SS Pendleton

Subject of the single greatest small boat U.S. Coast Guard rescue in history.
by Matthew Anderson


Year Built

1944

Year Sank

1952

Depth

30 ft (9.1 m)

Difficulty Level

Technical


SS Pendleton

Wreck Location

The remains of the Pendleton lie in around 40 feet of water off Pollock Rip Shoal in cold water and tough currents. The remains are heavily decayed and in unrecognizable pieces due to being blown up by the Army in 1979. It's probably not a good idea to go diving there unless you have great experience and can handle rough waters. Likely it will require technical equipment or advanced diving equipment. Due to the many pieces of jagged metal left over from the blast, the divesite is also a hazard to divers. Diving on the Pendleton is allowed as the wreck is marked an Exempted Wreck Site by the state of Massachusetts. However, it is unlawful to remove or disturb the wreckage as per Massachusetts state law.

~ GPS Shipwreck Location ~
Latitude:   41° 35' 9.9996" N      Longitude:   -69° 57' 45" W

Description

T2 Tanker "Hat Creek" in 1943.

SS Hat Creek - A T2-SE-A1 tanker of the same build and class as Pendleton.

Pendleton was constructed in 1944 at the Kaiser Company's Swan Island Yards in Portland, Oregon and as such, is likely named after the Oregon town of Pendleton near the Columbia River east of Portland (albeit Pendleton has no access to the ocean). She was a T2-SE-A1 class oil tanker, a United States Maritime Commission (MARCOM) design meant for mass production during World War II as a means of supplying a steady stream of easily constructed service ready vessels to the United States Merchant Marine fleet. Type T2 tankers were known for being constructed with weak steel and poor materials, sometimes with inferior welding. This would come back to haunt the entire fleet as time moved forward. Pendleton had a General Electric steam turbine powerplant, providing electrical power through a dynamo to an electric motor which turned her single four bladed propeller. Pendleton was 160 feet long with a beam of 21 feet.

Pendleton was delivered to the War Shipping Administration in February 1944 and homeported in Portland. She saw service in World War II as part of Convoy ON 249 between Liverpool, England; Lancashire, England and New York City between August 18 and September 2, 1944. Following the end of the war, Pendleton was likely retired and laid up awaiting a new owner, given the War Shipping Administration had no further use for her. Pendleton's bilge keels were modified while being drydocked at Mobile, Alabama on December 3, 1946. On December 31, 1947, Pendleton underwent a retrofit with the installation of crack arresters and further modifications to her bilge keels, being modified to T2-SE-A1-S11-1 standard. In 1948, Pendleton was sold to National Bulk Freighters, a shipping company based out of Wilmington, Delaware. As such, Pendleton began a short life of commercial service. She continued operating without incident until July 1951, when she grounded on a sand bar in the Hudson River. The grounding took place between Tank No. 6 and Tank No. 9. She was stuck on the bar for almost a full day before being refloated. It is more than likely the Pendleton took on serious damage as a result of the grounding. A Liberty Ship of similar construction and materials named Richard Montgomery broke in half due to the strain of grounding on a sand bar in the Thames River in 1944. In January 1952, a three way fracture was discovered in the bulkhead between the No. 4 starboard and center tanks. Though this was not repaired, the damage was not serious and didn't result in any trouble for the Pendleton. She had her last Coast Guard inspection on January 9, 1952.

Pendleton departed on what would become her final voyage on February 13, 1952 out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana bound for Boston, Massachusetts. She was under the command of Captain John Fitzgerald with her engines being operated and looked after by chief engineer Raymond Sybert. Pendleton rendezvoused with another T2 Tanker, the Fort Mercer, off the coast of New England. Near Rhode Island, both vessels entered a powerful Nor'easter storm generating powerful 70 foot waves. The storm delayed the Pendleton's progress by at least 3 days. The storm's force began taking its strain on the nearby Fort Mercer on February 17 and 18. Cracks began developing in the Fort Mercer's hull turning into a large fracture. The fracture caused the cargo of oil being carried on the Fort Mercer to begin leaking into the surrounding ocean. As a result, Fort Mercer put out a distress call before she broke in half. The U.S. Coast Guard sent most of its resources in the surrouding area from Boston, Nantucket Island and Cape Cod to assist the Fort Mercer. This would have profound consequences on the Pendleton. In the early hours of the 18th, the crew of the Pendleton was alerted to a lound "bang". Sybert was unable to contact Captain Fitzgerald. Sybert ordered all hands to the engine room, then sent out a man on deck to try and reach the bow. At the same time crewmember Carol Kilgore went on deck to check the situation. Both discovered the horrific situation ahead. There was a giant gap leading to a dropoff admidships straight to the ocean. The ship had broken in half. The bow section was nowhere to be seen.

