Remembering Coast Guard’s ‘Finest Hours’

Centennial man was key player in historic sea rescue

Posted 7/28/09

Andy Fitzgerald is humble. He’s even humble about being humble. “What am I going to do — Walk up to somebody and say, ‘You guys want to hear …

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Remembering Coast Guard’s ‘Finest Hours’

Centennial man was key player in historic sea rescue


Andy Fitzgerald is humble. He’s even humble about being humble.

“What am I going to do — Walk up to somebody and say, ‘You guys want to hear how I rescued 32 guys?’ How do you do that?”

That’s the response you’ll get if you ask the 78-year-old Centennial man about why he has seldom talked about what has been called the most daring rescue in Coast Guard history.

Even Fitzgerald’s wife, Gloria, didn’t hear tell of the so-called “suicide mission” until decades after the fact. His friends and grandchildren only learned of the rescue at sea when author Michael Tougias began researching “The Finest Hours,” a new account of the 1952 incident.

The book — replete with action, harrowing drama and a disparate assortment of stock characters — could be the fictional stuff of a Hollywood film:

Two oil tankers split in half 30 miles off Cape Cod. Four tenderfoots in a 36-foot motorized lifeboat designed to carry 12 are called to the rescue. Howling winds, a blinding snowstorm and 70-foot waves are only some of the obstacles that stand between the fresh-faced guardsmen and 30-plus stranded men.

Fitzgerald agrees that the story — one that Tougias calls “Saving Private Ryan” meets “The Perfect Storm” — would make for a pretty good popcorn movie.

“I think that’s what the authors are counting on,” the retired guardsmen quipped in his Massachusetts accent. “My wife said, ‘Who’s going to play you?’ I said, ‘I’ll just dye my hair.’”

You have to go out …

“Mel’s as sick as a dog. I’ll go,” 20-year-old Andy Fitzgerald volunteered, eager to relieve his own boredom.

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Bernie Webber was not thrilled. He’d hoped Mel “Gus” Gouthro, a first-class petty officer, would take engine duties, but nature had other plans. Gouthro lay on his cot with a burning fever, sick with the flu.

“I don’t think Bernie was keen on my going,” Fitzgerald recalled recently. “Well, Gus wasn’t much older than me.”

“Fitz” was the youngest and greenest of the low-ranking enginemen at the Chatham Coast Guard Station near Cape Cod, Mass. on Feb. 18, 1952. He’d been laying around at headquarters looking for something — anything —to pass the time.

“You’re in.”

Beggars could not be choosers as Webber, a minister’s son, walked the station seeking potential martyrs in what some later considered a “suicide mission.”

“Who’ll come with me?” he asked around.

Webber needed to hastily assemble a crew of some sort to find whatever was left of the wreck of the Pendleton’s stern. The “invitation” was the kind of professional courtesy that would often precede direct orders, according to Coast Guard custom.

“Bernie didn’t particularly care to go,” Fitzgerald said. “But this was our job to do this type of thing.”

All four members of the eventual crew were under 25. One of them, Ervin Maske, happened to be hanging around the mess hall at the time and was not even assigned to the Chatham station.

It was almost 5:30 p.m. and getting dark.

What the crew was about to undertake arguably amounted to either a death wish or a Quixotic act of delusion — depending on one’s level of optimism.

A ferocious “nor’easter” — a New Englandism for a brand of near-hurricane storm — had just hit Cape Cod. A snowstorm only added to the deadly mix of 70-mile-an-hour winds and waves taller than a six-story building.

The ominous environment, along with the tiny size of the Coast Guard boat and the number of people saved have placed the Pendleton rescue on a special pedestal in maritime history, according to Tougias, who has written a number of books on nautical themes.

“This was, by far, the most daring rescue in Coast Guard history, where everybody involved was in jeopardy of losing their life,” the author said. “I was blown away when I stumbled on the casualty report.”

The Chatham station had received conflicting reports about the location of a lumbering 500-foot oil tanker that had split in half somewhere off Cape Cod, as the result of the coastal storm.

The reason for the initial confusion was simple. As it turned out, it had been not one — but two tankers, the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer — that the nor’easter had split in half, just 20 miles from each other.

Men were perilously trapped on the severed bows and sterns, and all four fragments were sinking in the 60-foot seas. Oil, often thrown from boats in those days to ostensibly lessen the impact of waves, was pouring from the two ships, but did little to calm the troubled waters.

Several Coast Guard cutters were sent to the aid of the split-in-half Fort Mercer and to the Pendleton’s bow, with heroic, but mixed results.

The Pendleton’s bottom half was left to Webber’s indistinctly named CG36500 boat and the ragtag group the 24-year-old skipper had quickly recruited.

These days, the Coast Guard would likely send a helicopter, not a boat whose very assignment to the large rescue violated the Guard’s safety precautions.

Back in the post-World War II era, the Guard had an unofficial motto: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”

“They kind of lived by that in those days,” Tougias said. “Today, they would never send a small boat out into conditions like that. They would be more pragmatic. They’d do risk analysis.”

Storm chasers

Fitz was still pretty much riding out his boredom when he and his fellow crew were walking in a snowstorm on their way to the CG36500, without benefit of proper rain gear. The 20-year-old hadn’t yet thought much about having to cross the ominous Chadham Bar.

