Thursday, February 25, 2016

Maynard and Stow Connect to The Finest Hours

Most people are familiar with the U.S. Marine motto Semper Fidelis (sometimes as Semper Fi), which translates from the Latin as "Always Faithful." Not as many know that the official U.S. Coast Guard motto is Semper Paratus, meaning "Always Ready." Or that the Coast Guard has a state of mind characterized by the informal motto: "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back." It appears in the recently released movie, The Finest Hours, as "In the Coast Guard they say you go out, they don't say you gotta come back in."

Stern of the USS Pendleton after the storm, aground, on its side
after the men had been rescued. (all are Internet downloads)
A version of this quote was first attributed to Life Station Keeper Patrick H. Etheridge back in 1884. He ordered his crew out to a wreck on the Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras, South Carolina. One man shouted that they might make it out to the wreck, but never make it back. Etheridge replied "The Blue Book says we've got to go out and it doesn't say a damn thing about having to come back." He was referring to The Bluejacket's Manual, the Navy's enlisted sailors' guide to all Navy regulations, at that time also used by the Coast Guard. 

The Finest Hours, based on a 2009 book of the same title, portrays events of February 1952, when during an intense northeaster storm, two near-identical oil tankers, the USS Pendelton and the USS Fort Mercer, each broke in half off the Massachusetts coast. Of 84 men aboard the two ships, 70 survived. The movie is about the rescue of 32 out of 33 men who were on the stern section of the Pendleton. The rescues from three of the four ship sections were conducted at great danger to the responding Coast Guard seamen. Five were later awarded Gold Life-Medals, four the Silver Life-Saving Medals, and fifteen Commendation Ribbons.  

Rescue motorboat being launched
from the CGC Yakutat
And now for the local connection. In a May 1952 Coast Guard press release, Edward A. Mason, Jr., Apprentice Seaman, age 23, mentioned as being awarded the Silver Life-Saving Medal for his part in the USS Fort Mercer rescue, was identified as being from Maynard, Massachusetts. His parents, Edward Aaron Mason and Hazel (Brackett) Mason, lived in Stow and in Maynard, and were buried in Stow's Brookside Cemetery.
Furthermore, Mason is alive, age 86, and on the afternoon of February 7th, sat down in the Fine Arts Theatre in Maynard with his daughter to see the movie.

Mason was aboard the 310 foot long Coast Guard Cutter Yakutat, which approached the drifting and tilting bow section of the Fort Mercer. Nine men had been on the bow at the time the ship split in two. Rescue attempts failed the first day, and by the next morning only four were still alive. With the storm abating but still raging, the Yakutat launched a 26 foot, wooden motorboat with a volunteer crew of five, Mason among them. The boat was damaged while being launched.

CGC Yakutat's rescue boat with crew of five
The boat stationed itself near the sinking bow section. Two men jumped into the water and were pulled into the small boat, but then a wave smashed it into the side of the wreck. Now badly damaged, nearly sinking, the small boat made its way back to the Yakutat and was lifted back aboard. Soon after, the two men still on the wreck jumped into the ocean and pulled themselves into a rubber life raft that was attached to the Yakutat by rope. With ocean temperatures in the 40s (F) all of the rescuers and the rescued were suffering from hypothermia, but all survived. The bow section of the wreck sank shortly after the rescue. The movie barely mentions the Fort Mercer.

The February 25, 2016 edition of Beacon-Villager carried this column and also an interview with Mr. Mercer, conducted and reported by Holly Camero, reporter/editor. Her article included a photo of Mercer holding the medal he received back in 1952. After serving three years in the Coast Guard, Mason returned the area to live in Stow, where he and his wife raised four children.  

The tankers in question, referred to as T2s, more specifically T2-SE-A1s, were of World War II vintage. With extreme demand for fuel for the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the navy settled on one design and had close to five hundred of these ships built in various shipyards. Production was very fast, sped by welding the steel plates to each other rather than combining riveting and welding. Dimensions were 523 feet long, 68 feet wide, holding close to six million gallons of fuel. After the war the tankers were decommissioned and sold.

Model of a T2-SE-A1. These ships were 523 feet long and carried 6 million gallons of fuel. The break was
between bridge (near center of the ship) and the rear, which include the engines and crew quarters. 
In peacetime T2s were typically manned by 40-45 men. Today's supertankers carry 100 million gallons, 
are more than 1,000 feet long, and staffed by only 25 men. 
The fuel tanks were compartmentalized by watertight bulkheads, so it really was possible for a ship to break in two and each half remain afloat. And these were not the only two T2s to suffer this fate! Flawed welds were suspected, but a larger problem appeared to be that the steel plates became brittle in cold weather because of high sulfur content in the wartime era steel. The stern of the USS Fort Mercer survived the storm, was towed to Newport, RI, where it was used in the construction of a new tanker - the USS San Jacinto. Which, twelve years later, split into two from an explosion while engaged in tank cleaning operations.

Back on May 22, 1952, The Maynard Enterprise had a first-page story about Mason, in response to his having been awarded the Coast Guard Silver Life-Saving Medal at a ceremony in Washington, DC, at which twenty other seamen also received awards for their parts in the rescues of February 18-19, 1952. From the article:

Mason's Citation: "For heroic action on the morning of 19 February 1952, as a crew member of a motor surfboat, from the United States Coast Guard Cutter Yakutat, engaged in the rescue of survivors of the tanker USS Fort Mercer, which had broken in two in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Code, Massachusetts. Although the surfboat had been damaged while getting away from the Yakutat, Mason displayed outstanding seamanship while assisting in bringing it to the bow section of the Fort Mercer. There, in the face of extreme peril, he and the other crew members persuaded two survivors to jump into the water so that they could be picked up. The survivors were recovered and taken aboard the surfboat, which, severely damaged and in a sinking condition, was forced to return to the Yakutat. Mason's exceptional courage, professional skill, and unwavering devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Coast Guard."
                                                                                              - Secretary of the Treasury.

Edward A. Mason, Jr., holding the Coast Guard Silver
Lifesaving Medal he was awarded in May 1952
Photo: Ann Ringwood, Beacon-Villager
Edward A. Mason, Jr., was born in Stow on March 16, 1929, but his family later moved to Maynard, where he went to school. He was a mechanic before enrolling in the Coast Guard in January 1951. He had been assigned to the CGC Yakutat, operating out of Portland Maine, for less than a year before the rescue event. At the time of the rescue his parents, Edward and Hazel Mason, were living on Parker Street, in Maynard. He left the Coast Guard in 1953 and moved to Stow, where he and his wife raised their four children, It was his daughter, Mary Conlon, who had attended the movie with him at the Maynard Fine Arts Theatre. She had also taken him to a book signing of the author, Michael Tongias, in Westborough.  


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