By chance, Don St. Pierre of Chatham and his long-time friend Pete Norgeot of Orleans discovered that they were both involved with what has been seen as a footnote to history.
Their story revolves around the rescue boat CG36383, a twin to the famous CG36500 that played a heroic role in the rescue of 32 men from the stern of the ill-fated ship Pendleton. The Pendleton broke in half off Chatham during a bitter nor'easter on Feb. 18, 1952.
“It’s the forgotten boat,” St. Pierre says of the CG36383.
St. Pierre and Norgeot, both 77, met up at a Harwich High School reunion last August. Norgeot is a retired Yarmouth firefighter and paramedic, and St. Pierre ran Chatham Citgo with his brother Norman for nearly 50 years. Their conversation at the reunion meandered to the Pendleton rescue, and both realized they had a tie to the CG36383.
Due to the bestseller “The Finest Hours” and the 2016 Disney film of the same name, the story of the Pendleton rescue is a familiar one. As darkness fell on Feb. 18, a three-man crew under the direction of boatswain's mate Bernard Webber motored out in the CG36500 through a raging storm to the ship. Webber and his crew saved 32 men from the Pendleton’s stern. The CG36500 has been restored and now belongs to the Orleans Historical Society.
The lesser-known part of the Coast Guard’s rescue efforts on that fateful day revolves around the CG36383.
At about noon, Coast Guard Chief Donald Bangs and his three-man crew were sent out from Stage Harbor, where CG36383 was moored, to help with the rescue mission on the Fort Mercer, which had also broken up in the storm. But when the CG36383 crew reached the Pollock Rip Lightship at 4 p.m., they were initially told to go back toward Chatham where two objects had been seen on radar. On the way back, the crew spotted the bow of the Pendleton in the 40-foot seas but saw no sign of life – although seven men were trapped there. Unable to return to Chatham, they later received word that someone had seen a man flashing lights on the Pendleton’s bow, and the CG36383 revisited it at 6 p.m., according to a 1952 report from Chatham Lifeboat Station obtained by St. Pierre. This time they attempted to rescue a man who jumped from the bow but fell into the water. After a lengthy search, the CG36383 tied to the stern of the lightship where it remained until 6:30 the following morning. The crew arrived back at Stage Harbor at 10:45 a.m. after being out for a full 22 hours “in storm-tossed seas” aboard the unheated lifeboat.
While the CG36500 was decommissioned in 1968, most of the other lifeboats were destroyed, according to “The Finest Hours” authors Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman. But somehow, after 1952 but before 1954, the CG36383 ended up in the possession of Harwich Sea Scout Ship 76. In 1954, 14-year-old St. Pierre was a member of the group.
“I learned how to run a boat,” St. Pierre recalled recently of his time with the Scouts. St. Pierre, who has been involved with the restoration of CG36500, believes, in fact, that he may be the sole person alive today who has run both the CG36500 and the CG36383.
After the Sea Scouts finished with the CG36383, it became derelict and sat in Wychmere Harbor for years until it sank on its mooring. At that time—this was about 1961 or 1962—Norgeot worked at Harwich Port Boat Works as a mechanic. Looking out the window one day, he noticed the CG36383 was no longer there.
“Somebody had sunk it, sunk it deliberately,” Norgeot says. He called in the Coast Guard and, with another volunteer firefighter, dove to find the boat, which the Coast Guard then towed to the boat yard. Norgeot acquired the boat for a $125 donation to the Scouts and went to work making it seaworthy. He ended up fishing for cod and sightseeing in the boat. “We put it to some really good use,” he says.
But here’s the funny thing—Norgeot had no idea that the boat had had a role in the Pendleton rescue. In the early 1960s he was a newlywed, and “we didn’t have any money at all,” he remembers. “The boat had to go.” Norgeot sold it to an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute named Dean F. Bumpus. (Bumpus later became famous for mapping ocean currents by tracing bottles with notes in them tossed into the ocean all over the globe.) Norgeot eventually heard that the CG36383 sank while Bumpus owned it. It remains unclear whether Bumpus pulled the boat up; he died in 2002.
Norgeot read “The Finest Hours” when it came out in 2009, and noted the number CG36383. It had a familiar ring to it. He remembered seeing the number engraved on the bulkhead of the boat he had owned nearly 50 years earlier. “That’s when I started looking,” he says. “I researched Boy Scout and Coast Guard records—no one can track how the boat got to the Sea Scouts.”
Today, Norgeot has a tinge of regret that he sold the boat.
“I kept kicking myself,” he says. Had he known its history, “I probably would have kept the boat.”