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Description: tanker; steel
Date Sunk: February 18, 1952
Pendleton arrived off Boston late in the evening of February 17, 1952, five days out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Progressively worsening weather delayed the tanker 2 days and now poor visibility and a rising gale convinced Captain John J. Fitzgerald to further delay his arrival. Setting a course of approximately 075o True, Pendleton stood off the shore at slow speed to await more favorable weather.
Conditions, however, deteriorated and by midnight an East-Northeasterly gale was blowing, attended by heavy snow and seas 60 to 70 feet in height. At 05:40 the next morning, the vessel took a heavy lurch accompanied by a loud explosive sound. Another lurch and a still louder sound racked Pendleton before the tanker broke in two between number seven and eight cargo holds, trapping eight men on the bow and thirty-three men on the stern.
Fireman Frank Fateaux, on watch in the boiler room, reported that a large wave hit the vessel. As it rolled from the impact, a second wave struck near amidships before the vessel split in two. Fred Brown of Portland, Maine, reported the noise was "like the tearing of a large piece of tin. It's a noise that sends shivers up and down the spine and jangles every nerve." Carol Kilgore, also of Portland, was awakened by the noise. Dressing hurriedly he ran up on deck as fast as he could. "When I got there", Kilgore said, "I couldn't believe my eyes. The bow was gone."
The tanker had been riding well for 15 hours before she broke. "She sort of raised up and trembled", said Chief Engineer Raymond L. Sybert, "There was a loud noise. I ran into the engine room and on the way down I heard a terrific noise like an explosion. The vessel rolled hard and there was a severe list to port." Sybert signaled all hands into the engine room and a crewman with a flashlight was sent to try to reach the bridge. He reported there was a gap of water and thought the ship had separated. Sybert stopped the engines and went to have a look, but couldn't see the bow. He then ordered all watertight doors closed, except those between the fire and engine rooms.
No distress signal was dispatched from the bow, where the radio room was located likely due to the fact that circuit breakers to the forward part of the ship kicked out at the time of the break. Capt. Fitzgerald was at the helm when the tanker split. "He was the best skipper anyone could want to work under. Whatever it was that happened, no one can blame Captain Fitzgerald," a crewman later stated.
With no way to communicate with the bridge, Chief Engineer Sybert took command. They were not in a sinking condition, the bulkheads were holding, they had power and the half-ship could be steered from an emergency rudder control in the stern. Sybert assigned watch details, which included lookouts at each end of the boat deck. With the vessel drifting in a southeasterly direction, the crew sighted the beach at about 2:00 PM.
Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials had their hands full. Earlier that day another T2 tanker, the Fort Mercer, broke in two thirty miles southeast of Chatham. Distress calls were dispatched and Coast Guard vessels conducted rescue operations. As it was a navigational hazard, Fort Mercer's bow was eventually sunk and the tanker's stern towed to Block Island. At approximately 2:55 PM, radar operators at the Chatham Lifeboat Station reported two objects on their screen. At 3:00PM a momentary improvement in visibility allowed lookouts at the Station to sight the bow of a tanker, the identity of which was still unknown. It wasn't until 4:00PM that an aircraft involved in rescue operations of the Fort Mercer, flew low enough to read Pendleton's name.
Aboard Pendleton, the crew listened to reports of the Fort Mercer rescue on a portable radio, but they weren't sure if anyone knew what was happening to them. As a result of this, and fearing his ship might breakup in the thundering surf, Chief Sybert opted not to try to run the tanker's stern aground on the outer Cape. Whenever the tanker came close to land, Sybert ordered the propeller turned slow astern, keeping his vessel offshore where seas were more moderate, thus protecting the vessels weakened bulkheads. At the Chatham Station, the Officer-in-Charge reported to the Search and Rescue Center that Pendleton was drifting rapidly to the southward and the situation on the stern section was critical. It was drifting directly for the Chatham bar, "where it would be in danger of capsizing with the loss of all on board".
Shortly before 6:00 PM, a thirty-six foot motor lifeboat CG-36500, under the command of Bernard C. Webber and manned by Andrew J. Fitzgerald, Edward B. Massey and Richard P. Livesey, departed the Chatham Lifeboat Station. Everything was fine until they hit Chatham Bar where the situation turned critical. "When we hit the bar I thought we smashed up," said Bernard Webber. "The other men were knocked to the deck time after time. I thought several times I had lost my whole crew. They looked like goner's but they managed to hold on."
Meanwhile, Chief Sybert ordered Pendleton's engines engaged in order to miss the bar. However, when Sybert learned from a radio news report that a motor lifeboat was on its way, the engines were secured to await rescue. "We waited all day for rescue," Frank Fateaux reported. "We hoped for the best but our spirits were pretty low until we saw a glorious sight. It was the light of a single light bobbing up and down in the rolling sea…we watched spellbound."
By little more than dead reckoning, his compass having gone overboard crossing the bar, Bernard C. Webber navigated his tiny lifeboat through 40-foot seas up to Pendleton's stern. Considered an extraordinary feat of seamanship in such conditions, the mission has gone down as one of the most heroic rescues in the annals of the United States Coast Guard. The four crewmen of CG-36500 were later awarded the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal (comparable to the Congressional Medal of Honor) for their selfless heroism in the rescue of Pendleton's survivors.
Thirty-two of the tanker's thirty-three stern survivors were rescued, only the ship's cook, ordinary Seaman George C. Meyers perished. West Virginian George Meyers was no "ordinary" seaman. Weighing in at 350 pounds he was affectionately called "Tiny" by his friends.
It was like a watery battle zone as red flares, dropped from circling aircraft, illuminated the scene. A rope "Jacobs" ladder was hung down the starboard side of the stern. The crew could climb down the ladder, but had to jump the last few feet as the next to bottom rung was missing. Meyers helped hand down half of his shipmates to the waiting Coast Guard lifeboat before the last three, including him, were forced to jump. He got on the lifeboat, but fell off as a wave caught the craft. Several men tried to pull Meyers aboard, but were unsuccessful due to his excessive weight and the violent tossing of the boat. Soon thereafter, another wave caught the lifeboat and crushed Meyers against the tanker's hull.
Pendleton's stern continued to drift in a Southerly direction before grounding off Monomy. There were no survivors from the tanker's bow. One by one-mountainous seas swept them from the vessel as rescuers watched helplessly, unable to work in close to the vessel due to shallow water and high seas. In the early evening hours of February 18th, Pendleton's bow grounded on Pollack Rip Shoal.
Constructed: in 1944 at Portland, Oregon by the Kaiser Company, Swan Island Yard.