Sixty Year Anniversary of the Coast Guard's Greatest Cape Cod Rescue

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Commemorations in honor of Bernie Webber's famous rescue of more than 30 crew off Cape Cod, as described in Robert Frump's best selling book "Two Tankers Down," are scheduled as a new Coast Guard cutter named in his honor begins service in Miami.

Sixty years after the Coast Guard's most daring Cape Cod rescue, commemorations in Massachusetts will honor Bernard C. Webber and the crew of the CG 36500 who saved more than 30 crewmen from the SS Pendleton.

At around the same time, a new Coast Guard cutter named after Webber will complete its first month of active service in Miami.

"Christening a cutter in Bernie's name is a great honor, but almost certainly would have earned a wry smile from him," said Robert R. Frump, author of "Two Tankers Down," a best-selling book about the rescue of the crews of two stricken tankers, the Pendleton and the SS Fort Mercer.

"Bernie was devoted to small boat search and rescue and his version of Coast Guard often differed greatly from that of the blue water officers aboard the cutters," Frump said.

At one point in the rescue sixty years ago, Webber was ordered to take a boatload of rescued crewmen to a Coast Guard cutter and to transfer them at sea. He had other orders conflicting with those and in a decisive moment, Webber simply turned off the radio and followed his own instincts.

He was told at one point after the rescue that he might face court martial because he ignored orders from the cutter's officers. More senior officers prevailed and instead, he was given the Gold Lifesaving Medal.

Of the four men who saved 32 men from the Pendleton, only one survives. In a ceremony in Chatham on Saturday, Feb. 18, Andy Fitzgerald will be asked to ring a memorial bell for his late shipmates. Seamen Ervin Maske and Richard Livesey died in 2003 and 2007 respectively. Webber died in 2009.

Details of the commemoration are still being finalized, but an open house and awards ceremony is planned for Boston on Feb. 15 featuring Fitzgerald and Senior Chief Charles Bridges, the last living survivor of the Pendleton crew.

On Saturday, there will be an open house at Coast Guard Station Chatham from 1 to 5 p.m. and a visit to Chatham by the famous motor lifeboat, which is now a floating museum operated by the Orleans Historical Society.

On Feb. 18, 1952, two tankers foundered and broke up in high winds and heavy surf off Cape Cod. Coast Guard cutters played an active role in rescuing the crew of the SS Fort Mercer, but in the end there, a small boat brought the last of the crew to safety. This rescue, nearly as dramatic as the Webber rescue, also resulted in a Gold Medal for William R. Kiely Jr. who launched a small surf boat from the cutter Yakutat and made multiple rescue runs to pick up officers trapped on the bobbing bow of the Fort Mercer.

The $88 million, 154-foot CGC Bernard C. Webber cruised into Miami last Thursday morning, the first of a new generation of patrol boat designed to patrol the Straits of Florida, save troubled boaters and pursue illegal traffickers and migrants.

“It’s so advanced, it’s exciting. It’s going to give us an advantage over the bad guys,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Leonardo Aspuru told reporters.

Formally called a Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter, it’s equipped with a state-of-the-art pilot house, featuring an array of computer screens that show the bridge what other boats and aircraft are in the area.

It’s equipped for both search-and-rescue and law enforcement missions. There’s a remote-operated gyro-stabilized 25mm gun mounted near the bow that lets the crew direct fire from inside the pilot house rather than posting a gunner on deck.

And it has a 26-foot chase boat that’s launched from the stern, rather than dropped over the side, to go “fast enough to chase down smugglers — 40 to 50 miles an hour — and stop them,” said Rear Adm. William Baumgartner, the commander of the Coast Guard’s Seventh District stretching from South Carolina to the Caribbean.

By contrast, Webber's small craft had no radar and only a 90 horsepower engine to propel itself through mountainous seas. The crew shot the Chatham Bar at storm surge -- a feat thought previously impossible. Then, with shards of the windshield imbedded in his face, Webber somehow found the Pendleton, loaded most of the crew aboard and brought them safely to Chatham.

Shortly after the rescue, Webber was warned that he might be court martialed for disobeying orders when he turned off the radio and ignored the orders of officers onboard the cutters. The Coast Guard made an abrupt change in posture, however, and offered Webber the Gold Lifesaving Medal and his crew the Silver Medal.

Webber told them he would refuse to accept the Gold unless his entire crew received it and the Coast Guard acquiesced.

"Bernie Webber's courage continued far, far after the rescue," author Frump said. "He was a man who was loyal first and foremost to his duty and his small boat colleagues and he passed up many opportunities to capitalize on his fame, choosing instead to honor that duty and the small boat service."

Frump's account of the rescue includes previously untold episodes from the standpoint of the crews of the Fort Mercer and the Pendleton, uncovered through searches of archives and hearing records. Webber cooperated closely with the author's efforts -- though he was always skeptical and critical of any account of the rescue.

For the past thirty years, Robert R. Frump has written about maritime affairs, first for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and later as an author of books and magazine articles. He was managing editor of The Journal of Commerce, America's foremost maritime newspaper, and also wrote "Until the Sea Shall Free Them," an account of the wreck of the SS Marine Electric and reforms the tragedy brought to the US Maritime system.

With Timothy Dwyer, he was awarded the George Polk Award for his reporting on the Marine Electric. He also received the Gerald Loeb Award for national business reporting for articles about Philadelphia ports. He was a member of a Philadelphia Inquirer task force that received the Pulitzer Prize.

A collection of his maritime writing is available on Kindle under the title, "I Cover the Waterfront." he also has written extensively about African wildlife and animal-human conflict in "The Man-eaters of Eden" and "The Magical Man-eaters of Tanzania," both available on Kindle.

"Two Tankers Down," a consistent best-seller on Amazon in its category, can be found at
http://www.amazon.com/Two-Tankers-Down-Small-Boat-ebook/dp/B001EQ63AK/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2.

Frump's collection of maritime stories can be found at
http://www.amazon.com/Cover-Waterfront-Non-Fiction-1980-2008-ebook/dp/B004WG3QTA/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1328999787&sr=1-1.

Other information about Frump is at http://www.robertfrump.com.

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