CHATHAM — Until about a decade ago, Andrew Fitzgerald, Jr., was known to most of his family and friends only as a loving man with a keen wit, a retired sales engineer, a volunteer at his church and an avid football fan. And way back in his youth, he had been in the United States Coast Guard.
What they didn’t know was Mr. Fitzgerald’s role in the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history. He was the last surviving member of the Gold Medal Lifeboat Crew of the CG36500, which rescued 32 men from the stern section of the stricken tanker Pendleton in 1952, but never spoke of the event.
Mr. Fitzgerald died last Thursday near his home in Colorado at age 87, having finally shared his story with his loved ones, and through books and a feature film, with the world.
“My memories of my uncle are of a humble family man who worked hard and had such a kind heart,” niece Erin Ruggieri told The Chronicle. “He always had this very funny, dry sense of humor. My dad looked up to him tremendously throughout their lives.” But his role in the Pendleton rescue was something he didn’t share.
“My dad – his only brother – never knew about it until one day my uncle Andy called him to watch the History Channel because he was going to be on it,” Ruggieri said. The whole family tuned in and learned about the rescue together.
Two oil tankers split in two in a fierce blizzard on Feb. 18, 1952, and Coast Guard coxswain Bernie Webber was told to assemble a crew of three other men to head to the Pendleton, on what was seen by some as a suicide mission. Three men at the station volunteered: Ervin Maske, Richard Livesey and Mr. Fitzgerald, and they picked their way through monstrous surf before coming upon the drifting hulk.
“Another great wave hit and laid the lifeboat far over on its side,” Webber wrote in his own account of the rescue. “The engine stopped. Evidently, the severe thrashing we were subjected to and the acute angle placed on the little vessel caused the engine to lose its prime of gasoline.”
Engineman Fitzgerald would crawl into the CG36500’s tiny engine compartment each time the engine stalled, and found a way to restart it. Being without propulsion even for a few seconds put the rescue boat in severe danger of capsizing.
“It was no easy task for Andrew to get into the compartment of the wildly tossing boat. He suffered many bruises and burns during his efforts,” Webber wrote.
One by one, they took 32 men off the pitching stern of the Pendleton. Only one of the tanker’s crewmen died in the rescue attempt when he was pinned between the rescue boat and the tanker by a large wave.
Even after Mr. Fitzgerald’s family learned of his role in the rescue, he didn’t make much mention of it.
“He really only spoke of it when one of us brought it up in conversation, and was saying he was doing his job that day,” Ruggieri said. “I remember my uncle told me that he still thought about the one man they couldn’t bring home.”
The remarkable rescue earned the four men the Coast Guard Lifesaving Medal, and was the subject of several books, and in 2016, the Disney feature film “The Finest Hours.”
“I believe he was honored and humbled by all of the attention as a result of the movie, and that it was very well done. He talked about being involved in consulting for some of the action scenes, and he loved that,” Ruggieri said.