ORLEANS — Capt. John J. Fitzgerald, like the rest of the men on the bow section of the ill-fated tanker Pendleton, never made it to safety aboard the famous Coast Guard rescue boat CG36500 in that blizzard in 1952. But more than 66 years later, his grandson Matt got to climb aboard, learning about the famous rescue and putting context to some of his own family history.
“If I had to sum it up in one word I would choose ‘surreal,’” he said. “It was a really amazing experience.”
On Sept. 9, Fitzgerald had a brief trip on the rescue boat, which is owned by the Orleans Historical Society. Volunteer Richard Ryder arranged the visit.
“I am sincerely grateful for the opportunity and appreciate Dick Ryder for answering my email when I asked if I could go out on the boat,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “I have known since I was a little kid that my grandfather was a captain of a ship that cracked in half and went down off the Cape, but didn't know the details of [the] absolutely heroic and amazing Coast Guard rescue until I read 'The Finest Hours.'”
The trip included a surprise. On the boat was Pattie Hamilton, the daughter of Bernie Webber, the coxswain of the four-man rescue team, and Webber’s granddaughter, Leah.
“That was something unexpected and so special. Knowing that their father/grandfather and my grandfather were two great men that did everything for the crew of the Pendleton and that it brought the three of us together - that is something I'll always remember and treasure for the rest of my life,” he wrote.
The Pendleton was one of two tankers that split in half off Chatham on Feb. 18, 1952. Station Chatham’s primary rescue boat crew was dispatched to the other tanker, the Fort Mercer, and the CG36500 was sent to the aid of the Pendleton, with an improvised crew that included Webber, Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey and Ervin Maske. The rescue boat came upon the tanker’s stern section, and its crew executed the most famous small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history by taking aboard 32 survivors and shuttling them to shore against all odds.
The bow section of the tanker, which was without lights, heat or the ability to maneuver, drifted miles away from the stern. Aboard was Capt. John J. Fitzgerald, the master; the chief, second and third mates; the radio operator and three seamen. The rescue boat CG36383, with Chief Donald Bangs in command, was diverted from the Fort Mercer to the bow section of the Pendleton, and arrived and circled the hulk twice, blasting its horn repeatedly, but saw no signs of life.
Around an hour later, the crew of the nearby Pollock Rip Lightship reported spotting a light on the Pendleton bow, and the Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch arrived shortly thereafter to investigate. The crew “confirmed that there was life on board and directed the CG36383 to return to the bow section,” the official Coast Guard incident report reads. When the rescue boat returned a little more than an hour later, the crew spotted one man on the starboard wing of the Pendleton’s bridge.
“At this time the wind was blowing 50 to 60mph and the sea was very rough, breaking over a good part of the bridge of the Pendleton as well as the section between the bow and the bridge,” the report reads. While the McCulloch pumped oil overboard in a bid to calm the waters, the CG36383 made another approach, but as it did so, the figure on the bridge either jumped or was washed overboard by a large wave. The rescue boat tried and failed to reach the man, who was lost in the darkness.
“An intensive search of the vicinity was made by the CG36383 and the McCulloch, but the body was not recovered and the identity of this man cannot be established,” the report concluded. The Coast Guard repeatedly tried to board the bow section of the Pendleton, but was hampered by weather. Eventually, the crew of a salvage tug was able to get aboard, and found the remains of one man, Seaman Herman Gatlin. The remains of the remainder of the crew, including Capt. Fitzgerald, were never recovered.
For his grandson, seeing the restored CG36500 was a meaningful experience and a link to a tragic chapter in his family history.
“It was a great connection to my grandfather in a unique way that I had never envisioned before,” Matt Fitzgerald wrote.
He thanked Ryder, Hamilton, David and Marcia Bromley, “and the other caretakers [who] care so much for the boat and the story. Their passion is what makes the history of the boat come alive for me.”
The Orleans Historical Society drew fire last month when it became known that some members were considering a plan to relocate the boat to Washington, D.C., or another off-Cape venue. But Fitzgerald said he appreciated being able to climb aboard the boat and talk to the preservationists who restored it.
“I hope everyone who seeks out this piece of history gets the opportunity to meet them and experience their energy and dedication when visiting the CG36500,” he said.