September 23, 2013

Feature obituary: James Brewer, 92, lived a life of sea, ships and heroism

By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

His life at sea began with back-breaking work.

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Each day the newsroom selects one obituary and seeks to learn more about the life of a person who has lived and worked in Maine. We look for a person who has made a mark on the community or the person's family and friends in lasting ways.

His first job involved shoveling coal into boilers on steamboats that traversed the Great Lakes.

But as James Lewis Brewer matured, his career blossomed and his life became filled with tales of adventure and heroism.

"He has been through a lot but he loved the ships and the sea," said a son, Glenn Brewer of Newmarket, N.H.

Capt. Brewer, a longtime resident of Scarborough, died Friday at the age of 92.

Mr. Brewer, who was born in Detroit, Mich., joined the merchant marine during World War II, serving on tankers, cargo ships and troop carriers.

He was stationed on the merchant marine ship Pan Maine in the North Atlantic in 1943 when his convoy came under attack by German U-boats. Over a period of seven days and nights the convoy suffered heavy losses.

In February 1944, Mr. Brewer's troop ship ran aground on an uncharted coral reef about 60 miles from New Guinea. The troops on board the ship were removed but the crew members, including Mr. Brewer, were forced to remain.

"Their ship was full of supplies. That's what they survived on," his son said.

Mr. Brewer and his crewmates were rescued after their supply ship sank during a storm.

Mr. Brewer left the merchant marine to pursue a career with the United States Coast Guard in 1956.

"He had no time at home when he was with the merchant marines," his son explained.

Soon after he joined the Coast Guard, his adventures on the ocean got even more interesting.

Ruth Darcy, his daughter from Harrison, said her father's ship -- the Coast Guard cutter Pontchartrain -- was on patrol in the Pacific Ocean when it received a mayday distress call from a Pan American clipper plane.

The plane, which was carrying 31 passengers -- according to a video of the plane crash and rescue posted on YouTube -- developed engine trouble on a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco in October 1956.

The pilot used up most of the plane's fuel by circling overhead until daylight arrived. That is when the pilot ditched his plane in the ocean and the crew of the Coast Guard cutter came to the rescue.

The video shows the plane, its cabin cut in half, with passengers standing on its wings and inflating lifeboats.

Everyone on the plane was rescued before the plane sank. At the time, Mr. Brewer was a lieutenant aboard the cutter.

Darcy said the pilot's courageous landing and the rescue by the Coast Guard were similar to what pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger did when he made an emergency landing of a US Airways flight in the Hudson River in January 2009.

"They crashed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was pretty incredible," Mr. Brewer's son added.

During his Coast Guard career, Mr. Brewer served as captain of two port cities -- Detroit and Boston.

He and his wife, Anne-Lise Fougner, moved in the early 1970s to Scarborough, where he served on the town's Zoning Board of Appeals.

The couple and their children built a camp on the Songo River in Naples.

He is survived by his wife, daughter, and two sons, Glenn and John Brewer. John lives in Portland.

"He was a humble man and a brave man, who had great integrity and work ethic," his daughter said. "He taught us all to be that way."

 

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com

 

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