The Coast Guard's Finest Hour
Surfboat that rescued 32 in storm visits Academy
By Robert A. Hamilton
- More Articles
Published on 09/25/2002
New London -- The modest wooden boat tied up at Jacob's Rock Tuesday morning was designed to carry a crew of four, or up to a dozen people in dire emergency. But in what some consider the U.S. Coast Guard's most heroic hour, it carried 36 men to safety through 60-foot seas, lashing winds and blinding snow.
In weather many times worse than much larger modern ships are rated to withstand, the “36500” — the surfboat is too small to have been christened with a real name — labored through a nor'easter to reach a tanker that had broken in half off Cape Cod a half century ago.
It was almost lost three decades later, forgotten in the undergrowth of the Cape Cod National Seashore, before a local history buff recognized it and bartered for its transfer to the Orleans (Mass.) Historical Society. The society spent more than $300,000 in donated funds and countless thousands of volunteer hours to restore it.
“I've seen what man can do to be heroes, and what these men of the 36500 did ... they were extreme heroes,” said Leslie Quinn, a career Air Force Pilot who flew fighter jets and did a couple of combat tours in Vietnam, and one of the crew who brought the 36500 to the Coast Guard Academy this week. “You've got to preserve this boat, you've got to maintain it, because it is such a piece of history.”
Master Chief Boatswain's Mate Jack Downey made the last leg of the trip from Point Judith, R.I., to New London, where he is an instructor at the Command and Operations School at the academy. He first volunteered to work on the 36500 when he was officer in charge of Chatham Station near Orleans in 1988.
“I've been out in it in 6- to 8-foot seas, and the boat can do it, but it's pretty tough on the people,” Downey said. In addition, the boat operated with no radar and just a rudimentary radio. Its compass was ripped off in the storm and lost overboard before it got very far that day.
Most of the members of the volunteer crew had no connection to the Coast Guard. Howard Kucks is a former Marine. Pete Kennedy is an Army veteran. One of the youngest men to make the trip, though, Joe Dupras, is former Coast Guard, now a full-time firefighter in Massachusetts with his 100-ton-ship captain's license.
“This is probably the furthest south it will ever come,” Dupras said. “And when I heard it was coming to the academy, I knew this was an important trip to be on.”
Tuesday morning, 20 cadets from Capt. Rob Ayer's U.S. Maritime History and Policy class clambered over the ship to inspect it for themselves. With just a few of them inside the survivors' compartment at the bow of the ship, it was nearly full.
Capt. W. Russell Webster, chief of operations at the Coast Guard's District One office in Boston, who has written extensively of the rescue, asked the students to imagine 28 frightened seamen from a broken tanker cramming into that small compartment.
“Of course, they had different motivations,” Webster observed.
• The Pendleton was a 503-foot, 10,448-ton tanker making its way from Louisiana to Boston with a cargo of 122,000 barrels of kerosene and heating oil in the winter of 1952, when a nor'easter slammed into shore the morning of Feb. 18.
Just before 6 a.m., about six miles off Cape Cod, the ship shuddered, groaned and broke into two pieces. Eight men, including the captain, were trapped in the bow and lost. In the stern 33 men were trapped, without a chance to send off a radio distress call. It wasn't until midafternoon that the wreckage of the Pendleton was spotted
At Chatham Station, Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Bernard Webber was ordered to put together a crew to investigate. Many of the station's personnel made themselves scarce, witnesses said, convinced that it was a suicide mission. The station's junior engineer, Andrew Fitzgerald, and a young seaman, Richard Livesey, volunteered to go, along with Seaman Irving Maske, who was not even assigned to the station — he was waiting for transportation to his assignment, the Stone Horse Light Ship off the coast.
Webber and his crew left the pier just before 6 p.m. The storm smashed them into the sandbar at the mouth of the harbor. Once past that danger they battled 40- to 60-foot waves in the open ocean. Several times the engine stalled; Fitzgerald suffered severe burns and bruises crawling into the engine compartment to restart it.
An hour out of port Webber sensed, rather than saw, a shadow in front of the boat. As a crewman scrambled to cast the spotlight over it, they realized they were looking into the cavernous maw of the broken tanker. A man on the deck began waving his arms, and as the crew began to consider how they would get the men off, a rope ladder was thrown over the side and the Pendleton crew started to descend.
Webster said the conditions were so bad that men on the ladder would swing 30 feet out from the Pendleton when the ship rolled toward them, then slam into the hull as it righted; the mountainous wave would rush up to greet them and they were dipped “like a teabag” into the drink.
Webber maneuvered the boat alongside the starboard quarter of the Pendleton and the survivors jumped or crashed into the bow, or fell into the water where the crew hauled them aboard. Over and over Webber timed the waves and the roll of the ship to get the survivors aboard. With 20 survivors on board the boat began to respond sluggishly, but Webber decided that he would bring everyone home, or no one at all, and he kept at it.
Finally, with 32 of the Pendleton crew aboard, Webber maneuvered close to the ship to bring aboard George “Tiny” Myers, the ship's cook, who had organized the evacuation. But Webber slipped into the sea, and as the ship came up he was grabbing a propeller as the 36500 rushed toward the stern; despite his efforts to back up the boat, Myers was pinned and killed.
The bullnose, a large piece of ironwork at the bow of the ship, damaged when the 36500 slammed into the Pendleton, is still intact, and will never be replaced, its operators say.
After the last man was off, the Pendleton took one more roll and slipped beneath the waves. Webber judged which way was east and headed for shore, vowing to beach the boat wherever they could make landfall. His instincts brought him right into Chatham harbor.
Pictures of that night show the 36500 pulling up to the pier riding low in the water, but the crew jubilant at having brought 32 men to safety.
Webster said operational safety rules today limit the $1 million, 87-foot motor lifeboat to 25-knot winds and 30-foot seas. Even 110-foot cutters operate with survival as their primary mission when seas are above 15 feet; the crew of the 36500 braved conditions four times that bad. And the men were wearing gear that offered almost no thermal protection.
“By today's standards,” Webster said, “they would not have been qualified to operate about eight months out of the year.”
• The 36500 was decommissioned in 1968, and turned over to the National Seashore for use as a museum piece, but it languished for lack of a budget. William Quinn, a photographer and author of books on famous shipwrecks, found it amidst a growth of scrub pine in 1981. At the time, the National Seashore wanted to acquire some historic photographs for a display; William Quinn offered the photos in exchange for transferring the 36500 to the historical society.
The ship was brought to a warehouse in Orleans where volunteers began work with donated material and cash contributions. After five months the boat emerged looking like a new craft. Then the historical society won the approval of the Massachusetts Legislature to restore its original Coast Guard designation, 36500.
Every spring it is hauled out of the water for painting and maintenance. Every summer it travels to nearby ports to educate people about a key chapter in Coast Guard history.
“You look at this boat compared to what we have today, and you have to ask, ‘How did these people do even the routine things?'” said Downey, the master chief Boatswain's Mate. “This case? This case was just a miracle.”
To Coast Guard Stories