The Labradormen’s Rescue©

Originally Published In Voyager Magazine

By William A. Ogletree 

By permission of the author


A man from the U.S. Coast Guard Loran Station at Battle Harbour, Labrador, ran to Gus Bradley's house in Indian Cove. Gasping for breath, he reported that some Coast Guardsmen were adrift off White Point in the Station's rowboat, and that a westerly wind was blowing them out to sea. Gus summoned his youngest son, Stuart who lived at home, and his elder son, Arthur who lived next door. As they made ready their seal hunting boat, the only one not stored away for the winter, they heard details on the plight of the men.         

A PBY Flying Boat had flown from Argentia that morning to bring mail, an Officer and two men, assigned to the Battle Harbour Loran Station. After over-flying the area in the early afternoon, the PBY radioed the Station that it would land in the open waters of Caribou Run and requested the Station send out its boat to pick up the new station personnel and the mail. The Station’s self-bailing surfboat had been stored away for the winter, so four volunteers launched their rowboat. Three of them were Technicians and Scope Operators, whose normal duties required no seamanship. They rowed out from False Harbour Cove, past White Point, and southwesterly across Caribou Run, where the seaplane would be waiting.                                            

The PBY put down in Caribou Run and taxied to calmer waters in the lee of high cliffs, near the entrance to Cape St. Charles Harbour, to await the arrival of the Station's boat. The plane's crew soon noticed that ice was forming on the hull of the flying boat. Aware that if they waited, the PBY might be unable to get airborne, they quickly off-loaded the mail and the three men onto a rubber boat and got the PBY airborne again. The pilot headed south, toward Argentia, confident that the Station's boat would soon arrive and pick up the three men.                                                           

It was December 6, 1947. That morning, the temperature had been -20°C. In the afternoon, the men in the Station boat felt the sting of the cold, and ice began making on the boat and their long oars. When they finally came abreast of the rubber boat, they had rowed nearly five miles and were tired from their exertions. Anticipating two fresh rowers, they took aboard occupants of the rubber boat and with it in tow, began rowing seaward from Caribou Run, headed northeasterly to clear White Point.                   

White Point was named for the color of the rock formation that jutted out into the sea and ran under the water for a long distance, creating a shoal that gave rise to great waves which would curl up and break over, far from the shore. It was wise to give the Point a wide berth. The men soon found the seas to be rougher and the wind stronger, but both were favorable and helped to move the boat seaward. Ice built up on the oars, making them heavy and less effective. When they finally cleared White Point and tried to come about to reach the safety of False Harbour Cove, they could not overcome the force of the off-shore wind and though headed westward, they were drifting eastward, where the next landfall was over two thousand miles away.             

The Station personnel on shore saw the boat being driven out to sea and It was then that a man went running to Indian Cove, seeking help.                        

The Station was located on the east side of Great Caribou Island. Indian Cove was on the west side, over three miles away. Most of the Settlers had gone inland for the winter, where they could cut firewood, their only source of heat. Four families, a total of 17 persons, remained in Indian Cove. The Bradley family stayed to work their seal nets in December and January and later, to make ready their salmon nets and cod fish traps for the spring and summer seasons.                                         

The Bradleys' boats were stored for the winter, except the one used for seal hunting. Gus had his sons load gear into the boat, including a coil of quarter-inch manila rope, their biggest 4-prong anchor, with a coil of large rope attached, and an extra supply of gasoline for the 4 HP Atlantic engine. After donning warm clothing, they launched the boat into Indian Tickle. Stuart started the ancient but reliable one-cylinder engine and they headed out into the west wind which, though freshening, posed no threat to their home-built boat.    

Gus estimated the distance to where the Coast Guardsman said he last saw the boat to be five miles, and that it would take forty-five minutes to reach the area. He planned to find the boat, take it in tow and return it to the dock in False Harbour Cove, just down the rocky crag one-quarter mile from the Loran Station.

As the boat rounded a cliff which had blocked their view of the open sea to the east, Gus and his sons saw a small puff of smoke rise into the air, about three miles away. They assumed that it could only be from the boat adrift and immediately headed in its direction.       

When they got in position to look north of White Point, and were amazed to see some men huddled on top of a rock outcropping, aptly named Black Rock Island. They were barely above the sea, which raced up the side of the rock to a height of some thirty feet with each wave. Gus sized up the situation and said, "There's got to be men adrift in the boat who fired the flare, so we'd better find them first, before darkness comes, then we'll try to rescue those men stranded on Black Rock Island."                     

After continuing on their course for a few minutes, they saw the Station boat. It was bottom-up!  They began looking for bodies in the water and in the distance they saw the rubber boat, drifting eastward, with men on it. When they overtook the boat, they found two men sitting on a third man to prevent him from carrying out his threat to jump into the sea and drown, rather than suffer the agony of freezing to death. All three were brought aboard safely and, although nearly frozen, one of them told Gus how they became adrift.     When they rounded White Point and tried to row against the sea and wind, they found it impossible to make any headway. Being overly tired, they saw their only chance was to land on Black Rock Island, to which they rowed, with great difficulty. Four men disembarked at the bow, before the boat skewed and a wave rolled it over, throwing the three men into the water. They managed to climb aboard the rubber boat and cut its towline free from the overturned Station boat. They found that with their small oars, they were unable to overcome the seaward drift, caused by the westerly wind and outgoing tide.       

The rubber boat was equipped with a Very Pistol, which they fired, hoping that  someone at the Loran Station would see the flares and radio the PBY to return and rescue them. It was their last flare that Gus and his sons saw, when rounding the cliff. If the flare had been fired any earlier, they could not have seen it and by the time Gus could have learned of their plight, it is unlikely that he could have found them at all, and little chance that they would still be alive.      

