Sixty years ago yesterday, Andy Fitzgerald was an engineman 3d class for the Coast Guard, a 20-year-old native of Whitinsville stationed at Chatham on what he wryly calls “a dark and stormy night.’’
The Coast Guard calls it something else: the night of the greatest rescue by small boat in its history.
Fitzgerald, who lives in Colorado, was in Chatham yesterday to help commemorate the heroic actions of the four-man crew of motor lifeboat CG-36500, a 36-foot wooden vessel that cut through towering seas, gale-force winds, and heavy snow to rescue 32 men from the stricken tanker Pendleton, which had split in two in the storm.
The rescue was accomplished without a compass or a windshield, which had been smashed by pounding surf that soaked and chilled the crew, all of whom were in their 20s.
“Sixty years later, they’re having this memorial anniversary for three hours of work,’’ said Fitzgerald, the only living member of the crew. “We did our job, that’s what we were supposed to do, and we did it.’’
But the rescue is so revered in Coast Guard annals that a new cutter has been named for the lifeboat coxswain and the cutter’s crew has been schooled in the details of the mission. The four men who risked their lives that night received the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the highest rescue award given by the Coast Guard.
“We want our crews today to learn from what happened then, whether it’s lessons learned about teamwork, or lessons learned about courage and skill,’’ said Lieutenant Joe Klinker, a Coast Guard spokesman in Boston. “In doing that, we really feel we do a service to those who were out there.’’
The rescue began after the Pendleton and another commercial tanker, the Fort Mercer, had broken up off Cape Cod in the nor’easter. The Pendleton had been unable to radio for help, but was spotted by an airplane searching for the Fort Mercer, which was farther out to sea.
The Coast Guard coxswain, Bernie Webber, received orders to launch, and the crew rowed from the town’s fish pier to their lifeboat after a wet, tiring day of helping the Chatham fishing fleet tie up for the storm.
“An old fisherman says, ‘What are you guys going to do?’ ’’ Fitzgerald recalled. “And we said, ‘We have to see if we can get anybody off the stern of the tanker that’s split apart.’ He then says, ‘Why don’t you just go out in the harbor and say you got lost?’ ’’
Instead, near 6 p.m., the crew headed over the perilous Chatham bar, a series of shallow sandbars, and began looking for the Pendleton. Without a compass or the stars, the crew relied instead on Webber’s intuitive knowledge to guide them to the broken ship, about five miles off Chatham.
“We couldn’t really see the waves because it was dark and it was snowing,’’ Fitzgerald said. “When Bernie hit that bar, the boat jumped up. He kept going, though, and we kept getting knocked around.’’
As they continued moving, Fitzgerald recalled, “You could kind of hear a funny kind of noise. I looked up and, my God, sitting in the water was a 30-foot hulk of steel.’’
As the lifeboat approached the Pendleton, a rope ladder was tossed over the side of the stricken boat. In all, 32 crew members clambered down to a lifeboat designed to hold only eight of the rescued.
Nine others from the Pendleton died, including a cook who disappeared into the sea as Fitzgerald tried to save him.
Meanwhile, five cutters had responded to the Fort Mercer. Webber received orders to head farther out to sea to transfer Pendleton survivors to the larger ships. But in the dark, in 50-foot seas, without a compass, and eager to return to shore with his crew and the rescued, Webber turned the radio off.
“He knew the direction of land and said, ‘We’re going to hit the beach somewhere and jump off,’ ’’ Fitzgerald said. Instead, they found the harbor, where “half the town of Chatham was standing along that fish pier. They were so excited to see us back,’’ Fitzgerald recalled.
Yesterday’s commemoration included events at the fish pier, Coast Guard Station Chatham, and the bar, where a wreath was laid. The CG-36500 was also displayed.
Charlie Bridges, a survivor of the Pendleton who later joined the Coast Guard and retired as senior chief, attended. Family members of the three deceased crew members of the lifeboat also gathered at the event.
On April 14, the Coast Guard will commission the Bernard C. Webber, the first of a new class of fast-response cutters. Lieutenant Commander Herb Eggert, who will lead the Miami-based ship, said the 154-foot cutter’s motto, “Determination Heeds No Interference,’’ is a testament to the tenacity of its namesake.
“It’s an honor to be part of Bernie Webber’s legacy,’’ Eggert said.
Fitzgerald is a part of that legacy, as well. Before yesterday’s tributes, Fitzgerald paused when asked what thoughts the ceremony would spark. “I’ll think,’’ he said, “about the three guys who aren’t going to be there with me.’’