On Feb. 18 1952, members of Chatam Lifeboat Station proved that the “shallow water sailors” of the Coast Guard truly lived by the motto “you have to go out but you don’t have to come back.” In what is now considered one of the most daring rescues in Coast Guard history, the crew of CG36500 saved 32 members of a stricken tanker, split in half during a severe Nor’easter, despite even their own doubts that it could be done.
The morning of February 18th saw New England besieged by a near-hurricane level Nor’easter. Visibility was near zero, winds were blowing far above the safe limits of even the larger Cutters patrolling the Cape Cod area and everyone knew that it was going to be a busy, and dangerous, day to be in the Coast Guard. By mid-morning, the majority of Station Chatam’s crew was involved in the attempted rescue of the T/V Fort Mercer which was reported to have broken in two approximately 20 miles off the beach. It was during this rescue operation that a Coast Guard aircraft observed a second wreck, that of the T/V Pendleton, also broken in two and floundering 10 miles from shore.
BM1 Webber, the only coxswain remaining in Chatam, was ordered to take the remaining motorized lifeboat, CG36500, and a crew of his choice to attempt a rescue of the Pendleton’s survivors. Webber, a seasoned coxswain and savvy seaman, was not exactly thrilled about the idea of taking a 36ft wooden lifeboat powered by a meek 90hp inboard across the Chatam Bar, dangerous in good weather, and attempt to navigate nearly blind in conditions which obviously superseded his vessel’s operational limits. But, Webber was a Coast Guard Coxswain who had been ordered to get underway so that is what he did.
The CG36500 found itself tossed about by the rough conditions of the bar, but that was only the beginning as the open ocean of Cape Cod was as close to hell as a seaman could envision. Monstrous waves, estimated between 40-60 feet by observers, rolled the tiny boat to the point of almost capsizing and the engines would repeatedly stall when the flow of gas was interrupted. But the crew pushed on, even after losing their compass and not being able to see either land or the nearby Lightship. They were truly blind.
When Webber and his crew finally found the Pendleton, they questioned their ability to even approach the mangled wreck as it too rose and fell with each giant wave. But, upon seeing the approaching rescue boat, the crew of the Pendleton dropped a Jacob’s ladder and began their decent- leaving Webber no choice but to bring his tiny wooden boat dangerously close or risk losing them all. Time and again Webber would maneuver the CG36500 against and even under the rolling hull and defiantly pick up survivor after survivor – 1,2,20 and finally 32 men were onboard, vastly overloading the rescue boat. Unfortunately, the final survivor would be lost when he mistimed his jump to the CG36500 and was swept under the Pendleton.
BM1 Webber has rescued the crew of the Pendleton, but he still needed to get back to Chatam. Higher ups urged for transferring of the survivors to the nearby, and larger, Cutter McCulloch – itself damaged by the storm – but, as much as Webber questioned his chances of safely returning to shore, he felt an at-sea transfer was surely suicide. So, as any good Bos’n would do, when faced with a difficult decision and conflicting instructions, Webber shut off his radio and decided to head home.
Despite the continuing storm and an extremely over loaded CG36500, BM1 Weber was able to not only return to shore but once again cross the bar to the safety of Chatam. The crew of CG36500 -BM1 Webber, PO2 Fitzgerald, SN Livesey and SN Maske – were awarded the Coast Guard’s highest peacetime medal, the Gold Life Saving Medal, for what the accompanying citation described as “extreme and heroic daring.” Just another day in the Coast Guard!
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