“It was very difficult to get over,” Fitzgerald said of the Chadham, a stretch of the Atlantic that had become legendary in maritime New England. “Fishing boats would flip over and people would die, and that would be on pretty good days.”

An old fisherman warned the four guardsmen to turn back as they prepared to disembark into the haze of dark skies, heavy snow, chilly temperatures, high winds and towering waves.

“Why don’t you go out a little ways and just get lost?”

Now Fitz was starting to get a little bit leery.

In what might have looked like another omen, one of the first waves to hit the CG36500 turned the tiny boat around into a near-180. The rescue craft was suddenly pointing back in the direction of the more comforting shoreline.

“Bernie was kind of tempted, I think, to go back to the fish pier,” Fitzgerald said. “But he turned it around and went back into the waves again.”

A second round blew out the vessel’s protective windshield and threw its mounted compass into the sea. Webber kept his ear glued to the radio, half expecting to hear orders to head back for shore. The orders never came.

With little opportunity to recover from the previous towers of salt water, yet another giant wave spun the CG36500 around again, but this time, it also knocked out the engine’s power.

Enginemen Fitz crawled into the tiny engine room and somehow managed to restart the 90-horsepower machine before the increasingly vulnerable boat could capsize.

The CG36500 was on its way again, but to where?

“We didn’t know where the tanker was and we didn’t know if there was anybody on it, either, but we were over the bar by now so we were looking around for it,” Fitzgerald said.

By luck, instinct or some combination, the boat somehow stumbled onto the Pendleton’s stern. Almost immediately, survivors began climbing down a rope ladder, some jumping directly onto the lifeboat. Fitz helped catch and guide others onto the crowded vessel.

“It looked a lot safer on the tanker than it did in the rescue boat,” Fitzgerald recalled.

By the time some 20 survivors were on board, the CG36500 was starting to flounder and take water. Thirteen “souls” were still eagerly awaiting rescue onto the weather-beaten boat designed for 12 people.

Webber briefly toyed with the idea of taking the survivors back in two trips — but the thought of crossing through the Chatham Bar again and the possibility that the stern would sink in the meantime quickly turned the rescue into an all-or-nothing proposition.

Only one of the 33 seamen on board the Pendleton’s stern didn’t make the jump successfully. It was George “Tiny” Myers — said to weigh 350 pounds — who tragically dropped into the cold, stormy seas.

“He grabbed onto the line, but his eyes were closed,” Fitzgerald remembered. “I leaned over and said ‘Come over here. We’ve got people who can help you.’ But he never moved. I didn’t see him fall off the rope, but all of a sudden, he wasn’t there.”

Tiny may have had a heart attack. Some think the waves flung him into the tanker’s steel hull and killed him instantly. Others say he got trapped between the tanker and the rescue boat.

It was dark.

“I can’t think of anything we could have done any different to save Tiny,” Fitzgerald said.

The “all or nothing” decision turned out to be the prudent one. Minutes after the last man boarded the rescue boat, the Pendleton’s stern rolled onto its side.

Webber quickly grabbed the CG36500's wheel. The moving boat was sluggish and in constant danger of capsizing due to overload.

Still, the crew somehow made it back over the dreaded Chatham Bar and to the safety of the fishing pier it had launched from about four hours earlier.

“Bernie was getting all sorts of advice from his superiors on the radio,” Tougias said. “In fact, one said, don’t head towards the shore, try to find a big cutter that’s out there. Bernie was getting so much advice, he turned the radio off. He almost got in trouble for that.”

Land ahoy

The waters have changed for Andy Fitzgerald.

Nearly six decades after participating in the Pendleton rescue, the 78-year-old Centennial resident is finally talking about one of the military’s most daring stateside survival tales.

“The Finest Hours” has attracted press attention to the soft-spoken retiree, who has usually been too humble to discuss his role in what has been called the greatest story in the Coast Guard annals.

Fitzgerald’s home office now doubles as his “Coast Guard room” full of news clippings, photos, paintings of the Pendleton rescue and his Gold Lifesaving Medal, the highest military honor that can be earned in a noncombat theater.

The Colorado transplant is one of only two principals of the story who lived to see “The Finest Hours” published. The other is tanker survivor Charlie Bridges of Florida. Webber was interviewed for the book, but died earlier this year.

The CG36500 has since been restored. Fitzgerald has traveled back to Massachusetts for a less stressful pleasure ride on the lifeboat. The Coast Guard has ventured to place 36 men on the restored craft for old time’s sake, but has thus far been unable to do so.

Fitzgerald has experienced a more personal trauma since moving to Arapahoe County in 1979 to open a sales office. His youngest daughter, while still in high school, died tragically when a train struck her car.

If nothing else, the former guardsmen’s experience in the Pendleton rescue has reminded him of his own resilience skills, though nothing, he says, can possibly ease the pain of losing a child.

“Sometimes I think, I don’t know if I can do this or that,” Fitzgerald said of life in general. “But then I’ll say, let’s try it and see what happens. I’m thinking that might have gone all the way back to that Coast Guard incident.”





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