Master Chief Jack Downey, USCG with retired Warrant Officer Bernie Webber (1928-2009) aboard CG 36500 May 2002
Bernie Webber crosses the bar ... one last time
By Robert Frump
Melbourne, Fl. -- Bernard C. Webber, who steered his small boat into the impassable waves of Chatham Bar on an impossible mission to rescue the crew of a stricken tanker off Cape Code, died January 24, 2009 at age 80 in Melbourne, Florida.
Mr. Webber, one of the U.S. Coast Guard's most fabled and honored rescuers, was stationed on Cape Cod in February of 1952 when two tankers, the SS Pendleton and the SS Fort Mercer, split in half on the same day in rough weather.
"Bernie Webber represented the very best values of the Coast Guard and of America," said Robert R. Frump, a maritime writer who had interviewed Webber recently. "The code he followed and the culture he engendered through his actions will live on so long as there is a U.S. Coast Guard."
Webber and his makeshift crew were dispatched on what was considered a suicide mission in an era when the informal motto of the Coast Guard was, "You have to go out, you don't have to come back."
His orders were to perform four virtually impossible tasks that night. He was to take a small motorized lifeboat over the perilous bar at Chatham, Ma. Then, in a blizzard and 60-foot waves in the darkness of night, he was supposed to find the Pendleton stern section, rescue more than 30 men in a boat rated for 20, and then find his way back to Chatham - all without the help of radar.
Most thought Webber's rescue effort would end at the Chatham Bar. There, churning seas from the storm hammered down on a shallow bar as breakers pounded the beach. Webber was counseled by friends in the fishing community of Chatham to say he got lost or could not shoot the bar because the bar had previously been thought impassable at such times.
Instead, Webber revved up the lifeboat - the CG 36500 - and headed straight into breakers as high as a house.
The waves picked up the little boat and slammed it down hard on the bar, shattering the windshield and destroying the compass. Shards of glass were embedded in Webber's head and face. But he and the crew managed to right the boat and survive the breakers.
Then they faced 60-foot swells and the dead of night and the confusion of a blizzard, but through luck and skill found the stern half of the Pendleton - the second impossible task.
The third task was evacuating 30 men down the side of a storm-tossed tanker into a boat rated to carry only 20. They lost only one man in the process, and, loaded so ?? that the boat was barely clear of the water, turned back toward land.
Again, through skill and luck, Webber and his crew were able to find Chatham Bar, and cross it again! The entire town turned out to welcome him home at the Chatham Fish Pier, and to treat the half-frozen crew and tankermen.
The rescue was front-page news worldwide the next day. Webber and his crew were awarded the Coast Guard's highest honor - the Gold Lifesaving Medal - and Webber toured on behalf of the Coast Guard for several years.
At heart, he was a humble man who yearned for little more than the ranks of the Coast Guard, and he often wore his hero's status uncomfortably. He told an interviewer in 2008 that he still thought daily of the man they lost on the Pendleton and it was that sorrow he carried with him rather than a sense of heroism or being special.
He also revealed in later years that he refused the Gold Medal initially because his crew was offered only the Silver Medal. The Coast Guard agreed to grant the whole crew the gold medal.
The U.S. Coast Guard honored Webber and his crew again in 2002 on the 50th anniversary of the rescue. He steered the restored CG 36500 over the Chatham Bar yet again on a mild day in May.
Webber's widow, Miriam Webber, told the Cape Code Times that a memorial service would be scheduled on the Cape in the spring.
For more information about Bernie Webber, go to www.cg36500.org -- the website of a non-profit organization that restored Bernie's rescue boat -- and at http://www.coastguardheritagemuseum.org Information is also at www.twotankersdown.com and review in Professional Mariner.
For additional articles about Bernie, the PENDLETON and the FORT MERCER - from the Cape Cod Times (01/26 & 01/28/2009), the Boston Globe (01/29/2009), The Cape Cod Chronicle (01/29/2009) and the Baltimore Sun (03/01 & 03/15//2009) go to this link.
"You manage things; You lead people."
Captain Grace Hopper, USN 1983