CHATHAM LIFEBOAT STATION
Chatham, Massachusetts: February 18, 1952
Boatswain’s mate first class Bernie Webber held a mug of hot coffee in his large hands as he stared out the foggy window of the mess hall. He watched with growing curiosity and concern as the storm continued to strengthen outside. A midwinter nor’easter had stalled over New England for the last two days, and Bernie wondered if the worst was yet to come. Windswept snow danced over the shifting sands as large drifts piled up in the front yard of the Chatham Lifeboat Station.
Taking a sip of his coffee, Bernie thought of his young wife, Miriam, in bed with a bad case of the flu at their cottage on Sea View Street. What if there was an emergency? What if she needed help? Would the doctor be able to reach her in this kind of weather? These questions were fraying his nerves, and Bernie fought to put them out of his mind. Instead he tried to picture the local fishermen all huddled around the old wood stove at the Chatham Fish Pier. They would be calling for his help soon as their vessels bobbed up and down on the waves in Old Harbor, straining their lines. If the storm is this bad now, what will it be like in a few hours when it really gets going? he thought.
Bernie, however, wouldn’t complain about the tough day he was facing. The boatswain’s mate first class was only 24 years old, but he had been working at sea for nearly a decade, having first served with the U.S. Maritime Service during WWII. Bernie had followed his brother Bob into the Coast Guard; it was not the kind of life his parents had planned for him. From early childhood, Bernie’s father, the associate pastor at the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston, had steered him toward a life in the ministry. The church deacon had even paid for Bernie to attend the Mount Hermon School for Boys, which was 105 miles away from their home in Milton.
Bernie was an outcast in the prep school crowd. He arrived in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a small town hugging the Connecticut River, with serious doubts and wearing his brother’s hand-me-down clothes. He was not a strong student, and he privately questioned why he was there. Bernie knew in his heart that he did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was thinking about running away from school when fate intervened; a childhood friend who had crashed his father’s car came looking for a place to hide out. Bernie snuck his friend into one of the dorm rooms and swiped food from the school cafeteria for the boy to eat. The two were caught after just a few days, but they did not stick around long enough to face the consequences. Instead they fled to the hills and cornfields surrounding the school before eventually making it back to Milton.
Reverend Bernard A. Webber struggled to understand the actions of his wayward son as young Bernie quit school and continued to drift. A year later, at the age of 16, when World War II was under way, Bernie got an idea that would change the course of his rudderless life. He heard that the U.S. Maritime Service was looking for young men to train. If Bernie could complete the arduous training camp, he could then serve the war effort on a merchant ship. He quickly joined up after his father reluctantly signed his enlistment papers, and he learned the fundamentals of seamanship at the Sheepshead Bay Maritime School in New York.
When he was finished with maritime school, Bernie shipped out on a T2 oil tanker in the South Pacific. During this time, he realized that he would not spend his life in the ministry or at any other job on dry land. Bernie Webber had been born to the sea. He enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard on February 26, 1946, and was sent to its training station in Maryland. In letters to recruits at the time, the commanding officer of the coast guard training station summed up the life of a coast guardsman this way:
HARD JOBS ARE ROUTINE IN THIS SERVICE. IN A WAY, THE COAST GUARD IS ALWAYS AT WAR; IN WARTIME, AGAINST ARMED ENEMIES OF THE NATION; AND IN PEACETIME, AGAINST ALL ENEMIES OF MANKIND AT SEA; FIRE, COLLISION, LAWLESSNESS, GALES, ICE, DERELICTS, AND MANY MORE. THE COAST GUARD, THEREFORE, IS NO PLACE FOR A QUITTER, OR FOR A CRYBABY, OR ANYONE WHO CANNOT KEEP HIS EYE ON THE BALL. IT IS UP TO YOU, AS AN INDIVIDUAL TO PROVE YOUR WORTH.
* * *
Ten years had passed, and Bernie was now on duty in Chatham, a tiny outpost at the elbow of Cape Cod. His worth and his mettle had been tested many times in the unforgiving waters off the Cape. It was one of the most dangerous places on the sea, because of the shifting sandbars and enormous waves. In fact, seamen referred to the area as “the graveyard of the Atlantic,” and for good reason. The sunken skeletons of more than 3,000 shipwrecks were scattered across the ocean floor from Chatham to Provincetown.
Bernie Webber’s first challenge had come during an evening in 1949, when he responded to a distress call at the Chatham Lifeboat Station. The USS Livermore had run aground on Bearse’s Shoal, off Monomoy Island. Bernie and a crew took a 38-foot boat over the treacherous shallow area known as Chatham Bar to where the Livermore lay with a navy crew stranded on board. The ship rested high up on the shoal and was leaning dangerously on its side. Bernie and the men stayed with the destroyer for the rest of the night as salvage tugs were called in. The next morning, the coast guardsmen assisted in several failed attempts to free the warship before finally achieving success and sending the Livermore safely on its way. Bernie smiled as the Livermore’s crew cheered him and his crew. The sailors had given him a different reception several hours earlier when they pelted him with apples and oranges because, in their eyes, the rescue mission was taking too long. It was all part of a friendly rivalry between the navy and the coasties.
