On February 18, 1952 The Coast Guard undertook one of its greatest rescue efforts in history. We’ve included an excerpt from Discover Cape Cod about this phenomenal tale of two tankers splitting in half during a terrible nor’easter and were thrashed about at the mercy of the stormy sea. The heroes of this story risked their lives by launching a small rescue boat from the Chatham station-  setting off into the dangerous waters to attempt the impossible. It is a breath taking story and Disney has commemorated this valiant rescue in a new movie called The Finest Hours.

Excerpt from Discover Cape Cod by Shawnie Kelley

Chapter 24

Graveyard of the Atlantic

In the wee, dark hours of a frigid February morning, the uncanny alignment of a full–scale nor’easter and two unsuspecting tankers culminated into a chilling tale of two doomed ships, each ripped in half and awaiting what seemed an impossible rescue. On February 18, 1952, the SS Pendleton was bound for Boston, while the Fort Mercer was headed for Portland, Maine. These two World War II–era tankers of nearly identical design, carrying identical cargo, were being volleyed over 60–foot waves in the same crippling storm. If that isn’t eerie enough, both boats cracked completely in half within a few hours of each other. Four ragged halves of the two ships were thrashed about in the waves for a full day and night off the coast of Chatham. The parallel calamities of both ships resulted in the greatest U.S. Coast Guard rescue of all time.

The Pendleton was due to dock in Boston at dawn on February 18, but poor visibility made it impossible to sail into the harbor. Captain John Fitzgerald was forced to turn the ship back out into Massachusetts Bay to ride out the storm. Wind and sea conditions only worsened and at 5:50 a.m., with no warning other than a few violent lurches, the Pendleton split in half between its two cargo tanks. The captain and seven officers were stranded in the bow (the front section of the boat), while thirty–three engineers and crew members were stuck on the stern (the back half of the boat). Crewman, Fred Brown said the noise was “like the tearing of a large piece of tin… a noise that sends shivers up and down the spine and jangles every nerve.”

Unfortunately, the radio was in the front of the ship while the engine and power were in the back, severing any chance of communication with the Coast Guard. An S.O.S. signal was unable to be sent. If there was any upshot to being trapped in the rear portion of the ship, it was that the crew could steer their half of the boat with the remaining power. The officers up front were not as fortunate. With no electricity in the bow, they were left powerless at the mercy of gale–force winds, horizontal frozen rain, and sixty–foot waves. Both pieces of ship drifted for forty miles in the mountainous seas, ending up just a few miles off the coast of Chatham.

As no distress signal was issued, nearly eight hours passed before the Chatham Lifeboat Station picked up the Pendleton on its radar screen—they noticed the ship was well off its normal course. More perplexing was why the signal showed up in two blips rather than one. The situation was about to get even more complicated. While the broken Pendleton languished less than six miles off the coast of Chatham, the Fort Mercer was suffering the same grim fate 37 miles farther out.

In the early morning hours, while the Pendleton turned back to the sea, the Fort Mercer was encountering the same rough conditions. A few hours after the Pendleton cracked in half and while its crew was enduring the merciless elements, the Fort Mercer was about to lead a somewhat parallel life, but with one distinct difference. The Fort Mercer was able to transmit an S.O.S. to the Coast Guard before breaking up. This was to be the saving grace for both ships!
After hearing a horrifying cracking sound at 8:00 a.m., Captain Frederick Paetzel immediately alerted the crew and contacted the Coast Guard that an emergency situation was at hand. Cutters were alerted but had to travel from Nantucket. By no means were they close, but a rescue effort was under way. At 10:30 a.m., the Fort Mercer was still in one piece, but by noon it had cracked and was spurting oil. At 12:03 p.m., the captain issued the final distress call, “hull splitting,” and shared their stormy location as 37 miles east of Chatham. Seven minutes later, the ship broke in two and communication went dead. Similar to the Pendleton, nine officers were trapped up front without power while thirty–four crewmen were in the back trying to keep the rear end afloat.

The Coast Guard dispatched five cutters, two lifeboats, and numerous aircraft in the direction of the Fort Mercer, still unaware that the Pendleton disaster was simultaneously unfolding closer to Chatham’s dangerous, shallow shoreline. In addition to the ability to issue a distress call, the Fort Mercer luckily was in deeper water. This offered another ray of hope to ride out the storm as the waves did not batter the broken boat as brutally as they did the Pendleton in shallower water. The drawback to being farther out is that it took the Coast Guard a lot longer reach the ship. Still, the cutters made slow progress, and eventually came upon both halves of the Fort Mercer.

Rescue attempts lasted well into the next day. The massive icebreakers, Acushnet and Eastwind finally arrived at the stern of the Fort Mercer, but neither were suited to draw alongside of the violently bobbing bits of vessel with its human cargo. A few men were recovered by running rubber rafts on lines between the boats, but this posed too much of a risk. The heaving and rolling of the two large ships created roller–coaster–like conditions for those in the rafts. The Acushnet managed a daring maneuver by backing in dangerously close to the Fort Mercer, allowing eighteen men to jump to safety. Thirteen others remained behind because of injury, age or the need for their expertise to continue steering the half–ship.

