How Bernie Webber Sank a DUKW, and Still Pulled Off a Rescue

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Excerpted from Two Tankers Down: The Wrecks of the Pendleton and Fort Mercer

Editor’s Note:  The name “DUKW” is a manufacturer’s code based on D indicating the model year, 1942; U referring to the body style, utility (amphibious); K for all-wheel drive; and W for dual rear axles. 


Chapter Twenty-Four

OLDSTYLE

January 1962

Chatham

Even before then, he felt dated. The burning of the 36-footers was
just one symptom of the change that had overtaken him. The

Coast Guard was modernizing and those who resisted change risked

ridicule.

Take the old Lyle Gun and the Breeches Buoy rigs, which are of

nineteenth-century origin. Ships of sail would drift onto Cape Cod

shores hundreds of yards from the beach. No one could row out to

get them through the surf, and the ships were soon pounded to pieces

by the breakers. In an attempt to save their lives, the crew and officers

would climb the sailing masts.


From shore, if you knew what you were doing, you could take a Lyle

Gun (which was a small cannon, really), load black powder down its barrel,

place a metal projectile tied to a line, and fire the cannon off to send

the projectile and line over the wrecked ship.

The stranded crew could then drag more lines to the boat and secure

them to the mast. One line carried a strange looking setup, which was in
its essence a set of very large canvas “breeches,” or pants, tied to a buoy and

to the rope. A crew member would scramble into the breeches part of the

contraption and be held there securely. Then through a system of pulleys

and lines, the men on shore would haul him over the waves and to safety.

The concept sounded unlikely, but the combination of the Lyle Gun

and the Breeches Buoy saved hundreds of lives over the years. The Coast

Guard still trained its men to use the technique. But these days, it seemed

fitted only as a good show for tourists and an example of the bad old

days. These were the good old days of helicopters, after all.

The Coast Guard brass surveyed those on the Cape. Bernie was by

this time (1960) officer in charge at Chatham. Did everyone agree they

could dispose of Lyle Gun training? Most of the Cape’s Coast Guard

leaders said yes; Bernie said no.

You might need the technique, he said. Choppers are great, but there
are some instances where you still might need the gun and the breeches

 setup. And besides, it’s a good exercise for

the men. It builds teamwork and it links them back to the tradition and

dedication of the original surf men.

 

Webber was widely ridiculed and near officially classified an oldtimer

and worse, a has-been. The Lyle Gun training was stopped, with

just one crew and rig left on the Cape. Bernie could feel his love for the

old ways and the old Coast Guard just leaking from him. Ten years after

his rescue he seemed all but washed up.

Still, when the call came for a Provincetown rescue, the old training

kicked in. On January 16, 1962 the fishing vessel Margaret Rose had run

aground on an offshore shoal nearly 200 yards from shore. A 40-mileper-

hour wind pushed up seas that rocked the fishing vessel and crashed

down upon her.

The first reports of the distress came at around 3:30 a.m. and the

new Coast Guard was on the spot. A helicopter was there by 4 a.m. hovering

over the Margaret Rose, ready to lift the seven men aboard to safety.

But the ship was rocking so to and fro below that the chopper could not

lower a basket without running afoul of whipping lines and masts.

 

This was nothing for Bernie to worry about. Race Point was at the

wrist of Cape Cod. He was down in Chatham at the elbow of the Cape,

miles away. The Race Point Lifeboat Station was right there.

A motor lifeboat was sent to the scene of the Margaret Rose but the

crew found they could not get close enough to the vessel to lend any aid.

The water was too rough and too shallow to make a decent approach.

Race Point sent a DUKW, an amphibious vehicle, to do the job. But it

broke down as it traveled over the dunes and was out of commission.

So a little after 4 a.m., the call went out to Chatham Lifeboat Station.

Boston search and rescue headquarters gave Bernie a briefing on

the situation. He was ordered to speed to Provincetown and do whatever

he could to help.

Webber acknowledged the order and had one request, almost as an

afterthought. Could Boston call the Cape Cod Canal Lifeboat Station

and have them send a Lyle Gun and a Breeches Buoy to P-town? It was

the last station on Cape Cod to maintain the equipment.

Webber then grabbed two crewmen, Daniel Davidson, an engineman

first class, and Wayne Chapuis, a seaman. They dressed as warmly

as they could and climbed into their station’s DUKW. The amphibious

vehicle was open to the January air and the men became chilled during

the 35-mile drive to Provincetown.

Once there, Webber could see the scene was little changed. The chopper

hovered nearby helplessly and men stood on the beach watching.

Out on the Margaret Rose, the seven crewmen had climbed up the fishing

vessel’s masts to avoid being washed away. The boat herself was awash,

with waves breaking over the deck and pounding the hull to pieces.


