Engineman Third ClassAndrew Fitzgerald

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Andrew Fitzgerald. When he told his story, Fitzgerald would start, “It was a dark and stormy night…”. And it was. Fitzgerald was a 20-year-old Engineman Third Class on U.S. Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat 36500, stationed in Chatham, on Cape Cod, Mass. On February 18, 1952, the boat was called out for a rescue — in the middle of a nor’easter storm. The rough conditions had broken a tanker in half six miles off Cape Cod. The SS Pendleton, carrying kerosene and heating oil, had a crew of 41; the captain and seven of the crew were killed in the bow, and the 33 others awaited rescue in the stern. The 80 mph freezing winds generated up to 60-foot swells; the 36-foot rescue boat bobbed like a cork. On the way out, its compass failed, and then its engine stalled. Thanks to a wave, Fitzgerald “was thrown out of the boat,” said Peter Kennedy, who recently helped restore Lifeboat 36500. But he “got back into the boat to restart the engine in 30- to 40-foot seas.” The Coast Guard crew was able to save 32 of the 33 seamen, hauling them all back to shore in their tiny lifeboat.

Coast Guard Rescue Boat 36500 arrives back on shore after the rescue. Note the men in the back: the survivors of the wreck. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard).

Fitzgerald later left the Coast Guard, and he and his wife Gloria moved to Colorado; he worked in marketing while she raised the kids. “He doesn’t consider himself a hero to this day,” Gloria said in 2014. “He’d say, ‘It was three hours of work that we were supposed to do.’” He hadn’t even told her about it until they had been married for two years, she said. But when asked, Fitzgerald would travel back to Chatham to tell the story to Coast Guard recruits. “He was a class act,” said David Considine, senior chief at Chatham on the 50th anniversary of the rescue — one of the events where Fitzgerald spoke. “He was humble. He said he was no different than anyone else who would leave on their boat today. Just doing a job.”

The Coast Guard Rescue Boat 36500 crew get some coffee after the rescue: Bernie Webber, Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey, and Ervin Maske (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard).

After the rescue, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernard C. Webber, Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey, and Seaman Ervin Maske were awarded the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal for their actions. Their story was recounted in the 2009 book The Finest Hours — which was adapted into a 2016 film of the same name. By then, Fitzgerald was the only surviving member of the crew of Lifeboat 36500, and thus the only one of them to see the film. CG 36500 was retired in 1968. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, and now serves as a museum boat berthed at Rock Harbor in Orleans, Mass. Fitzgerald died in Colorado on November 15, at 86.

From This is True for 18 November 2018