ORLEANS – As Maria DeOliveira stared into the hold behind the bow of the US Coast Guard vessel 36500 from its berth at Rock Harbor, she couldn’t hold back her quiet tears. It was aboard this very boat that her father, Aguinol B. DeOliveira, was rescued along with 31 fellow survivors of the famous Pendleton wreck in 1952.
Until 2016, DeOliveira, who lives in Dorchester, had no idea the boat was still in existence, let alone on the water in Orleans, information she learned while trying to discover just what had happened to her father and his shipmates.
Aguinol DeOliveira was one of two cooks on board the ill-fated Pendleton, which sheared in two during a massive storm off the coast of Chatham on Feb. 18, 1952. It wasn’t something he spoke of much, leaving his daughter to assume that he’d simply been in a boat accident that he didn’t like to talk about.
After her father’s passing when DeOliveira was 18, her curiosity regarding his boat accident piqued. Then a family member read the book “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue” by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, later the inspiration for the film “The Finest Hours.”
The book recounted the night when both the Pendleton and a sister ship, the SS Fort Mercer, broke apart in similar ways during a punishing storm that lashed the New England coast. While crews worked at trying to rescue those aboard the Fort Mercer, it was soon learned that the Pendleton was in similar trouble. With no other crews available to help, coxswain Bernard C. Webber and enlisted Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard P. Livese, and Ervin E. Mask as a crew, fired up the 36500 and set out across the notorious chop of the Chatham Bars, bound for the stern section of the Pendleton, ultimately rescuing 32 men with a boat better suited for a dozen.
“Right before the movie came out, my brother-in-law, who is former Coast Guard, had read the book ‘The Finest Hours’ and saw our father’s name in the book,” DeOliveira said, adding that she and her siblings went as a family to see the film, unaware of the incredible drama of the night her father was saved.
“When I was growing up, he didn’t really talk about it much,” DeOliveira said. “We knew that there was a boat incident. I thought it was a boat crash.”
The film and book inspired DeOliveira to do further investigating, leading her to Fitzgerald, living at the time in Colorado, where DeOliveira traveled to meet him. It was during their visit that she learned that not only was the 36500 still around, but it was also still on the water.
Armed with new information courtesy of her visit with Fitzgerald, DeOliveira reached out to Johnny Sinopoli, volunteer crew for the 36500, and Richard Ryder, coxswain and operations manager for the vessel, to learn more about the historic rescue mission so many years ago.
“They offered us the opportunity to come out here,” DeOliveira said.
Sinopoli recalled chatting with DeOliveira about her visit.
“Her cousin came to the boat a couple years ago,” he said. “Then, Maria was talking to a person on an elevator at work, who told her she was heading out to a special event for her grandfather, who, as it turned out, was Mel Guthro, one of the men that was supposed to go out that night.”
Instead, a different person went out on the 36500, Andy Fitzgerald, with whom DeOliveira had a memorable visit. Sinopoli explained that during a phone conversation with DeOliveira, she expressed her wish to come and see the boat.
“I could tell of her desire to see the vessel that saved her dad’s life, and just said, ‘We’ll have to do that,’” Sinopoli said. “But as COVID entered the picture we were trying to make sense of what would be safe and reasonable to get her on the boat. We did some measuring and found that we could put three people on the boat and keep them separated.”
So, on July 9, accompanied by her daughter, Jacqueline Painten, and boyfriend Julian Vigil, DeOliveira traveled to the Cape and down to the dock at Rock Harbor where, for the first time, she laid eyes on the boat on which her father had been rescued so many years ago.
It was a lot to take in, DeOliveira’s tears falling quietly as she did her best to imagine 32 men, plus the crew, all crammed together on the 36500. She stood at the wheel, peering out through the narrow window glass, then looked into the hold before reading a poster board with photos and information about the incident.
“It’s very, very emotional,” DeOliveira said. “There are so many emotions, I can’t even describe them. I really am grateful that people have kept the boat up and that it’s still here. Those men were heroic. I said to [Mr. Fitzgerald that] their courage led to our destiny. It’s the truth.”
With longtime 36500 volunteer and coxswain Don St. Pierre trading piloting duties with Ryder, DeOliveira, Painten, and Vigil were treated to a short sojourn out of Rock Harbor and along the coast to Skaket before returning to the dock. For DeOliveira, the trip was priceless.
“I always wanted to know the story,” she said. “I never fully knew what my dad and the other men had been through, so to be able to be on this boat – as my daughter said, if it wasn’t for this boat, she and I would not be alive today – I just kind of feel like I’m with my dad. It’s a piece of my dad I didn’t know about.”
St. Pierre said that along with the trip past Skaket, they also took DeOliveira and her family to the Atwood House to see the Pendleton display, to the fish pier where the 36500 brought its precious cargo that night, and to Coast Guard Station Chatham to see the monument with the original propeller.
Sinopoli said that visits like DeOliveira’s are the main reason volunteers work tirelessly to keep the 36500 afloat and on the Cape.
“We were just thrilled to bring her out,” he said. “There’s some sort of a feeling you get when you go on that boat.”
DeOliveira said that instead of feeling claustrophobic when looking into the hold or concerned about being on the water in an ancient boat, she felt peaceful.
“She really felt a sense… of something there,” Sinopoli said. “When you count all of us, there are probably 26 or so people involved in taking care of the boat. Many of them have met survivors’ children and say, ‘This is what we do it for.’ To preserve the memory of the guardsmen who were so brave that night, and also to ease the fears and sadness of their loved ones.”
For DeOliveira, it was everything.
“Mr. Fitzgerald told me that miracles do happen, and this is living proof that they do,” she said. “My dad was my hero anyway, but this just kind of solidifies all of that.”