The Lyle Gun had not arrived. Webber could do only one thing. He

drove the DUKW over the beach and directly into the water. The clumsy

vehicle was lifted up by the first wave it hit and then nosedived down the

far side of the wave, just as another wave rolled right in on top of it.

Webber’s vehicle was swamped and sunk right there.

They were only about 100 feet offshore, and still 500 feet from the
wreck—and the water was not deep. So the men made it back to shore fine.

But the DUKW was going nowhere. Only its windshield showed above water.

Soaked and freezing, Webber trekked back to the beach and found

that the equipment from the Canal station had arrived. Now what? He

had been an advocate of the Lyle Gun training, but that’s all he’d ever

done: trained. He’d never actually ever performed a Breeches Buoy rescue.

He did not know anyone who had. It was something you read about

and drilled for, just for the drill. He knew the theory and knew the equipment,

but he had fired a Lyle Gun only once. And that was a practical

joke to scare their mailman in Chatham (which worked fine).

But this was no joke. It was nearly light now and Webber could see

the wreck was in bad shape. Plus, there was always the danger of fire. The

seas could hit the batteries in the vessel and that meant explosion would

surely follow.

He was nervous; he was abrupt. He was a low-key leader and it was

not in his nature to take command like this. But now he barked out commands

to men who weren’t his men, hoping the men thought he knew

what he was doing.

He lined the men up on the beach, told them not to ask questions

but to just remember what he said and then follow orders. Then Webber

walked down the line and pointed at one, then another. “You, lee whip.

You, weather whip. You, lee whip. You, weather whip.” So he went down

the line until the men were divided into two groups. But for what, they

were not sure.

Then Webber and the men brought the Lyle Gun down to the beach

and pointed it toward the Margaret Rose. Webber loaded two ounces of

powder down the barrel of the Lyle Gun, then he hesitated. He tried to

remember whether that was the standard charge. Then he put in two

more ounces, just to make sure.

Then he tied a line onto a steel projectile and put the projectile into

the cannon barrel. He attached a firing clip to a blank cartridge that

would set the powder off and grabbed the lanyard that would trigger

 it all. He checked to see whether the cannon was pointed correctly and

then said aloud: “God, make this shot good, Amen.”

BLAM!

The Lyle Gun jumped clear of the ground, lurched, fell backward

and upside down into the sand, such was the force of the double load of

powder.

But Webber could hear the whistle of the projectile in the air. He

could see it, too. To him, it looked as if it were heading toward Boston. He

lost sight of it and no one was sure exactly where it landed.

No one much cared. For while the cannon was overloaded and the

projectile was out of sight, the line itself was now settling over the wreck

in a feathery drape, just as it was supposed to. The fishermen were able to

grab it and haul on it. The slim line carried in a heavier line with instructions

for the fishermen. They were to rig lines on the masts far above the

water and the deck.

On the beach, the Coasties anchored all the lines to a jeep. After

some fast hauling back and forth, the men on the vessel and the men on

the beach had constructed a type of very large pulley-driven clothes line.

Haul one way, and the clothes went out your window. Haul the other way

and the clothes came back in. It was the same principle. Only they were

not hauling clothes; they were hauling men.

On the shore, the Coast Guardsmen attached the Breeches Buoy to

one line. The men Bernie had designated “lee whips” pulled one way; the

“weather whips” pulled the other. The buoy apparatus quickly reached

the masts of the fishing vessel and the first man slipped into the breeches

and was quickly carried to safety.

Back and forth, the lines went. The lee whips and the weather whips

moved the men one by one from the danger of the masts to the safety of

the shore. Six times they did this, but the seventh time was anything but

lucky.

The seas picked up and the wind rocked the Margaret Rose. It was

difficult to maintain tension in the lines as the vessel rocked.

 

Still, the canvas breeches were whipped out to the last man. He clambered

into the contraption, sitting down into the canvas pants. Then

everyone heard a sharp crack. The mast just snapped clean in two. The

man fell with the mast into the water, still in the breeches. He was quickly

swept along the beach struggling with the lines, the apparatus, the wind,

and the waves.

The Coasties were running by then. The men from Bernie’s crew,

Davidson and Chapius, immediately ran down the beach. It was as if

they were in the old Etheridge days now. They had tried boats, and that

had failed. They had tried the gun, and that had failed. There was nothing

now to do but swim for him. Complete old school.

And that was what they did. They plunged into the icy January water,

reached the man, cut him loose of the lines and breeches, and swam him

to shore. He was still alive when the batteries aboard the Margaret Rose

exploded and set the vessel afire.

Bernie looked up into the sky and the helicopter was still hovering

nearby. Well, sometimes has-beens still had their day, he thought. Sometimes

the old ways worked.

 

But he knew then that the old Coast Guard was gone. That this was

an exception and no longer the rule.

If he had any doubts about that, the next surprise would cure them.

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