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Against the odds

The bow section of the tanker Pendleton is aground six miles off Chatham, Massachusetts, on the morning of Feb. 19, 1952. This is how it happened.

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On Feb. 17 the 503-foot ship, out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana — carrying kerosene, heating oil and a crew of 41 — arrives off Boston late in the evening. Conditions are foul, with limited visibility, so the captain opts to stand off and heads back to sea.

Conditions worsen, developing into a powerful nor’easter. Seas off Cape Cod are 40 to 60 feet, winds 70 knots, visibility zero in driving snow and sleet.

About 5:50 a.m. on Feb. 18, the Pendleton breaks in two. The seven men aboard the bow section are doomed. The stern section, with 33 aboard, is adrift. Chatham Lifeboat Station picks up the wreck on radar at 2:55 p.m. Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Bernard Webber, on duty assisting local fishermen, is ordered to ready CG36500, a 36-foot self-righting lifeboat. Only three men are available at the station — engine man Andrew Fitzgerald, seaman Richard Livesey and seaman Irving Maske. The crew is assembled.

At 5:55 p.m. CG36500 leaves the pier, her single 90-hp engine chugging away in the dark. Webber steers for the notorious Chatham Bar; the crew sings hymns. Twice the lifeboat is slammed by mountainous waves, the second one smashing the windshield and taking out the compass. Seas are so steep that Webber has to reverse the engine to keep from slipping down the waves too fast. Every so often, the engine dies, and Fitzgerald restarts it each time.

They drive blind for an hour. They sight Pollock Rip lightship, then lose it. Webber slows the boat. There it is, in the searchlight, wallowing in 50-foot seas — the Pendleton’s stern section with all of the men at the rail. Webber maneuvers to the port side. Desperate sailors jump, slide and climb down the listing hull. When Webber pulls away, CG36500 has 32 survivors on board. George Myers, the last man off, was lost. Webber pilots the lifeboat safely to shore.

CG36500 is also a survivor. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the lifeboat was restored under the aegis of the Orleans (Massachusetts) Historical Society, which displays it. (The information here is from the Coast Guard account of the rescue. The Pendleton rescue is also the subject of the recently released film The Finest Hours.)

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue.


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