It was 1952 and storms had been violent in northern New England. Out on the sea, waves were reaching 50+ feet high. One ship out in this was the Fort Mercer, a T2 tanker, en route from Norco, LA to Portland, ME. At 8 AM the Mercer, commanded by Captain Frederick Paetzel, broke in two after a loud cracking sound resonated through the ship. The Coast Guard was alerted and Radioman Len Whitmore received the distress call while aboard the Eastwind, which was searching for an overdue fishing vessel. The Coast Guard dispatched ships to rescue the endangered crew. Around 12 PM the third and final cracking sound gave the men the warning that the Mercer’s bow and stern section were parting ways. While the radio had been operational, Paetzel was in regular contact with the Coast Guard. Now that was impossible, with the power out. The Short Splice and a plane soon arrived on the scene.
At Chatham Station, two Coast Guardsmen noticed two objects on their radar. At first they thought it was the Mercer, but it didn’t add up. This thing couldn’t be the Mercer. They contacted the pilot who was flying over the Mercer and asked him to check it out. An investigation revealed, much to everyone’s horror, that another tanker had also split in half. The Coast Guard dispatched a motorboat to the distressed Pendleton. More on this in a moment.
Back at the Mercer, rescue vessels attempted to get the crew of the Mercer off, but were unsuccessful. Donald Bangs and his crew on a Coast Guard lifeboat tried to rescue a man from the Mercer’s bridge. Sadly this man was washed/jumped overboard and was lost in the tumultuous sea despite Bangs and his crew’s best efforts to rescue the man. Three more Mercer men lost their lives in a rescue effort made by Captain J. W. Naab of the Yakutat. The event horrified Naab. His next attempt went much better, thankfully, although not as well as was hoped. The Yakutat’s lifeboat was dispatched to the Mercer with a crew of five. They made their way to the bow section and tried to take off the crew. Paetzel, suffering from hypothermia, was threatened by his crew that if he wasn’t the first to leave they’d throw him overboard for the Coast Guard to rescue. So he went. He had wanted to be the last man off of the ship, but the crew was worried about the skipper’s health. He fell in the water, but the rescuers managed to get the captain aboard. When the next man’s turn came, he likewise jumped. Just then a wave jolted the lifeboat and it smashed into the Mercer‘s hull. The Coast Guardsmen caught the man, but the lifeboat was sinking. They had no choice but to return to the Yakutat. The two men left behind were eventually saved, and just in the nick of time. As they were being hauled up onto the Yakutat the Mercer‘s bow capsized.
The stern section had drifted and rescue operations weren’t going so well. The Eastwind was able to get three survivors off of the Mercer, but it had not been without difficulty. On the Acushnet, Captain John Joseph made a risky plan. He brought his ship next to the Mercer‘s stern, putting his own crew in danger, as the Mercer‘s stern swung about. The idea was to have the Mercer‘s crew jump down onto the Acushnet. The crewmen were, understandably, scared. One man did jump down and made it, although barely. Another nearly met his death, having been wracked with indecision. When he jumped he fell between the two ships, but was caught by Coast Guardsmen. Having just witnessed this, the rest of the crew were now sure they didn’t want to jump. Two Coast Guardsmen grabbed two men from the Mercer, when the Acushent was carried high by a swell. They were preparing to take more of the crew when the Mercer rose high and looked as if it would land on the Acushnet. Fortunately, the Acushnet was able to get away, and returned to take on more survivors. In all there were 18 saved by the Acushnet‘s crew. The Mercer‘s stern was later towed to Newport Harbor, having stayed afloat.
The Pendleton as well as the Fort Mercer, were T2 tankers, a class of ships not of the best quality. In 1951 the Pendleton had a three-way fracture which had never been repaired.
The Pendleton, en route from Baton Rouge to Boston, was commanded by John Fitzgerald, Jr. Along the trip the crew of the Pendleton had endured treacherous storms. Now the Pendleton was outside the Boston Harbor waiting for a storm to pass. Ten minutes till 6 AM the Pendleton broke in two. To take to the lifeboats was out of the question, since the waves would sink them in no time flat. In the bow there was no power but the crew did have a radio. In the stern there was power but the crew had no radio except for a receiver. In the bow part the captain, officers, radioman and four semen were trapped. All but one would never be seen again, presumably washed away.
The lifeboat CG36500 was sent to the aid of the Pendleton. It was commanded by Bernard ‘Bernie’ Webber. His three man crew consisted of, Ervin Maske, Andy Fitzgerald and Richard Livesey. It was a dangerous mission and Webber wondered if they would even make it back. When a wave hit the CG36500 it destroyed the glass windshield and took the compass. Webber could not get through on the radio and was worried about the lives of his crew. Also on his mind was his wife who was sick in bed with the flu.
On the Pendleton‘s stern one crewman, George Myers, was sending up flares now and then, as well as encouraging his friends. After what must have seemed like eternity, the Pendleton‘s crew seen the searchlight on the CG36500. When they arrived, Webber didn’t think anyone was alive. Then they seen a man frantically waving to them. That man disappeared, but soon returned with more men. In all there were thirty-two. While Webber was contemplating on what to do, the Pendleton‘s crew began climbing down a Jacob’s ladder and landing onto the lifeboat. Those that missed the lifeboat, landing in the water, were dragged aboard. Each and everyman was put on the lifeboat even as it began to take on water.
Bernard Webber: We would all live, or we would all die
George Myers was not to live though. He fell off of the ladder and into the sea. Livesey managed to grab him, but was nearly pulled overboard owing to Myer’s large size. A wave swept Myers away, but they were able to locate him. Webber was coming in slow with the bow pointed to Myers, but a wave pushed the CG36500 forward. Webber struggled to stop the boat from hitting Myers, but it was impossible as the engine stalled. Myers died when the CG36500 collided with him. His death would continue to haunt Webber. Maske, who had managed to grasp Myers, had his hand crushed upon the impact. There was still one man left on the Pendleton and they managed to get him off. Webber succeeded in establishing communication on the radio. Advice began pouring in on what to do next, but Webber had already decided that he was headed for the shore, contrary to everyone’s advice. They arrived in Old Harbor much to their comrades’ surprise. Webber attributed their safety to God.
For further reading consider The Finest Hours by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman. This book is absolutely riveting. There is much more information in the book than what is covered here. Tougias and Sherman give you the backgrounds of many of those involved, and also their later lives. I highly recommended this book.
Source: The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Daring Sea Rescue