Craig Packer is the best lion man in the world, from all that I’ve read and seen, and I’ve seen a lot on trips into the mud-hut regions of Tanzania tracking man-eaters and tracing the bleeding edge of animal-human conflict in the Selous.
Packer has spent nearly 40 years studying the big cats, and he’s embraced everything from working with big game hunters to flash-bang grenades to try to stop the inevitable onslaught of civilization.
Bernie Webber was the least likely candidate to execute the greatest small-boat rescue in American history.Yet that is what he did, nearly 71 years ago to the date, in a very small boat, facing very large waves and larger odds.
The second rescue crew that day accomplished a similarly impossible mission in pulling the officers from the Fort Mercer, a second tanker that had split in two during a powerful Atlantic storm.
Bernie was the trouble-prone son of a Baptist minister, who’d been well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. Until he went to sea.
And then, on the night of February 18, 1952, in a raging blizzard off the coast of Cape Cod, Webber, now a young lifeboat coxswain with the U.S. Coast Guard, and his crew performed a miracle.
Two big oil tankers had split in two in raging seas, and nothing—not a big cutter, not a sea plane, not a chopper—could reach them in time. Only Webber and his crew of three volunteers had a chance.
He knew they would probably die on this mission. They were, after all, in an unassuming thirty-six-foot rescue boat that didn’t even have a name but for the “CG 36500” on its side. But he loved this boat—and he knew the inauspicious Coast Guard motto: “You have to go out. You don’t have to come back.”
Webber took the CG 36500 out in sixty-foot waves and saved thirty lives. He and his men won the rarely bestowed Coast Guard Gold Medal for Valor and a place in history that shapes the Coast Guard culture to this day.
What placed him apart from others? Webber did not know; he only knew that events aligned so he was able to do the impossible, and he attributed it to a higher power.
I think it surely was that — God, luck, karma, providence, you name it — but he was also captain of his fate. Or at least a bosun of it.The man’s integrity was unbreakable. When they offered him the Gold Lifesaving Medal and his crew the Silver, he turned them down. He’d only take it, he said, if his crew received it as well.
It would be nice to see his integrity and courage in today’s leaders. Oh, I think it is still in the Coast Guard. I was thinking more of Congress as they now set off on a witch hunt to discover the holes in our maritime safety network — holes that they have put there.
Thirty years go this month, the SS Marine Electric set sail into a storm on a course destined to change United States maritime history. The old coal collier, originally a World War II T-2 tanker, sank about thirty miles off the Virginia coast and dumped all its crew and officers into a wave-thrashed ocean.
Incredibly, three men survived. Led by Robert M. Cusick, the chief mate, they testified in detail about the “given” of the US Merchant Marine: old ships were sent out to sea in unsafe conditions. No one, not even the unions, would complain for fear of a loss of jobs.
“Until the Sea Shall Free Them” tells the story of how these three men fought a powerful company and no small amount of peer pressure to prevail against overwhelming odds, first at sea, and then in courts of law on land.
The Naval Institute Press publishes a paper back version of the book. And you can buy the Kindle version as well on Amazon.
I’m proud of this book. It’s on the U.S. Coast Guard’s Reading List for the fourth-year running, along with Two Tankers Down, my other maritime book. It’s read regularly by students of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and Kings Point — the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. The Coast Guard inspection school makes it required reading and awards a copy to its top graduates each year. It’s one of the best jobs of reporting I’ve done and one of the best jobs of writing too. I hope you enjoy it.