This article was prepared by Mrs. Sherry S. Stancliff for publication in the Golden Tide Rips of the Class of 1950 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of their graduation from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
On February 18, 1952 two 520' T-2 tankers broke in half within 40 miles of each other. According to Vice Admiral Merlin O'Neil at the ceremony to decorate 21 Coast Guardsmen, the tankers were east of Cape Cod in a raging storm with 70-knot winds and 60-foot seas. The Pendleton out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, bound for Boston, Massachusetts, carrying kerosene and heating oil broke apart at dawn. The Fort Mercer, also carrying kerosene, and bound for Portland, Maine, began to break apart later that morning about 8:00AM. The Fort Mercer sent an "SOS," but the initial break caused Pendelton to lose all radio capability, and for eight terrible hours, before she was discovered, she waited in silence for help she had no reason to believe would ever come.
But the Coast Guard was coming! The Coast Guard responded with every resource available. Before the rescue efforts were concluded the cutters Eastwind, Unimak, Yakutat, Achushnet, McCulloch, two 36' motor lifeboats [MLBs], numerous aircraft and additional Coast Guard craft and personnel had answered the call.
Several members of the Class of '50 were on
ships that participated in the rescue of 70 of the 84 crew members from the
four portions of the two ships. Ensign Art Reynolds was probably
serving aboard Eastwind at that time, Ensign Warren Waggett was
aboard Yakutat and felt the rescue effort was a highlight of his
career, and Ensign Ben Stabile was there aboard Unimak. Years
later Ben wrote a letter telling of his memories of the Fort Mercer and
Pendelton disasters. The following is the body of Ben's letter in
bold text, augmented with quotes from other sources in italics.
"....You mention Eastwind and Acushnet. Early on in the search for the FV's the Legare and Frederick Lee were also part of the search squadron Commanded by O. A. Peterson on Eastwind. The 125's took such a beating in the storm that they had to be detached before we had any contact with the tankers, maybe before we even knew about the distress.
There are a few very vivid recollections . Unimak was homeported in Boston. At about 2 a.m. I got a recall to the ship for a SAR case, to search for the missing fishing vessels. Barbara took me to the ship and I remember saying, "routine SAR will see you in a couple of days" (turned into weeks). We joined a squadron under Eastwind with Legare and Frederick Lee. A bit of debris and a life ring was found after several days of searching. In the meantime the storm came in and the SOS from Fort Mercer was received so we were diverted to the datum.
When our radio gang got the Ft. Mercer SOS we turned around in the storm along with Eastwind and made slow progress to the reported position, I think the best we could make against the sea and wind was about 3 knots. I remember arriving at the scene of the Ft. Mercer stern. We had no knowledge of the Pendleton disaster at the time. The stern section was found and Eastwind conducted rescue ops while we stood by. Acushnet was also on scene and there were radio comms with the personnel on the stern section headed by the Engineer as I recall. I think a walkie talkie was passed over to the survivors.
Eastwind first tried running a rubber boat back and forth with lines between Ft. Mercer and Eastwind. They managed to recover a few men that way (three) but the men had to clamber aboard Eastwind cargo nets. The ship, being an icebreaker, rolled very heavily so the men were getting the Coney Island cyclone ride with part of the cycle under water before shooting 60 feet into the air hanging on for dear life. The rest of the men on the stern section watching that decided to take their chances on remaining aboard. The Acushnet CO then decided to take some bold steps by swinging his cutter in sharply and placing his fantail at the most convenient point for survivors to jump down to it, timing the waves for minimum distance. More than one pass was made each time several men jumped aboard successfully but then there was a nucleus that felt even that was too risky. The Acushnet seamanship was the most outstanding I've ever seen. How the CO managed to execute without damaging the ship or losing anyone is beyond me."
From the December 27, 1952 issue of Collier's - " The Acushnet had been ordered to sea at noon the day before. At the time she had been laid up, with her engines partially dismantled and her crew scattered throughout the snowbound city of Portland. Yet three hours later she was on her way, with every man of the crew aboard....Joseph (Lieutenant Commander John M. Joseph) let the Acushnet drift towards the Fort Mercer. Then turning his bow out and easing his stern quarter toward the larger vessel, he closed the gap. The trick was to get near enough for a man to jump across and still keep the two wildly rolling, pitching ships from grinding together. The Acushnet got five men on her first pass; then the sea knocked her out of position. Joseph signaled full speed ahead and circled around again. '....This time I really had it.' he remembers with satisfaction. 'My ship came right in on Fort Mercer's stern section and I held her there while we took off thirteen more. We could have taken everyone aboard on that pass but no one else wanted to leave.' "
"We (Unimak) launched a lifeboat in those very high seas and came close to losing it. The idea was to pick up anyone who might wind up in the water during the rescue ops and perhaps to see if there were any persons or bodies out there. It was the roughest seas I've ever seen a boat launched in.
Captain Peterson then decided to head for port with the few survivors he had and so did Acushnet, I'm not sure of the timing of the departures. We waited around the stern section as a safety net until one of the buoy tenders got out there and took the stern section in tow for port. From the December 27, 1952 issue of Collier's - "After the breakup, the engines on the stern section (Fort Mercer) had continued to run: by the time they were ordered stopped by Chief Engineer Jesse Bushnell of Pasadena, Texas, senior officer on the stern, the two sections had become widely separated. But suddenly the bow driven by the screaming wind, bore down on the stern and a collision seemed imminent. In a maneuver undoubtedly unique in marine history, Bushnell ordered full speed astern and narrowly escaped being sunk by the front of his own ship!" " We then were told to proceed to the bow section which we did. The bow section was foot up with the main tanks trailing off under water.
