Posts Tagged ‘coast guard’

(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.  Ray

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!” Ray Hot Shot

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.

busRenee, 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. Pendleton_Half_Ship_2

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.

PENDLETON RESCUE (FOR RELEASE)

CHATHAM, Mass. (May 15)–The original crew of CG 36500 sets sail again 50 years later in commemoration of the anniversary of the tanker Pendleton rescue off the coast of Chatham, Mass., in February 1952. The Pendleton split in two during a fierce storm boasting 60-foot seas and hurricane force winds. All but one of the 33 crewmen onboard the Pendleton were saved by the crew of 36500. USCG photo by PA3 Amy Thomas

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.  Pendleton_Relief_sm

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.Kids

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.

Marie writes:

“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…”25th anniversary

“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.

Marie:

“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.

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Below are notes and pictures from the family

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Coleman and family

 

movie poster

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!

Amanda Kraner

Hello Robert,

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.

Chad

As the US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation ponders why the American flag vessel El Faro sank with its crew of 33, Frank Peake, the former president of the company that owned the ship, faces a stark choice:

Surrender himself to the federal penitentiary at Fort Dix, New Jersey, to begin serving five years – the toughest sentence ever handed out for anti-trust price fixing.

Or appeal a second time in an attempt to soften the sentence – and delay the date he must begin serving the sentence.

“He has 45 days to report to Fort Dix,” said a clerk for Judge Daniel R. Dominguez of the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico in San Juan last week. “Or 90 days if he files an appeal.”

“We do plan to appeal in March,” said the office of Peake’s attorney, David Oscar Markus on Friday.

Perhaps understandably, the shipping company’s troubled background is not something Tote Services Inc. and Tote Maritime, Inc., have chosen to disclose at the Coast Guard hearing.  The rate-fixing felonies have not been directly linked to marine safety issues.

Nevertheless, company officials were asked by the Coast Guard at the hearings to brief the panel on the significant history of the company. A whole section of the opening days of hearings was labeled, “Who is Tote Services, Inc., and Tote Maritime, Inc.”  Captain Jason D. Neubauer, the chairman of the marine board, told company executives that that part of the hearing was intended to “get to know all about the company, its culture and history and how you go about making decisions.”

The Tote executives who appeared before the hearing were not at the company during its troubles with price fixing and side stepped the general “historical” questions by stating they could not speak to history before they joined.

“Well, yes, this is information that a Marine Board of Investigation would want to know,” said a retired Coast Guard captain attending the hearings.  “I suppose they were not compelled to tell them about past company felonies, but it wasn’t exactly transparent or candid, was it?”

The price-fixing conspiracy, which the company pleaded guilty to, ran from 2002 through 2008 when the FBI raided Sea Star Lines offices.  However, the fallout of the case continues today with major shippers suing Tote for damages they say they suffered due to the price-fixing.

The controversy also appeared to reach far above Sea Star Lines (now Tote Maritime) to Saltchuk, the privately owned corporation that controls Tote companies.   Leonard Shapiro, a founding partner of Saltchuk, has been deposed about his role in price fixing and in 2013 said through his attorneys that he was being investigated for possible criminal activity.

Peake was convicted in January 2013 and lost his appeal of the sentencing in October 2015 – coincidentally just two weeks after the El Faro disappeared.

The company that owned El Faro at the time, Sea Star Lines, pleaded guilty to felony price fixing charges and paid more than $14 million in fines. The company later changed names to Tote Maritime, Inc., which owned the El Faro at the time it sank.

The rate fixing conspiracy was described by federal prosecutors as one of the worst in the history of shipping, one that cost consumers millions in inflated prices because major shippers met to make sure prices were high and cargoes distributed among the carriers.    For those reasons, the prosecutors sought and won what they described as the toughest sentence in the history of anti-trust convictions.

“The sentence imposed today reflects the serious harm these conspirators inflicted on American consumers, both in the continental United States and in Puerto Rico,” said Bill Baer, Assistant Attorney General in charge of Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division at the time.

