Editor’s Note: The movie The Finest Hours did a good Hollywood job of telling the heroic story of the rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton. Less known but in some ways even more spectacular and challenging was the plight of the SS Fort Mercer and the Coast Guard’s refusal to abandon men trapped on her severed bow. The story is one part heroic rescue, one part horror story, and one part survival tale, as one-by-one the men improvise and meet their death or salvation as the Coast Guard improvises again and again against the heavy odds of terrible waves and winds. The Coast Guard might have given up after its second effort failed. In the end, the third and fourth efforts improbably succeeded against the odds.
The Rescue of the SS Fort Mercer
(adapted from Two Tankers Down)
February 19,1952 Near the bow of the Fort Mercer—8:30 a.m.
Second Mate Willard Fahrner and Third Mate Vince Guilden sat in the life raft and pushed the clasp knife about as if it were a hockey puck and their hands were dumb pieces of wood. Their fingers were so frozen they could not grasp the tool, pick it up and cut a line — and save their lives.
This was the cruel end to a horror tale – the type where a group of friends struggles against an unknown monster and one-by-one disappear until only a handful are left. In the life raft, one line lead to the US Coast Guard rescue ship. The other line lead to their ship which would almost certainly sink in seconds and drag them to their death.
The men had sailed on the SS Fort Mercer, a leftover World War II T-2 type tanker carrying oil from the Gulf Coast to New England, when the ship split in two during a storm. A second ship called the Pendleton – the Fort Mercer’s twin – also split in two just a few miles away.
Now, in 1952, the US Coast Guard was mounting one of its most spectacular and famous rescues. Nearby, Boatswain Bernie Webber and his crew would save the crew of the Pendleton and be enshrined in Coast Guard history and in a 2017 Hollywood version of the rescue, The Finest Hours.
But the officers on the Fort Mercer had not been so fortunate. They were trapped in the forward half of Fort Mercer and were tossed about by huge waves. There were nine of them at the start.
One good thing was, they were all calm. They were the captain, the chief mate, the second mate, and the third mate. They were Jack Brewer, Fahrner, and Vince Guilden, respectively. Ed Turner, the purser who paid the bills and was essentially an accountant, was there, as was John V. Reilly, the radioman. Then there was the quartermaster, Culver, and the two seamen who had just joined the bridge five minutes before the ship split. Perley W. Newman was an experienced able-bodied seaman; Jerome C. Higgins was a young kid, an ordinary seaman.
From the start, they looked after each other. Fahrner, the second officer, saw his drenched captain and dug out a blanket and offered it to him. Then Fahrner saw Higgins was without a life jacket. The kid had looked scared as he was coming up the catwalk before noon to take his shift. What lousy luck. Fahrner took off his own life jacket and gave it to the kid. Not to worry, he said, I’ll find one.
Guilden, the third officer, told Fahrner that was just fine. Give away your life jacket. But you’re wearing this. And Guilden passed him a length of line, a rope, and then tied it around Fahrner. The other end of the line was tied to Guilden who wore a life jacket. The theory was: We’re lined together; you wash over, I wash over; both of us will float. All of this happened more or less without Paetzel having to give any orders.
Exactly what orders should Paetzel give? Who knew. Who knew how to captain a half-a-ship tilted at five degrees to starboard and forty-five degrees to the sea, with the bridge window pointed toward the quartered sky and seas washing through the doors?
They tried an SOS but the emergency batteries failed and the radio was dead.
“Open one door and keep it opened,” Paetzel said. “The last thing we want to do is get trapped in here and drown.” My God, he’d come close enough to that already today. Everyone agreed this was the right thing to do.
Then the captain shucked off the blanket and retrieved an old fur coat he kept on the bridge. It felt warmer. But all of them were going numb. He searched for anything to tie around his feet but found nothing. The winds ripped through the bridge; the spray and waves and rain and snow were relentless. The bridge itself was taking water so they moved into the closed chart room adjoining the bridge. They could look up and out and see their own bow-front high above them, relatively clear of the waves. Of course, that’s where the buoyancy was. The fore tanks were empty, filled only with air. That’s how they loaded to keep their draft high because of a stranding in the channel in Louisiana on the Mississippi. The midtanks were ruptured and flooded with water. So they floated bow-high.