Somewhere along the line and I'm not sure of where in the sequence of events, I was in comms with a CG Salem Air Station aircraft sent out to spot the tanker and survivors. I was OD when we heard the pilot announce that he had spotted the bow section. This was incredible! There was no aircraft in sight and we were right there on scene with the bow section less than 1000 yards away. I asked the pilot where he was and his position turned out to be almost 60 miles from where the Ft. Mercer bow was. We then asked him to take a closer look and read the name on the bow if possible. It was the Pendleton!"
From the December 27, 1952 issue of Collier's - At first the Coast Guard knew of only one shipwreck. Even after the second split tanker was discovered from the air, almost by accident (its radio had been ruined before a distress message could be sent), officials directing the operation found it hard to believe that they actually had a double disaster to deal with."
"We were directed to stay with the Ft. Mercer bow section until the owners and insurers decided what they wanted done with the bow which was loaded with kerosene. Night came and no decision was reached. We had a devil of a time keeping track of the bow section on radar. We lost it several times and had to try very cautiously to regain contact hoping we wouldn't run into the bow section. As you might imagine the overturned bow with most of the section submerged presented a poor radar target. I think we also had the sonar fired up but with the very rough weather that was ineffective as I recall. The next day wore on (maybe two, I can't remember exactly) and it wasn't till just at dusk we got word to sink the bow. I was gunnery officer. We tried 5"/38 and 40mm HEI shells but all we did was make holes above water from which streams of kerosene spewed. At the rate it was coming out it would be many days before the bow would lose enough buoyancy to sink. The High Explosive Incendiary shells from the 40mm were ineffective. The fuel ignited for a second or two then the stream put out the flame. The main tanks were well submerged. The skipper, Cdr. Frank McCabe, then directed me to use the K-guns which we had never fired except for test after installation with dummy charges. We set up the starboard side, three charges set for minimum 50 feet and McCabe wound up the engines for a max speed run hoping we would avoid damage to ourselves. McCabe was known around the service as 18 knot McCabe. We "sped by", I personally firing the K guns. They went off as advertised but the hull just lollygagged as though a few gnats had landed on it. So the skipper said to load up the other side for a port side run which we did and just as we got into the run the bow went vertical and then dropped down to the depths. It worked! We had managed to rupture the submerged tanks after all."
From VADM Benedict L. Stabiles's notes on the reverse side of a photograph of the Fort Mercer's bow- "Bow of Fort Mercer after capsizing. 20 minutes after last man was removed it capsized. Was later sunk by gunfire and depth charges. As far as I know the Fort Mercer is the only vessel in history whose bow was sunk by the combined effort of 40mm projectiles striking the bottom or keel side of the vessel and depth charges damaging the top or deck side. Further I presume it is the first modern vessel that has been sunk by broadside fire. The CGC Unimak steamed alongside with ENS B.L. Stabile in charge of the starboard battery applying Kentucky windage & radar range and with one well placed salvo of MK-9 depth charges sank the bow section."
"Then we were directed to go back to the stern section which was under tow backwards so as to keep pressure off the forward bulkhead. We acted as an escort until nearing port when we were finally detached to return to homeport, Boston. This is all from memory as I did not keep a diary myself. I do have several crumbling newspaper articles...."
The Boston Globe put out an EXTRA edition with vivid accounts of the daring rescues. The Boston Herald too had multiple pages devoted to the rescues and aerial photographs of the ships involved.
According to these newspaper accounts- While less than 6 miles off of Chatham, McCulloch was first on the scene of the foundering bow of Pendleton. She could not get close enough to attempt a rescue because of the shoals. A 36 ft MLB arrived and was putting out rafts, and they watched as the lone survivor on the bow cast himself into the sea too soon and was lost. A second 36 ft MLB from the Chatham Coast Guard Lifeboat Station put out to sea that day and was successful in locating the stern of Pendleton. The crew of CG-36500 heroically saved 32 men from the stern of Pendleton, and then coaxed their overloaded and damaged boat through raging storm and treacherous waters back to safety. It was the men from the Lifeboat Station who searched the grounded bow of Pendleton the next day, still searching for survivors.
The Yakutat too was involved in the rescue. She completed the rescue of the remaining four men from the bow of Fort Mercer less than twenty minutes before it capsized. The following information was on the reverse side of an official Coast Guard photograph- "The Yakutat spent the night of the 18th trying to shoot lines to the bow section of Fort Mercer. The 50 knot winds and 35 foot swells foiled all attempts at rescue operations. At daylight next morning, the motor surfboat was lowered, and it fought its way to Fort Mercer's Bow. The men would have to jump overboard and be taken aboard the monomoy. The crew of Mercer wanted the ailing master to jump overboard first because of his weakened condition. He was reluctant to leave his ship but the crew said he must jump or they would throw him overboard. He jumped and he was picked up. As the surfboat snatched a second man from the sea it was dashed into the side of the Fort Mercer's bow. Damaged and leaking, it was forced to return to the Yakutat. That it was able to return, was considered a miracle in itself. The remaining two men were rescued by means of rubber rafts, with all too few minutes to spare."
The saga of the Fort Mercer did not end there in that terrible storm off Cape Cod. The stern portion of the Fort Mercer lived to sail again. According to the Houston Chronicle June 7, 1964-"The Fort Mercer's stern was used to build a new tanker, the San Jacinto. The San Jacinto broke in half off the Virginia coast on March 26, 1964. The 'Fort Mercer Stern' divested itself of yet another bow, and remained afloat! Will the Coast Guard meet her again?"
VADM Benedict L. Stabile contributed his letter, the Boston Globe and Boston Herald newspaper articles covering rescue.
Commander Robert C. Stancliff contributed the Houston Chronicle newspaper articles on US Coast Guard inspection of T-2 Tankers.