The conspiracy was said by witnesses in the trial to reach far up into the Tote organization and involved Leonard Shapiro, a founding principle of both Saltchuk and Sea Star.

Peter Baci, a Sea Star executive who was convicted and served four years in prison, said Peake and Shapiro urged him to meet with competitive lines and agree on rates.

Sea Star was losing $20 million a year at the time in 2002 and asked Baci to reverse that, according to Walter A. Pavlo, Jr., a specialist in white-collar crime who has researched the crime and written for Forbes and other publications about the conspiracy.

Pavlo wrote:

“Crunching some numbers, Peter determined that SSL needed real price increases to generate in excess of $40 million in sales, which would earn it a good profit. …

“…. with this plan, SSL was a turn around success. In 2002, SSL had lost money but in 2003 it had its first profitable year…. with other profitable years to follow.

“The attitude around the office of SSL had changed from concern about the company staying open to plans for company get-togethers and bonuses….Everyone in the ownership group was happy with the performance of the company and how Peter was managing things.”

It is unclear whether Shapiro is still associated with Saltchuk.  He declined to say at a 2013 court hearing. Queries to Saltchuk went unanswered, as did a call to Shapiro’s attorney.  At one point, Shapiro’s attorneys in 2013 maintained he was under criminal investigation and therefore could not answer civil discovery questions from plaintiffs.  The Justice Department declined comment when asked if Shapiro was under criminal investigation.


(A reposting of my 2013 take on Bernie.)
Posted: February 18, 2013 in Contemporary Commentary
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.

Image

Bernie

His rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton, a stricken oil tanker, off Chatham, MA, in February 1952 is one of the most heroic deeds performed by any Coast Guardsmen anywhere, anytime.

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.

Image

Tbe Gold Medal Crew

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.
Image
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.Pendleton_7_sm

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.
Pendleton_Half_Ship_2_sm
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.

The Finest Hours is a faithful and truthful telling of the rescue of crewmen on the tanker the SS Pendleton.

Truthful does not in all cases mean factual.  There are no huge bloopers in the movie.  There is compounding of characters and time is both stretched, cut and pasted.

For me it works, and I figure I’m in as good a position as anyone to judge this.  I spent a good chunk of time and hours and hours talking with Bernie, researching the wreck, combing through archived records and cross-checking with him for my book on the rescue, “Two Tankers Down.”

In other words, I know this subject matter well, and I am not indebted to the studio.

So how did the Hollywood guys do on the facts?

Based on the cheesy previews and trailers, I was prepared to flatten this baby.  But in fact, it’s well done and true to the event and the people even if the facts are not sometimes.

There are no “Pants on Fire” rankings here.  And some of my “catches” are nerdish maritime writer notes.  What some people MIGHT think are whoppers I can accept and I’ll explain why.

Let the Fact Check begin:

