Off Chatham, MA, in a terrible storm, young Bernie Webber and his Coast Guard crew set out on a suicide mission.
Summit, NJ -- (SBWIRE) -- 02/19/2013 -- Bernie Webber was the least likely candidate to execute the greatest small-boat rescue in American history, according to maritime writer Robert R. Frump.
Yet that is what Bernie did, nearly 71 years ago to the date, in a very small boat, facing very large waves and larger odds.
His rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton, a stricken oil tanker, off Chatham, MA, in February 1952 is one of the most heroic deeds performed by any Coast Guardsmen anywhere, anytime.
The second rescue crew that day accomplished a similarly impossible mission in pulling the officers from the Fort Mercer, a second tanker that had split in two during a powerful Atlantic storm.
Bernie was the trouble-prone son of a Baptist minister, who’d been well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. Until he went to sea.
And then, on the night of February 18, 1952, in a raging blizzard off the coast of Cape Cod, Webber, now a young lifeboat coxswain with the U.S. Coast Guard, and his crew performed a miracle.
Two big oil tankers had split in two in raging seas, and nothing—not a big cutter, not a sea plane, not a chopper—could reach them in time. Only Webber and his crew of three volunteers had a chance.
He knew they would probably die on this mission. They were, after all, in an unassuming thirty-six-foot rescue boat that didn’t even have a name but for the “CG 36500” on its side. But he loved this boat—and he knew the inauspicious Coast Guard motto: “You have to go out. You don’t have to come back.”
Webber took the CG 36500 out in sixty-foot waves and saved thirty lives. He and his men won the rarely bestowed Coast Guard Gold Medal for Valor and a place in history that shapes the Coast Guard culture to this day.
What placed him apart from others? Webber did not know; he only knew that events aligned so he was able to do the impossible, and he attributed it to a higher power.
I think it surely was that — God, luck, karma, providence, you name it — but he was also captain of his fate. Or at least a bosun of it.The man’s integrity was unbreakable. When they offered him the Gold Lifesaving Medal and his crew the Silver, he turned them down. He’d only take it, he said, if his crew received it as well.
It would be nice to see his integrity and courage in today’s leaders. Oh, I think it is still in the Coast Guard. I was thinking more of Congress as they now set off on a witch hunt to discover the holes in our maritime safety network — holes that they have put there.
About Robert R. Frump
Robert R.Frump is a nationally recognized journalist who won several major awards while a journalist and investigative reporter at The Philadephia Inquirer. He grew up in the small farm town of Paxton, Ill, graduated from the University of Illinois and received a master's degree from Northwestern University -- all in journalism. He received, with Tim Dwyer, the George Polk Award, for his reporting on unsafe U.S. ships, and the Gerald Loeb Award for National Business Reporting. He was also a member of an Inquirer task force that won the Pulitzer Prize.
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