Book Review: Two Tankers Down by Robert Frump

Topic & Content

Published in 2008, this is a history of the T2 tankers Fort Mercer and Pendleton, which split in half off the coast of Massachusetts during a storm in February of 1952. The narrative covers both the tanker disasters and subsequent rescue efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard. It is organized as follows:

1. Tanker Men14. Downward Bound
2. The Lifesavers15. Morning
3. Cold Steel16. More Orders
4. Discovery17. The Wishbone
5. Two Down18. Home
6. Certain Death19. Cleanup
7. Chaos and Order20. The Goading Slur
8. Ping-Pong21. Strange Waters
9. Orders22. The Thirty-Third Man
10. Stranded23. Fires on the Beach
11. The Bar24. Oldstyle
12. Aground25. “The Coldest Thing”
13. Waterfalls26. Bernie’s Boat

The Pendleton rescue has been immortalized in the book and film, The Finest Hours. Frump’s book covers the rescues of both the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer from a broader operational perspective. Additionally, the narrative continues after the rescues and addresses the subsequent investigation into the structural problems with the T2 tankers, Webber’s later career in the Coast Guard, and the fate of the motor lifeboat CG-36500.

Thesis

Frump’s straightforward purpose for writing this book was to report on the facts of the sinking and rescues of both the Fort Mercer and Pendleton tankers without any embellishment to the story.

Author’s Background

Robert Frump is an investigative journalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He studied journalism at the University of Illinois and Northwestern University. In addition to Two Tankers Down, he has also written the history books, The Man-Eaters of Eden and Until the Sea Shall Free Them.

Critical Observations

Positives

I read this book a few years ago and decided to re-read it so I could write a formal review on it. Also, I’ve read and reviewed The Finest Hours by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman (after I read this book), but have not read Bernie Webber’s memoir, Chatham: The Lifeboatmen.

From the get-go, it’s pretty clear that Robert Frump is a journalist. The writing itself is straightforward, clear, factual, and unpretentious. Given that Frump’s objective was to only write about the facts, he seems to have done a good job. He doesn’t fill the book with hyperbole or schmaltzy sentimentalism but keeps the writing focused on the facts and lets the drama speak for itself. Both the Pendleton and Fort Mercer rescues have earned their place in Coast Guard history as extraordinary search-and-rescue cases involving two ships of the same class that split in half within hours and miles of each other.

Far more attention has been paid to the heroism of Bernie Webber and his rescue of the crew on Pendleton‘s stern section. This is probably because it involved a small 36-foot motor lifeboat being crammed with 32 survivors in an event that echoes a David vs. Goliath-esque display of courage. Thankfully, Frump devotes an equal amount of coverage to the rescues involving Fort Mercer‘s broken bow and stern sections, as well. These rescues involved far more assets and coordination between cutters and life rafts which was equally as harrowing.

The crew of CG-36500 after the rescue of the Pendleton stern. (From left to right) Bernie Webber, Andy Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey, Ervin Maske.

In many ways, this book is also an interesting look into the culture of the Coast Guard in the 1950s. Indeed, the service was very different from what it is today. Many of the senior enlisted men and officers had served in WWII, and the United States was involved in the Korean War. In some ways, it seems as if the Coast Guard was struggling to maintain its own identity as a service unique from the Navy and redefine itself following WWII. In addition, there seemed to be something of a fatalistic mentality within the small boat community that demanded rescuers return with survivors, or not return at all. It’s the old Coast Guard adage of, “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back,” which is repeated throughout the book. Frump devotes significant discussion to the pressure that rescuers faced and the shame they would have to deal with if they failed to perform a successful rescue (never mind that mother nature is a cruel mistress and doesn’t go along with your plan). In fact, prior to his famous rescue of the Pendleton‘s stern section, Webber seemed to be haunted by a failed rescue attempt the previous year involving a fishing vessel.

Another interesting topic is the discussion of how Webber struggled with his status as a hero following the events of the Pendleton rescue. Webber became a poster boy for the Coast Guard, and with that fame came a mix of jealousy, hostility, and unrealistic expectations from others he served with. Webber retired from the Coast Guard as a Chief Warrant Officer with a Boatswain specialty after a 20-year career. One definitely gets the impression that Webber gradually became somewhat bitter and disillusioned with the changing culture of the Coast Guard after his rescue of the Pendleton and the fame attributed to him. Eventually, he retired following his tour in Vietnam. Frump attributes Webber’s frustrations to an unfriendly officer corps that only wanted to use Webber for publicity purposes and to advance their own careers. To add to that there are the unrealistic expectations that were heaped upon Webber for being a recipient of a Gold Lifesaving Medal.

In the afterword, Frump does note some discrepancies in the varying accounts of the rescues and attempts to reconcile what he believes is the most accurate version of the events.

Negatives

I don’t have too many issues with this book, but the ones I do have mostly boil down to a lack of details. While the rescues are well-documented and covered, the later lives of some of the participants are seemingly glossed over. For example, the rest of the crew of the 36500 (Richard Livesy, Ervin Maske, and Andrew Fitzgerald), as well as several of the crewmembers of the cutters that participated in the Fort Mercer rescue, also received Gold Lifesaving Medals, but little is mentioned of how their subsequent careers turned out. Only Bernie Webber’s later career is covered in any real detail. This book could probably be improved by more research into the later lives of other people involved in these events.

Within the text itself, there are some odd discrepancies in some of the details. For example, the designation of the motor lifeboat skippered by Chief Donald Bangs during his rescue is alternatively written as CG-36850 and CG-36580 at different places in the book. In contrast, Tougias and Sherman in their book consistently write that it was the CG-36383. As best as I can tell, it was probably the 36383 since Station Chatham is only mentioned as having two 36-foot motor lifeboats: the 36383 and 36500. I suspect that Frump got the numbers mixed up.

My only other gripe is that the endnotes become out of sync with the chapters following chapter 13. Furthermore, the endnotes aren’t the most detailed. They’re a bit sparse in some places so attributing specific pieces of information in the narrative can be difficult. Additionally, the endnotes only give the source but no page numbers as to where the information in the source came from.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

Overall, the writing in this book is very objective and Frump is careful to qualify when he’s veering into conjecture or personal opinion. The narrative does a good job of providing the reader with a factual account of the Pendleton and Fort Mercer disasters from a broad perspective. There are enough details to interest readers of maritime history, but some may find the lack of finer details related to personal outcomes to be a missed opportunity.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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