  1. Miriam Webber did not come down to the Coast Guard Station.
    In fact, she was very sick at home with the flu.  The couple had been married before the rescue.
    Why it doesn’t matter to me:   The film pretty well represents the couple’s romance, right down to the “bear skin” coat.  The presence of Miriam in the film allows for a nice conflict of concerns:  a human concern for life versus the Coast Guard code of the ‘You have to go out– you don’t have to come back.”   I guess for purists this would be a pants on fire fact fail.  For me, I think it’s a great bit of dramatic license that while not factual gets the truth across.
  2. Bernie was far taller and less pretty than Chris Pine.
    Bernie was kind of a big lug of a guy.  Okay, but Pine does a pretty good job of playing Bernie as the good-hearted and well-intended fella he was. If there is a critique here, I’d say the director portrays Bernie as a little dumb and simple.  He wasn’t.  He was cagey enough to know questions I would ask him before I asked them.  The guy had been admitted to a top prep school.  He had an unerring ability to compute multiple factors in his head — navigational and personal.  On the other hand, Bernie often played dumb.  And in social matters, he could be dumb. I can’t fault Pine’s performance at all and feel it’s on the money.
  3. The Pendleton did not split at a weld.
    I told you this would get a little nerdy.  But T-2 tankers did not have welding faults — though it was widely suspected they did.  Their fault was in the type of steel used, which under 50 degrees turned brittle.  Cracks would form and race through the whole hull.  The “crack arrestors” or steel belts were there to stop that, not reinforce the welding.  This is about a big a false fact as I can find.  But it’s not crucial to the plot or the fact that the ships were flawed.
  4. At times the movie actually understates conditions.
    I’ve read some reviews that say the angle of the lifeboat ascending waves was improbable.  The movie had it right.  It might have been interesting to dwell on the boat descending waves — when Webber had to jam the engine in reverse to slow the boat as it gained speed.  Had he not done that, the boat would have essentially kept going to the bottom.
    Other understatements: Bernie emerged from the “bar” crossing with windshield fragments embedded in his skull.  The men in the engine room of the boat fried great sections of their arms on the hot motor.  Not essential to the movie, and I thought actually showed some restraint.5. The “Lost Man” was probably “lost” before he hit the water.If I did nothing else through Two Tankers Down, I hope I eased Bernie’s mind on this death.  Throughout his life Bernie was haunted by the one guy he lost.  He mentioned this frequently in conversations and correspondence.  The crew and the rescuers even concocted a story to say that Tiny was the last man down the ladder — and had waited until all were clear.
    In fact, Tiny was probably in the advanced stages of hypothermia.  He was a large man, 300+ pounds.  And at the top of the ship, he had stripped off all his clothes, in the advanced stages of hypothermia.  This phenomenon is known as “paradoxical undressing.”  The blood flows suddenly from the heart to the extremities and causes a feeling of burning.  Once in this state, few come back.  So yes, the rescuers could not get Tiny in the boat.  But almost certainly, even had they been able to wrestle the huge man up over the side, he would have passed.6. Livesey and Bernie had no beefMore dramatic license here.  Bernie and his crew member had no quarrel or grudge as suggested in the film.  They respected each other.  The director uses the grudge as a way of referring back to the story of an earlier failed rescue — when Webber and others tried in vain to reach a fishing boat on the other side of the Chatham Bar.Again, in my mind: poetic license granted.  This worked for me as a dramatic device.7. There is a bittersweet ending to the real story.

    The movie tells the tale well and has no obligation to go beyond the story.  Truth is life got very complicated for Bernie after the awards with some of the brass.  He was offered the Lifesaving Gold Medal and declined it unless his whole crew got it. (They did.) He was nearly court martialed for disobeying the order to take the boat out to sea to offload the rescued.
    Worse, some of his own colleagues shunned him in the egalitarian ranks of the non-officer corps, or gave him the cold shoulder.
    Uncomfortable with the spotlight, he nevertheless was forced to do speech tours with the Coast Guard brass when he wanted nothing more to get back on his boat with his crew.
    Then, as a publicity project, in the early days of the Vietnam War, the Coast Guard shipped him over in charge of a riverine warfare gunboat.  There he performed close-in duty, in the mode of Apocalypse Now.  It’s the one thing I could not get him to talk about. He retired from the Coast Guard shortly after this tour, thinking the Coast Guard had moved into another era.
    The good news is he maintained his sense of honor and self dignity.  He actively chose to stay within the working ranks of non-commissioned officers when he might easily have become an officer.  Decades later, Coast Guard rescue workers still talk of him.

    8. The movie may have overstated Bernie’s natural courage and understated his doubts.

    Throughout his voyage to the bar, Bernie kept saying to himself that they would call him back, he hoped they would call him back.  I mention this not to criticize Bernie but to underscore the fact that he was a real human being with real thoughts, not a hero sprung from whole cloth.  I can’t fault the director too much here.

9.  They did not sing a sea chanty as they motored toward the bar.
           
          They sang the hymn Rock of Ages.

Let me know what other questions you have.  Also, if you’re interested in the other wreck that day — involving the SS Fort Mercer — you’ll find it in my book, Two Tankers Down.