Originally published by the Cape Cod Chronicle, February 10, 2018
In a couple weeks (but before my next column), it will be the anniversary of the rescue of the USS Pendleton survivors by the crew of the US Coast Guard motorized lifeboat CG36500. On the night of February 18, 1952, during a raging 70-knot nor’easter snowstorm, the crew of Coast Guardsmen (coxswain Bernard C. “Bernie” Webber, Andrew Fitzgerald, Ervin Maske and Richard Livesey) risked almost certain death to cross the Chatham Bar to rescue the crew off the stern half of a tanker that had broken apart in the storm. That afternoon, Bernie had driven to Orleans and from a high point on Mayo’s Duck Farm had seen the stern floating off Nauset Beach- he did not know If there could be any survivors. But still he went and the story of the bravery of that crew who returned to the Chatham Live-Saving Station with 32 survivors has become Cape Cod and Coast Guard history, regarded as the service’s greatest small boat rescue. The story has been told in books, museum exhibits, even a movie, but more importantly around here, it is told by those who lived here at the time and have memories of the event.
The story of the rescued crewmembers has been told as often. The nature of the lives of the men who served on the Pendleton meant they did not really know each other. They would show up at the dock in New Orleans and see what ships were looking for crews and sign up for one voyage. Most never met their crewmates before setting sail and when they returned at the end, they did not expect to see each other again. Even having survived the ordeal of the ship splitting in half and spending a whole day together not knowing if they were going to live (and drinking a lot of coffee and eating boiled eggs), once they were freed to return home after meeting with investigators in Boston, they went their own ways. Some returned to sea, some never stepped on a boat again, Some told their families about the wreck they survived, others did not. The daughter of one survivor says her father only had one communication related to the crew during the rest of his life, from the family of the one crewmember who did not survive. It has only been since the release of the movie that the families of the survivors have made their ways to Orleans to see the boat that rescued their loved one. We hope that with the internet making communication easier, we’ll discover more stories, a fascinating different side of the story that is legend on the Cape.
The other participant in the rescue was the Coast Guard motorized lifeboat CG36500. She went back to work the next day although she had a break later in the year when her gas engine was replaced with a better performing diesel one. Until being decommissioned in 1968, she had an active and glorious career with many rescues. None were as a dramatic as the Pendleton, but each one was just as important.
In 1968, the boat was donated to the Cape Cod National Seashore for a display at their Coast Guard exhibit in Eastham. This move was never completed because of a shortage of funds. The CG36500 was left to deteriorate until Bill Quinn and the Orleans Historical Society intervened, acquired ownership, and executed a comprehensive restoration with OHS volunteers (there have been several other restorations and nearly constant other work since then). During the summer, she is docked at Rock Harbor, where volunteers welcome aboard visitors to explore her. During the winter, she is docked at Nauset Marine East in Orleans; their staff takes good care of her. She stays in the water year round because as wooden boat, it is best to keep her always in the water or always dry; the danger lies in switching between the two. Due to the support of the Historical Society’s volunteers and supporters, the CG36500 continues to carry out her present mission; a floating museum dedicated to the memory of the life savers of Cape Cod, especially the crew that performed that amazing rescue of February 18, 1952.