A quiet hero: Andy Fitzgerald, last surviving crew member from daring Cape Cod rescue, dies at 87
Andy Fitzgerald could be almost blasé when he looked back at the role he played as a Coast Guard engineman in what is remembered as the most daring small-boat rescue in US history.
“The motto of the Coast Guard at that time was, ‘You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back,’ ” he told the Globe with a smile in 2014. “It was our job.”
And what a job it was. On Feb. 18, 1952, the Pendleton — a 503-foot oil tanker — broke in two about 6 miles off Chatham. In nighttime blizzard conditions, Mr. Fitzgerald and three others set off in a 36-foot boat and did the seemingly impossible: rescue 32 men off the Pendleton and make it back to shore.
“I’ve never forgotten it,” Mr. Fitzgerald said in the 2014 interview. “I can remember it like it was yesterday.”
The last surviving member of the rescue crew that was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the Coast Guard’s highest honor, Mr. Fitzgerald died Nov. 15 in Colorado, where he had lived for most of the years that followed that daring rescue when they braved 60-foot waves. He was 87, had grown up in Whitinsville, and had been an Aurora, Colo., resident.
“We couldn’t really see the waves because it was dark and it was snowing,” Mr. Fitzgerald told the Globe in 2012, when he returned to Chatham to commemorate the crew’s heroism on the motor lifeboat CG36500.
Of the 33 crew members on the tanker, one died during the rescue. The rescue crew’s efforts were recounted in the book “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the US Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue,” by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, and in the 2016 movie “The Finest Hours.”
In 2014, Mr. Fitzgerald visited the film set at the former Fore River Shipyard to watch as movie stars and a Hollywood crew reimagined what he had lived. He was portrayed in the film by actor Kyle Gallner.
“These guys were a totally different breed,” Gallner told the Globe that November. “I think it’s a good thing to show real-life heroes and the strength of the human spirit.”
The crew’s exploits were noted in a banner headline atop the Globe’s front page in 1952, pushing lower a story about the capture of then-notorious bank robber Willie Sutton.
The day after the rescue, Admiral Harold Bradbury wrote a letter of commendation to Mr. Fitzgerald and the three others who were part of the CG36500’s crew: Bernard C. Webber, who was in charge, and the other two crewmen, Richard Livesey and Ervin Maske.
“Your outstanding seamanship and utter disregard for your own safety in crossing the hazardous waters of Chatham Bar in mountainous seas, extreme darkness, and falling snow during a violent winter gale to rescue from imminent death 32 of 33 crew members on the ill-fated tanker minutes before it capsized on the bar reflects great credit on you and through you on the entire service,” Bradbury wrote.
Mr. Fitzgerald never wore his heroism on his sleeve, however. Four years later, in 1956, he married Gloria Frabotta. She didn’t learn about that Chatham night until a couple of years into their marriage.
“He doesn’t consider himself a hero to this day,” she told the Globe with a smile in 2014. “He’d say, ‘It was three hours of work that we were supposed to do.’ ”
Why didn’t he tell her sooner about an event that most would consider life-defining? “She never asked me,” he said that day.
Andrew J. Fitzgerald Jr., who was known to many as Fitz, was born March 19, 1931, in Whitinsville. His parents were Edna Fitzgerald and Andrew Fitzgerald Sr.
At Northbridge High School, he played basketball and baseball, and he lettered in football, Tougias and Sherman wrote in their book. But upon graduating “he had no money for college and no prospects for a future in Whitinsville, so he and a friend hitchhiked to the local train station, rode into Boston, and joined the Coast Guard.”
In Chatham, among his duties to start each day was to row out into the harbor to three boats, including the CG36500, to make sure each was filled with gasoline.
On the day of the storm in 1952, “I doubt that I would have been considered for the Pendleton rescue, except that we were short-handed,” he said in an interview for the book “The Pendleton Disaster Off Cape Cod,” by Theresa Mitchell Barbo and Captain W. Russell Webster.
“One of the other enginemen was sick and the last one was on leave. Fate is funny sometimes,” he added.
On the way to and from the damaged Pendleton, the four crewmen traveled through the storm without a compass or windshield, which the waves had destroyed. Visibility was nil on the way back, when there were 36 men — the crew and those they had rescued — in a boat designed to hold eight.
“This was a suicide mission,” Dorothy Aufiero, producer of the film, told the Globe in 2014. “The odds of these guys coming back were slim to none.”
During the journey, the engine stalled several times and Mr. Fitzgerald was seriously burned crawling in and out of the compartment to reprime the motor.
Webber, who was in charge of the rescue boat, led them home after the rescue.
“He knew the direction of land and said, ‘We’re going to hit the beach somewhere and jump off,’ ” Mr. Fitzgerald recalled in the 2012 interview. But Webber managed to find the harbor, where “half the town of Chatham was standing along that fish pier. They were so excited to see us back.”
In 2012, the Coast Guard commissioned the Bernard C. Webber, the first of a new class of fast-response cutters. In a tribute to its namesake, the cutter’s motto was “Determination Heeds No Interference.”
Mr. Fitzgerald graduated with an associate’s degree in engineering from what was then Worcester Junior College. He sold electric motors before moving to Denver for his company. For more than 30 years, he was a sales engineer and, after retiring, worked part time for a car wholesale business.
A service has been held in Denver for Mr. Fitzgerald, who in addition to his wife leaves their daughter, Dawn Huffman; their son, Michael; a brother, Bill; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Burial was private.
In keeping with his lifelong modesty about the famous rescue, Mr. Fitzgerald said before the 2012 ceremony commissioning the Bernard C. Webber cutter that his thoughts would not be about his own actions that night.
“I’ll think about the three guys who aren’t going to be there with me,” he said.