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.
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.