COAST GUARD cutter CG36500 sits peacefully in a dock in Cape Cod. Made entirely of wood and just 36 feet long, it is unimpressive to look at. And that’s what makes it so haunting.
Earlier this month, a few elderly men — witnesses to one of the most heroic rescues in Massachusetts’ rich maritime history — met me there; some of them, as little boys, had rushed to the docks to meet the tiny cutter when it creaked into harbor, overflowing with exhausted sailors and the heroes who rescued them.
It’s been almost exactly 60 years, and they’ll never forget the sight. And this weekend, while the rest of America was remembering the great deeds of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Chatham residents gathered to remember those of Coast Guard coxswain Bernard Webber and his crew.
On Feb. 18, 1952, at about five in the morning, a 500-foot tank vessel named the Pendleton broke in half off the shores of Chatham, buffeted by reported 60-foot waves and 70-knot winds. The captain and seven crew members died when the ship’s bow broke off and sank. Thirty-three survivors clung to the wreckage of the stern section, praying for a rescue but realizing, with a sense of dread, that they had failed to get a mayday call out in time.
Ten hours later, the Coast Guard station at Chatham noticed two radar blips about five miles offshore. Almost immediately, Webber and a three-man all-volunteer crew began rushing to the scene; they were given a wooden motorized boat and not much else.
The boat, emblazoned with the moniker CG36500, was just 12 yards long and already had four men on board; the likelihood that Webber and his team would find the precise location of the radar blips in such insane weather, that they could rescue anyone off a floating piece of wreckage, and that they could make it home safely was almost impossibly low. A friend of Webber’s called out to him as he was trying to get past the breakers: “You guys better get lost before you get too far out.’’ The implication was clear: Nobody would condemn them for hiding out a few days, feigning an attempted rescue, but coming home alive.
All but one of the 33 remaining members of the Pendleton crew made it home. Webber’s rescue was more of a dance than anything else: one by one, men worked their way down a Jacob’s ladder over the heaving piece of hull as Webber timed the rise and fall of the waves, ensuring he didn’t bash his boat straight into the wreck of the Pendleton as he prepared to take another man aboard. Then Webber would pull back, time the waves again, and come back in to get the next man.
By the time 20 survivors were piled onboard, the CG36500 began feeling its burdens and started to tilt. Webber did not head back, vowing to complete the rescue in its entirety. Only one crewman, a 300-pound sailor named George “Tiny’’ Myers, didn’t make it. He was simply too big to get out of the water and was crushed between the two boats. The remains of the Pendleton sank just as the rescue finished.
Then they had to get back. Webber’s compass no longer worked and he had zero visibility. Once radio contact to shore was established, everyone had an opinion of what he should do. Sometimes, the best option is simply to turn off the phone. That’s exactly what Webber did. He needed space to think. If he made it back to shore, any shore, he figured that the men on board could just jump in and swim to safety. But somehow, the boat made its way to the exact place it left at Old Harbor, Chatham.
That’s what commanders do. They don’t abandon ship or those who need to be rescued.
The CG36500 was retired in 1968; Webber passed away in 2009. The only rescuer still alive is Andy Fitzgerald, a young junior engineer in 1952, who was present at ceremonies this weekend. The boat lingered in a Wellfleet lot for a few years until the Orleans Historical Society and those inspired by the bravery of the rescuers set out to save it.
This weekend, a community celebrated a determined leader, the volunteers who followed him, and the benefits of just winging it. It is, I suspect, the same American story we honor in the name of our presidents today.
The rescue of the men of the Pendleton is breathtakingly described in Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman’s “The Finest Hours.’’ From their book, Disney Productions is making a feature film.
That’s just about as American as it gets.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.