Andrew Fitzgerald, the last surviving member of the Coast Guard crew aboard
the motor lifeboat 36500 during the historic 1952 rescue of crew of 32, dies at 86. …
November 15, 2018
CHATHAM — The last surviving member of the Coast Guard crew aboard the motor lifeboat 36500 during the historic 1952 rescue of 32 seamen off the stricken oil tanker Pendleton rescue has died.
Andrew Fitzgerald — known as a funny, brave and reluctant hero — was 86.
“It was a dark and stormy night,” Fitzgerald would say at the start of the story about the harrowing night of Feb. 18. 1952, which forever changed his life.
As a nor’easter raged off the shores of Cape Cod, two large tankers split in half, propelling the then 20-year-old Coast Guard engineer and three other Coast Guardsmen into history on their 36-foot boat.
Facing 60-foot high seas, the four men boarded the 36500, led by coxswain Bernard Webber, and headed out into the storm to find the sinking tanker Pendleton, where 33 men waited anxiously for help.
As the crew of the 36500 navigated through the Chatham sandbar, which is tricky enough on a good day, they lost their compass, said Peter Kennedy, who worked on the major restoration of the boat.
Fitzgerald was in the front of the boat when it hit some swells and knocked him all the way back toward the rear, he said.
Then, the engine stalled and Fitzgerald had to go down below and re-prime it, said Kennedy. Fitzgerald was burned by the hot plugs as he restarted the engine, Kennedy said.
“He had quite a history,” said Kennedy. “He was thrown out of the boat and got back into the boat to restart the engine in 30- to 40-foot seas.”
Fitzgerald and his crewmates saved 32 of the 33 seamen who had been stranded on the Pendleton.
“He certainly was a hero by all standards especially for such a young kid,” said Kennedy. “He never seemed to let it get to his head.”
Fitzgerald was the only surviving crew member to see the Disney film made about the historic rescue, said Casey Sherman, co-author of “The Finest Hours,” the book on which the film was based. Michael Tougias was the other co-author of the book, which also recounted the sinking of the second tanker, the Fort Mercer, and the rescue of most of its crew as well.
The day before the movie’s premiere, Disneyland in California put on a parade in Fitzgerald’s honor, said Sherman.
“It was amazing to see this hero getting his due well over 60 years after he pulled off the greatest small boat effort in American history,” he said.
During the writing of the book, Sherman got to know both Fitzgerald and Bernard Webber very well, he said. Both men never saw what they did as a successful rescue, said Sherman. They never thought of the men they saved that night, just the one man they lost, he said.
“He was a last of a breed, one of those reluctant heroes,” said Sherman. “He had a job to do and he did it.”
After the Coast Guard, Fitzgerald switched careers. He went into marketing and moved to Aurora, Colorado, where he raised his family with his wife Gloria, said Sherman.
Despite moving across the country, Fitzgerald frequently visited Chatham to tell his story to young Coast Guard members, said David Considine, who was the senior chief at Coast Guard Station Chatham during the 50th anniversary of the rescue.
Throughout the years, Fitzgerald would bring his children and grandchildren to tour Chatham Light and to show where it all happened, he said.
“He was a class act,” said Considine. “He was humble. He said he was no different than anyone else who would leave on their boat today. Just doing a job.”
Webber’s daughter, Patricia Hamilton, said she became close to Fitzgerald, especially after her father’s death in 2009.
Together they went to the 60th anniversary celebrations and were on the set in South Boston during the filming of parts of “The Finest Hours,” she said.
Fitzgerald was there during the filming sequence showing crew members coming off the Pendleton, and he was extremely helpful in making that part of the movie, Hamilton said.
“He was very beneficial to the making of the film and the book,” she said. “He loved it. He just thought it was great and he loved every minute of it.”
His joy for the book and the movie really rubbed off on everybody, said Hamilton.
Looking back, Hamilton said she learned about that night more from Fitzgerald than she did from her own father.
It was a really intense night and they weren’t sure they were going to make it, said Hamilton. But, they made it through because they were a great team, she said.