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By Ross Patterson II, Assistant Curator History, Portsmouth Lightship Museum
In his mid-1950s service aboard LV-101/WAL-524 (today’s Lightship Portsmouth Museum), then known as the Lightship Stonehorse, U.S.C.G. Seaman Ervin Maske probably saw many calm days of service as the lightship quietly marked its station off Cape Cod, MA. However, just before he got there, his experience was anything but calm and quiet.
On February 18, 1952, the twenty-two year-old Coast Guard seaman from Marinette, Wisconsin was at Coast Guard Station Chatham in Massachusetts awaiting transfer to LV-101 at its Stone Horse Shoal station when a report came in to Chatham. Earlier in the day, a World War II vintage T2-SE-A1 tanker, SS Fort Mercer, had split in two during a seventy-knot Nor-Easter and sent out calls for assistance. However, Chatham picked up an odd signal on their radar, and diverted a PBY Catalina seaplane to investigate. There it discovered that a second T2-SE-A1, the Pendleton, had broken in two, seemingly lacking the ability to call for help. It was decided that Chatham would send C.G. 36500, a thirty-foot Motor Lifeboat out into the storm with a four man crew to try and rescue survivors.
The Stern of the Pendleton as seen on February 19, 1952. The Jacob’s Ladder is along the side beneath the unused lifeboat. United States Coast Guard Photograph.
Above: C.G. 35600 docking at Chatham with the thirty-two survivors aboard, February 18, 1952. United States Coast Guard Photograph.
C.G. 36500’s coxswain, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernard Webber, asked for volunteers to fill the three crew positions on his boat. It was at this point that LV-101’s transient sailor, Ervin E. Maske, spoke up and offered to go. Together the men set out in forty to sixty foot waves on a small wooden boat designed to save twelve men to a shipwreck that would go down in Coast Guard history as one of the service’s most daring rescues.
The Pendleton’s bow section was lost, with the captain and seven crewmen killed. But the stern was still afloat with thirty-three sailors trapped aboard. Braving swells that repeatedly tossed C.G. 36500, shattering glass, the compass, and even killing the engine, the four volunteers were finally able to reach the wreck. The Pendleton’s crew lowered a Jacob’s Ladder over the side of their ship, which was now caught on a sandbar, and waited for the lifeboat to close in.
Offloading the Pendleton Survivors. United States Coast Guard Photograph
The distance was constantly changing in the bucking sea, so Seaman Maske and fellow volunteer Andrew Fitzgerald went forward onto C. G. 36500’s bow. As the swells pushed the Lifeboat to its closest point, the trapped sailors jumped one at a time. Maske and Fitzgerald grabbed them as they landed, ushering them back astern as they turned to catch the next man. Of the thirty-three sailors trapped on the stern, only one, cook George ‘Tiny’ Myers, was killed when his jump was mistimed. Now overloaded with four crew and thirty-two survivors, C.G. 36500 turned back into the raging storm and miraculously made its way home to Chatham.
Above: The Crew of C.G. 35600 after the rescue (Left to Right): Bernard Webber, Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey, and Ervin Maske. United States Coast Guard Photograph.
Undersecretary of the Treasury Edward H. Foley awarding Seaman Maske his Gold Lifesaving Medal. United States Treasury Department Photograph.
The rescue was a sensation, seen as the greatest example of courage and devotion to duty. Rather than following standard tradition and awarding highest honors to the rescue’s coxswain, the Coast Guard decided to bestow it highest honor, the Gold Lifesaving Medal, to all four volunteers. After receiving his award, Maske, always known as a humble, quiet sailor, finally arrived on LV-101, the most famous man to silently serve aboard the ship.
LV-101, today’s Lightship Portsmouth Museum, exhibiting its “Stonehorse” designation. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Collection.
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Visit Portsmouth Virginia! The city is located in southeastern Virginia and is home to the Lightship Portsmouth Museum described in this article. A part of the Hampton Roads community of cites, Portsmouth is 30 minutes from the Virginia Beach oceanfront, less than an hour from Williamsburg, and we share a waterfront with downtown Norfolk. Don’t miss this Coastal Virginia treasure with its collection of antique homes spanning three centuries, its eclectic assortment of hip shops, edgy nightlife, and saucy, one-of-a-kind restaurants. Olde Towne is walkable, from the Children’s Museum of Virginia to the historic park at Fort Nelson and everywhere in between. Just park the car or show up by boat and head out on foot to explore this funky and friendly little city. Looking for a photo op? Take a walk on the Seawall at night and check out the best city light show in all of Hampton Roads. Portsmouth is a groovy little seaport with a happening art scene and an awesome music pavilion featuring the hottest touring bands. When you’re done with Olde Towne, take a ride to Midtown, Churchland, Truxton, Port Norfolk or any of our other historic communities and see what other offbeat places you can discover. Portsmouth is a laidback old city and a fantastic place to hang out for a day, a weekend, or even a lifetime.