The officers took stock. They had no food, no radio, no water, no flares. What they did have was a blinker light to communicate to any ships that came near. In the stern section, the blinker would have done no one any good. No one aft knew code. The officers were engineers, and only the deck officers and the radioman—“Sparks,” as he was called on every ship—could blink Morse code. It was terribly old-fashioned even then, but it was the most modern technology the men on the bow possessed.
And soon, they would have a chance to use it. Out of the gloom, they saw ship lights. It had been hours since the wreck. Out of the gloom and the spits of snow and foam and rain sailed the Short Splice, a Navy utility ship. And it was blinking out rapid code to them—a series of dots and dashes via its blinker—about 5 p.m.
For Fahrner, it was a joy to see Sparks and the chief mate work their battery-powered blinker, which was little more than a flashlight. Geez, these guys were pros. Fahrner knew some code but Sparks and the mate? It was as if Fahrner spoke high school French and these guys were Parisians.
A burst of blinks, of dashes and dots of electronic light, would flash from the gray shadow of the Navy ship and Sparks would translate.
This is the Navy ship Short Splice.
The chief would flash back a detailed report of their status. No food, warmth, or water. Fear capsizing. Help?
No good for us to try, the Short Splice winked back. We’re not equipped for rescue. But Coast Guard cutters are on the way. A boat is on the way. Estimated time of arrival is three hours for the Coast Guard. Hang in there. We’ll stand by.
A cheer and groan rose within the men on the bow. Help was on the way. This was good. You couldn’t argue with that.
But three hours to wait? It was cold and getting colder. Hypothermia and frostbite were taking their tolls. The men could not remain functional for much longer. It had been nearly five hours and most of them were drenched. They’d try putting their hands in their pockets in their pants to warm up their fingers and restore feeling to them. It would work for a while, but even in their pockets their hands grew colder—a sure sign their overall body temperature was dropping. Captain Paetzel was still without shoes or boots and his feet were frostbitten pegs with little feeling in them.
It was 5 p.m. and light was fading. So the rescue ships, when they arrived, would be approaching in the dark.
Still, they were glad to see her when she arrived. The cutter Yakutat, with Commander Joseph W. Naab on the bridge, beat the Short Splice estimate by about half an hour and came into sight, well lit, around 7:30 p.m.
Fahrner could not keep track of the code as it flashed between the two ships. It went something like this.
This is the Coast Guard cutter Yakutat.What is your situation?
Sparks and the chief let them know.
Dots and dashes flashed back between the cutter and the half-ship and the short version of the long message from the cutter was this. Were going to fire lines to you. Then we’ll take you off using trolleys, or haul you off with rafts. Stay inside as we shoot the lines.
Soon, there were muffled explosions from the cutter as their line cannons detonated and shot out lead-laced lines to the Fort Mercer.
Seven times they fired. They tried all angles, gauging the wind, the seas, and the snow as best they could. Seven times, the spray and wind carried off the lines; none landed.
The eighth time seemed the charm. The line passed over the Fort Mercerbow section and stayed there. Problem was, it landed in the radio antennae above the bridge house. The men on the bow could see it and they set out to retrieve it.
Huge waves! Winds of 50 miles per hour and more. Three times they set out to retrieve the line. Three times they were driven back. It was just too dangerous. Water was sweeping the bridge housing. The bow was listing more to starboard now as well. The bow had the floating action of a bottom-weighted fishing bobber. The front of the bow section and its empty tanks floated free of the fray, for the most part, above the deckhouse, which was regularly dunked and drenched by the sea.
This was a heartbreaking business for Naab. He was meant to save men’s lives. That was his duty. But he could not put a single line aboard. He could see that the men would not last much longer where they were.
And so it was the officers of the Yakutat blinkered over the question: Can you make it to the forward-most bow area? You’ll have better protection there. And we’ll have better access to you. Forget about us shooting lines in this dark soupy weather. We’ll float some lighted rafts down to you. But you have to get out of the bridge and down to the rail level some how.
Great idea. How?
There was no longer any interior passage. Go down the stairs to the main deck? The passageways were flooded, just as the captain’s quarters had been. The exterior ladders had been ripped loose and carried away by the waves.
If they had some rope, they might make it out the bridge windows or off the deck or out the portal on the side where the wind was not so hard.
If they had a rope. Might as well say, if they had a helicopter. Better yet, wings. They had neither rope nor helicopter. No wings either.
And Culver, the quartermaster, said, guys, let’s tie the blankets together. It was like a classic escape caper where one ties sheets and blankets together and shinnies to the ground from a third-floor window.
Fahrner thought about that. He fingered the blankets. They would have to rip them and tie them. He doubted they would hold up—particularly for Paetzel, who was a heavy guy.
Fahrner fished out the signal flags from the bridge. These were the lines and the flags that were run up the mast to show various states of the ship or the weather. They were tough cords, tough flags. They could use them instead of the blankets.
Everyone agreed in an instant and they set about to work. The chief and Sparks blinkered back the plan. All of them were happy to be doing something, and doing something they knew: knots and lines were a primary skill of seamen. All of them, captain through the ordinary seamen, set to work on forming this makeshift line.
A half hour later when they were finished, it seemed strong. And aboard the Yakutat,the rescuers were busy tying their own knots and lines. This was a makeshift effort they were assembling: a line of rafts, lighted, tied together by lines that were also lighted. They would use almost every piece of rope and line onboard the Yakto assemble the rescue apparatus.
If the men reached the deck level, the Yakutat would drift this line of rafts in close to them. The men could jump and swim to the rafts and lines. Or if they were lucky, if the drift was right, they could jump into the rafts. That is, if the men reached the deck level. If the signal line rope held.
It was well past 9 p.m. in the evening and the storm was not slackening. The men had been exposed now for more than nine hours to freezing temperatures and raking, wet winds.
Fahrner looked down the side of the bridge house. It was a long drop down to a catwalk that led forward. Peering through the spray, he could see there were four grids missing on the catwalk. He rethought the entire idea.
It was so cold, but he had no choice. It was the last thing to do, and that is how he saw it: the last thing to do, no choice now. They would die on that bridge—slowly by exposure or quickly by drowning. The starboard list was greater now. The bow section was tilted up but increasingly tilted over. By this time, their counterparts on the Pendletonbow were dead. Fahrner did not know that, but the Yakutat officers almost certainly did.
The chief mate, Jack Brewer, was the first man down the rope. He moved through a large porthole on the bridge, dangled for a moment, and went down the line. Waves nipped at his heels, but his feet caught the catwalk and he was down. Perfect.
This gave Fahrner strength and hope. He took the line that lashed him to the third mate and removed it. And without a life jacket, he too went down the line of cord and flags.
His legs flailed out for the catwalk. They caught. He gained purchase. He was down. And then he was moving forward. Forward and up. No time to stay and help the next man down. You had to hurry forward, scurry over those missing grids or the waves would catch you.
Third down was the third mate, and Guilden too made it and rushed to Fahrner. They reattached the line that bound them together. Both men were high up on the bow now and looked down the ramped deck of the Fort Mercer toward the bobbing bridge house. Then they opened the carpentry shed on the bow and began looking for a life jacket for Fahrner— and anything else dry that could keep them warm.
And so the men descended from the bridge to the main deck level. Paetzel and the radioman were the last two left. Paetzel was big, with a comfortable layer of fat to keep him warm. Sparks was very thin with no insulation from the cold. Still it was hard to tell who was shivering the hardest.
“Captain I’m not going to make it,” Sparks said to Paetzel.
“You’ll make it!” Paetzel replied. “Hold on until you reach the catwalk.”
Sparks climbed through the porthole and hung onto the metal of the porthole for a long time before grabbing the line. He stared down at the catwalk, trying to time the waves. The wave cycles were perhaps 30 to 40 feet apart, and the timing needed to be right.
Down the line Sparks went. He saw a lull in the waves and descended toward the catwalk. The wave cycle was right. But he missed the catwalk with his legs. He landed on the deck itself with no purchase, no leverage, no point to catch himself. He flailed on the rope as the wave cycle, which had receded, built again and blew up a big monster that washed over him and the catwalk.
And Paetzel could see it all happen from above. He could see that Sparks held onto that line for a good long time before the sea just took him and washed him off to his death.
Paetzel did not waste time or second-guess his own descent. Death was certain in the bridge house. He ducked out through the portal, swung his considerable weight over onto the side of the ship, and nimbly enough for an overweight, out-of-shape old seadog with frostbitten feet, he caught the catwalk and moved forward.
What the men saw then was both phantasmagoric and utterly beautiful. The cutter had pulled upwind of the Fort Mercerbow. The Yakutat rescuers had tied a string of well-lit rafts together and floated them down from windward. All of this in a roaring blizzard in the dark of night.
The rafts drifted down, lights glowing through the snow, like someone’s fantasy of a Christmas procession. On the forecastle, the men had a chance now to strike out for the rafts in the water. The Yakutat officers had said to jump when the rafts got close.
But what did “close” mean? They were not sure.
In the meantime, Fahrner and Guilden were in the forecastle carpentry shop rummaging for a life jacket. Fahrner found one and the two officers, literally bound together, undid the line between them. Paetzel was maneuvering up the tricky catwalk. And the chief mate and the two seamen looked at the line of rafts, the rescue processional. Up above, Coast Guard planes dropped flares. Lights cut through the motes of snow and rain. And down drifted the rafts toward them, even with the bow now.
Was this close enough? How far away were they? When should they jump?
Aboard the Yakutat,Naab watched with utter dread. They had been positioning the rafts to drift alongside the bow section, to get the rafts in close. This was easier said than done. The winds, the waves, the snow and rain all made it difficult to maneuver and drift the line down in the dark.
And at precisely the wrong moment, the line to the rafts gave way. Just parted and let the rescue processional loose into the storm.
The raffs swooped sharply toward the bow section. Naab did not even have time to warn the seamen. The cutter crew watched in horror, each of them thinking some version of, “Don’t jump.”
The chief mate and the seamen figured this was it. The line of rafts raced toward the bow section and came even with it. It was now or never. They did not hesitate. They had seen Sparks washed to his death. All three men climbed the railing of the Fort Mercer bow and jumped for the rafts. Only Higgins, the ordinary seaman, held back.
Paetzel and Fahrner met at the forecastle. Where’s the chief and the other men? They asked each other the same question because none of them had seen the men jump. Only Higgins was left. “They jumped,” he told them.
Fahrner looked out at the rafts. Did they make it? No way. No way they could have, he thought. The rafts to his eye were 300 yards away across an expanse of mountainous seas. You’ve got five minutes in these waters, he figured. Five minutes before you would either drown or succumb to hypothermia.
As if to confirm it all, the rafts were quickly swept away and with them went every piece of line and equipment the Yakutat carried. So the cutter chased after her runaway rafts. The rescuers needed that equipment and there was always a chance, too. Always a chance that one of the men had made it, climbed into the raft, was riding out the waves now.
It took the Yakutat the better part of two hours to recover her gear. All this time, the men on the bow hunkered down, finding whatever warmth they could. The top of the bow was more stable, but it was not warmer. Paetzel found a flag and draped it over his head. His feet were still shoeless. The men took turns rubbing his feet, trying to keep the blood circulating there.
But increasingly the men felt hopeless. The chief and the radioman were both gone now—their aces on the blinker and code. There was little they could say now to the cutter and less they could understand as to the cutter’s intention.
The Yakutat rounded in the water, her gear secure, and headed back to the bow of the Fort Mercer.She got as close as she could. The thought may have been to hail the survivors via loudspeaker, tell them the cutter would stand off until morning.
Higgins interpreted it as another rescue effort. The cutter seemed convincingly close. He jumped the rail and leapt for the cutter, falling into the chaos of ocean between the ship and the half-ship. He was gone in ten seconds. No one had a chance to reach him. The sea just took him and there was no sight of his orange life jacket after one cycle of waves.
The Yakutat backed away then. The cutter turned-to and left the Fort Mercer.It was well past midnight and there seemed little she could do. The storm was not slackening. The flares from the plane comprised mood lighting for a horror scene, not visibility for a rescue. The survivors would have to hang on until daylight. Further rescues would lead to more harm now. They had to wait for better conditions. Naab felt the worse hour of his life as he realized this, then snapped back to command. There is nothing more we can do now, he thought. We need to just wait until daylight. His own crew had taken a beating in these seas. Everyone was exhausted and they needed some rest. Naab prayed that the old hulk would still be floating.
The four men—Paetzel, Fahrner, Guilden the third mate, and Turner the purser—watched as the rescuers retreated. Where the hell were they going? Guilden found a bell near the forepeak and began ringing it. Paetzel, in the glare of the flares from the plane, took off the flag from his head and waved it wildly skyward.
We’re still here, they were saying. We’re still alive.
But the plane stopped dropping flares and departed soon after. The Yakutat was a good 7 miles away.
Before he turned in, Naab had a thought for what the Yakutat might try next. What they needed, Naab thought, was a small boat. And someone like Webber and Bangs. Who did they have? Everyone pointed to Ensign William R. Kiley from Long Branch, New Jersey. He was a big man built like a moose, some said, and he could handle small boats.
What did they have? A Monomoy surfboat, a craft even more ancient than the CG 36500. It had been designed to row through the waves that crashed near Monomoy outside of Chatham, to shoot through such perilous conditions as the Chatham Bar. All the modern technology and this nineteenth-century boat was his best shot, Naab thought.
In the morning, they could see the Fort Mercerbow fine. The weather had slacked. Barely, but it had slacked and if nothing else, visibility was better.
What they saw was not encouraging.
The Fort Mercer bow, already at an angle of forty-five degrees stern to bow, now was at a forty-degree angle to starboard. It was pitching up and over. Water was flooding inside the buoyant tanks that remained. Something had put more stress on the cold steel, something was letting water in and weighting the ship over to the right side—and soon, to capsizing.
Kiley, a very large man, had to be damned good in that very little boat.
The four men on the bow of the Fort Mercerhad huddled together all night—with Guilden ringing the bell, with the captain, when he thought he saw a ship’s light or a plane, waving the flag he held on his head like a scarf.
Then, as dawn came, they saw the lights of the Yakutat grow ever- closer. From the leaden clouds of morning at the edge of the sea, the profile of the cutter formed and then filled in form as it came closer.
Soon the ship was in hailing distance, and a Yakutat officer explained the new deal. It was clearer now—not much calmer, but clearer—and they could see. Rather than the men jumping to them, the Yakutatwould send a boat. The men would line up on the rail and one-by-one jump for the boat.
On the half-ship, the officers and the purser huddled. Paetzel was near gone. Still in his bare feet, he stomped about on his frostbitten feet, just hanging in there. Tradition and rank had it that the cap was the last man to leave the ship. Paetzel insisted on it. Common sense told Fahrner and Guilden that they were stronger and that the captain and the purser should be the first.
So they told him then and there: you go first. Paetzel said no. Then we’ll throw you over first, the two junior officers told him. Your choice.
And so that is how Paetzel went first. They edged down the deck toward midships of the half-ship. It was perilous. It was a Tilt-A-Whirl ride in the seas now. The ship pointed up at its same forty-five-degree angle, but now the list to starboard was around forty-five to fifty degrees. Something below was giving way. The waterproof tanks were crumpling. Buoyancy was being lost as air pockets seeped out and turned the ship ever more perilously toward capsizing.
The officers looked out from the bow of the Fort Mercerand what they saw was this big guy in the small boat. The Yakutat had lowered a Monomoy surfboat with Kiley and his crew into waves that still crested at 30 to 45 feet. The seas had not calmed at all, just the snow and the rain. They dropped the surfboat on davits into the drink and instantly, Kiley was on the ride of his life. The boat was well built but less than 30 feet long—far shorter than Bernie’s CG 36500 and without deck covering.
Just keeping the craft moving forward was a challenge. Where was forward? The waves lifted the small craft up like a cork—one story, two stories, three stories, four stories above the “ground floor”—then dropped it into a basement four stories below that. The seas would make the small boat run before them, then spin the craft about while the wind tugged it in another direction.
Riley had only a tiller steer on the boat and no wheel. The difference between Riley and the lifesaver of a century ago was a power engine. That was about it.
Still he made it. Kiley crossed the gap between the Yakutat and the Fort Mercerbow and at first approached the starboard side, the lower side. But that was also where the heaviest seas were breaking and he saw this was no good.
Off to portside then, and he was there in front of them now, the officers lined by the railing.
Jump, he mouthed to Paetzel, as the lifeboat made a pass, and Paetzel leaped from the railing. He struck frozen feet first into the water, as he had intended. His life jacket popped him to the surface and all seemed well. Then the sea sucked him into the eddy of the half-hull of the ship. The sea hammered him there, then spat him back away from the ship.
Kiley’s crew had him, for a moment. One of the crew members had a boathook and he thrust it out to Paetzel and the captain grabbed it for all he was worth. Then the sea corkscrewed them about again and the leverage of it all twisted the boathook handle and all away from the crewman. Paetzel bobbed numbly in the water, holding on tightly to the boathook and handle, which no one held on the other side.
After a while, he let the boathook float loose, as he lost it and drifted—ever more numb now—toward unconsciousness. A line came hurtling through the air across him from the boat. He missed it. A second line was thrown out then. And again, Paetzel missed it. He did not know where he was now. A third line flew from the boat and Paetzel never remembered grabbing it. But he did. And they had him. They hauled him to the side of the boat and heaved him over. Paetzel flopped into the boat and was safe.
At the same time, seas flowed over the dipped down the side of the boat and drenched the rescuers. Water filled much of the bottom of the little craft now and it wallowed more in the big waves. Somewhere there, too, as Kiley fought to find the captain and bring him aboard, the little boat had slammed hard against the hull of the half-ship and no one was quite sure whether the wooden sides were stove in or not.
Still, they rounded about toward the Fort Mercer bow. Turner, the purser, was next. He jumped. He caught a line. He was in. Over the side he came as they leveraged him in from the sea. And over the side again came a tub or two of water, near swamping the little boat.
Kiley wallowed about in the seas with his damaged boat, half swamped and half-afloat. He looked up at Guilden and Fahrner, the third and second mates, and he did not have to tell them; they knew. He had to go, and go now.
He rounded the little boat past the bow of the Fort Mercerand waved to the officers on board, then rounded to again and headed back to the Yakutat.
Guilden and Fahrner watched them go. Fahrner had never seen seamanship like that. He had watched in amazement as Kiley brought the little boat in—up and over the huge waves, swirls, and eddies; timing it just right to get as close as he could to the boat and the men.
Now they watched Kiley head back to the cutter. It was more than a mile to the Yakutat. They would catch sight of the little boat, then watch it completely disappear down a wave. Then bob to the top of the crest of another wave, and slide down and disappear down the side of another.
They both knew there was as much a chance the boat would not make it. Perhaps it would be back for them—but more likely it would not make it back.
They could not see the mile to the Yakutatas. Kiley brought the surf- boat home. He was wallowing awfully now, just making headway, the boat half-sunk as he pulled to the leeward side of the Yakutat.
They had thought to bring the boat up on davits, but it was nearly sinking at shipside, so they brought the men up by cargo nets. Then, the little boat was lifted up as well. All the time, Kiley protested. He could make another run, he told Naab. He could do it again. One more time, Kiley said. He was sobbing now. Naab and the others thought it a miracle Kiley had even made it back at all. They would not let him go out again.
Paetzel and Turner were rushed to warm blankets and beds. They were beat and battered. They were in better shape than the little Monomoy, though. The boat would not go out again this day.
And the cutter, an hour later, approached the half-ship again and hailed Guilden and Fahrner and told them that. The officers could hear the Coast Guardsman over the loudspeaker, or at least they could hear enough. The wind, the waves, the howl of it all carried away some of the words. But they got the drift of what was happening now in bits and spurts, some clear, some blown away by the wind.
We’re going to shoot you a line … tie it fast to the rail … we’ll run you a raft … jump to the raft…. Noise drowned out the words then, but they got the gist. Jump to the raft and the Coast Guard would pull them in. And so they set about it.
The Coast Guard fired a line. This time, on the first try it arched over the bow of the Fort Mercer and the men caught it. They hauled on the thin line and brought on board a heavier line.
Across the pitching ocean, they could see the Coast Guardsmen dump a raft into the sea. The raft had one line tied to the cutter and the Coasties were paying out that line. The two men on the Fort Mercerbow hauled on the line and the raft edged ever closer to the bow. The men ached with cold, but they could haul and haul they did.
Soon the raft was about 30 yards away. They judged that about right. Any closer and it might be pushed into the bow. Any farther? They had no chance.
And now seniority kicked in. Guilden, who had lined himself to Fahrner earlier, was the third mate. And Fahrner, the second, would be the last man off.
They wished each other luck and then Guilden was on the line to the raft, on the far side of the Fort Mercer rail, and then he was gone. Fahrner was alone on the rail now.
Guilden slid as far as he could on the line, about half way to the raft, then plunged into the sea. Crushing cold! The sea took his breath away, but he swam, struck out across the 10 to 15 yards to the raft and he was there.
But there was one problem. The life raft had flipped and it was upside down to the water. Men have died in cold waters clinging to the sides of life rafts properly righted. That last foot or so of vertical barrier might just as well be a 100-foot cliff, so drained are the men and so numb; they can summon no strength to gain purchase on the sheer rubber and canvas raft sides.
Guilden for a moment simply held onto the raft. Then he fought the cold and the fatigue. For more than fourteen hours, he and those on the bow had been stressed beyond endurance and they had endured. Now he tried everything he could. Sheer strength lifting the raft would not work. It simply leveraged him below the water.
But he still had his wits and after a bit thought he saw how to work it. From the railing, Fahrner watched as his third mate maneuvered the edge of the raft in the seas and the wind; the convergence of the seas and the wind managed to lift a corner of the raft up, then lifted it up more and lofted it skyward for a moment, then flopped it over, upright.
From the bridge of the Yakutat,Commander Naab watched and thought Guilden’s struggle superhuman. How could he do something like that? How could he survive in those waters period, yet right the raft?
Guilden was quite human, though. Having righted the raft, he could only hold on. He was wholly spent. He simply drifted next to the raft, a limp arm wrapped atop the side. He was unable to hoist himself over the top and looked as if he might drift off at any moment.
Fahrner on the rail knew he had to act fast. Yes, he wanted to help Guilden, who had so valiantly lashed himself to Fahrner when Fahrner had no life vest. But he needed to act fast for another reason. He could feel the bow shifting. The starboard list had moved to sixty degrees now. The half-ship was capsizing and about to roll.
Still, he calculated what to do. He planned it. He saw how Guilden had slipped off the rope. Fahrner untied the rope from the rail and slacked off more length into the water. Better to enter the water and pull himself along the rope than attempt to slide in the air, drop off, and swim without the rope.
From the Yakutat,the Coasties watched earnestly. This was all going according to plan, or as much as it could. They had told the men what to do. Slide down to the raft and then the last man would undo the rope from the rail of the sinking bow and swim for the raft. Then the Coast Guard would pull them in.
Key phrase: “undo the rope from the rail of of the sinking bow.”
And that was what Fahrner was doing. He had undone the rope and … then he was retying the rope! What was happening? He was lashing the raft line to the bow again. Not the plan. Not the plan.
What had happened is that the wind and waves had carried those last instructions away. The ship officers simply had not heard them.
Neither were they green nor dumb. Their plan was to simply cut the rope when they got to the raft. Guilden carried a large sheath knife on his belt. Fahrner had a large clasp knife safely in his pocket. If you were on board a ship, you almost always carried a knife. You never knew when you might have to cut a line.
So Fahrner never thought twice about the raft remaining tethered. He jumped for it and hit the water well. He felt the same breath- sucking cold then struck out for the raft. He reached it, grabbed, then got entangled in his own lines. He struggled for a moment before freeing himself.
Then he came up alongside Guilden and gave him words of encouragement. And he was smart enough to know what to do. It was akin to the instructions air attendants would give countless fliers in more modern times. In event of depressurization, parents should put on their oxygen masks first, then help their children.
And Fahrner, while he still had strength, lifted himself into the raft rather than try to push Guilden up. In the raft, Fahrner could have leverage and more strength. In the water, he would soon tire with no leverage. In attempting to push Guilden up, he would simply push himself down. And then both men would be cold and clinging to the raft: dead men floating.
Still, once in the raft, it was no easy trick. The raff’s wall was a slick cliff. Guilden could not scale it; Fahrner could not dead-lift his comrade and his water-soaked clothes. It took five minutes of struggle for the men to time the waves and the water just right, and then Guilden was half over the side of the raft, and then into it.
Both men lay in the bottom of the raft, cold and exhausted. But they had made it. Now they needed only to cut the raff loose and the Coasties would haul them in. Guilden reached for the knife in his sheath on his belt. It was gone. The sea had twisted it loose. Fahrner was happy he had his clasp knife firmly in his pocket. And he reached for it now. They would cut the line and be gone.
Such a simple thing. Just open a pocket knife, a large pocket knife. Fahrner had the knife in his hands. He was commanding his fingers to grasp the blade, hold it against his thumb and just apply the half pound of pressure needed to open the blade.
His fingers did not respond. He could not feel them. He could not make them move. They might as well be stumpy pegs of half-frozen meat. In fact, they were. Untie the knot then? A worse idea. If he could not open the knife, how could he untie a taught knot drawn tighter by the pounding of the seas?
Fahrner looked across at the Yakutat,then back at the bow of the Fort Mercer.The bow was tilting ever more starboard now, about to roll. The bow was going to take them with her: they were lashed to her and they had no way to break the tie.
On the bridge of the Yakutat,Commander Naab, the architect of the Fort Mercer bow rescue attempts, was now at a loss. The poor bastards in the raft were caught between the devil of the deep blue sea and the angel of mercy, his very own Yakutat. But what could he do now? The two lines held the men in mid-ocean. The bow was sinking even now as they looked at her. What could he do?
Only one thing. Pull the wishbone and hope he got the right piece. He would have to back off the cutter, power it away from the sinking hulk and hope and pray that the right line broke.
If the line from raft to tanker broke, their wish came true and they got the big half of the wishbone and the men in the raft. If the line from the cutter to the raft broke, the men would still be tethered to the bow. And anyone could see that the bow was going any minute, any second. It would sink and drag the men to their dead friends.
Wilfred Bleakley, a young ensign on the bridge of the Yakutat just eight months out of the Coast Guard Academy, could stand it no longer. “You have no choice, Captain!” he bleated out. “Back down and hope the line breaks on the other side of the raff.” Pull the wishbone and pray you got the big piece with the raft on it.
Naab pretty much had that figured out without the ensign’s advice. Then again, he had to admit it, the kid was right.
Back down, Naab ordered.
The big cutter backed down, began moving away. The lines on both sides became taught, stretching, throwing off water and straining.
Then there was a snap, a crack as if a large caliber rifle had been fired.
Naab and the others aboard the Yakutat peered out to see how the wishbone had split. The raft jerked suddenly and jolted toward the cutter. The line to the bow of the Fort Mercer snapped in two, shot toward the bow, and then slacked in the water.
Immediately, the Coast Guard hauled on the other line. They heaved and in about ten minutes they had the raft alongside the Yakutat.Guilden and Fahrner were exhausted, stretched out in the boat.
At that exact moment, someone yelled, “There she goes!”
The survivors, still in the raft, looked over at the bow section. The half-ship turned over and sank the bow deck beneath the waves. Then the survivors swiveled their frozen necks and looked up at the Coast Guard.
Ensign Bleakley would never forget the look on their faces—a combination of wonder, gratefulness, exhaustion, and amazement.