On Feb. 18, 1952, the Coast Guard rescued 70 men from the tankers Fort Mercer and Pendleton, which broke in half off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in a brutal nor’easter. The story of Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernard Webber and his crew of three, who headed into 60-foot seas and 70-knot winds in the 36-foot Motor Lifeboat CG-36500 to rescue 32 crewmembers from the stern section of the 503-foot Pendleton, is the stuff of legend.
Motoring out of the Chatham Lifeboat Station, Webber, Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey and Seaman Irving Maske sang “Rock of Ages” and “Harbor Lights” as they approached the Chatham bar, Coast Guard Capt. Russell Webster writes in an account in the U.S. Naval Institute magazine Proceedings. The men could hear the roar of towering waves crashing onto the bar.
“As the CG-36500 crossed the bar, the boat was smashed by a mountain of a wave and thrown high in the air,” Webster writes. “The boat landed on its side between waves. The self-righting boat recovered quickly and was smote again; this time tons of seawater crashed over the boat, breaking its windshield and flattening coxswain Webber.”
Fighting not just wind and waves but also driving snow, the men managed to cross the bar and find Pendleton’s stern section 10 miles offshore, where the “black mass of twisted metal … heaved high in the air upon the massive waves and then settled back down in a ‘frothing mass of foam,’ ” as Webster describes it.
Scrambling down a Jacob’s ladder, all but one of the 33 crewmembers on the Pendleton’s stern section made it aboard CG-36500. Webber’s men pulled those who had fallen into the sea into the boat. Minutes after the last man came aboard, the Pendleton rolled and sank.
This act of heroism (re-created in the 2016 film The Finest Hours) and many others are what the National Coast Guard Museum would bring to life for visitors. It would also tell the stories of the agency’s history, what it does today and what it plans to do in the future, says retired Capt. Wes Pulver, executive director of the nonprofit National Coast Guard Museum Association, which is spearheading the museum’s development. “The momentum for this has grown over the past year,” says Pulver, a 28-year Coast Guard veteran who commanded the tall ship Eagle before he retired in 2015. “This has been a vision of many of us in the service, and has been for many years.”
Did you know? • The Coast Guard is the country’s oldest continuous seagoing service. Its history dates from 1790, when Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton put revenue cutters into service to patrol the coasts to stop smuggling. • Revenue cutters were involved in the War of 1812, the Seminole Wars, the Civil War, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, including the Battle of Manila Bay in the Philippines. • In January 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Act to Create the Coast Guard, merging the U.S. Life-Saving Service with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and designating the new Coast Guard as a military branch. • Coast Guard personnel fought in World War I and World War II; Korea; Vietnam; operations Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn; and were in Afghanistan to inspect military supply containers going in and out of the country. • Coast Guard cryptologists deciphered more than 12,000 rumrunner messages in a three-year span during Prohibition, reducing the illegal flow of booze along the coast to a “mere trickle” by Prohibition’s end in 1933. • Coast Guard cryptologic Unit 387 intercepted more than 10,000 encrypted messages from 65 German spy rings during WWII and cracked 8,500 of the coded messages. • In addition to chasing smugglers and pirates, the Revenue Cutter Service was tasked with shutting down the slave trade from Africa. By the start of the Civil War in 1861, it had captured a number of slave traffickers and freed almost 500 slaves. • Policing the April-to-October 1980 Mariel boatlift was the Coast Guard’s largest peacetime operation. Some 125,000 undocumented Cuban Marielistas crossed the Straits of Florida to South Florida in 5,000 boats with just 27 lives lost at sea. • With its new national security cutters, the Coast Guard in 2015 seized or disrupted a record 190 tons of cocaine and detained 700 smugglers. • During Operation Iraqi Freedom, more than 1,000 Coast Guard personnel, a 378-foot high- endurance cutter, an oceangoing buoy tender, four 110-foot patrol boats, four port security units and two law enforcement detachments were deployed to the Arabian Gulf. • In 1957, as the Cold War with the Soviet Union heightened, three Coast Guard cutters — Storis, Spar and Bramble — and one Canadian ice-breaker, HMCS Labrador, charted a path through the Northwest Passage for vessels supplying construction of 50 Distant Early Warning stations. Source: Guard Compass, official blog of the Coast Guard, August 2016
The Coast Guard — created in 1915 when the Revenue Cutter Service and U.S. Life-Saving Service combined — has fought in every war in our nation’s history, yet it is the only military branch that has no national museum, Pulver says. Revenue cutters suppressed Caribbean pirates in the early 1800s, and they fought in the War of 1812 and Spanish-American War. The Coast Guard fought in World War I and World War II, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn in the Middle East. “We have six patrol boats in Iraq right now,” Pulver says.