Yes, the life of a coast guardsman was oftentimes a thankless one, but Bernie would not have traded it for any other job in the world. And now, just after dawn, he gazed out the window of the mess hall, listened to the wind howl, and wondered what the day would bring.
Captain John J. Fitzgerald Jr. was new to the Pendleton, but he was not new to the unpredictability of the New England weather. Fitzgerald, the son of a sea captain, had taken over command of the 503-foot, 10,448-ton T2 tanker just one month prior. The square-jawed resident of Roslindale, Massachusetts, was familiar with these waters and had a healthy respect for the dangers of the North Atlantic.
The Pendleton had departed Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on February 12, bound for Boston. The tanker was fully loaded, carrying 122,000 barrels of kerosene and home heating oil from Texas. Like most tanker crews, the men aboard the Pendleton were a mixed lot of old buddies and total strangers. It was also a classic melting pot of races, creeds, and colors.
From the very beginning, it had been a difficult voyage for Fitzgerald and his crew of 40 men. The Pendleton had run into a severe storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and the bad weather had stayed with them like a dark omen on the journey up the coast. Now, five days after their departure, the crew faced its toughest challenge yet, a blizzard that showed no sign of weakening. Nine inches of snow had already fallen in Boston, where an army of 500 city workers used 200 trucks and 35 snow loaders to clear the downtown area and the narrow streets of Beacon Hill. The South Shore of Massachusetts was also taking a pounding as huge waves ripped down 30 feet of seawall in the coastal town of Scituate. Farther south on Cape Cod, more than 4,000 telephones had been knocked out as thick ice and snow brought down one line after another. In Maine, it was even worse. A scheduled snowshoe race had to be canceled in Lewiston because of too much snow.
The Pendleton reached the outskirts of Boston Harbor late on the evening of Sunday, February 17. Visibility was poor, and Captain Fitzgerald could not see the beam of Boston Light through the blinding snow. Without the lighthouse beacon to guide them, there was no way Fitzgerald would risk the lives of his crewmen by taking the massive tanker into Boston Harbor and around the 34 islands that dotted the area. Instead, Fitzgerald smartly ordered the Pendleton back out to deeper ocean, where the ship could ride out the storm before making port.
As midnight approached, the Pendleton found itself caught in the middle of a full gale with arctic winds blowing in every direction. By four A.M., the Pendleton, despite trying to hold its position in Cape Cod Bay, was pushed by the winds over the tip of Provincetown just east of Cape Cod. Monstrous seas were now crashing over the stern, but the vessel was riding well. The next two hours would change that. At approximately 5:30 A.M., chief engineer Raymond L. Sybert of Norfolk, Virginia, ordered his crew not to go out over the catwalk leading from bow to stern. He also slowed the ship’s speed to just seven knots (about eight miles per hour).
Minutes later, a thunderous roar echoed through the bowels of the ship. The crew felt the gigantic tanker rise out of the turbulent ocean. This was followed by a shudder and an earsplitting crash as the Pendleton nosed down.
Eighteen-year-old seaman Charles Bridges of Palm Beach, Florida, was asleep in his bunk before the ship lurched and cracked, but the terrible sound made him bolt to his feet. “I grabbed my pants, shoes, and a life vest, and ran topside,” recalled Bridges later. “I went into the mess deck where some of the other men had gathered. The power was out and it was still dark outside, so it was hard to know what was going on. Before anyone could stop me, I grabbed a flashlight and ran up to the catwalk to see what the men on the bow of the ship were doing. I shined the flashlight on the steel floor of the catwalk and quickly followed it amidships. The waves were enormous, and their spray was whipping across the deck, mingling with the cold sleet falling. Then I stopped in my tracks because the catwalk floor disappeared, and I realized just two more steps, and I’d drop straight down into the ocean.”
Bridges wheeled around and scurried back to the mess deck, shouting, “We’re in trouble! The ship has broke in two!”
Some of the men talked of immediately lowering the lifeboats. But Bridges told them they were crazy, that the lifeboats wouldn’t stand a chance in the enormous waves.
Down in the lowest deck of the ship, where the fire room was located, no one knew what had happened. Fireman Frank Fauteux of Attleboro, Massachusetts, feared the worst. Fauteux, a nine-year veteran of the sea, was a large man with thick whiskers that ran across his square jawline, giving him the look of Captain Ahab, the character in Moby-Dick. Fauteux felt the Pendleton lurch and heard the loud explosion that followed. He fought to brace himself as a more violent lurch rattled the wounded ship. Moments later, Sybert came running into the fire room. “The ship has split in half!” he hollered.
