(Author’s note: Members of the Steele family contacted me after reading my book, “Two Tankers Down,” which recounts the wreck of the Fort Mercer and Pendleton off Cape Cod in 1952. The Steele family story is one I would have loved to have told to Bernie when he still lived.)
Of the 32 men rescued from the SS Pendleton, for sure one was a father.
Perhaps it played out this way for all 32 who were plucked up by Bernie Webber and his crew that night off Cape Cod in February 1952. I’d like to think so.
But what is certain in this case and many other rescues performed by the Coast Guard and other search and rescue ops worldwide is this:
You often don’t just rescue one person. Often, indirectly, you rescue families. You don’t save just one person. You may save a whole generation. And the next.
But as I said, in this case, they saved a father — a guy named Ray.
Here’s what happened in February 1952.
Raymond Guy Steele was 25 years old when he climbed down the ladder of the sinking SS Pendleton and was plucked from the sea and certain death by Webber and his crew aboard the CG 36500.
He was the sixth of nine children, raised in East St. Louis, in a one bedroom house by a family of Pentecostal farmers forced off the land in Southern Illinois into the city to earn a living.
His brother, Roy, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. Another brother, Russell, joined the merchant marine — though statistically, that was more dangerous than Army infantry. Ray followed those footsteps and when he was 18 became a merchant mariner as the war wound down.
He was a good looking kid and saw the world in the booming post-war years. “I’ve been everywhere, sometimes twice,” he would say later.
“Wow! The whole world was opened,” Marie, his wife, would write. “He could go anywhere, see everything, do anything, and he did!
And in case some shore-leave brawl pops into your head, that’s not what Ray considered fun.
“He always liked to end up in New York City and visit all the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. He had a life-long love of jazz…”
And these were not jazz for the chumps clubs. He hung at Kelley’s Stables. There, a new bee bop sound emerged with advanced harmonies and altered chords. Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis were there but Ray came to hear the Hawk — the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.
So he was not your ordinary able bodied seaman — if there is such a thing as an ordinary able bodied seaman. He was, it is fair to say, a handsome fellow. Look at pictures today and a teenager would say, “Your grandad was hot!”
But he was also quiet, sometimes even shy. He thought about meaning. If ever he had a son, what would he name him?
In 1952, the top boy baby name were James, Robert, John, Michael, David.
But Ray particularly liked Coleman Hawkins — so much the thought formed in Ray’s mind:
Coleman would be a great name for a son if ever he was to have one.
“Coleman” was not among the top ten baby names of 1952, nor the top 50, nor the top one hundred. Not a lot of white merchant mariners were naming their sons after African American pioneers of the bebop sound, but that, as they would say now, was just how he rolled.
Somewhere in there on leave, he returned home to East St. Louis, just in time to have a friend of the family introduce him to Marie, a lovely young woman and freshly minted high school graduate. She was flattered that this handsome 23-year-old man of the world asked her out on a date but saw something beyond that in his nature. He was “between ships” and did not rush “off the beach” back to sea very fast at all. The two of them were together all that summer.
He was not gone long when Marie got a call from Ray. Would she meet him where his ship was docked in Baltimore? Would she come right away?
She did and his intent was clear. Deeply in love, the couple hopped a cross-country Greyhound to New Orleans and were married.
Renee, their first child, was born 18 months later in June 1951. Ray was making good money shipping out. He continued.
Ray sailed for seven years after the war, making 61 trips. He had some sweet gigs in the banana trades, on the “white fleet,” to South and Central America and back.
And there was plenty to do more than bananas. America was exporting, importing, trading with a world being rebuilt. The country throbbed with an industrial hum that ran on energy from oil and gas carried in tankers.
So it was a routine thing in February 1952 when in Louisiana he stepped on board the SS Pendleton, a T-2 tanker built during World War II to win the war, for a voyage north to New England. The ships were made hurriedly but won the war for America, supplying Great Britain and our armies and navies with the fuel needed to defeat the bad guys.
The problem was, they kept sailing. Inside the steel was a high amount of sulfur which at low temperatures made the metal behave more like a crystal. The problem was known but was said to be managed by huge metal straps wound round the hull.
Off Chatham in February 1952, those straps did not hold. Two T-2 tankers, the SS Fort Mercer and the SS Pendleton, split in half. The Coast Guard station in Chatham scrambled its small boats to rescue the crew as cutters swept toward the rescue from miles away.
Ray and the crew of the Pendleton maintained their cool. They were in the stern half of the Pendleton — still upright and somewhat navigable. The poor folks in the bow had been swept away and were just gone.
The Pendleton mess boiled up eggs for the men and they held them in their pockets — both as food and as make-shift hand warmers. It’s not improbable that Ray heard “Hawk” Hawkin’s riff on “Body and Soul” cross through his mind as he pondered his fate.
From the rail of the broken ship, the odds seemed very bad for Ray to be fathering any sons or daughters, whatever he might name them. All those dreams ended here. Any rescue attempt through these seas would be a suicide run.
Then, through 60-foot waves, with no compass, no radar, no guidance from this earth, Bernie Webber and the CG 36500 came from nowhere on an impossible mission that was — impossibly — accomplished.