At 226 years (which includes 125 years of the Revenue Cutter Service), the Coast Guard is the country’s oldest continuous seagoing service, Pulver says. The Continental Navy, founded in 1775, was disbanded in 1784. The Naval Act of 1794 created a permanent standing U.S. Navy — four years after Alexander Hamilton created the Revenue Cutter Service to stop smuggling into the new nation, which badly needed the customs fees.
“Our goal is to honor our service and show the American public its value,” says Jeff Creighton, a retired Coast Guard master chief petty officer who does development work for the museum association. Creighton says the museum would stress the Coast Guard’s resourcefulness and technological innovations as it evolved from a civilian-staffed customs service working for the Treasury Department into a branch of the armed forces that today is tasked with 11 missions: ports, waterways and coastal security; drug interdiction; aids to navigation; search and rescue; living marine resources; marine safety; defense readiness; migrant interdiction; marine environmental protection; ice operations; and other law enforcement.
Pulver says the facility would be a 21st century museum. Gallagher & Associates, a museum planning and design firm whose work includes the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs and the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., is designing the exhibit space. It would include interactive exhibits of the latest air and sea navigation technology, artifacts and documents, paintings of dramatic rescues, and simulators that re-create helicopter rescues in a Force 10 storm and a rescue boat as it pounds through heavy seas.
“We want [visitors] to walk away with the ‘wow’ factor and thinking, I wish I’d served in the Coast Guard or I really respect what they do,” Pulver says.
The architectural firm Payette, which designed China’s Central South University and Temple University’s Health Sciences Campus in Philadelphia, envisions a building with a sweeping curve of glass that faces the Thames River in New London, Connecticut, providing a panoramic view of the river and suggesting a ship’s hull propelling into it. “It’s going to be a beautiful location,” Creighton says.
The museum site is next to City Pier, where the Coast Guard barque Eagle will be home-ported, and next to New London’s historic Union Station and ferry terminal. “The Coast Guard has occupied both banks of the Thames River since 1791,” Creighton says, when Argos, one of the revenue cutters that served as a guardian of the nation’s coast, docked near New London. The city has been home to the Coast Guard Academy since 1932 and to search-and-rescue Station New London, the Coast Guard Research and Development Center at Fort Trumbull, and training centers for officer candidates and senior enlisted personnel. Underscoring the work of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which merged with the Coast Guard in 1939, six active lighthouses would be visible from the museum, Creighton says.
The $100 million museum was conceived in the late 1990s; delayed several years by an eminent domain case brought against the city of New London, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court; and set back again by the Great Recession. Today the association is fund-raising and has contracted the firms to undertake the architectural and exhibit designs. New London has deeded 0.37 of an acre on the Thames River to the group for the museum.
Pulver says he is “guardedly optimistic” that the museum will open in 2020. Creighton says Connecticut has committed $20 million to build a pedestrian overpass over the railroad tracks from the train station, a ferry terminal and a parking garage for the museum. Congress was considering authorization of $5 million for the museum this past summer, and Creighton says he expects those funds to come through with $25 million more. That would leave $50 million for the association to raise from corporations and individuals. He says private donors had given $8 million since Aug. 1.
The museum association has inaugurated a grassroots “plankowner” program, with plankowner being a term for any individual who was a member of the original crew assigned to build and commission a Navy or Coast Guard vessel. Donors can become museum plankowners by making a recurring monthly donation of any amount and maintaining that support through the museum’s commissioning, which is opening day.
Once the museum is built and transferred from the association to the Coast Guard, a signed and stamped plankowner certificate will be delivered to those who have continued their recurring donation through the commissioning (see coastguardmuseum.org/plankowner).
Pulver has himself left an imprint on Coast Guard history. He headed migrant interdiction operations out of Miami in the summer of 1994, when during a one-month period 37,000 balseros — Cuban rafters — set out across the Straits of Florida to seek refuge in the United States. As commander of the cutter Bear, he and his crew recovered 1.6 tons of cocaine worth more than $100 million off Nicaragua in a joint cutter-helicopter operation, a new concept at the time.
The Coast Guard seizes more drugs at sea every year than all of the nation’s police forces together seize on land, he says. “These are the types of stories that people don’t hear,” he says, the kinds that are driving him to spearhead the museum effort.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue.