Saturday Events Mark 65th Anniversary Of 'Finest Hours' Rescue

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Local History , Coast Guard

Townspeople line the dock at the Chatham Fish Pier as Bernie Webber and his crew bring survivors of the Pendleton safely ashore on Feb. 18, 1952. RICHARD C. KELSEY PHOTO

The “heartwarming and inspiring” story of the 1952 rescue of 32 sailors from the Pendleton, the tanker that broke in two off Cape Cod during a vicious northeaster, represents Chatham’s community spirit at its finest, says Danielle Jeanloz, executive director of the Chatham Historical Society (CHS).

“Rarely does a community have a chance to rally like that and have such success,” Jeanloz said Monday. The story “resonates with people in and outside of our community.”

This Saturday, Feb. 18, on the 65th anniversary of the rescue, the CHS will host a special screening of a short documentary film featuring several residents who gathered two summers ago to reminisce about that night; it was put together especially for the historical society by the producers of the 2016 film “The Finest Hours.” It will be followed by a panel discussion of Chatham residents now mainly in their 70s and 80s who remember that night.

“The Finest Hours” is the big-budget Disney film shot partly in Chatham that tells the story of the incident, still considered the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history. The film is based on the bestselling book “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue” (Scribner, 2009) by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman. The book tells the story of the heroic rescue the Coast Guard performed when not one but two tankers, the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer, broke up on the same day.

When the Pendleton split in half seven men were trapped on the bow and 33 men on the stern. (The seven men on the bow perished.) At the Chatham Coast Guard Station, Bernard C. Webber, a young Coast Guard coxswain, was ordered to pick a crew to rescue the men on the stern. The four men took off in the pitch dark from the Chatham Fish Pier on what seemed like a suicide mission. They had no radar, no GPS. Sixty-foot waves were cresting on the Chatham Bars; one wave burst through the windshield and washed away the compass. When CG36500 reached the Pendleton, sailors tossed a Jacob’s ladder over the side of the ship and the men descended into the rescue boat, which had an official capacity of 12. With the addition of each man, CG36500 sank lower in the water. One sailor was lost, crushed between CG36500 and the Pendleton.

Finally, with 32 rescued sailors and four crew members crammed onto a 12-man boat, Webber headed back to Chatham. Townspeople greeted the cold and wet survivors at the fish pier. At the Coast Guard station they were treated for hypothermia and fed. Webber and his crew later received the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal. Webber died in 2009.

Local people remembering that dramatic night will include Richard Ryder, his brother Bob and sister Nancy Petrus, Don St. Pierre, Steve Nickerson and Benjamin T. Nickerson.

Richard Ryder, 77, was 12 years old and home from school with the flu that day in 1952. In the evening his parents, two brothers and sister all headed out to the Chatham Fish Pier to await the arrival of CG36500.

“My mother said, ‘if you can’t go to school, you’re not going to the fish pier,’” Ryder recalled in a telephone interview Monday.

Ryder is a 10th generation Chatham native. His grandfather Richard E. Ryder was a surfman in the Life-Saving Service – the precursor to the Coast Guard – in 1905 and eventually became Officer in Charge at Old Harbor.

“These are tough people,” Ryder said of those who risk their own lives to rescue others at sea.

One person unable to participate in the panel discussion is Webber’s daughter Patricia Hamilton of Eastham. On Feb. 17 she plans to attend the dedication of a new building named for her father at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center at Cape May, N.J., Jeanloz said.

St. Pierre, 76, now a CHS volunteer, entered the Pendleton story 36 years ago when he and a group of volunteers restored CG36500. Today, St. Pierre and Ryder are the coxswains of CG36500.

“The boat does not move without either Dick or myself in the boat,” St. Pierre said. Each fall the CG36500 travels from its warm-weather home in Orleans’s Rock Harbor back to wherever the volunteers maintain the 70-plus-year-old wooden boat over the winter—this year the boathouse at the Chatham Coast Guard Station. St. Pierre is proud that a new generation of Cape Codders is learning about the Pendleton rescue. He tells the students who visit the Pendleton exhibit that he designed in 2015 at the CHS – which features a mock up of the CG36500 cabin to demonstrate its small size – that the Pendleton is a part of their heritage. “That really pleases me,” he added.

Also on hand will be Ben Nickerson, who as a high school senior drove wet survivors from the fish pier to the Coast Guard station in a borrowed station wagon. Jim Penn, co-owner of Puritan Cape Cod, which provided dry clothing to the survivors that night, will also be on hand.

During the panel discussion “people will get an idea of what Chatham was like in 1952,” Ryder said.

The town had “a spirit we truly value,” Jeanloz said. “That’s what draws people to Chatham even to this day.”

The Orleans Historical Society, which owns the CG36500, and representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard will begin the event with a tribute to those who were lost.

The 65th anniversary of the Rescue of the Pendleton will be held at the Atwood House Museum, 347 Stage Harbor Rd., from 3 to 5 p.m. Tickets are $25 with proceeds going to the museum. To RSVP, email atwoodmuseumevents@gmail.com. For more information call the museum at 508-945-2493 or visit www.chathamhistoricalsociety.org.