The men filed down the ladder and all but one were saved. Webber and the crew brought them into Chatham, where the townspeople gave them comfort, food and dry clothing. Webber collapsed in a bed and as he slept the crew members, Ray included, sneaked into his room and emptied saltwater-wet dollar bills from their wallets onto the dresser.
There were awards of course. Medals. Bernie was a hero. And from my hours talking with him, I know for sure he knew that he and the crew did something good. But it was truly overshadowed in his mind — and the minds of the others — by the one guy they lost.
This was no false humility and it was not to be argued with. (I tried.) There’s no giving comfort to a rescuer regarding those who were lost. They have their own math, count their own sums.
But you can sure show the lives of those who were saved — and I would have loved it if Bernie were alive now so I could show him what he gave to Ray, his family and the world.
So Bernie, in the reverse format of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey style, here’s what would NOT have happened had you not made that trip, but did because you did.
Ray stopped shipping out after the Pendleton. He returned home to his young daughter and into the arms of Marie.
In March, just a few weeks after the rescue, she learned she was pregnant.
In December, Ray and Marie had a child, a son. And they named him Coleman of course.
Ray found land work. They returned to Illinois to be around family. Eventually, they moved to the river town of Alton. Quiet and introspective personally, professionally Ray was a natural salesman. He sold ads for a radio station first, moved to insurance and then to autos.
The couple had two more children, Mark in May of 1955 and Laura in June 1955.
Outside the job, “Ray was shy and didn’t socialize much,” Marie wrote me. “We had his big family to visit with. It was all he needed. At home he was full of jokes, stories — and music! … music everywhere.”
Coleman looked just like his dad, but it was Mark who had the musical gene. He played bass in local bands for years.
And of course, the kids grew up.
“Renee had Tony; Coleman had Carrie and Nathan; Mark had Damon, Spencer and Ryan; and Laura had Amanda and Chad.
“Now we are having Great Grand Children, Damon has Mason and in April Chad will have Ben…
“We are truly Blessed, Ray would have adored them…”
“Ray developed Parkinson’s Disease in 1996, no known cause, but the doctors were interested in the fact that he sailed so many ‘Banana Boats that filled the holds with pesticides…”
“Ray passed away 10/15/2006-8 weeks to the day that he fell and broke his hip-1 week after his 79th birthday.”
Which, given his life expectancy in February 1952 , is what you would call a right good long run.
The generations continue.
“The 5 oldest Grand children, Carrie,Tony,Amanda,Chad and Damon have all graduated from College and the girls have their Masters, Carrie in Art , and Amanda in Social Work. All are ‘gainfully employed,’ what more could you ask for?
“Thank you again for writing ‘2 Tankers Down’ it has brought back so many memories to share with the next generation.”
Ahh, thank you Marie and Ray and the entire family for sharing this. And showing that rescuers, often rescue more than one person.
And happy Father’s Day Bernie and Ray.
And to all Coast Guard rescuers everywhere of all genders and nationalities.
You do good. Far beyond what you see first hand. Or could ever imagine.
For years and years, through the people you save, and through their people, you do good.
Below are notes and pictures from the family
Hi, here’s my short bio about myself:)
I am 32 years old and live in St. Louis, Missouri. I have my Masters in Social Work and work for the state of Illinois. I am passionate about my work and am one of the fortunate ones who enjoys their job everyday! I am extremely social, love trying new restaurants and going to new fun spots in the city. I love traveling and keep myself pretty busy with an active social life.
I loved your book, Two Tankers Down, as well as the movie, The Finest Hours. I grew up spending a lot of time at my grandparents house, and spending a lot of time with Gramps, that’s what his grandkids called him. I had heard the story about his shipwreck, but too be perfectly honest, as a child I thought it was a, “tall tale” that gramps had embellished to make a good story. I mean how can a tanker break in half, stay afloat, and the crew steered it??? That was the most amazing part to me about this story, the unbeliveablenuss and what a brave man my grandfather was. In the years where he spent watching all of us, he didn’t have any desire to travel or at sometimes really leave the house. He would always say,” I’ve been everywhere, some places twice, I want to stay home and be with my family.” At the time I couldn’t begin to understand what he meant, but I knew that we were the most important thing to him, and that was really all that mattered. There are a million great things I could say about gramps; he was funny, kind, mild mannered, and loving, but above all he had integrity, compassion, and a love for knowledge and those are things I’ve always strived to posses as well. Thank you for your research into the Pendleton, and making my grandfather live for eternity in your writings!
My name is Chad Kraner and I am Ray’s grandson. My mother is Laura Steele Kraner and I am 31 years old. I was very excited to hear the news the Disney was making a movie about the Pendleton. It was a story all of us grandkids loved to hear my Grandpa tell. My Grandfather was an extremely kind man and had a great sense of humor. I can remember sitting on his front porch watching cars go by and trying to guess which direction the next car would come from. Every time we would come to visit he would give us a dollar before we left and it just meant the world to me. We had so many good times playing wiffle ball in the back yard or watching Notre Dame football games. I’m smiling now thinking about all of the memories with Gramps and I miss him a lot. I know he would have loved reading your book and reading it to the next generation of Steeles to tell them the story of the SS Pendleton.