While rescue efforts continued at the stern, the Coast Guard cutter Yakutat discovered the bow section of the Fort Mercer around 6:00 p.m., but spent most of the night unsuccessfully trying to put a transfer line aboard. Knowing they could not be retrieved from the ship’s bridge, the crew of the Fort Mercer devised a plan to tie flags together and lower themselves onto a more protected area of the ship where there were greater possibilities of rescue. More than twenty hours after the Fort Mercer had been ripped apart, a final effort was made to rescue the four remaining survivors amid thirty–five–foot swells, freezing horizontal rain, and fifty–knot winds.

A lifeboat and rubber rafts were launched under extremely dangerous conditions. Due to the captain’s ailments, the crew wanted him to go first. Despite his insistence on staying with the ship, he jumped and was plucked from the waves after floundering for a minute in the icy water. The final three men were rescued a few minutes before the bow capsized. Twenty hours after this horrific saga began, 38 out of 43 crewmen were saved from the Fort Mercer, which was a slightly better outcome than for those on the Pendleton.

Sometime during this sequence of rescue operations, a Coast Guard aircraft went searching for the Fort Mercer’s lifeboats and issued a report that he had spotted the bow of a ship, rolling in the surf just off the coast of Chatham. How could this be? It was broadcasted that rescuers were already on the scene, plucking survivors from the bow of the Fort Mercer, but there was no aircraft or ships in sight of this vessel. When asked his position, the pilot turned out to be 50 miles away from the said rescue scene. He flew in to get a closer look and read the name on the bow. This was the surprising first sighting of the Pendleton—at least one half of it.

The lifeboat station captain was in disbelief, as was the rest of the Coast Guard. It all came clear that they were dealing with two shipwrecks of the same magnitude, and their hands were already full with one. Radar operators at the Chatham Lifeboat Station now had the bow of the Pendleton in sight. They knew the second unidentified bleep on the radar had to be its stern, but it was drifting rapidly to the south, directly for the shallow, shifting Chatham Bar where it was in danger of capsizing and being dashed into pieces.

The rescue cutters that were diverted to the Pendleton could not move in close enough to make a rescue attempt because of the dangerous shifting sandbars. The men on board the cutters watched helplessly as the lone survivor jumped into the sea too soon to be rescued. By the time smaller lifeboats could get to the bow of the Pendleton, the ravaging storm had claimed the lives of all eight officers who had been aboard this part of the boat.

A rescue operation was simultaneously underway for the back half of the Pendleton, which was being monitored by radar. Chief Engineer Raymond Sybert had been steering the stern of the Pendleton using an emergency rudder control, trying not to run aground. The crew had a portable radio and listened to reports of the Fort Mercer rescue, but they feared the Coast Guard was not aware of their own dire straits. Hope was renewed when they learned a lifeboat was launched from Chatham Lifeboat Station—for them! But it was not going to be an easy task, even though they were just a few miles out.

Four courageous men in a thirty–six–foot, wooden lifeboat with a ninety–horsepower engine laboriously motored out over the notorious Chatham Bar into conditions often compared to those in the movie A Perfect Storm. They knew the odds were stacked against them. Moving mountains of water shattered windows, wrenched the compass from its mount, and drove the boat over sixty and seventy–foot waves into the black abyss of the Atlantic. These men went bravely forward with selfless heroism, potentially facing their own deaths —and without a compass.

The crew navigated with little more than dead reckoning and a good ear through thundering seas to the Pendleton’s stern. Chillingly, the lifeboat captain could see nothing, but he could hear the creaking of the hull and the sounds of metal being pounded by waves. The sailors stranded on the Pendleton clung to hope and watched, spellbound, as the spotlight of the little lifeboat drew closer and closer; its engine occasionally dying out and sputtering back to life as it roller–coastered over frothy waves. An aircraft circled overhead while flares lit the violent scene. Coast Guard cutters sat off in deeper water unable to help as each man climbed, one–by–one, down a rope ladder from the stern of the Pendleton onto the rescue boat. Sadly one person, George “Tiny” Myers, was lost in the waves, but in the end 32 of the 33 on the stern were rescued. With 36 frozen, waterlogged, weary men crammed aboard, the tiny, wooden boat precariously made its way back to the shores of Chatham. The four volunteer crewmen of the lifeboat were awarded the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal, comparable to a Congressional Medal of Honor—a well–deserved recognition for their outstanding navigational skills and disregarding their own safety to rescue fellow seamen from imminent death.

Amid 20 hours of hurricane–force winds, sixty–foot waves, snow squalls, and often in pitch–blackness, 32 of the 41 crew members were rescued from the Pendleton, and 38 of 43 crew members were saved from the Fort Mercer. These extraordinary feats of seamanship have gone down as two of the most dramatic rescues in the 214–year history of the United States Coast Guard. In all, five gold life–saving medals, four silver life–saving medals, and fifteen commendation medals were awarded—for a total of 24 citations for heroism during the rescues.

Until 1978, the Pendleton’s rusting hulk was visible above the waters east of Monomoy Island, posing little threat to navigation. That winter’s great blizzard submerged the structure forcing the Coast Guard to demolish what suddenly became a navigational hazard. Today, twisted wreckage and large machinery, including the ships generator, rises to within 25 feet of the surface. The stern of the Pendleton rests off Chatham Bar as a headstone for all those who lost their lives in the Graveyard of the Atlantic during this unparalleled double shipwreck. It also remains a haunting reminder of the old Coast Guard adage: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”

Photo Credit: Kelsey, Richard C. The stern of the tanker Pendleton. 1952. Photograph. United States Coast Guard. www.uscg.mil

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