The SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer disasters have an infamous reputation in maritime history. These two T2 tankers were caught in a storm on 17 February 1952 and split in half within hours and miles of each other off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The subsequent rescue efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard, in particular the Pendleton rescue, have gone down in history as one of the most daring rescues involving small boats on the high seas. The Herculean task confronting Bernie Webber and his crew aboard the 36′ Motor Lifeboat (MLB) CG36500 at the Pendleton, as well as the efforts of the various USCG cutters at the Fort Mercer have already been covered in at least 2 different books and a film in far greater detail. However, what may not be entirely clear to the reader or viewer is the fact that these events were all happening concurrently. This post will provide the reader with a comparative timeline of the events that were happening at both the Pendleton and Fort Mercer rescues to help them understand how the rescues unfolded.
*Note: While the dates are accurate, the timestamps given are approximate. Spaces are intentional so the timestamps align to give the reader a better idea of how the rescues are occurring concurrently.
Tuesday 12 February 1952
Pendleton departs Baton Rouge, Louisiana for Boston, Massachusetts.1
Saturday 16 February
Pendleton and Fort Mercer pass Long Island and a gale develops.2
Pendleton reaches Boston Harbor in the evening, but due to the storm, stands out to sea slightly north of Fort Mercer‘s position and nearer to Cape Cod.3
Monday 18 February 1952
0550: Pendleton splits in half.4
1230 – 1700: Chief Donald Bangs and his crew depart Stage Harbor aboard a 36′ MLB for the stern section of Fort Mercer. They stop at the Pollock Rip lightship to inform Station Chatham his radio can only receive but not transmit. He’s subsequently ordered to Pendleton‘s bow section.5
1400: On land, Joe Nickerson hears the Pendleton stern section’s whistle and goes for help.6
1600: (stern section) LT George Wagner from AirSta Salem, MA overflies the Pendleton‘s stern and informs Chatham station.7
1700: (bow section) Bangs arrives at the bow but finds no survivors and returns to Pollock Rip. He’s then ordered to Pendleton‘s stern section. USCGC McCulloch then spots lights and signs of life on Pendleton‘s bow section and Bangs is ordered back.8
Early evening: Bernard Webber and crew depart Chatham aboard 36′ MLB CG36500 for Pendleton‘s stern section.9
1800: Webber and crew make it across Chatham Bar.10
1900: (bow section) Bangs arrives at the bow section, again. One survivor jumps into the sea, but Bangs loses sight of them in the darkness and high waves and is unable to effect a rescue. After about an hour of searching, Bangs returns to Pollock Rip lightship.11 (stern section) Webber locates the stern section and begins rescue.12
2000: (stern section) Webber completes the rescue of the stern section survivors and heads back to Chatham.13
2230: CG36500 arrives at Chatham pier with survivors.14
Sun. 24 February
Richard Livesey, Mel Gouthro, Coxswain Chick Chase, and 2 others on a lifeboat and salvage tug Curb investigate the bow section. They can’t find the body of Captain Fitzgerald or 7 others but find the body of Herman Gatlin.15
SS Fort Mercer
Tuesday 12 February 1952
Fort Mercer departs Norco, Louisiana for Portland, Maine.16
Saturday 16 February
Fort Mercer and Pendleton pass Long Island and a gale develops.17
Fort Mercer reaches Portland in the evening, but due to the storm, turns south and takes position 25 miles off Cape Cod.18
Monday 18 February 1952
0800: Fort Mercer develops a crack in her hull and sends a distress call. USCG cutters Eastwind, Unimak, & Acushnet are ordered to assist.19
1030 – 1140: The crack worsens.20
Around 1200 – 1600: Ralph Ormsby and his crew depart Nantucket aboard a 36′ MLB for the Fort Mercer but are unable to make significant headway and retire to the Pollock Rip lightship.23
1300: USCGC Yakutat is dispatched from Provincetown Harbor to assist.24
1400: A search plane piloted by LT George Wagner arrives over the Fort Mercer wreck. Meanwhile, Station Chatham spots what it thinks is the two halves of Fort Mercer on its radar screen (it’s actually the Pendleton). LT Wagner is diverted to investigate and locates the Pendleton.25
1700: (bow section) USNS Short Splice arrives at the bow section but isn’t equipped for rescue. Informs Fort Mercer crew that cutters are en route.26
1930: (bow section) USCGC Yakutat arrives at the bow section of Fort Mercer and begins rescue.27
Tues. 19 February
After midnight: (bow section) USCGC Yakutat stands off the bow section until morning.28
Sometime in the morning: (stern section) USNS Short Splice arrives at the stern section, followed by USCGC Eastwind, Unimak, and Acushnet.29