* * *
Just after the ship had sheared in half, first assistant engineer David Brown, who was on duty in the watch room in the stern of the Pendleton, put the engines on dead slow ahead. Moments later, Sybert ordered Brown to cut the engines completely. By now, the entire crew had woken up to the thunderous roar and were scrambling out of their quarters to find out what had happened. Everyone had felt the ship rattle, and many had seen a huge ball of fire. Henry Anderson, a maintenance worker, known as a “wiper,” from New Orleans, was lying in his sleeping sack when he felt what he later described as a “big bump.” Anderson grabbed his life jacket and ran to the mess deck, where he could see the damage firsthand. “Another fellow and myself got a hammer and nailed the door shut because the water was pouring in,” he recalled.
A second wiper, 35-year-old Fred Brown, had been shaken awake in his bunk. When he first heard the earth-shattering sound, Brown thought the Pendleton had hit a rock. “I heard a big cracking noise,” he said later. “It was like the tearing of a large piece of tin.” Brown pulled on his clothes and sprinted up to the deck. He huddled with several of his fellow sailors, forming a human shield against the pounding surf that washed over the stern. Brown was stung by blasts of freezing sea spray as he stood with the other men, stunned at the sight of the ship’s bow floating away and disappearing into the driving snow. At the time of the break, Captain Fitzgerald and several of his officers were in the forward bridge house just above the main deck. Now they were gone.
Forty-nine-year-old Wallace Quirey, the ship’s third assistant engineer, had seen plenty in his 25 years at sea, but he had never seen or felt anything quite like this before. “I got to the stern, and the waves must have been fifty-five feet high,” he recalled. “They swept the boat deck, the highest deck, and came five feet away from breaking right at the top of the mast.” Others on board the ship placed the wave height at more than 70 feet.
Quirey located the ship’s youngest crewmember, 16-year-old Carroll Kilgore, and offered encouragement as the wind and the waves continued to knock them around. Like Bernie Webber had done nearly a decade before, the wild-haired, gap-toothed Kilgore had joined the merchant marines seeking a life of thrills and adventure. A month later, he now found himself crouched on the stern getting slammed by waves, terribly frightened, on what was his first and possibly last voyage.
The shivering seamen looked on with a flicker of hope as the Pendleton’s bow came briefly back into view. The bow brushed against the stern and then drifted away like an apparition, with Captain Fitzgerald and seven of his crewmen aboard. Nearly every member of the ship’s command staff was now separated from the rest of the crew. The battered survivors on the stern whispered a prayer for their comrades’ safety, and then looked to their ranking officer for guidance and hope.
At just 33 years of age, chief engineer Sybert found himself in charge of the stern section of the Pendleton. He mustered the crew, which now consisted of 32 men, and ordered all watertight doors closed, except for those connecting the fire room to the engine room. Sybert also assigned watch details, including lookout watches at both ends of the boat deck. He then went to assess the damage and saw that the Pendleton was spilling its load of home heating oil and kerosene into the sea. The thick black liquid covered the frothy crests of angry swells that rose and fell around the ship.
The Pendleton was a T2-SE-A1, commonly known as a T2 tanker. But these ships had gained a more dubious nickname: some critics referred to them as “serial sinkers” and “Kaiser’s coffins.” The trouble with T2 tankers dated back nearly a decade, to January 16, 1943, when a T2 called the Schenectady split in half while still at the dock! The ship had just completed its sea trials and had returned to port at Swan Island, Oregon, when suddenly she cracked across the middle. The center portion of the ship buckled and lifted right out of the water, leaving its bow and stern to settle on the river bottom.
Like the Schenectady, the Pendleton had been built hastily for the war effort. Constructed in Oregon by the Kaiser Company in 1944, the Pendleton now called Wilmington, Delaware, home. By all accounts, she looked sturdy enough. Her length was 503 feet, and she was powered by a turboelectric motor of 6,600 horsepower with a single propeller 11 feet across. But the ship’s strong outward appearance concealed the subpar welding methods used in its construction. The hull of the Pendleton was most likely put together with “dirty steel” or “tired iron,” terms that refer to steel weakened by excess sulfur content. This put the ship at great risk in high waves and frigid waters.
* * *
Now that the Pendleton was torn in two, the strong waves began carrying the stern section of the ship south from Provincetown down the jagged arm of Cape Cod. The bow section was drifting in a nearly identical path, but was moving faster and was farther offshore. The radio room was located in the bow, but Captain Fitzgerald had no way to send an SOS signal. When the ship split in half, the circuit breakers kicked out, leaving the bow without power, heat, or light. Because the tanker had watertight compartments in the cargo area, the halves initially stayed afloat, but there was no way to know for how long that would continue. One advantage the tanker had compared to the more famous lost ship, the Titanic, was the way it split in half from beam to beam. With the Titanic, the iceberg ripped a long gash in the side of the ship, opening several compartments, while the Pendleton’s break was across its middle, compromising fewer compartments than if it had been ripped lengthwise along its hull.
Chief engineer Sybert and his men did retain power on the stern, but had no radio equipment to send a distress message. The crewmembers must have looked at one another with the same question running through their minds. Who will come to save us?
Text copyright © 2014 by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman