The Most Famous Rescues — Followed by the Worst Investigations — The Wrecks of the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer

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Nearly everyone who watched the movie The Finest Hours knows the story of the famous rescue back in 1952 — how Bernie Webber and his brave crew shot the Chatham Bar to save dozens of men on the Pendleton. Less well known is the rescue of the men from the bow of the Fort Mercer, the “other” ship in my book Two Tankers Down. The Fort Mercer rescue is considered by some to be as dramatic as that of the Pendleton and every bit of miraculous.

Unfortunately, the bravery of the rescuers did not carry over to the Marine Board of Investigations into the two casualties. Both ships were T-2 tankers, built during the war. Both ships were formed of steel with high sulfur content — which worked fine for riveted hulls but not the new war-time welded hulls. At temperatures below 50 degrees, the steel sometimes behaved more like a brittle crystal than a flexing metal. Ships cracked in two at dockside. The problem was a “known” — treated with steel belts wrapped about the ship to keep them afloat.

The boards investigating the two casualties — both ships had split in two — were aware of the problem and acknowledged it could not be fixed. Nevertheless, the Coast Guard said the old ships could continue sailing — with a few more belts wrapped about them. The new belts might help the crew evacuate in the event of a new casualty.

It’s hard to imagine any other safety agency approving such a fix for autos, trains, or airlines. Acknowledging that inherent defects would cause cars to crash, trains to derail, and airlines to fall to earth would not be offset by some makeshift safety feature that might allow passengers time to escape. But in the maritime world, it was seen as sensible policy.

So the old war time tankers, liberty ships and passenger vessels continued to sail for years past the normal shelf life of a vessel. And they began to sink. One court counted 15 T-2 tankers that had split.The Marine Sulphur Queen, was lost with all hands in 1963. The Poet, an old converted troop transport, went down with all hands in 1980. The Marine Electric sank in 1983 with all but three men lost.

The Pendleton-Fort Mercer decisions began a decades long run of bad safety policy — policies that were slowed by the Marine Electric and (one hopes) stopped by the El Faro.

Here’s my account of the origins of bad policy in: Captains of Thor — the Loss of the SS El Faro (free online or buy the book at Amazon here)

Chapter Two: The Frankenships

8:30 a.m.

February 19, 1952

Near the Bow Section of the SS Fort Mercer,

Off Cape Cod, Near Chatham

Willard Fahrner and Vince Guilden poked at the clasp knife on the floor of their life raft, as if the knife were a puck and their frozen hands and arms, hockey sticks made of dead wood. So cold were their fingers that they could not grasp the tool, pick it up and cut a simple single line, an act that would ensure their survival.

This was the cruel end to a maritime tale of horror — a story that might have been begun by Melville, then finished by Poe. The two men in the raft, with their fellow officers and crew, had struggled for hours against a monster of a storm and huge seas. There were nine of them at the start. One-by-one, five disappeared, until only four were left.

Two of those four were rescued. Now only Fahrner and Guilden, the second and third mates, respectively, sat in the numbing cold. Their heads swiveled from the “good line” that led to the US Coast Guard rescue ship, then pivoted to the “bad line” tied to their sinking ship, and now stretched and strained. The one certainty here was that if the good line broke, the bad line would drag them to their deaths.

The men had sailed on the SS Fort Mercer, a leftover World War II T2-type tanker carrying oil from the Gulf Coast to New England. The ship split neatly in two during a storm near Chatham, off the coast of Cape Cod. A second ship, the SS Pendleton – the Fort Mercer’s twin — also split in two just a few miles away at about the same time.

The US Coast Guard was mounting one of its most spectacular rescues for the Pendleton. Nearby, boatswain Bernie Webber and his fellow Coasties 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 of the Fort Mercer had not been so fortunate. They were trapped in the bow half of the ship, and were tossed about by huge waves. All nine huddled on the bridge at first, but they were forced out by crashing waves. One man slipped into the sea. Three more miscued on a Coast Guard message — they jumped and were swept away. Another leapt jumped for a rescue boat, only to be swept under.

Two more men were rescued by a daring Coast Guardsman steering a small boat in impossible seas. But that boat was battered now, and Fahrner and Guilden were stranded. In a desperate last Hail Mary, the Coast Guard shot a line over to the Fort Mercer then floated a raft to Fahrner and Guilden. They plunged into the ocean, swam through frozen seas and 40-foot waves in 50-mph winds, and somehow managed to mount the life raft.

And now here they were, frozen and exhausted. No one saw this end coming. It had seemed simple: make it to the raft; cut the line to the Fort Mercer; get reeled into the rescue ship, the Yakutat.

On the bridge of the Yakutat, Commander Joseph W. Naab, the architect of the Fort Mercer bow rescue, was stumped. He could see the bow sinking more and more into the Atlantic. What was his next step?

Wilfred Bleakley, a young ensign on the bridge of the Yakutat just eight months out of the Coast Guard Academy, could not stand the tension and broke rank. 

“You have no choice, Captain!” he bleated. “Back down and hope the line breaks on the other side of the raft.”

Naab pretty much had that one figured out. Then again, he had to admit the kid was right. Back down, Naab ordered.

The big cutter began moving away. The lines on both sides of the raft tightened, stretching, throwing off water and straining.

Then there was a snap, a loud crack as if a large-caliber rifle had been fired. Naab and the others aboard the Yakutat peered out.

The raft suddenly jerked and jolted toward the cutter. The line to the bow of the Fort Mercer snapped in two, shot toward the bow, then slacked in the water. They were saved!

The Coast Guard hauled the line. In about ten minutes, they had pulled the raft alongside the Yakutat. Guilden and Fahrner were stretched out in the boat, exhausted.

At that 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 survivors then swiveled their frozen necks and looked up at the Coast Guard.

Ensign Bleakley would always remember the look on their faces — a look of wonder, gratefulness, exhaustion, and amazement.

Such was the glory of life at sea as a Coast Guardsman. Next day, the papers nationwide were alive with the triumph of two great rescues. Nearly all the men of the Pendleton were saved; and the rear part of the Fort Mercer, where the bulk of the crew took refuge, was salvaged with no deaths at all.

The rescues were a high point in Coast Guard history. But what had the deaths of the men won for the cause of maritime reform?

Little, as it turned out. Oh, the investigations that followed the sinking of the two ships forged history, make no mistake.  — though not in a particularly glorious manner. 

The two formal Marine Board of Investigation inquiries acknowledged what everyone knew long before the Pendleton and Fort Mercer crack-ups: that the wartime T2-type ships involved here had been structurally unsafe.

Their steel was flawed at a molecular level and could not be fixed. This was what came from the war and hurried production. The ships were good enough to win the war with all its risks and caution cast to the wind. More arrived than sank. 

To help a bit, steel belts were added to the tankers – but only as a means to give the crews a fighting chance.  The vessels would be expected to split in two, but the steel belts wrapped around them provided a sort of “limp home” mode — if the weather was not too bad. 

The Coast Guard and ABS had allowed the Pendleton and Fort Mercer to sail knowing all of these factors.  And knowing that cold water often precipitated crises.  Under 50 degrees, the high sulfur steel often behaved more like a crystal structure that could shatter suddenly. 

This is what happened to both ships off Cape Cod.  They had split like a champagne flute clean in half.  And clearly, the limp-home mode had not worked. for the two ships.  So what would the Marine Board do?

In a sense, the future of maritime safety was — like the Fort Mercer life raft – tethered between two forces and fates.

One line of Marine Board reasoning was tied to the best instincts of safety-minded officers. Another line attached to commercial concerns, and kicked the can of maritime safety far down the road. 

Here, the line “broke bad.”

The answer, said the boards, was not to scrap the ships. Instead, they said that if even more steel belts should be added. 

were added to the ships, these would allow the crew and officers enough time to reach safe harbor the next time a T2 fractured and structurally imploded. They could make it to port “under some circumstances.” 

The unsaid part was that the ships would not make it home under other circumstances — such as rough seas and storms, conditions that a normal ship must will routinely encounter and survive.

So the short, clear message to merchant mariners who read the report was in effect this: 

“These ships are flawed. They might break in two. We’re going to try to buy you some time if that happens. No guarantees on whether it’s enough time, though.” 

It was an astounding conclusion. By the standards of any other form of transportation, the policy screamed insanity 

What regulatory body would say that a car, plane or train was fundamentally flawed and might fall apart — but patchwork fixes and baling wire might allow the passengers time to escape harm in a crash? Under some circumstances? (Not others.)

None would, of course, because passengers in those affected by planes, trains and cars were many — and they voted. Merchant mariners? They were few in number with, had little clout. And in the modern day and age, they were nearly invisible to voters.

So it was that the era of the Frankenship began – a time when ships that ought to have died a normal death were revived, vivisected, patched up and sent out onto the seas of the world. 

What caused such a policy? Perhaps the nearness of the war was to blame. This would not be new. An 1865 official inquiry into the horrible loss of the steamship Sultana found that:

“Recklessness, induced by the war, …extended its mischievous tendencies into all branches of trade and is particularly observable among those in or on board some classes of steamers. 

A large number of boats have been used during the war as transports, tugs and freights, these have been depreciated by long and continued use—purchased and put on duty without proper examination and even without precaution or regard to safety. 

This will doubtless be found among the most prominent causes of the terrible calamities which seem to be beyond the reach of official remedy.”

The most charitable explanation of the policy was that the Coast Guard felt the ships would soon be scrapped. This might have seemed reasonable at the time. Who would want to retain ships that were structurally unsafe? They were slow. Steam powered. Inefficient. Soon, modernization and markets would wipe out the old vessels. Owners needed would need more efficient, larger ships to compete.

And they would have the resources for this because they were protected by the Jones Act — a “cabotage” or “coastal shipping” provision — that reserved all in-country trade to US officers and crews, on ships built in American yards. This assured that the country would have a strong merchant marine in case of war. The protected trades also made certain that owners could afford to replace old ships with brand-new, state-of-the art vessels.

The opposite occurred.

The new Jones Act ships never appeared, in part because the old ships got a safety pass designed to make the maritime sector strong.  Higher shipping and operating costs simply were passed on to shippers who had to pay the higher rates if they wanted to ship in the coastal American trades.  

Few new ships were being built. The prices at American yards were prohibitively high — three times the cost at a foreign yard. Few economic forces pushed the war-era ships to the scrap yard. Protected rates showed a profit, no matter how inefficient the vessel. Moreover, an old 1850 law assured the ship owners would not face huge civil penalties for such catastrophes as the Fort Mercer and Pendleton.  The families of lost seamen were limited to damages equal to the value of the ship – which was zero once it sank.  

And so the war-era ships sailed on.

Not only did they stay at sea, but they were often converted as they approached the end of their regular life — “jumbo-ized” or “stretched” — so they could carry even more cargo in configurations and rigging often not suited to their original design.  

More and more, the Frankenships grew in number.  They ought to have died after the war.  Instead, they became the central core of the American merchant marine fleet.

This was no small ripple in the maritime world. The lax Coast Guard safety-inspection standards, joined with the trend of Frankenships, would create a great rolling tide of carelessness in safety standards and the wave, energized by regulators and operators alike, would crash into more than a dozen ships in the decade following the tanker disasters. 

What about the Coast Guard pledge to keep a close eye on T2s and the other war surplus Frankenships? 

By 1962, ten of the old ships had sunk with no major cautions coming from the Coast Guard. In fact, the stern of the SS Fort Mercer, salvaged from the 1952 sinking, sank a second time after her stern half had been welded to a new bow.

Finally, a tragedy that could not be ignored came in 1963. A modified T2 approved by the Coast Guard and the ABS as seaworthy simply disappeared, as did its 39 officers and crew.

There were no heroic rescues. There was no sign of the crew or the ship, really. Only a few remains were found — a life jacket with a bit of a crewman’s shirt tied to it. A Coast Guard investigation simply noted that:

         “Numerous tears on the life jackets indicated attack by predatory fish.”

In the Coast Guard, where the ethic is to save sailors, not feed them to sharks, that one caused a stir. 


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