0830: (Bow section) USCGC Yakutat sends over ENS William Kiley (and his crew) in a Monomoy surfboat and rescues Capt. Paetzel and Turner, but the surfboat is damaged and can no longer be used.30
0930 – 1000: (bow section) USCGC Yakutat begins the rescue of Guilden and Fahrner with a life raft and a series of shot lines.31
1030: (bow section) USCGC Yakutat completes the rescue of Fahrner and Guilden. The bow section capsizes 17 minutes after the last 2 men get off.32
Sometime in the morning: (stern section) USCGC Eastwind rescues 3 men by life raft and shot line from Fort Mercer‘s stern section.33 USCGC Acushnet later comes alongside the stern section and successfully rescues 18 men. 13 crewmen stay aboard the stern section. USCGC Acushnet leaves the scene at nightfall.34
Sometime in the evening: (bow section) USCGC Yakutat is relieved that evening by USCGC Unimak which later sinks the capsized bow with 40mm gunfire and depth charges.35
0800: USCGC Acushnet arrives in Boston with survivors.36
Mon. 25 February
Tugs Foundation Josephine and M. Moran take stern section under tow.37
Fri. 29 February
Tugs and stern section arrive in Narragansett Bay.38
25 March 1964
SS San Jacinto (the stern section of the Fort Mercer with a refitted bow) splits in half, again!39
- John J. Fitzgerald (Master)
- Martin Moe (Chief Mate)
- Joseph W. Colgan (2nd Mate)
- Harold Bancus (3rd Mate)
- James G. Greer (Radio Operator)
- Joseph L. Landry (Able Seaman)
- Herman G. Gatlin (Able Seaman)
- Billy Roy Morgan (Ordinary Seaman)
- George “Tiny” D. Meyers (Ordinary Seaman)40
SS Fort Mercer
- Jack Brewer (Chief Mate)
- John V. Reilly (Radio Operator)
- Culver (Quartermaster)
- Perley W. Newman (Able Seaman)
- Jerome C. Higgins (Ordinary Seaman)41
By comparing the timelines it’s clear that these rescues occurred over different time frames. The rescues of the Pendleton‘s bow and stern sections were accomplished within one day, whereas the Fort Mercer rescues stretched into the following day. In addition, there were far fewer casualties aboard Fort Mercer compared to Pendleton where the entire crew aboard the bow section lost their lives. One reason for this could be that Fort Mercer‘s crew managed to get off two SOS calls upon realizing that the hull was cracked and splitting whereas Pendleton’s crew wasn’t able to send a single distress call (apart from sounding the stern’s horn) due to the suddenness of their event even though Pendleton split earlier than Fort Mercer. Thus, more Coast Guard assets with better rescue capabilities were able to converge on the Fort Mercer scene as the location of the Pendleton’s two halves was being ascertained.
Hopefully, this comparison makes the parallel nature of these two events clearer, but also highlights the differences in the rescue efforts.
1. Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009),14.
2. Robert Frump, Two Tankers Down: The Greatest Small-Boat Rescue in U.S. Coast Guard History, (Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2008), 26.
3. Frump, 27.
4. Tougias and Sherman, 17.
5. Frump, 64.
6. Frump, 63.
7. Frump, 89. Frump’s book and Tougias and Sherman’s book differ in several details about this aircraft. Tougias and Sherman only note that two aircraft took off from CG Air Station Salem, MA, and Naval Air Station Quonset Point, RI but aren’t clear about where LT Wagner’s plane came from. Frump notes that it was from Air Station Salem. Also, note the time difference between the plane arriving at the Fort Mercer rescue at 1400 and then at Pendleton’s stern at 1600. It’s likely that it was circling Fort Mercer for several hours before being diverted to investigate the Pendleton wreck since they were only about 10 miles apart.
8. Frump, 65.
9. Frump, 71 – 74.
10. Frump, 85 – 87.
11. Frump, 64 – 67.
12. Frump, 92.
13. Frump, 96 – 101.
14. Frump, 121.
15. Tougias and Sherman, 216 – 220.
16. Tougias and Sherman, 28.
17. Frump, 26.
18. Frump, 27.
19. Frump, 42 – 44.
20. Tougias and Sherman, 35 – 47.
21. Tougias and Sherman, 36.
22. Frump, 47 – 48.
23. Tougias and Sherman, 104 – 106.
24. Frump, 45.
25. Tougias and Sherman, 42 – 43.
26. Frump, 76.
27. Frump, 77.
28. Frump, 83.
29. Frump, 49.
30. Frump, 102 – 05.
31. Frump, 106 – 112.
32. Frump, 116.
33. Tougias and Sherman, 183 – 84. Unfortunately, both Frump and Tougias and Sherman’s books are vague as to when exactly the rescue of the stern section of Fort Mercer occurred.
34. Tougias and Sherman, 186 – 92.
35. Tougias and Sherman, 173 – 76.
36. Tougias and Sherman, 192.
37. Tougias and Sherman, 207.
38. Tougias and Sherman, 209.
39. Tougias and Sherman, 211.
40. Tougias and Sherman, 226.
41. Frump, 53.
Frump, Robert. Two Tankers Down: The Greatest Small-Boat Rescue in U.S. Coast Guard History. The Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2008.
Tougias, Michael J. and Casey Sherman. The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.