The run to the dock in False Harbour Cove took about forty minutes. Station personnel met the boat, wrapped the freezing men in warm blankets and carried them up the hill on stretchers to their barracks. As darkness was coming, Gus and his sons left immediately to try to rescue the four men on Black Rock Island.                     

Knowing that it would be suicidal to try landing on Black Rock in the raging sea, Gus devised a plan. They would drop anchor off the stern of the boat, about forty fathoms from the sloping side of Black Rock. When Art was sure that the anchor was firmly set, he would take two turns of the line around the stern post and steer straight for Black Rock. Gus directed Stuart to regulate the engine speed, then went to the bow of the boat and, upon his signal, Art played out the anchor line gradually, until the boat was as near the Island as it could go without being smashed against the rock.                                

With the engine going full throttle, the boat did not come away from Black Rock with the ebb flow of the waves, but rose high on the crest, then fell into the trough of each wave. They knew, if the anchor let go or its line broke, they would go crashing into Black Rock Island and lose their own lives, but they calmly focused on rescue of the four men.     

Gus had made a large Turk's Head knot in the end of the small manila rope which he had brought along. He tried to throw it from the bow of his boat to the stranded men. After several throws, it landed just below one of the men, who dashed down and grabbed it. With shouts over the roar of the pounding seas and with arm signals, Gus told the men to haul in twice the length of line needed to reach the boat and to tie on a man at the mid-point, then play out the line as Gus would pull the man through the water to the boat, where he and Stuart would lift him aboard.                                        

Gus worried about the kind of knot the men would bend on. The man could be lost if the knot let go, or seriously injured if the line tightened about his body. That concern went away when the first man, an 18-year-old youth, was pulled through the surging sea and brought aboard, secured on the line by a bowline-in-a-bight. That knot would not slip and provided a doubled rope around the body. 

Gus pulled two more men through the surging sea and lifted them aboard the boat. The last man was the Officer. After seeing the men safely aboard the boat, he pulled the line back and tied it about himself. He had a flight bag, which he tied to the end of the line and tossed it back over the crest of the rock. Gus began pulling him through the sea, but when he was halfway to the boat, the line snagged and Gus could not bring him any closer.      

Gus called to Art and Stuart, and the three men gave a mighty tug that freed the line. After they got the Officer safely aboard, he told Gus to haul in the rest of the line, because a bottle of whiskey was in the flight bag he had tied on and it would be good for everyone to have a warming drink. On the end of the line, they found only the handle of the flight bag, which obviously had caught in a crevice, nearly costing the Officer his life.     

They came about in the boat, hauled up the anchor and transported the Officer and three CG men, nearly numb in their frozen clothing, to the dock in False Harbour Cove, where station personnel waited to care for them.

Gus, Art and Stuart did not tarry but left and made their way homeward, rounded White point and in darkness, traveled up Caribou Run into Indian Tickle and finally hauled their ice-encrusted boat onto the snow-covered shore at Indian Cove.

Over tea and a hot supper, they spoke of their good fortune in rounding the cliff at the very instant when they could see the last flare fired by the three men adrift in the rubber boat.  Gus said, "I'm mighty glad we had that big old grapnel – it’s the proper anchor for grabbing and holding onto a rock bottom in heavy seas. Without it, we never could’ve plucked those four men from Black Rock Island." 

Gus and his sons visited the Loran site the next day. The Station CO praised the skill exercised by Gus in overcoming the great danger he faced in rescuing four strangers, who could not have survived the night on Black Rock Island. The frostbit men expressed heartfelt thanks. Officer Yasinski invited Gus, Art and Stuart to visit the Station again at any time. He asked how he could reward them. Gus said, “Let’s just drink to your health.” 

Six months later, Gus received a letter from the Officer heading the organization that has saved more lives and property at sea than any other in the world. He treasured it greatly and willed it to Stuart, who gave it to me.

                              APR 29,1948

Mr. Augustus Bradley
Indian Cove
Battle Harbor, Labrador

Dear Sir:

The Commandant of the United States Coast Guard desires to express to you his sincere appreciation and deep gratitude for your brave, humane conduct while participating in the rescue of seven members of the United States Coast Guard stranded on and near Black Island, a small barren rock, following the capsizing of their boat in the waters of Battle Harbor, Labrador, on 6 December, 1947.

Observing the distress signals of the stranded men, you, together with your two sons, hastened to their aid and picked up the three men who were adrift in a rubber boat near Black Island, in danger of being swept upon the rocks, or out to sea. As they were in a semi-conscious, critical condition, they were landed on the dock, and then a return trip was made through the treacherous waters to assist the four men who were on Black Island. The water, by that time, had become too rough for a landing, so your boat was skillfully maneuvered and anchored a short distance off the rocks. The survivors were thrown a line and one by one they were pulled through the water. The four were thus brought safely to the boat, and taken to the mainland.

All survivors were in a serious condition from frost bite, exposure, shock and immersion, and, but for your timely assistance, would undoubtedly have perished.
I compliment you on your judgment, knowledge and capable seamanship, and commend you most highly for your gallant and heroic action in
rescuing these seven men of the United States Coast Guard.


/S/ Merlin O'Neill
Rear Admiral, U.S. Coast Guard
Acting Commandant

 By:   Wo,  ex-U.S.C.G. Chief Radio Technician,  first Chief of  Battle Harbour Loran Station,.

© William A. Ogletree 5/1/93  

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