You only need mention a 36-foot rescue boat to a Coast Guardsman, and he will know instantly what you’re talking about. The Pendleton.
On the stormy night of Feb. 18, 1952, four Coast Guard sailors set out from Chatham, Massachusetts on what they feared would be a suicide mission. Their rescue of 32 sailors from a shipwrecked tanker is a great moment in Coast Guard history, told in the 2016 movie, “The Finest Hours.”
When Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Bernard Webber was ordered to go out, he dared not order anyone to go with him. But he asked for volunteers. One man who stepped forward was Seaman Richard P. Livesey of Wilmington.
A tremendous northeast storm was battering the coast. When the tanker Fort Mercer had radioed for help, about 30 miles from shore, nobody realized there were actually two ships out there.
The SS Fort Mercer and the SS Pendleton were similar 502-ft. T-2 tankers, built during World War II. The Pendleton was bound for Revere with a crew of 42 men and a load of kerosene and heating oil.
However, as it neared Boston, the Capt. John J. Fitzgerald was concerned that he might not be able to remain in the shipping channel, due to the ferocity of the storm, so he anchored outside Boston Harbor.
The ship was not showing any signs of trouble until 5:55 a.m. on Feb. 18 when it was suddenly broken in two by a violent wave. The crew was unable to send a distress signal, as the radio was lost in the breakup. There was little they could do but wait, hope and pray while gale force winds carried them southeasterly. There were eight men including the captain in the forward section. Aft, there were 33.
The Fort Mercer contacted the Coast Guard at 8:32 a.m., reporting a leak, though it was not deemed serious. Half an hour later, three Coast Guard cutters were underway from Chatham to assist. A rescue vessel was dispatched to the Mercer at 12:30 p.m. Half an hour later, with seas reported at 68 feet, all units were placed on standby alert.
Meanwhile, the two sections of the Pendleton continued to move southerly along the Cape Cod seashore. There was a radio receiver aft, and the men listened as Coast Guard cutters were dispatched to tend to the Fort Mercer. But nobody knew of the Pendleton’s presence or the crew’s dire situation.
Some time after 1 p.m., the Fort Mercer broke apart. A plane dispatched from Salem reported sighting the bow at 1:40 p.m., about 30 miles off shore.
At 3 p.m., radar at the Chatham Coast Guard station picked up two targets, 5.6 miles off shore. Examining the targets with binoculars, station chief Daniel Cluff determined that it looked like two ends of a ship.
The reported position of the Fort Mercer, though, was 30 miles away. How could the report be so far off the mark, he wondered.
Within an hour, there was a confirmed report that the Pendleton was overdue at Boston. The spotter aircraft then confirmed that the two sections of the ship were where Cluff had reported.
With all cutters at the Fort Mercer, Cluff had but one vessel he could send to the Pendleton. Webber was ordered to take the 36-foot rescue vessel CG36500. His crew was Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald, Livesey and fellow Seaman Evin Maske, all volunteers. They set off shortly after 6 p.m.
Just east of Chatham is a formidable sand bar, which can be tricky even in good weather. Webber later said he hadn’t even started to plan the rescue. He was just concerned with getting his vessel over the bar. A large wave hit the boat, taking it over on its side and stalling the motor. The watertight compartments held, and the boat righted itself. Fitzgerald was able to restart the motor. The wave, though, had shattered the windshield and taken away the compass.
Webber fought on, eventually clearing the bar. Before long, their searchlight shone upon the stern section of the Pendleton. There was but one man visible. He disappeared, and soon the rail on the stern was thronged with men, shouting and waving. There was a rope ladder over the side of the ship.
Webber maneuvered the rescue boat under the stern and the sailors began climbing down. The high winds pitched the boat and the rope ladder, with men often slammed into the Pendleton’s hull. As they jumped, some landed on the bow of the rescue boat, while others had to be fished out of the water.
The boat was designed to take 12 people, with a 16-person maximum. With 20 aboard, the boat began behaving sluggishly. Webber was hard-pressed to hold it in position near the ship in the storm-tossed sea. And there were still 13 more men needing rescue.
The ship’s cook, who had been helping his shipmates onto the ladder, was the last man down. Just as he reached the bottom, a large wave threw the boat against the hull of the ship, crushing him to death.
Webber had a decision to make. Should he wait for a cutter and transfer the rescued crew, or should he head for shore? With no compass, he had no navigational aid other than his own sense of direction. He set out for shore in the dark raging sea in the severely overloaded boat. Very soon, the stern section of the Pendleton capsized. The eight men in the bow of the ship all perished.
Two hours and 40 minutes after leaving Chatham, they returned, completing the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history.
The Fort Mercer also had 43 men aboard when it broke up. Five men in the bow were lost. With other rescues, the Coast Guard rescued 70 persons in all that week.
Three months later, Webber, Livesey, Fitzgerald and Maske were all honored with Coast Guard Gold Medals in a ceremony in Washington, D.C. When Livesey returned to Wilmington, the fire whistle blew several times in his honor.
The Livesey family moved to Belmont Avenue, Wilmington from Lowell about 1947. Richard P. Livesey enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1947 and signed up for a second hitch in 1951. He then returned in Wilmington and lived here until about 1979. He died in Florida in 2007 at age 76.