For many people, the tale of the Pendleton rescue is the stuff of big-budget feature films; for others, it's the story of the greatest small-boat rescue in the history of the Coast Guard. But for Renee Pellegrino of Maryville, Ill., it's part of family lore.
Pellegrino recently made a 1,000-mile pilgrimage to the Cape to honor her father, the late Raymond Steele, who was one of the 32 men rescued from the stern section of the stricken tanker. In February 1952, Steele was an able-bodied seaman on the Pendleton, which split in two off Chatham in a blizzard.
Retracing her father's footsteps meant imagining how it felt to climb down a 40-foot Jacob's ladder in towering seas and blinding snow, toward an unlikely rescue by the crew of the tiny CG36500 below.
“My dad was the first one down the ladder to test the strength of it,” she said. The rope ladder was missing several of its wooden steps and was in a questionable state when it was put over the side, she said. Steele made his way to the bottom, being alternately dunked the icy seawater and hauled high in the air by the surging tanker. After having been slammed against the Pendleton's steel hull three times, Steele made his leap of faith to the rescuers below and was saved.
“From that point on, he helped with the rescue,” Pellegrino said. In the famous Richard Kelsey photo of the CG36500 approaching the Chatham Fish Pier after the rescue, Pellegrino points out a man in a black slicker up on the bow.
“Everybody assumes that is one of the crew members, but it wasn't. It was my dad,” she said.
While the Coast Guardsmen are remembered for their heroism, the men aboard the Pendleton displayed extraordinary strength and courage. Those on the stern of the boat rode out the blizzard for 14 hours, never knowing if help was on the way. Surviving on boiled eggs and coffee, the men battled for their lives, working to keep power going to the ship's engine. The men aboard the severed bow of the tanker all perished in the disaster.
Pellegrino was just 18 months old at the time of the rescue, living in New Orleans–just downriver from Baton Rouge, where the Pendleton began its final journey.
“After the shipwreck, he didn't go back to sea,” Pellegrino said. “He was happy to be alive.” She remembers the metal box where her father kept the newspaper clippings from the rescue, and he'd occasionally tell the story to her and her three siblings. “He was a great storyteller,” she said. The kids would call their father a hero for his actions that night, but Steele always corrected them.
“He never claimed to be a hero. In fact, he had so much respect for the Coast Guard,” she said. “He'd say, 'They didn't have to come.'” While the unofficial Coast Guard motto states that rescuers have to go out, but they don't have to come back, the reality was different. On the night of the rescue, well-respected Chatham fisherman John Stello advised Coast Guardsman Bernie Webber that, in light of the conditions on the bar, he and his crew had better “get lost” before they put themselves in danger.
Of course, Webber rejected that advice and he and Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey and Ervin Maske rescued all but one man from the stern section of the tanker. They earned the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal for their heroism. It's a story well known on the Lower Cape.
“Chatham recognizes and memorializes the rescue because of the Coasties, but my family was raised on the story of the wreck,” Pellegrino said. And it was a story that largely remained in her family. When she moved to Illinois, she didn't even tell her neighbors about her father's place in maritime history.
That all changed when the Disney film “The Finest Hours” debuted last year. Pellegrino saw the movie in the local theater, at first chuckling at all of the special effects and larger-than-life characters.
“I was disappointed at first because it was too 'Hollywood,'” she said. But she saw it a second and a third time, liking it more with each viewing. It was time the neighbors found out.
“All my neighborhood, we made them all go to the show with us,” Pellegrino said with a laugh. She and her husband, Joe, came to another conclusion “We needed to go to Chatham. A 'bucket list' thing,” she said.
Pellegrino called the Coast Guard station and asked for a tour.
“That was the only appointment I made,” she said. The Coast Guard put her in touch with CG36500 coxswain Don St. Pierre and other volunteers with the Orleans Historical Society, which operates the boat as a floating museum. They arranged for Pellegrino to meet Pattie Hamilton, Bernie Webber's daughter.
“Pattie and I will be friends forever,” Pellegrino said.
On a bright Sunday morning, Pellegrino and her husband, along with their oldest son, Tony, boarded the CG36500 at Rock Harbor and had a special cruise around the bay.
“It was awesome,” she said. “It was beautiful and crystal clear and chilly. Donnie took us out away from the dock and he let me steer.” She was moved by the experience, and was reminded how small and seemingly fragile the old wooden rescue boat was.
Pellegrino said she's happy about the friends she's made in Chatham and Orleans, but she's even happier that the story of the Pendleton, its survivors and their rescuers, is being kept alive.
“This story needed to be told,” she said. “It took the movie for this number of people to finally see it for the historic bravery that it was,” she added. “It makes me so proud for my dad.”