CHATHAM, Mass. — It wasn’t until they were well into their marriage that Gloria Fitzgerald found out about the rescue that made her husband, Andy Fitzgerald, a part of Coast Guard history.
“I was in awe,” Gloria said, “I never knew anything about it until we were married and his mother said, ‘Do you want these newspaper clippings of Andy?’”
On Feb. 18, 1952, a severe nor’easter ravaged the waters off Chatham. A 503-foot tanker, the Pendleton, along with a similar vessel, the Fort Mercer, could not handle the rough seas and split in two more than 10 miles offshore.
At the time, Fitzgerald was a 20-year-old engine man stationed at the Chatham Lifeboat Station – now known as Coast Guard Station Chatham – and was part of a four-man crew assigned to rescue the 33 men stranded on the stern of the Pendleton.
Using a 36-foot wooden boat, the CG36500, the crew was able to save 32 of them in what is now known as the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history.
“Not one of the four men ever said anything about it until the 50th anniversary,” said Gloria Fitzgerald.
Her husband, now 83, is the sole living member of the daring rescue. Charles Bridges, the last surviving crew member of the Pendleton, died last year at age 79.
In celebration of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 224th birthday, Fitzgerald, along with family, friends and members of the Coast Guard, gathered at Station Chatham to relive the mission that occurred more than 62 years ago.
“It was a tough job, but we were able to do it, and that followed me for the rest of my life,” Fitzgerald said.
While he remains modest about his heroism, his efforts did not go unnoticed.
He and the three other rescuers, BM1 Bernard Webber, Seaman Richard Livesy and Seaman Irving Maske, all received the U.S. Treasury Department’s coveted Gold Lifesaving Medal. A best-selling book was also written about the daring mission – “The Finest Hours” by Michael J. Tougias. A film adaptation of the book is expected to be released by Disney.
“I can’t believe it. For three hours of work, how come you guys keep pulling it back up over 60 years later?” Fitzgerald joked earlier this month.
On the day of the rescue, the water temperatures averaged 33 degrees, according to Fitzgerald. Foul-weather gear and flotation devices were not up to the standards of today.
“I had a life jacket but I don’t think it would have floated,” he said.
And in an attempt to re-create the rescue, the Coast Guard Academy has tried to fit 36 men in a 36-foot boat but has never succeeded, according to public affairs officer Lt. Karen Kutkiewicz.
“They could have succeeded if they had enough reason to do it,” Fitzgerald quipped.
Monique Pluard, 21, an E-3 firefighter at Station Chatham, first became familiar with the Pendleton rescue after arriving at the station four months ago.
“When I first found out about it I thought, ‘Wow, that’s incredible,’ ” Pluard said.
Coast Guard Station Chatham is the only designated surf station on Cape Cod, and the 30 members of the station have the responsibility of helping distressed boaters in turbulent weather and rough seas.
“You never know until you get out there how bad something is going to be; you do what you have to do. It’s just another day on the job. It’s what we’re meant to do,” Pluard said.
Earlier this month, Fitzgerald and his family prepared to go for a ride in the restored CG36500.
“He doesn’t look at himself as a hero,” his wife said.