
1987-88 conducted LE patrols in Caribean.