The Finest Hours: Story behind the Coast Guard's greatest small-boat rescue
On February 18, 1952 the Coast Guard rescued a total of 70 men from two T2 tank vessels, the Fort Mercer and the Pendleton, which had both split in two under the pressure of navigating a raging storm with 70-knot winds and 60-foot seas off the coast of Cape Cod.
The men at Chatham Lifeboat Station in Massachusetts were alerted to Fort Mercer’s situation around mid-morning and orders were made to launch a motorized lifeboat to save the crew which was 20 miles offshore. The nearby Coast Guard Cutter Yakutat also sent a small surfboat to assist Fort Mercer.
In mid-afternoon Chatham Lifeboat Station’s radar picked up the two stricken sections of the Pendleton. The bow of the ship was left without power and carried seven men and the captain, who would not survive.
Petty Officer Bernard Webber and his three all-volunteer crew - Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey, and Seaman Irving Maske - were sent out to assist the 33 members in the Pendleton’s stern.
"Jacobs ladder dangling over her side, the stern of the SS PENDLETON sits forlornly on a sand bar off the coast of Cape Cod. Coast Guardsmen from the Chatham Lifeboat Station overcame mountainous seas to rescue the survivors from this section of the vessel." Official USCG Photo by Richard C. Kelsey, Chatham, Mass.
Petty Officer Webber steered his crew in the freezing horizontal snowstorm and crashing seas which rocked the 36-foot wooden motor life boat. They began shipping water due to the engine repeatedly quitting, as well as this their compass failed, but they never gave up on the Pendleton.
Battling through the elements, their small searchlight eventually illuminated the Pendleton and its survivors. The crew tossed over a ladder and made the daring descent toward the tiny Coast Guard boat as Petty Officer Webber skillfully maneuvered alongside the Pendleton as his crew plucked the survivors from the rolling sea.
Their small CG-36500 quickly began to reach capacity, and it was at this moment Petty Officer Webber made the heroic decision that no one would be left behind.
With 32 survivors on board, George “Tiny” Myers was the only one who didn’t make it. After bravely helping every one of the 32 survivors on board, he fell into the sea as a monstrous wave hit the CG-36500.
With no radar or compass, Petty Officer Webber navigated the 36 on board back to safety. The 36-foot rescue boat used that day were designed to carry a crew of six with a maximum of 10 survivors. Amazingly, the Coast Guard has since attempted to replicate placing 36 people on board the CG-36500, and was unable to do so.
For this, the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history, Boatswain Mate First Class Webber, Engineman Second Class Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey and Seaman Irving Maske all received the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the Coast Guard’s highest decoration for heroism during a rescue operation.