Sybert ordered the engines stopped and all watertight doors shut, save for those between the boilers and engine room. No distress call was given from the bow. It was later found floating half submerged with only one man still alive by Coast Guard rescuers. The lone man on the bow jumped in hopes of reaching safety but perished. The bow later an aground on Cape Cod where only one body was found. The final whereabouts of Captain Fitzgerald will probably never be known as his remains were never found, nor were the remains of any other crewmembers on the bow at the time. The stern was left floating aimlessly. Thanks to the watertight doors, the Pendleton's stern was in no immediate danger of sinking. With the captain and officers gone, Sybert was left in command of the stern section, setting up an emergency rudder control. Thanks to the fact the engine was still operational, the stern still had power. Sybert ordered the engine slow astern in hopes of keeping it away from any shoals, lest the Pendleton's remains be further broken.

Due to the Fort Mercer taking up the majority of the Coast Guard's attention and the lack of a distress call from the Pendleton, trouble wasn't noticed until the next afternoon, when a low flying aircraft participating the Fort Mercer rescue spotted the Pendleton's bow floating without the stern. The radar at the Chatham Lifeboat Station gave further information to the outside world of Pendleton's peril, showing both sections of the ship drifting on the radar screen. Meanwhile, the crew aboard Pendleton was left to listen to Coast Guard transmissions regarding the Fort Mercer rescue and hoping someone would reach them as well. Officers at Chatham Station soon noticed the Pendleton's stern was drifting closer to the Chatham Bar which were dangerous waters. As a result, Commander Daniel Cluff ordered officer Bernard Webber to gather a crew and attempt to rescue the survivors on Pendleton's stern. Webber enlisted the aid of engineer Andy Fitzgerald and Richard Livesey as well as Edward Massey, a cabin boy off the Stonehorse Lightship, stuck ashore by the storm. Using a 36 foot rescue craft, the CG-36500, the rescue crew battled their way over the breakers at Chatham Bar, In the process the CG-36500 lost its compass and blew out its windshield.

Incredibly, Bernie Webber and his crew were able to reach the Pendleton's stern using dead reckoning. The crew aboard the stern lowered a Jacob's Ladder and began climbing down to get on the CG-36500. Despite the fact the boat wasn't designed to carry all 33 men aboard the Pendleton's stern, Webber opted to try it anyway, not willing to make multiple trips. The men made it down the ladder and onto the rescue craft one by one. Unfortunately the second to last man known as "Tiny" Meyers, lost his life attempting to board the CG-36500. His remains were never found and he is the only fatality of the Pendleton's stern section. Rescuing the final man from the Pendleton's stern, Webber and his crew crammed 31 of the men into the survivor's compartment and headed back to Chatham. Cluff and the Pollock Lightship began giving Webber orders over the radio. Frustrated and unwilling to heed the conflicting orders and advice being given, Webber turned the radio off. The CG-36500 arrived back in Chatham later that night, where the 32 survivors were unloaded. The heroism and bravery shown by the crew of the CG-36500 became known as the single greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history. At first, Coast Guard command wanted to award Webber with the Gold Lifesaving Medal and the rest of his crew a lesser Silver medal. Webber outright refused to accept the award unless his entire crew recieved the Gold medal, citing the rescue was the culmination of a team effort rather than only his own. After battling with Webber's modesty, the command finally relented, awarding all four crew members with the Gold Lifesaving Medal. Following the rescue, Webber remained humble and fairly quiet about his ordeal. Edward Massey retired from the Coast Guard and spent the rest of his life avoiding any large bodies of open water. Webber passed away in 2009. The final survivor of the Pendleton passed away in 2013.

Following the rescue, the stern of the Pendleton was left adrift in the Atlantic, eventually coming to rest on Pollock Rip Shoal near Monomoy Island. The stern rolled over onto its port side and sank in 40 feet of water. Following efforts to recover bodies, the bow of the Pendleton was refolated in 1953 and sold for scrap. It was stranded on the Delaware River and subsequently dismantled. The stern was not recovered, being a common haunting ground for looters, stripping the vessel of brass parts. As time wore on, the superstructure and sterncastle were gradually destroyed by rust and the pounding waves plus ocean currents. Finally in 1979, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers elected to blow up the Pendleton's remains to allow 26 feet of clearance below the wreck for passing vessels. The remains of the stern continue to lie at Pollock RIp Shoal to this day. The events of the rescue and sinking were incorporated into the bestselling novel, The Finest Hours by Michael Tougas. In 2016, the story was adapted into a semi-fictionalized Disney movie of the same name starring Chris Pine as Bernie Webber and Casey Affleck as Ray Sybert.

Footnotes

Pendleton's bow floating half sunk off Cape Cod.

Sources




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